Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Lives We Touch

Do you have someone who in the course of your life influenced you in some significant way?
I've been thinking about this because of a note I recently received from a former boss, one of those people who believed in me when I was still learning to believe in myself. I went to work for him when I was around 30. He was about the same age as my parents back then, not too far from the age I am now. It of course seemed much older then.

I had left a career running nonprofits, shifted from social work to finance and as a newly minted MBA begun a career as a commercial lender. I had grown up in a time where many my age considered business slightly suspect and now I was entering that world with some trepidation. I remember feeling as if I were masquerading. There I was surrounded by all these conservative bankers in their grey suits. "This is so not me," I thought. I kept my head down, sure I couldn't let them see the real me lest I jeopardize my job.

At the same time I looked around at coworkers who had gone from business school straight into banking and wondered if I had made a career mistake in creating and running nonprofit organizations in my 20s. As much as I had enjoyed the work, perhaps I'd missed valuable time building my business career and would never catch up. The corporate world didn't take the nonprofit world very seriously. Many thought of it as a retirement career with no appreciation of the challenges it presented. By contrast, working for a corporation felt easy to me compared to those years in nonprofits. All those resources at my fingertips and I didn't have to sweat over making payroll, piece of cake. All I had to do was keep my opinions to myself and try to fit in, that was the challenging part.

And then I went to work for Warren. Warren was a conservative banker. Our politics clearly differed. He had spent his career in banking. I could easily have swept him into the stereotypes I carried in my head about this foreign environment...except for the fact that I got to know him. I have always found that men who had daughters and were married to strong women were more supportive of women in the workplace. They had to be. Just as they wanted a life full of opportunity for their daughter, they saw their daughter in the young women who worked for them. Warren had both a talented daughter and a thoughtful, intelligent wife and fully supported the young women who worked for him.

This was a time when a woman working as a banker on a national level usually found herself to be the only woman in the room. I felt conspicuous and different by gender, politics and values. I used to go into the bank's big conference room to present to credit committee, all men of course. I would sit down in a chair facing the committee, all of them lined up on the other side of the table waiting to pounce with the one question I hadn't contemplated. I would sink in wondering if they had cranked my chair lower, feeling a bit like Lily Tomlin's Edith Ann, a little girl in a big chair. Often I contemplated throwing a phone book on the seat first. Having read that it was important to take up physical space, I would spread my papers out on the table.

It was an intimidating place and not an environment that made a young woman feel particularly welcome. Especially one like me.

I was fortunate to land in the oasis run by Warren. He was in the final leg of his career and was in a senior position, but without illusions about further rises up the corporate ladder. I remember one time Warren joined me in the credit committee to speak on behalf of a loan. "I'll stake my career on it," he'd said. "What's left of it," he'd added with a wry chuckle.

He buffered the people who worked for him from corporate politics and created a safe place where I could be myself. He was an authentic person and in being so, he allowed those around him to be also. He came from an earlier time when people worked for one company their entire life. Tall and lean, I picture him packing up at the end of the day, reaching for his hat and briefcase, part of the ensemble of men of his era. No computers sat on desks until some time later and he never crossed over to that world.
He was a bit of a dad to me, accepting and encouraging. He supported me and gave me opportunities to grow, seeing potential in me that I didn't always recognize myself. And he gave me practical advice that later paid off. Max out the 401k contribution, save your money and invest. And most importantly he advised "You have to manage your own career." When I decided it was time to leave before he retired, he coached me on negotiating for my new job.

Several career steps later, I had caught up on that career growth I was so worried about at 30. Now I was managing other people and dispensing my own advice, especially to young women who I cautioned not to sit around waiting to be recognized for their good work. They could find themselves waiting a long time. While I would share their talents with others, they couldn't count on that happening in the broader workplace. They needed to make sure to let others see their accomplishments and talents and to actively seek out opportunities. Basically it was a female perspective on "you have to manage your own career." I too had the special opportunity to recognize and develop talent and to watch it bloom.

When I left my career in finance, I did my first solo art show. This was now almost 15 years after I last worked for Warren. I sent him an invitation and he came to the show with his daughter. Each wrote a lovely note, obviously a family talent. Warren wrote of watching me blossom, of his pride in me for managing my career and being brave enough to venture into new areas filled with unknowns. In fact I soon found that my skills from running nonprofits in my 20s were quite applicable to the project management I now engaged in as an artist. I knew how to figure things out and I was energized by those very unknowns.

So now I've been reinventing my life for eight years and I got an email from the gallery where I had exhibited at my start. Warren was trying to reach me. Now I'm not hard to find on the Internet, but that wasn't part of his world so he tried the personal approach that is so much a part of who he is. His wife had run across some old letters they had kept, among them the note I had written him almost twenty five years ago when I left. Touched he reached out once again. "What did I say? " I thought. Probably much of what I've written here, but from an earlier perspective. There are people who touch your life without even realizing it. And we in turn touch other lives as well, each on both sides of that equation. Looking back from the age Warren once was, I have a different appreciation for the messages and values that he shared. It is not just about managing your career, but shaping your life.

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