This is a personal story from my journey being a rebel at work. I had two bosses at the agency, and both tried to keep me in the box of being what they viewed as “business like and professional.” They wanted me to be able to follow in their footsteps, making it from account executive to account supervisor to vice president.
Both were planners, conservative, careful and deliberate. They rehearsed client meetings and presentations for longer than any of the meetings or presentations ever lasted. They liked to be sure about things. As was their boss.
All were really nice people. Committed to helping young professionals learn the skills to get promoted to the next level. Caring and considerate when people had family problems or health issues. Always good to their word. If they made a promise, you knew they would keep that promise.
They were in the office early, worked late, and diligent about making the monthly and quarterly earnings forecasts.
During the eight years I worked for them, I, too, learned how to make the numbers and become more business like, for which I will always be grateful. For five years I commuted two nights a week from Rhode Island to Cambridge to take graduate business classes at Harvard’s Extension School. Financial accounting. Market research. Computer science. Organizational management. Though a few years earlier I had decided not to get an MBA after being accepted to the University of Virginia because I feared it might be a slog, I was now slogging to do what I was told was necessary to become a respected business person.
I learned to read financial statements and write annual reports. My team’s utilitization rates were some of the highest in the agency. My monthly client reports were chock full of results and proactive activity.
I was promoted to senior account executive, account supervisor, senior account supervisor, and then the coveted vice president title. All before I was 30, which my bosses said was quite an achievement.
And I was miserable. I was suffocating in the box that they told me was necessary to be successful.
Rebelling for creative freedom
The new VP title emboldened me to start leaving the conservative cocoon.
My first act was telling the bosses that I could not, would not be able to rehearse client presentations and meetings. I was fine with being clear about what we wanted to convey to the client, what the agenda should be, and what we wanted the outcome of the meeting or presentation to be. But I couldn’t stand up in our conference room and word for word practice the words that I would then repeat word for word in the client’s conference room a couple of days later.
I then told them that they needn’t come to my client meetings. My team and I had things covered. In fact, I loved my team and my clients, and the feeling was mutual. Without my bosses the conversations were free flowing, veering all over the place from talking wild–ass ideas we might try to what Plan B we should have in our pocket if our big ideas fizzled to what we were all doing on the weekend.
I sort of, kind of followed an agenda in those client meetings. A good client meeting outcome to me was not whether we got through the agenda, but whether we all felt energized by whatever we were trying to do, and whether we had a game plan for getting done what we REALLY thought would make a difference.
Without my serious bosses, there was much more laughter in meetings. The ideas got wackier, veering off from the typical definitions of what public relations was suppose to be. I started forging partnerships with advertising agencies, speaking at conferences, and selling more and more business on my own.
My bosses and their boss hired a famous new business development expert to come to the agency and teach us how to sell more strategically and create presentations that sold vs. told. This expert had been a former Shakespearean actor, who exuded passion, charm, and curiosity. His laughter was infections. I loved that class. I applauded my conservative boss team for bringing in such a character. At the end of the week-long training, Toni asked me if I might be willing to work with him and his team to better market his business.
What a blast. Who knew work could be so much fun.
The unsigned performance review
My annual performance review was scheduled for a Friday, with just one of the bosses, as two seemed overkill. “How about we go out to that new place on Dorrance Street for lunch and do the review there,” one of the bosses asked.
“Sure, great,” I said, believing that I was now free of the performance review anxiety of my youth, where I was told to improve on so many things. Now I was running more than half of the agency’s business, and had sold in three of the four major new accounts that year. This was going to be more about reviewing the new restaurant’s food than me.
So I guess by now you’ve got a good inkling of what happened.
My boss acknowledged “my contributions” and then got serious.
“We think that you’re too passionate in client meetings. You get too excited and it’s distracting for clients,” he said.
“What are you talking about?” I said in complete and utter disbelief. (I was not as self-aware then as I am now.)
“Well, at the Acme Company meeting you started talking about ideas that were unrelated to the topic and the clients were confused, having a hard time following your logic.”
“But in the end we came up with a couple of great new ideas,” I said defending myself. “Of course the conversation went off the agenda and rambled a bit. When they gave us their business update it was clear that there were new ways to help them. I was excited about the possibilities.”
“Yes, but that’s not the way a vice president should conduct herself.”
“Okay, let’s move on,” I said. “I don’t agree with you on this, but it’s my opinion vs. yours. We’re not going to agree.”
“Well,” he said. “We think you need to improve your presentation skills.”
“Wait,” I said cutting him off. “You do know what happened last week during the presentation training? I have tons to learn, I’m sure, but even the big time expert thought that I’m pretty good in the presentation department.”
I don’t remember what my boss said next. My brain had shut down. Furious. He was devaluating my passion and energy and those things where I performed well, the very things that helped me win new business and have such great client relationships. If he had talked about improving process management skills or even proofreading, I would have been receptive.
What I do remember about what happened next is that he slid the performance review with both boss’s critique across the table and asked me to sign it, part of the company’s performance review process.
“I’m not signing that,” I said without having to think. “I don’t agree with it. I don’t accept it. I think it’s wrong.”
He pushed his glasses up his nose, the anxiety of dealing with me causing him to sweat. This was not how these things were supposed to go. Lois had always been agreeable and pleasant. The train had gone off the rails, this wasn’t what he and the other boss had rehearsed.
Within two months I took a new position with another agency. Many of my clients followed. The old agency tried to sue me, but eventually backed down. Clients could work with whomever they wanted.
I had found my real self, my creative self. I was never going to rehearse success again, I told myself.
Of course, as happens with rebels, I would eventually slip back into work situations that felt somewhat stifling or slow to change. But I would never again let my passion be up for review.