While the world, me included, can sometimes appear obsessed with criticizing the workplace conduct of Millennials, I recently sat down with my very first real-world boss, Karen Richards and my very first real-world secretary, Julia Ann Poore to chat about my personal effectiveness as a 22-year-old new college graduate and novice sales person in 1985.
What’s really changed insofar as integrating younger, less-experienced employees into the workplace?
What’s more: who among my generation has the courage to look into the mirror of their past and face the reality of themselves as a professional neophyte?
My only request of Karen and Julie: don’t hold back. As you will see, they certainly did not.
Randall Kenneth Jones: Ladies, so good to see you again. It’s been almost 25 years since our days together working in recruitment advertising in Washington, DC.
Julia Ann Poore: Let’s get this straight from the get-go. I was never your secretary.
Karen Richards: Oh yes, you’d tell everyone Julie was your secretary. You were in sales but she was our account manager. As a recent female college graduate herself, Julie obviously didn’t take kindly to that.
KR: Randy, you have to admit, you had this need to appear more important than you really were. I must have heard Julie say “I’m not your damn secretary” a thousand times. Once, when she heard you tell someone, “If I’m not here, just leave a message with my secretary, Julie,” I had to protect you from bodily harm.
JAP: Has Mad Men taught you nothing?
RKJ: Clearly, Gen Y doesn’t seem to have the market cornered on self-absorbed office behavior: Generation Jones was known to misstep occasionally too.
JAP: And now you’re naming our generation after yourself?
KR: (whispers) Julie, we really are referred to as “Generation Jones.”
JAP: Never mind.
RKJ: Karen, as my first real boss, do you remember your first impression of me?
KR: You could talk a blue streak and you made me laugh. I had been interviewing a ton of applicants and I was relieved to have finally found someone who was clean and had nice teeth.
RKJ: Do you remember anything that concerned you in hiring me?
KR: Your cheesy 80’s mustache.
RKJ: If you recall, my major work experience, at the time, was performing singing telegrams in Columbia, Missouri.
KR: Yes, but I was glad you had something to fall back on in case sales didn’t work out.
JAP: And before you feel compelled to share the story again, we still remember that you did a singing telegram in college for Pat Benatar.
RKJ: Karen, though working for you was my first “real job,” how would you rate my maturity level in a business setting?
KR: In the beginning, our office was quite small – you, me and Julie. It was evident early on that you weren’t the Alpha but constantly seeking attention from anyone who would give it to you.
RKJ: Did you feel I respected you as my boss?
KR: I think you pretty much feared me. One of you equated me to “The Wicked Witch of the West” and posted pictures of a basket and a dog on my office door. If the dog was next to the basket it was safe to enter my office. If, on the other hand, the dog was in the basket you’d better run and hide.
RKJ: For the record, it was Julie who started that.
JAP: Geesh! Say what you want about Gen Y throwing everyone else under the bus. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the original bus thrower, Randall Kenneth Jones. Some things never change.
RKJ: (Staring at Julie) Karen, did I play well with others?
KR: Before people start to think you and Julie were adversaries, nothing could be further from the truth. Sometimes I’d have to put you and Julie on a time out. You spent a lot of time together in that small office and ended up being more like siblings than co-workers. You guys did have lots of fun together. The Elevator Races were a personal favorite. However, as our staff grew, I could see you were getting restless. You had too many people to compete with for attention.
RKJ: Well, as I never won an elevator race, I still say Julie cheated.
JAP: Oh yes, because I had an “in” with building maintenance to make sure the elevator I happened to be in always went faster than all the others. You are so stupid!
RKJ: Though I hesitate to ask this, what did I do that made you nuts?
Julie’s head is now about to explode off her shoulders.
KR: What didn’t you do that made me nuts? I remember client meetings where you would be making all kinds of promises we had no way to honor and I’d be kicking you under the table. You were definitely a people pleaser. And you could be a little dramatic when I confronted you about an issue. You didn’t handle deadline days very well. You were a lot like Prissy from Gone with the Wind, “I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout…” fill in the blank.
RKJ: So did you ever…
KR: Hold on. I’m not finished.
JAP: Let the woman speak.
KR: You would also prance around the office in your cheesy JCPenney blue pin-striped suit your mother sent you from Missouri, constantly pulling the vest down because the suit was at least one size too small and you refused to acknowledge it.
RKJ: Okay, keep going. I can take it.
Thinking to myself: just keep breathing and smiling; breathing and smiling. This was my idea. I can do this.
KR: I remember one incident although I don’t recall what made me angry. I was on the phone with some important call and you came into my office with some crazy need. I picked up a box of paper clips and threw them at you.
