Friday, January 24, 2014

Good Career Moves

The other day while talking with a few friends and we were 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.

1. 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 sales people, corporate brand and marketing people (that’s the group I was in) and some senior regional executives.

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 coldcocked 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 harms way but he could end up in jail.” Monty was taken back and said we will talk later on, 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 quite. 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 my broader opportunities, increasing responsibilities and more trust.  I eventually was responsibility for over $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 they 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 over reacting 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.

2. Get Dirty - Understand The Customer Firsthand – So when I joined Air Products & Chemicals I was in the corporate affairs group. We were in the main building on the Allentown campus. It was a big company, thousands of employees and more clients and industries that I can even list. All these years later I’m still very proud of my time at Air Products and remember it with great joy (as I've told friends, if we hadn't moved I think I would still be at Air Products).

Within the first weeks of working I started thinking how the corporate staff was a bit removed from the operation and line businesses. We produced a ton of materials and support but I didn’t feel like we were really getting to meet the clients and understand how they looked at us, our products, etc. So I went to my boss, a great guy that was very smart and asked, “can I go to one of the field offices for a bit and see how they deliver product, interact with the customers?” I remember getting a head tilted response of “why?” After a few more times asking he finally gave in to get me off the requesting treadmill.

I spent a week delivering cylinder gases, and then bulk tanker gases. I went into 100 clients locations, went to the fill sites, the return sites. The great guys at the sites even taught me how to roll a 400 lbs. cylinder of gas. The best moments were just watching how the field delivery people interacted with the clients. From welding shops to hospitals, from plastic jug manufacturing plants to auto body shops. It was an amazing time. I really felt like I knew the markets and the value Air Products provided. It was so obvious that the gas was a part of the value – that it had to be quality, clean, etc. but the real difference was in the people. The knowledge they shared and the commitment to customer satisfaction was amazing.

Months later as we were looking at redoing all the materials for the wielding group as I was sitting in the brainstorm session I remembers something that was subtle but could mean something to the brand. When I was out with the delivery guys every time they would go into the shops to say hi to the owners or buyers they would bring the latest sales materials. As they would hand these beautiful brochures and flyers, the shop owners would almost be embarrassed. Their hands would be dirty and about 80% of all the Air Products stuff was printed on bright white paper. They would ask that we “put it on the desk, they were afraid to get it dirty…” So I shared this in the brainstorm session. The group was intrigued. This simple insight lead to us making the materials fit the industry and the client environments. We went in wielding from bright white to browns and darker colors, plus we added a protective coating to the materials allowing them to be wiped clean.

A long time later I received a hand written note from one of the field guys, stapled to one of the new, industry and environment correct designs and materials saying “thank you Dave, we no longer make the clients feel bad when touching our stuff…” Boy that put a smile on my face. In addition I was recognized as a creative person, willing to go the extra mile to make the difference. This gave me a strong reputation in the business units and opened up many doors and growth opportunities.

So I always encourage people on my teams, especially the newer members – to get out, meet clients, go on sales calls, walk and sit were your clients do. You will learn things that no one else will and bring value in simple and quite ways.  

3. Give Me Your Problem Accounts – I was hired into Maritz as a “Program Creative Director” but our real title was “Project Head" or affectionately "Pee-head.” That will give you a sense of where these worker bees in the creative organization stood. In my first weeks I was assigned a series of projects all over the place, different accounts, different industries, different support efforts. Being tested, watched and at the same time I was wondering, “what the heck is this all about?”

About three weeks in I went to my boss and asked, “so who is the most difficult client?” The word came back – Xerox. Not that they were bad or mean, just very demanding. Also they were active and they spread the love all around. So about 8 people on the team had one or two divisions of Xerox each. I asked my boss Steve “so what if we put all of Xerox under one person, me, and I took it all on. That way we would gain efficiency on branding use, clear picture of how the different areas work together or in competing, etc.?”

Steve liked the idea and within 30 days I was working 100% on Xerox. Early on I had a great learning event happen. So like any larger company there were client contacts that were fun, others that were all business and others yet pretty tough to deal with. One of the larger divisions, the copier equipment one, was the 800-pound gorilla of the bunch. The two people that had it before said, “be warned the guy in charge hates everything we do… tons of rework.” I was taking over for in midstream and had to write some copy for an incentive program mailer. After getting the rough from word processing I faxed it to Mr. Blackman at Xerox and asked for his comments.

Within 2 hours I had a response fax in my cube on my desk. In big, think magic marker it said at the top “THIS SUCKS!!!!!” My heart sank and I thought “oh no what have I done?” So I picked up the phone and called Mr. Blackman, when he picked up I said “Hello Mr. Blackman I wanted to introduce myself I will be supporting you and your programs, plus asked you specifically ‘what sucks?’” Silence on the phone. I went on, “Does the whole thing suck or only parts of the copy or me do I suck?” He burst out laughing, saying, “Oh it was the headlines I hated them.”

We talked for a while and I said, “no worries Mr. Blackman everyone’s creative style and preferences are subjective and differences are good. I want to learn what you like and what you think stinks so I can improve and get better.”

From that point on I was able to grow not just this Xerox account but also all of them and bring on 6 new areas. Because of turning a difficult client into a growing and award winning account I was given more and more responsibility. Eventually I was bringing in nearly 60% of the profit for our area and I was able to get the reputation as a program and account fixer. Xerox was a long-term great client and I supported some great people. In addition every time I was in Rochester Mr. Blackman would buy me a cup of coffee and catch up, give me input on the program and how it could improve.  On one of these visits Mr. Blackman said, “Your first call all those years back made the difference, it was welcomed to talk with someone who didn’t get defensive and you didn’t become a wet noodle either you showed you cared and that you wanted to improve.”

Since then I always ask for the most difficult accounts, regions, people, and relationships. I love the challenge and more important feel like I can bring real value. At Maritz it helped me quickly get a name as a person not afraid to take on the difficult situations and quickly get to the point of either turning them around or winding them down gracefully.  I loved every difficult client, every creative challenge, every day at Maritz.

The choices in our careers when we will either define us and our value may not be obvious or perfect – so do what you think makes best sense at that moment for the client, the company and the team.

Difficult things lead to better opportunities.

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