Good Career Moves

sucker-punchedThe other day, while talking with a few friends and sharing the best and the worst moves in our careers, I remembered some early events in new jobs that made all the difference longer term.

Sucker Punched: Stay Calm No Matter What – So in my first three months at American Cyanamid, my first big corporate job out of college, I was learning and being put into new situations everyday. My first off-site corporate meeting was in Chicago at the Hilton at O’Hare airport. A bunch of field salespeople, corporate brand and marketing people (that’s the group I was in), and some senior regional executives were in attendance.

You have to realize how big Cyanamid was in the early 1980’s – from Lederle Laboratories to Old Spice to Pine-Sol floor cleaner, even Formica. I was in the crop protection chemicals division. Bugs, weeds and animal health were our focus and Cyanamid was one of the first large US corporations in US history. We had in our one division over 300 sales people and another 1,500 employees from research to distribution to product management. I was very lucky and grateful to be on the team and learning every day.

So I flew to Chicago, checked in and the whole group was going to dinner at the restaurant at the hotel. Big steaks, cigars (yes, you could smoke) and afterwards we were all going to the Gaslight Club in the back of the restaurant. You went through the telephone booth to get to the bar, like a hidden speak easy from the 1930’s. As I walked through to the very, very crowded bar with all the AmCy people and our advertising agency people, I was greeted by a very drunk, older senior field executive “Red.” He was stumbling about and not making much sense. As I tried to get around him, he grabbed my suit collar and said “I ain’t taking no bull from a young puke like you” and he coldcock punched me right in the face. I went down and out. A few minutes later, someone poured a beer on me and I woke up. There I was crumbled on the floor out, knocked out cold.

Well, my dear friend Tony, from the agency that supported me, picked me up and whisked me to my room. I was in a daze. He got me a bucket of ice and put a cold towel on my swelling face. He stayed by my side well until 3AM. At about 4 AM, my hotel room phone rang; it was a call from Monty Summa, the head of all sales in our division and Red’s boss’s boss. Monty wanted to make sure I was OK and that if I needed to, I should get to the hospital ASAP. I assured him I was OK and that beyond my pride being a bit crumpled I would be fine. This is the moment he said, “Now, you are not going to do anything legal or anything???” My response made all the difference, “No, Monty, my concern is for Red. What are you all doing to help him? He could do this to the wrong person and not just put you in harm’s way but he could end up in jail.” Monty was taken aback and said, “We will talk later on,” as he was flying up that day to deal with Red.

Well, it sure was tough walking into that sales meeting later that morning. Black eye and very tired. Red looked even worse and was way up front in the meeting. I went and grabbed two cups of coffee and as I walked up to the front of the room, everyone became very quiet. I went up and put one cup in front of Red and said, “Bet you could use this?” and sat next to him. He put his arm on me and said, “I’m sorry…” 

Later that day Monty, Red and I sat and talked. I stayed only for the first few minutes and said “Red, while getting hit like that was no fun, the fact is, please use this action as a way to get help. See a path to getting better, not towards more anger. We will get over this, but you need real help.” Later I found out that the company sent him to a rehab program and Red stayed sober. 

Months later, I came to find out that Monty and my boss had talked with the division president Bill Griffith and said that I had done the department right and more importantly cared about getting help for Red. I was no longer the college kid, green behind the ears – but a trusted, caring member of the team. They gave me broader opportunities, increasing responsibilities and more trust.  I eventually was responsible for more than $18 million in budgets a year in product promotion and public relations. When the division was going after a major change effort (from chemical type to crop supported and then to a new dealer program), all the executives asked me to be on the rebranding and launch effort. Plus, the field knew that while I was a corporate “puke”, I was an “OK corporate puke…” 

After that experience, in my career I have always taken a step back in bad moments or challenging people situations. Never overreacting or shying away from the tough things that need to be said, yet doing it always based on care of the people impacted first and the business second.

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