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I don’t make a habit of writing about my own experiences but…..a few years ago while minding my own business (literally), I was approached by a major staffing organization (big players – cool $5+ billion a year in revenue) to head up their $50 million legal staffing division. Now, I’m pretty happy doing what I’m doing. I love being an entrepreneur in the legal field. I have a successful media and training organization. I’m my own boss, and I really wasn’t looking to change. In fact, I subscribe to the old adage that you work 80 hours a week just so you don’t have to work 40 hours a week for someone else. But the headhunter who found me talked a good game. I’ve been in the business, know when to ignore standard pitches, but still I was intrigued.
The position involved heading up a national legal staffing division, expanding the client base, adding revenue and bearing the title of vice president. It sounded like a job that not only could I do, but also I had previous experience doing and enjoyed. It also involved a possible very comfortable housing situation, albeit in the cold abysses of the Hinterlands (i.e., Troy, Michigan). I would have to uproot my home life and sell my business to this company. Well, shoot. I’ve been down that road before. But the challenge seemed tempting, and, frankly, when I started to weigh the upside, the idea of adding Vice President of Major Corporation to my bio along with the “financial security,” and exciting, challenging scenario seemed like a logical step in my otherwise ho-hum 5-year goal plan. I tell myself that the dollars aren’t anything to sneeze at either seeing as how rumors of my wealth have been greatly exaggerated.
Although my first instinct was to pass, I ignored my brief commune into my common sense and told the headhunter, “Sure. Here are my parameters. If they can meet those, I’ll talk.” So I sounded a little cocky. But at this stage in my career, I felt pretty confident that I could pick and choose. By golly, I wanted to do what I had been writing and counseling about for years: choose wisely and, above all, make the change worth your while.
I was willing to overlook that I would have to move to a location where there was real snow in the winter. I’m from Los Angeles – I have no clue that the stuff actually comes down from the sky. I was also willing to overlook that a year ago there was a huge splash in the Wall Street Journal when the person who had this job walked out mumbling something about “irreconcilable differences with top management.” I was further willing to overlook that I had a fast-track thriving business that was definitely going places. Along with a stellar team, I had sweated, toiled and molded this company into the kind of experience I had always wanted. But, gee, now that I think about it, I was actually getting excited about this opportunity.
Could I adjust from being a somewhat “big fish in a (very) small pond” to being a “little fish in a (very) big pond?” (I guess I squandered too many Saturday nights watching the “Cliché Lady” on Saturday Night Live instead of working on my social life.) Could I leave my exquisite view of the mountains and ocean in Los Angeles for the eerie chill of Eerie Lake? And what about my then boyfriend who obsessed every day about his rapidly decreasing hairline, his hives, and his love handles? Would he go with me? He was having a rough enough time adjusting to sunny suburban California after a lifetime of the hustle and bustle of New York City where he was a rock and roll journalist. He complained vociferously about crickets keeping him up at night. What would he say about behemoth Midwest mosquitoes and those elephantine June bugs? (And why was that little voice echoing inside my head asking, did I want him to go with me?)
I couldn’t believe I was going through the exact same thing as candidates I had interviewed over the past twenty years. First, I interviewed via video conference with the headhunter who had somehow convinced me to even consider this job. Him in New York, me in L.A. Both of us plunging headlong into the latest technology – each of us acting as though this were just another day. Then I met with a VP who flies out here to see if my personality fits. Well, I don’t know about my personality, but I sure did like his. (I was still very single at the time.) Then, I’m flown across the country, put in a limo with a real live limo driver with oversized cap and black suit, meet seven top execs one right after the other, and hustled back on the plane. Somehow I manage to pass that round. A month goes by. I get a phone call. I have been summoned by the exec VP, the CFO, and the president of this $5+ billion Fortune 500 company. This time, they’re waving lots of stock options, a new car, and a relocation allowance. Gulp. Gee, I think they’re getting serious.
I immediately consult everything that’s ever been written about how to handle a third and fourth interview: what to wear, what to say, how to breathe. I have long involved discussions with my partner, advisors, mentors, and oh, yes, my shrink. I worry once again about being overweight but notice that people in the Midwest seem a little chunkier than Californians, so I stop at the local Dairy Queen. I’m all set.
