My Best Mistake: Taking Someone’s Word on Taking a Job

In the spirit of this series on LinkedIn, I offer you a tale of a five month hiatus from the family business I worked in when I was younger.

For years, a marketing professor who had acted as sort of a mentor to me when I was in school had been encouraging me to apply at a business in the telecom industry where he’d done some consulting work. He told me:

  • the owner had a very hands-on management style (that certainly proved to be true).
  • they valued individuality.
  • they were looking for people who could produce long-term results.

The job was to work on the telephone and e-mail about three weeks per month, and travel all over the country at least one week – increasing volume at existing customers and prospecting for new ones. After an extensive series of interviews, including one with the owner himself, I was hired. The rigorousness of the hiring process, along with the persona recommendation of a friend, made me feel that the job would definitely be a good fit.

During the month(!) I was in training, I began to get acquainted with my fellow salespeople. I noticed that about every week, someone left. There was also an undercurrent of discussion about “the big shakeup” that had occurred about six months prior. The old man of the department had worked there for about a year and a half, and was the only member of the department that had survived. Not all of us in training completed; of the group of four people who were training to join about ten people in sales, one or two of us left during that month.

I probably had a chance to go back to the job that I’d left in the family business. Since that’s what I did in fact do, except a few months later, I’d say that was a near certainty. But pride and a desire to move forward, not backwards, led to a thick haze of denial. I hadn’t seen the signs in the interview process; I sure wasn’t going to see them now.

Once I became a full-fledged account executive, I began to attend the daily meetings at nine a.m.. If you’ve worked in sales, especially back when telephone contact with prospects was far more important than it is now, the idea of a daily sales meeting at nine a.m. should give you another clue what kind of trouble I was in. In the daily meetings, the boss took the best hour of our day to rant about how the team wasn’t putting in enough time on the telephone.

In what was to eventually be recognized as a trend, the boss had asked a certain marketing professor whom he’d gotten consulting services from (guess who!) how much time a successful sales representative spent on the phone. I knew the approximate answer myself, having seen it in the same fundamentals of selling textbook myself: about 3-4 hours a day. As self-reported in a survey. Probably at least loosely defined as “the amount of a day spent in the activity of making phone calls to customers.”

Not 10,800 seconds of connect time every day from the representative’s desk phone to the Nortel system controlling it, which is how the boss defined it.

None of us were making this number, so we were all losers. His first response was to banish people who didn’t make their number on the previous day from attending the sales meeting. That might have seemed like a win-win, but because of the implied consequences of continuing to fail to make this benchmark, some of us began to meet his quota.

I only made it once. That was a day I came in at 7 a.m. and talked on the phone to people until my throat hurt, until 7 p.m. But then, I wasn’t one of the ones who were connecting their desk set to a teleconferencing bridge to rack up minutes.

The boss finally caught on, and punished one of the three people who’d been caught by accepting her resignation, and another by promoting her to finance, a department which was run by a different senior manager of the company who tended to treat people better.

The survey we were asked to fill out on each and every one of the companies in our part of the database, including several who weren’t using our services or had quit using our services, was based on some marketing acronym that came out of another 300-level textbook. Perhaps it was SLIP-IN, or PAR, or one of the other miracles of ingenuity that have come along over the decades since Zig Ziglar, God rest his soul, sold his first used car.

That last paragraph may sound a little wrong, so let me clarify: I believe in marketing and sales. It will always be part of what I do. But the boss neither liked nor understood it; the entire function was a necessary evil brought on by the fact that his little company had gone beyond a scale where he could ride around and do all the deals himself. And because he had no vision for how to communicate that entrepreneurial spirit to any of us, he turned to a supposed expert who gave half-baked advice, and he didn’t chew it before he swallowed it.

I got fired, predictably enough, at the five month mark. It was January 5. I had succeeded neither at making the phone time nor in getting 100% of the people I called to complete a survey for me. All I had done was grow my account base by about 15% (well, not counting the major account that I was given account responsibility for but told not to call. That was the counterweight to make sure I didn’t get any growth bonuses).

What I said to my supervisor, who is a very nice guy (and who made it one whole year himself), despite being unemployed and $8,000 further in debt than when I’d started: “I’m glad it’s over.”

His response: “I thought you would be.”

What made this my best mistake? What did I learn?

  • Investigate any company you’re going to work for. Even if you’re desperate for a job. Even if a mentor or friend is telling you it’s a great gig. Find out what people are really saying. With the tools we have today like LinkedIn and Glassdoor, there’s no excuse not to.
  • Never ignore the red flags. All along there were signs, starting with my “mentor’s” pushiness for me to consider the position, the mega-maniacal monologues by the owner during the job interviews, and while it would have been a little late, the revolving door bringing co-workers in and, just as suddenly, out (see my last point; even back then, a few calls to people I knew at the time would have revealed the 200% turnover rate).
  • Never work for someone who doesn’t like or trust what you do – your function in the company. This can be hard to suss out from the outside looking in, which is why research is so important. But I believe that by listening carefully to those “red flag” comments, you can. Most managers and owners have blind spots about certain functions in a company. Too many statements like “It’s a necessary evil,” or “I guess we have to do that stuff,” or “I’d hate to be the one handling that” need careful interpretation. Leaders recognize that they’re not as gifted in one area or another and find people they trust to handle those areas. Bad managers try to find shortcuts to understanding and will always be suspicious of the path you’re trying to take.

A few years later, I was given my first opportunities to lead others at work. In those first few months, I had a simple way of getting through the challenges: I thought of what my former boss would do.

And then I did the opposite.

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