Our first meeting seemed anything but fortuitous. There I was, a newly minted 24-year-old, proudly sitting in my cubicle on the executive floor of a Big Brand. I was as close to Mahogany Row (what long-time employees called our row of C-suite offices) as you could get without being a corporate attorney or a secretary.
I had moved to Chicago just days before from a smaller city. And I’d moved, career-wise, from being a magazine editor at a publishing firm to handling corporate communications for a well-known consumer company. A big name with a small headquarters staff, I was given access to the C-suite in a way I assumed was my birthright. Ah yes, the hubris of youth. I had no idea how much this access—and learning—would form the rest of my career.
All of this to say—I was young and green. I was professional of course. Being my mother’s daughter, I’d been trained well. But I was feisty too. As the youngest of six daughters raised in a matriarchal family, I thought of chauvinism as a quaint concept from the Dark Ages. It was something I’d not run into—yet.
However, this Big Brand was in the automotive industry. Hence the “yet” in my previous sentence. All male, all the time, in an era where calendars of women in lingerie (in suggestive positions with tools) hung on office walls.
Into my cubicle walked our CEO. I was reviewing an article for the employee newsletter when a booming voice of God behind me said: “Just don’t put any recipes in there.”
I slowly swiveled to face a strapping man who oozed ownership of the place. Giving him a steady, bemused gaze, I replied: “No worries. I don’t know how to cook.”
And so began a seven-year professional relationship, one of the best of my career. I have so much to thank that man for. But I never would have guessed that from our first exchange.
That man just passed away. I found out this week, via email. And so, my thoughts tumble here, as they so often do. I hope in a way that makes you think, or smile, or feel something, rather than in a jumbled mess.
You read reports about women who rise to corporate leadership being sponsored, versus just mentored. It basically means an executive (traditionally male) puts his name and reputation on the line for them. Kind of like in middle school when the chief Mean Girl accepts you into her clique. If she says you’re ok, you’re in.
That’s essentially what Ron did for me at a time when there were only a handful of women—in a corporate headquarters staff of 250—who weren’t secretaries. He watched me move from cubicle to office, green to seasoned—and he played a part. I sat in so many meetings as the only female in the room. I became used to one of two extremes– either all heads turned to stare when I talked, or no one did because I wasn’t one of the boys club. And when I got up to leave the room, I could feel eight pairs of eyes on my ass versus on whatever I’d contributed.
I think I lucked out, in part, because Ron had a daughter close to my age. She was an achiever—a feisty gal, he said—and he liked that. It’s what he had raised her to be. When he realized I was in the game for a career, rather than looking for a husband in the male executive ranks, he became my champion. Quietly, matter-of factly. Which mattered.
Because of Ron, I was afforded a begrudging (if sometimes less than authentic) respect from my very chauvinistic male coworkers. He asked my opinion, called me into his office often, stopped by mine frequently. He made it all very visible to the male executives around me. He sent me to D.C. with our lobbyists to give me government affairs experience—and because he said he knew I’d come back with a briefing he could trust.
I was all of 24, 25, 26 years of age, people. How he trusted me with some of the issues he did is beyond me. Particularly when his VPs were so sure they knew better. And made jokes about why he favored me—none of which had any basis in truth.
I worked late many nights, as single gals in their 20s used to, and that’s where we had some of our best conversations. He told me to buy a house in a modest neighborhood. Growing up without privilege had shaped him and now that he had it, he said his neighbors could care less about him. The manicured yards did not make up for people who brought soup when you were sick and kept an eye on your children to keep them safe. He wished he had stuck with those people, those communities.
He encouraged me to retain my disdain for people’s egos. “My team—smart guys, all—are sure they know it all,” he said. “And yet, they’re too scared to give me a straight answer on something—to tell me ‘no’—because they’re afraid of the consequence. Do you know why you bring more value? You’re honest with me. You challenge me because you know if I fire you, you’ll move on and be fine. All of these know-it-alls put their pants on one leg at a time. Don’t you forget it. Never trust an ego. Never trust someone who wants the title and position. Stick with people who want to create something good, something bigger than themselves, something better. Those are the wise ones.”
After decades of career advice, those few sentences are really all that mattered. Truly. I will walk to the ends of the earth for super smart, talented, humble people. Not doormats, but people who remember we all put our pants on the same way. As I interviewed celebrities and worked with CEOs throughout my career, remembering that advice kept me from ever being starstruck.