Then, I get THE CALL and not on my cell phone, either. The offer is coming down. YES!! I order up the snowmobile. I hop on Realtor.com and find out that for the price of a garage in L.A. I can have a mansion on a lake with my very own personal boat dock. Not a bad deal – even if I don’t know how to sail. One slight inconvenience: Two top execs are on their way out here to look over my business and make the offer on that. Oh, okay. I can’t be bothered right now. I’m busy looking into designer muckaluks.
So, these major players fly all the way out to L.A. to visit us in our humble abode (office) on a Sunday afternoon. These two (dare I, at the risk of sounding like a sour-grapes-politically-incorrect female, these two charter members of –I hate to say, “the good old boys network”) pay a polite visit. As Arlo Guthrie observed of his army physical in the whimsically autobiographical “Alice’s Restaurant,” “they were inspecting, dissecting every single part of me, and they wasn’t leaving NO part untouched.”
I have my whole office staff dressed up in their go-to-meetin’ Sunday best. Desks are clean, lean and mean. You can smell the lemon Pledge all the way down the hall. However, this powerful duo felt they could have more leverage by interviewing me alone, all alone, that is – in a closed room with no windows, let alone air conditioning. Suddenly, I experience the terror some of my candidates felt when they were sent to get the “once over” by potential employers. But I tell myself, I’m ready. I’ve role-played. I’ve studied my answers. I am sure, confident, and meaningful. I have prepared a vision for them, and know how to play this game. I had written books on it.
Things were going well until the duo decides to play “good cop/bad cop.” Badly, I might add. I thought the little guy playing bad cop was a bit too gleeful. I really thought he was going to stand on the table and belt out, “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better,” from Annie Get Your Gun. But instead, the inevitable happened. They gave the what-do-you-do-when test. Apparently, I flunk.
“At BigCorp,” the little guy said, “we would have FIRED the person in charge for that! Not tomorrow-today!” Yeah, well, I saw it differently. I saw a learning curve, not a career buster. “What kind of leader are you?” Little guy yells, swatting the table.
My heart suddenly pounds with terror. Oh, what the heck. I start to gag. I can handle anything but yelling and swatting tables. I slink back in my chair, stunned. Was this a proper way to treat a potential Vice President of a major division of their billion dollar-plus company? Furthermore, was this the way I wanted to be treated?
At that precise moment, I felt a slight dampness. Oh, Lordy! Sweaty palms. I decide to ignore my own discomfort and rise to the bait. “Littleguy,” I say, “Just what are you so angry about?” “I AM NOT ANGRY,” he spits. (Angry little guys tend to spit a lot.) “Yes,” I say quietly, “I can see that.” I wipe the spit from my eye (note to self: get the swine flu shot). Zoom. Right over his head.
After regaining my composure and understanding clearly that Littleguy is someone I would have to work with on a daily basis, I decide to withdraw my candidacy. In fact, I write the letter and e-mail it to the headhunter, the president of the company, and the VP with the oh-so-fabulous-personality so fast, these two corporate wannabees are still walking down to the elevator. Would they have wanted me? I’ll never know. Is this the way they treat their employees? Frankly, I don’t want to know. What I do know is where I draw the line. I always want to be treated with dignity and respect. On that, I will not compromise.
I have re-evaluated my life several times since then and have reminded myself that I have created my ideal situation. I love my partners, my colleagues, my clients, and my life. For me, this was a close call and an excellent reminder that I want to develop what I have. The “good guy” was kind enough to send a letter of apology. But I learned an excellent lesson. The grass is not always greener on the other side. (Thank you, Cliché Lady.)
So now, it’s back to the proverbial drawing board. I cancel the snowmobile. I put my bio back on the shelf. I forget about the affordable mansion with the personal boat dock on the lake. I take the air out of my floaties. And life is good. As for the boyfriend, I sent him back to New York to find his hairline, slim his love handles and put salve on his hives. In the end, it always works out.
Reprinted with permission from KNOW, The Magazine for Paralegals.