RKJ: In today’s workplace, the flinging of office products at an employee as a reprimand would not be acceptable behavior.
KR: It was the 80s. Small office. No Witnesses.
RKJ: I still have an innate fear of paper clips, just so you know.
KR: Then I did my job well.
RKJ: Did you feel I appreciated my position with the company?
KR: You should have. Most mornings we would sit around drinking coffee and rehashing the sitcoms from the night before. Designing Women and Murphy Brown were the favorites.
The performances begin.
JAP: (as Murphy Brown): I can’t take ANYTHING you say seriously with that stupid accent. You sound like you should be “plottink beeg trabble for moose and skvirrel!”
RKJ: (as Suzanne Sugarbaker): I got pulled over this morning for having all the mirrors in the Mercedes turned so I could see myself.
For several minutes, the interview devolves into a spirited discussion of 80s situation comedies, music, fashion and movies.
RKJ: Getting back on track. Though this question now seems redundant, any horror stories?
Shockingly, Karen continues without the slightest hesitation.
KR: The snow storm when the DC Beltway was closed and Julie and I spent the night at the hotel across the street? You left when the first snowflake fell and left us to deal with getting ads into the newspaper for your clients.
RKJ: So you admit I sold actual client business then.
KR: Yes but, for example, you also acted like you owned the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation after that contract was signed.
RKJ: Okey Dokey. So…what did I think I was good at that I was not good at?
Julie stands, raises her hand, and proceeds to jump up and down.
JAP: Pick me! Pick me!
RKJ: Julie, do you wish to comment?
JAP: Writing ad copy. First, you put the word “that” in every sentence. I remember saying things like, “Randy, just how long do you think a sentence needs to be?” and “Perhaps a punctuation mark or two would help.” You wrote like you talked: meandering to the point we often never got your point.
Another pause. More deep breathing.
RKJ: So, are you surprised by my career path?
KR: Not at all. You had a special talent for marketing and talking about yourself.
JAP: You certainly write much better now. I’ll take some credit for that.
RKJ: And KAREN, as my first boss, what do you think YOU taught me?
KR:That’s easy. If the dog’s in the basket, you’d better watch out!
Yes, it was a different time but was I so different from the youth of today—the omniscient Millennials? Didn’t we seek approval? Didn’t wish to be validated? On some fundamental level, didn’t we feel somewhat entitled to be heard and respected? After all, weren’t we hired to provide “value” to our organizations and didn’t we want to be recognized for that value?
After all, for better or for worse, doesn’t success in business involve a very careful balancing act of selflessness and selfishness; of ego and assent?
Furthermore, do these needs really change all that much as we get older? Isn’t it really about how we are taught, and learn through somewhat painful trial and error, to manage these expectations as we grow professionally?
Of course, those were the days before the majority of our workday was ruled by Outlook calendars, Smart Phones and managing out-of-control email in-boxes. The time earmarked today for email hygiene alone, in bygone years, was often spent bonding with co-workers: understanding and, more importantly, supporting each other’s goals, strengths and even weaknesses. We learned to function as a stronger team through face-to-face communication. And, in the case of me, Karen and Julie, if it is not obvious, we cared about each other because we understood each other.
Karen Richards, though only five years my senior, was the very best “first boss” I could ever hope to have. As a lifetime sales professional, it was Karen who took the time to carefully guide my professional baby steps. Karen invested herself in getting to know me—so much so she clearly recognizes what makes me tick even today.
Furthermore, Karen knew what I needed and what I needed to hear in order to be successful. She listened. She led. She laughed. And when absolutely necessary, she pelted me with office products.
I adore her.
There is also no question (that) I would not be a writer today without Julia Ann Poore. Though it could be argued (that) I was gifted with ideas and creativity, I certainly did not possess Julie’s talent for editing, grammar and clarity. The real gift was the time (that) Julie spent sharing this inestimable skill with me.
Not only one of the funniest people on the planet, it also has to be said, Julia Ann Poore was the best secretary I ever had.
However, the big difference between then and now: Karen, Julie and I clearly loved each other. How many of today’s workplace neophytes will be able to look back in 25 years and make that claim? What’s more, how many are taking the time to develop professional relationships that will guide their present and cement their future?
As for me, I am still occasionally known to talk about myself and I still seek everyone’s approval. What’s more, I am clean and I have nice teeth.
Marketing guru, business humorist, professional-courtesy advocate, branded-content writer, creative-development consultant, and entertaining motivational speaker Randall Kenneth Jones is the creator of RediscoverCourtesy.org and the president of MindZoo, a marketing communications firm in Naples, Florida.