When I trusted too much, he had my back. Helped me develop a healthy cynicism that Ohio girls aren’t usually raised to have but big-city girls definitely need. He didn’t smooth the road completely—I fought plenty of my own battles—but he made sure I developed the resilience to stay on course. This is not to say that he didn’t feel free to comment on just about anything. “Good God. That brown nail polish is awful. Go back to a nice red, Ace.” But he allowed me the same privilege and I exercised it often, rolling my eyes when he’d mention that he liked a Backstreet Boys song or two. I never did improve his taste in music and he never did shame me out of wearing my brown nail polish. And we argued over minute wording changes in his speeches like a couple of pedantic Ivy League codgers. But we were truly fond of each other, with a mutual respect that meant something.
Despite plenty of offers, at a time when my star was rising, I stayed with that company and that CEO until he retired. And then I knew it was time to leave. His replacement had one-tenth of his character and lacked vision. I had been well-trained enough to recognize that, doing so in the first week of his short tenure.
I wrote advice for a friend’s daughter several years ago as she entered the work world. As I look back on it now, I realize Ron shaped many of my views. I think he’d be happy to know it.
Decades later, I still think we could use more men like him. And I try to let the good ones know how much I appreciate them.
This week, I’ll give myself some time to honor his memory, to thank him silently again for what he invested in me. I’ll continue to silently dismiss those who doubt me, humbly ponder what those more masterful have to offer me. I’ll strive for excellence, I’ll put on one pant leg and then the other.
Someone really wise helped school me in all of the above. When, really, he had so many weightier issues to handle. I guess that’s called a legacy. When what you’ve passed on lives longer than you do. And it’s good in a way the world needs—really, really needs—right now.
That speaks volumes.
Addendum: I did not mention in my original post because it did not occur to me. Ron died the same date my father did. My father just did it seven years earlier. It seems apropos that two men who took such an interest in my future and well-being share that date.
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It’s such good fortune to have someone like that in your professional life.
My daughter’s in the corporate world and is young. I want her to read this and will pass it to her when I see her tomorrow! You did a wonderful job of honoring your former boss and mentor! Well done! Mona
Oh, that’s the best—I’m so glad you’re sharing with her! And I hope she tells you that it is far different today than it was then.
A beautiful honoring and reflection on wisdom and truth! Wisdom does not age, it is never tainted with ego and is received easily and always with encouragement. Clearly this is what you have received and continue to pass on. 🙂
I’m certainly trying. . . Feel so blessed to have learned from such a good human being.
You are wonderful woman !
Well, thank you:). I’ve just looked at your blog (thank goodness for Google translation) and it appears you are too!
A thoughtful tribute, K. You captured for us what it was like, day in, day out in Corporate and under Ron’s watch. Very sorry for your loss. You remind us that this journey is not only about what happens to us personally but the imprint we leave on each other.
Oh, that last bit–the imprint I’m leaving–is so on my mind. Ron’s passing is a reminder of a legacy that lives on. Only normal, I think that it makes me think of what I’ll leave behind . . .
What a great tribute Kristine. My dad was called Ron so I already have a soft spot for your mentor! But he sounds like a truly good man in a time when it was obviously unusual for him to do what he did.
Maybe there’s something to the name:). I’m sure you dad was a stand-up man also. Hate to lose those . . .
This was truly inspirational and packed with important messages that I” never forget. I was getting emotional just thinking about what a clearly honourable man Ron was and you’re right: it’s no coincidence he died the same day as your father. Perhaps it was the end of a cycle and now he’s left you to do amazing things for the world; go forth boldly and conquer 🙂
Thank you. I see from your site that you’re a young aspiring writer. I hope you get mentors of the same caliber!
CEO as chief Mean Girl. Ha. That analogy explains soooo much.
But seriously, it sounds more more like you got a Mr. Fezziwig, and that’s so rare. What a great gift, to back you in that way, and to hold you in such esteem. I’m thoroughly envious. 🙂
I’m not sure how the stars aligned to give me such a great mentor in the midst of such a sexist environment, but they did:). I was really lucky.
What a fine tribute to your boss and friend – Ron. And, how lucky you were to have him treat you as an equal with ideas, suggestions and solutions that were listened to and acted on. Thanks so much for sharing!
