I was talking about branding (business branding, personal branding and their not-always-comfortable intersection) at a Marketing conference. When I came down the steps from the stage after my talk, a young woman was waiting for me.
“I loved your speech!” she said. “You gave me hope.”
“Why do you need hope?” I asked her. “What’s going on that seems hopeless?”
“My job,” she said. “It’s a mess. Do you have a minute to talk, by chance?”
“I have thirteen minutes,” I said. “I have to moderate a panel on the other side of this hotel eighteen minutes from now, and it takes five minutes to get there.”
“We could walk and talk, if that’s okay,” she said.
“What’s your name?” I asked her as we started walking. We’ll call her Annie.
“So, what’s up?” I asked.
“I’m in a terrible spot,” said Annie. “I started a new job sixteen months ago, and for the first year it was a dream job. About four months ago things started to get really bad. I can’t do anything right, in my VP’s eyes. He’s the person who hired me! He was so encouraging at first, and now it seems like I’m always in the doghouse with him.”
“Is the company doing well?” I asked.
“Really well,” she said. “Last year was our second-best year ever, and this year is on track to hit that or beat it. But my boss is so critical, I almost can’t stand it.”
“But — his Marketing programs are working, right?” I asked.
“Well — it’s not really his programs that are working,” said Annie. “It’s the new stuff we’re doing, the social media and outreach stuff that the company never did before last year.
My title is Social Media Coordinator. Everything I came to do, I’ve been able to do, and the results have been really encouraging. But now I feel like the biggest loser on the planet.”
“Run it down,” I said.
“At first it was a perfect match. He’s an old-school statesman type, and I’m twenty-eight and in need of a lot of mentoring.
But lately I can’t do anything right. He picks and picks at me about tiny things. I’ve lost pretty much all my mojo. Sometimes I cry on the way home from work, I hate my job so much.”
“What’s happened since you started working there?” I asked her. “Has your job description changed?”
“He hired me to look after our social media programs,” said Annie, “but I do a lot more than that, now. Most of the marketing team is really nice, but they know about things like trade shows and conferences. For instance, we have a booth at this conference, but I’m the only person in the department who’s come to any of the sessions.
We could all go to the sessions for free! There aren’t any customers coming to our booth when the sessions are running, but the Marketing people sit in the booth and talk to each other. It’s not like any Marketing team I’ve ever seen before.”
“Where’s your boss, the VP?” I asked. “Is he here, too?”
“No,” she said. “He stayed back in the office. He says he’s too old to deal with crowds. He doesn’t like networking. When I first took the job, I asked my boss why we didn’t have any kind of client newsletter. Liz, our company is 45 years old and they’ve never had a newsletter. My boss said ‘CAN-SPAM.'”
“The law against spam?” I asked her. “That seems like a pretty trivial obstacle.”
“It is,” she said. “If you keep a good list, you have no problems with CAN-SPAM. But my boss didn’t know that. He comes from a different generation. He wasn’t curious about it. It’s like he stopped trying new things many years ago, and is just going through the motions now.”
“He’s an older guy – older that me?” I asked her.
“He’s way older than you, and his viewpoint is even way older than he is,” said Annie. “I told him to come with me and hear you speak, and he said ‘I’m supposed to listen to an HR person tell me about Marketing?'”
“Ha!” I laughed. “That’s pretty good.”
“It’s really good he didn’t come see you,” she said. “You have purple cowboy boots on. His head would have exploded. Also, you sang opera during your talk.”
“That was ‘La Traviata,’ I said. “Opera is traditional! You can’t get more traditional than that.”
“My boss wouldn’t think so,” she said.
“Annie,” I said, “one more thing. Tell me about the CEO.”
“We have a fairly new CEO who started three years ago with the company,” she said. “The Board brought him in when our old CEO retired. I never met the old CEO, but the new one is amazing. I love his passion and his vision, and he’s making it happen.”
“How old is he?” I asked her.
“About forty, I guess,” she said. “He loves our online business, like I do. He loves social media and he loves building community. He speaks at a lot of conferences, too.”
“Does your VP go see your CEO when he speaks in public?” I asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” said Annie. “There’s one other VP who’s awesome, and that’s our Sales VP. He’s in his sixties I would say, but he’s as out-of-the-box as you can get. He asked me to speak to the sales team at his upcoming sales retreat. I’m so excited! I’ve never made a big presentation before.”
