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.