It was the early 1990’s. The era of fax machines and floppy disks. I had landed my first job at a brand-name software company. I was the new kid given the plum assignment as PR coordinator for the launch of a brand new product. The product that was finally going to get us out from under the thumb of the evil empire. The product that was to lead the way for our entry into the world of big-data and enterprise software. The product that was going to pay for the gym, pool and subsidized lunches at the beautiful new campus that still had the new-building smell the day I arrived.
I was writing the press release that would be the start of everything. I stayed at the office until midnight writing, re-writing, editing, fussing, worrying about getting it wrong. Finally, out of exhaustion, I hit the send button emailing it to my boss and her boss, the director of corporate communications, and her boss the VP.
At the next day’s team meeting I gathered with the dozen or so other 20-something PR babies and the executive team, scarcely believing my eyes and ears as the VP of corporate communications stood up, waved my press release in the air and said, “Now this is how it’s done. I want all of you to take a look at Susan’s press release. If we are going to talk to the enterprise, this is how we have to position the company and its products.”
I was surprised. I was pleased. More than pleased. I was validated. I was good at this. I could do it. And they liked me, they really liked me.
The next day the release went out and the downward spiral that would end with my alienation and humiliation began. In the era of “mass-faxing” and other antiquated distribution methods it was virtually impossible to retract an announcement to correct an error.
And this was a doozy. I had transposed two numbers in the 1-800 sales line. And a little mom-and-pop shop in Vermont or New Hampshire or some such place, was being deluged by calls from software developers … calls that they were paying for.
That experience has stayed with me for more than 20 years.
What I learned
They didn’t like me. They didn’t even know me. The praise heaped on my writing skills was more about shaming the rest of the team about their supposed failings. It didn’t result in anyone liking me. To the contrary, it just reinforced the PR cadre’s commitment to giving me the cold shoulder as the new kid. The nobody that was brought in from the outside and given the assignment they all wanted. And the unrelenting venom directed at me from my fellow 20-somethings was not about me. They didn’t hate me. They didn’t even know me. They were making it up as they went just like I was. None of us had done this before. We were all terrified. And I was an easy target that allowed them to feel better about their own fears and insecurity. I shed a few tears at the time. But now I love the idea of those fierce young go-getters trying to make their way.
The people in charge of the team were bosses not leaders. Waving my good work in front of the team was not leadership. It divided the team. It brought a quick end to a small but burgeoning culture of collaboration. It instilled shame and fear. It didn’t teach any positive lessons. It certainly didn’t do me any favors. I should not have been pleased. I should have been horrified.
Everyone messes up. The mistake was on me. As much as I wanted to blame the copy editor who approved the final draft, it was all on me. I did try to deflect blame … out of shame, embarrassment and sheer horror at what I had done. But the experience helped me learn to accept messing up as just a part of the process. It happens to everyone.
Assume best intentions. If we assume that everyone is giving it their best, and understand that our best varies from day to day, it makes life better for all of us. When we assume best intentions, we can approach mistakes, problems and flat out failure from a place of compassion. We can provide mentorship and true leadership. We can make things better. If we start with the assumption that people aren’t working hard enough, are trying to get one over on us, are not good enough or talented enough, there’s no where left to go. Those beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies.
What happened next
A series of events, some directly related to that one error, led to the first of many job hops. Job hopping is the subject of my next early-years story. Stay tuned.