We were halfway through the hotel lobby. I stopped in my tracks. “Annie,” I said, “you were in the company a year ago, when the last sales retreat happened. Did your boss, the VP of Marketing, speak to the sales team there?”
“No, I’m sure he didn’t,” said Annie. “When the Sales VP asked me to come and speak at the retreat, he said ‘It’s so terrific to finally have a Marketing person who can speak Sales.'”
“Well that’s it, then!” I said. “There’s your problem right there. You’ve got a go-go new CEO who loves social media. Your VP hires a young, seemingly harmless social media coordinator – that’s you — and you grow outside your little box too quickly. He’s freaking out. Your boss is afraid of you!”
“Oh, that’s silly,” said Annie, blushing like a tomato. “My boss is the VP of Marketing. I’m six years out of college.”
“I’m not saying your VP thinks you’ll take his job, although stranger things have happened,” I explained. “Apart from launching that html newsletter, what else have you done?”
“I started an online forum that is super-popular,” said Annie. “Not too much else – I updated our prospect database and created a set of tools for our salespeople to teach our customers about our online support.”
“Were you part of that online support project, too?” I asked her. “I was the Marketing liaison for that project, but I didn’t do a ton. I just kept people posted on what was happening.”
“So you have friends all over the company,” I offered.
“I do,” she said. “Once in a while, the CEO calls me to ask my advice. I never tell my boss about that, but I think the CEO tells him. I kind of see what you mean, now. My boss doesn’t like the attention I’m getting.”
“The man heard the term CAN-SPAM and used it as an excuse not to launch an email newsletter, probably for years!” I said. “He had the rest of the leaders snowed. He brought you in to solve a problem — his boss was on his back about being so behind the times with the Marketing programs. You’ve got a Marketing team that doesn’t talk to Sales and doesn’t network. You come in, shake everything up and have the VP of Sales as your biggest fan. Your manager is a fearful guy, and right now you look to him like his biggest problem.”
“What can I do?” she asked me. “I don’t want to quit. I don’t want to have enemies. My boss was so nice to me at first – you should have seen him. Now I can’t do anything right. He’s on my case every minute.”
“I would start a stealth job search, just to see what’s out there,” I said. “Things can change fast. Your fearful VP isn’t reacting to his paranoia by changing anything he’s doing, but by trying to squash your creativity and tamp down your flame. He could get fired any time. My suggestion is to start a stealth job search so that no matter what happens, you’ll be ready for action.”
“I feel like I’m walking on eggshells all day long,” said Annie.
She looked like she was about to cry.
“Look, my little sister,” I said, “what you’re going through is hard, but it’s great training. Everyone you run into or work with in your career will not love your brand of music. Some will, and some won’t.”
“That’s my favorite part of your speech!” she said. “You said ‘If they don’t get you, they don’t deserve you.’ I love that! I want to put the poster on my cubicle wall.”
“You can download that badge at our site,” I said. “Annie, don’t walk on eggshells anymore. Remember what your mom used to tell you about those Daddy Long Legs bugs when you were little? They’re more scared of you than you are of them.”
“But when my manager picks at me….” Annie continued, “what do I do?”
“You smile and say ‘Oh wow, thanks Frank, I’ll take a look at that,” I said. “Smile, keep your chin up, and stop pretending that Frank is your mentor. He’s not. Maybe he was for a very short time, but right now, he could be learning from you if he weren’t so fearful and hostile.”
“Liz,” said Annie, “my boss’s name is actually Frank. That’s really weird.”
“I want you to stop trying so hard to please Frank,” I said. We had reached my conference hall. “Please yourself, Annie. Find your voice. Get your resume together, get it out there and see what happens. You might get a killer offer at another great place. The whole Frank impasse may clear up. When you get some altitude on your situation and take control of it, amazing things happen.”
“I’m still turning it over in my head,” said Annie. “Frank scared of me – a twenty-eight-year-old bumbling her way along?”
“Bumbling and trying new stuff all the time and making things happen,” I said. “Speaking to the Sales team as the first Marketing person ever to have that honor. Getting calls from the CEO when he needs advice. Yeah, you’re a real bumbler, Annie.”
“You’re the best!” said Annie, and gave me a little hug.
“Keep me posted!” I called over my shoulder as I stepped into the next conference room for my panel.
“And here’s our moderator,” said the session emcee as he walked over.
“Liz,” he said, “a lot of people want to hear about fear in the workplace. Do you think we can insert a question into the panel to touch on that?”
“I think that’s a brilliant idea,” I said.
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