Welcome! Thanks for reading and commenting. I do feel lucky. A great way to start a career.
Love this….I had a similar man in my life at the same age. I was 26 when finally won my dream job as a reporter at Canada;’s national newspaper, the = of the NYT. HUGE. The managing editor had been the sports editor who assigned me to 2 basically impossible-to-achieve hockey stories, both of which I aced( LONG before Google, so real reporting required.) He was a really shy man and people thought him cold and aloof. I would ask him for straight feedback and he gave it. When he wrote me a one-word note of praise on a front page exclusive I kept it for years and still treasure it. These guys are so important to our careers….sorry for your loss. but what a gift — and thanks for sharing!
I love those seasoned old editors. I work with a couple of those on assignments here and there—and they always keep their cards on the table. Sounds like we were both blessed😊.
So true! I have never worked with anyone that good since…so I am glad to know what excellence means!
This was a wonderful tribute. He sounds like a good man. I agree with you that the world needs more like him, people who pass on a legacy that means something, that furthers people along rather than tears them down.
Thank you. Yep. We need less ego. More ideas. More basic respect for one another, regardless of title.
Beautiful tribute Kristine – I hope his family get to read it.
Thank you, Roy. I did send to his daughter, at the suggestion of a friend. I know I loved to hear stories about my mom’s positive influence on people when she passed . . .
Thank you for sharing Ron’s wisdom, Kay. It’s a philosophy everybody should hear, all ages, both genders. May this kind, smart, tough soul RIP.
Thank you, Mark. I am hoping he and my dad are up in Heaven having a beer and plotting my next move😉😀.
‘I could feel eight pairs of eyes on my ass versus on whatever I’d contributed’, so with #METOO clearly in mind is sexism a long ago memory? I have to endure a Group Meeting 8.30am every Friday, I’m a small cog in an educational wheel who sits at the back and listens (long story), except sultry summer mornings such as today I’m looking at age50 Amanda in her low cut cotton print dress.
The way of the world? Or have times hopefully changed?
#MeToo exists because sexism does. We wouldn’t need it if all was as I hope it will be in future generations. So I guess that answers your question.
I should add after Googling the word feminism (‘the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes’) Amanda is both I lovely person and capable employee…..……. also a gorgeous looking older woman!…………. I am a feminist btw just sayin 😀 .
You and Justin Trudeau😉 https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=_G9jgYBN5Zs
I’m so very sorry for your loss. What a wonderful mentor to have had.
Thank you. We spoken a few times over the past several years, but I don’t want to make it appear as if we were in constant touch. Ron was retired and doing some consulting and board work. And I am working crazy hours working for myself :-). But I did feel like it was a bond that stood the test of time.
I was lucky to have found a mentor who shaped my values and what I am today. One great thing about him is his integrity. On the very first day when I joined his team, he treated me with the same respect as he does now when he meets me. I have seen how behavior of people change….when you are starting at a junior level, many would not bother to be nice to you but as you become more and more successful, those same people would bend over backward to please you. In some context this is what we call “earning respect”. But with my mentor it was very different. Just because someone is junior and not yet so well-known in the field does not mean it is okay to be dismissive about this person. I find this decency so rare and so heart-warming. Today when I mentor younger people I try to remember this.
You are more generous than I am. I would not call that “earning respect“. I would call that a caste system. Everyone deserves our basic respect. Everyone has value, regardless of position. I am not sure why this is so hard for people in the corporate world to grasp. The ones that do tend to lead companies that do amazing things because people are inspired.
Hi. You and Ron were fortunate to have met each other. You each learned from one another. See you —
Right? And he was smart enough to know that you never stop learning, regardless of title or position . . .
What a wonderful tribute to a very special mentor. I have also had some important mentors in my life, all males in a male-oriented environment. Perhaps the most valuable thing we can do to honour them is to mentor young colleagues in the same spirit. In other words, pass it on.
Right! I agree, the best honor is to pay it forward.
I’ve reblogged this post; there just seemed to be too many useful insights not to share as widely as possible. I hope you don’t mind.
I so appreciate the reblog! Thank you for the kind words and for sharing it.
Your reminiscence is well placed. Some of us are gifted with mentors throughout our lives; you and I are two of those people. In my 20’s, I started working in a 5 doctor medical practice with a remarkable top man. At one point, a “manager” who had come with a merged practice, told me I couldn’t do something that I had applied for well ahead of time and been granted. On the spot, I told him, “In that case, I quit.” I knew my value because of the man at the head of the practice. I went to him immediately and was told, “You have a job here any time you want it.” With other people, I had known him to write “Call me for more information” when he could not give them a good recommendation. A few years later, I was in a similar practice, in a different state, with his enthusiastic backing. Your boss and mine shared those qualities that made them remarkable. What a gift for us.
I would like to think that they can train this into people, but I must admit that I think it has a lot more to do with character and who you are than just knowing the right things to do.
It takes a big person to give of him/herself and teach with an open heart and mind. You are extremely fortunate to have had such a wonderful mentor.
What a beautiful tribute you have given Ron.
I am fortunate, I agree. He was a big person with a great sense of humor and respect for his fellow man no matter what walk of life.
Very fortunate. Those are the gems amongst us…
Thank you for this wonderful reminder. I smile as I contrast the head teachers of the first two schools I taught at. (Both women, by the way.) No. 1 was driven by power, hierarchy, and punishment. I learned there that everything was forbidden unless it was already embedded. I attempted to learn how to be wary and defensive, but it didn’t stick. No. 2 was Sister Michelle, a happy, modern, visionary nun who would tell me, “Do something new this week, Rachel. I’ll pick up the pieces.” Through her I learned to trust myself and experiment and give my all. Teaching was a joy ever after, thanks to her.
Oh, it’s so good, I have to repeat it: “Do something new this week, Rachel, I’ll pick up the pieces.” Now there is a confident, innovative leader. One who knows her job is to help her team create something bigger than themselves rather than make herself bigger. I am applauding. It must’ve been absolutely wonderful to work for her.
She was amazing. And in later years someone told me she did indeed frequently have to defend my latest teaching tactics to a bevy of bishops. And still she loved what I did. Imagine that.
Love her even more now😍
Great leaders, role models, mentors are rare. It’s a wonderful moments when you find one, or one finds you and all the preconceived prejudices about one or the other don’t interfere with the relationship. I’ve worked with excellent men and women and have found that the good ones out in their pants one leg at a time, even if those pants are skirts. Nice eulogy about your friend
Thanks, Steve. I wish great role models weren’t rare. I can picture a world where they’re not. And I’m hoping that’s in our future.
Love this. Love people like that. Want to be one. Was just pondering some of the people and things that have shaped my life. Important to say thank you and to recognize the value gained.
Amen! Say the thank you’s. I talked to Ron about six or seven years ago and did just that. And I’m so glad.
As others have mentioned, you’re very fortunate to have had Ron as a mentor/teacher/boss. I would have liked better career and relationship models.
Oh, you are so not alone. I had a few doozies I’d rather forget:). I think we all have, unfortunately. Makes the good ones all the more precious.
If only more bosses were like Ron. I am afraid most bosses either want a yes employee or manage by intimidation or afraid you might just take their job so give you nothing. I was fortunate to have a few good ones doing my working years. I remember them fondly & yes, learned much from them. I did not always agree with them but always respected them. I am glad you have had the good fortune to have some wonderful bosses too. Now if that were only the norm instead of the exception.
I have learned that the people I most enjoyed working with are those that are secure enough in their talents that they don’t need huge egos to bolster them. And yes, those are few and far between.
How fortunate to have had such a mentor.
Right. But he went beyond mentoring and into sponsorship. And that is what truly makes the difference for most women and minorities.
I think those men are far & few between these days. You were lucky to have him. 👍
I sure was!
What a wonderful tribute to a man who I’m sure many women would wish to have in their corner. I had a director like that too and I consider myself extremely lucky 😊
I’m so glad to hear that! I love hearing about leaders who don’t see gender or color, just ability and talent . . .
It is great to have someone like that in your life Krsitine, an anchor when all else seems to be a temporary cubicle. And especially as you were starting out, no interference just the beauty of honesty to build from as you go through life.
He most certainly is still here, as your posts always tell ❤️
You pegged it, Mark! I didn’t realize how rare he was precisely because I was just starting out. But I was so very lucky to have such a supportive relationship and I learned so much so fast.