My parents were sitting high up in the stadium seats as were my sisters. Mom had the camera.
When the ceremony was over, they came down onto the field; hugged and congratulated me. I had graduated a bachelor’s degree in business with a minor in law. It sounded substantial – like it had meat to it, but I hadn’t a job lined up yet. I was about to enter the market.
Later, when mom had the pictures developed (yeah--we used to have to wait for pictures, kids) the perspective from the stadium seats had an impact on me. There was this sea of black-robed kids down on the field--each of them needing a job. It occurred to me that across the country that month, there were hundreds of other universities graduating stadiums worth of kids, too; all of us needing jobs.
How would I set myself apart?
What would make me more viable for some future opportunity than the other guy?
How could I develop a fair advantage?
I mean we all basically did the same thing; went to school, got decent grades, joined clubs and activities that testified to our real interest in the given trade, our resumes were in the right style, our wing-tip shoes were shined brightly, etc.
What could I offer an employer that would make it clear that I was the very best choice?
I began to listen to other success stories; people who had gotten that first offer. What had they done? Joe arrived a half hour early. They liked his punctuality. Fletcher spoke very little. They thought he was brilliant and pensive. Todd had worn a blue pin-stripe suit. They thought he was very professional.
So I got my first interview scheduled. I wore the blue pinstripe. I arrived early. I spoke very little. Turns out I was so early that I had preceded the lady who typically opens the office up. When I bragged to my interviewer that I was so punctual I’d been waiting outside before the staff even got there, the supervisor realized the lady that should have been there was late. The only reason anyone knew it was because I was so early. To cover for her, I began to back-peddle like crazy; so much for being quiet and pensive. Needless to say that first offer letter never came from that place. They practically threw me out of there.
Undaunted, I went to interviews 2, 3, and 4 with the same M-O and the same results. Then on the 5 th interview I’d applied at a place where the job was a level or two below where I felt my skill sets were at the time. I arrived on time and struck up a good conversation with the front desk person. I wasn’t really pressing for the job because I didn’t see it as much of an opportunity. I just wanted to get hired somewhere but again, I wasn’t desperate. My banter with the front desk turned into a recommendation because when my interviewer came out into the lobby to get me, the introduction she made included, “Hey Larry, your first interviewee is here--this kid’s a keeper--nice young man.”
I got that job and moved quickly and sure-footedly through the ranks.
My “tricks” were humility, good nature, and sincerity. In short--the job worked out because I was just trusting that being myself was best. Over the years, no single tip or bit of advice was as important as that reminder. Be yourself.
Now--does that mean you should act like the worst of yourself? No. Speaking fractured English like you are on the “Roseanne” show and belching loudly while saying, “How’d ya like that one, boss?” is not what I mean. You need to be yourself but make it your “best-behavior-self.”
Years have passed and I have seen moments where being myself didn’t always pay off. Now and then had I been a bit more formal in some settings and a bit less formal in others it would have suited my agenda a little better but then I noticed this. The places that I might have faked my way through it by NOT being myself might have worked out in the moment but would have eventually come back to haunt me. See even when you try not to be yourself, the little voice inside finds a way to push itself out.
I recall pretending I wasn’t in the room when someone I was working with was doing something he shouldn’t have done. I didn’t want to “rat” on him but I didn’t feel right about him getting away with it either. When he was found out and I was asked what I had observed I lied and said I hadn’t seen anything. The supervisor said nothing but came back to me a day later and said, “You were on the clock on that shift. The bathrooms were being cleaned at that hour so you couldn’t have been in there. If you left the building you would have had to clock out and you didn’t. So clearly you were somewhere other than where you were supposed to be.”
“No,” I said shamefully. “I was here.” He nodded, knowing I’d seen everything, and I could see he would never fully trust me again. I knew I’d “lost points” but rationalized that I was in an impossible situation albeit that I handled it poorly. It was hard to “be myself” because I was so out of my element. But no matter what excuse I came up with the voice inside said I was an employee of the company and the fact was if I saw someone doing something they shouldn’t have been doing, I owed it to the people that were paying me to let them know.
I wrestled with this dilemma for a few sleepless nights and then I made an appointment to talk to the supervisor. The employee that had violated the rules had already been let go. As I began my discussion with the supervisor I started to realize they were considering letting me go too. After all, I’d sided with the offender and not with the company.
The supervisor was a good man. To this day I have a mentor/student relationship with him. He told me directly that he was saddened to hear the excuses I had made but he was glad to see it was eating me up. My discomfort since the incident was clear to him. He cited my youth and inexperience and said he felt I had the kind of conscience that would take this lesson to heart and react differently the next time. I thanked him and left his office humbled, grateful and smarter. That night as I ate my TV dinner in my little one-room efficiency apartment, I asked myself if I really could do it differently the next time. Could I basically throw a fellow employee “under the bus” if I saw improper behavior? Yeah, it was the right thing to do, but it was so hard to do.
I didn’t have to wait long to test my mettle.
It was about 6 months later. I’d moved on to another company as the previous job began to stagnate. I was in charge of the petty cash drawer at the new job and the company was a small one. Things ran rather informally and the petty cash drawer previously hadn’t been “kept.” The boss merely looked in once in awhile and when it was low, he added a couple twenties, tens, fives and singles. Well within the first week I could see that everyone had their hand in that drawer; cup of coffee here, some compensated gas mileage there, all that had been needed was a note dropped in the box saying what had been taken. Over time, the vouchers had become so vague no one could be called out on anything. Instead of saying “Gasoline compensation for job at 1470 Fair Street,” the note would just read, $20 – gas.” Since everyone needed a little reminder to be more specific, I put out a general memo about a new procedure for petty cash. Everyone seemed to understand but one guy reacted differently; it seemed he took great offense. He was an employee that had been there for decades and dropped the crumpled up memo on my desk saying, “we USED to trust each other around here.”
Time passed and as I changed a few other accounting processes the firm started to show a marginal increase in profit. Clearly the tightening of procedures was proving that someone had had their hand in the cookie jar for some time. The savings was enough for me to suggest to the boss that he could take the staff to lunch for the Christmas holiday and afford a $50 gift certificate for each. He was elated and thanked me at the lunch in front of everyone for making such an impact.
On December 26 th of that year I volunteered to work since it was a Friday and everyone had asked for the day off to make it an extended weekend. I was the only single guy without a family and didn’t mind. I got a lot done when the place was empty anyway. Around noon, I sat at my desk eating a sandwich and listening to the radio and the guy who I’d been suspecting all along came in to do some catch-up work. I saw his office light go on down the hall and I sat there thinking about the lessons from the old job. How I’d turned my head the other way when I knew something was wrong. Could I tell the boss that his oldest friend, his greatest ally was clearly the guy who’d been ripping him off for years? I’d been given a second chance once but now here I was again.
Who am I, really?
I stood in the doorway of his office. The hall behind me was dark. The whole building was empty except for the two of us. He looked up and said, “Merry Christmas.” I wished him the same. And then I simply said, “I know you’ve been ripping this place off for years. And I know you hate me for being the one that figured it out. But next week you need to come clean with the boss or I will.” He sat there stunned. I was absolutely quaking inside. I turned around and went back to my desk. I heard him shuffle some papers and turn off his light and leave the building without a word.
When I got to the office on Monday the boss was in the office with the door closed. I knew who was in there with him. Eventually I heard the door open and the boss’s old friend went to his office got his coat and went to his car and left.
I was asked to come in next. I sat before the desk of the man who signed the checks and he began to explain to me that he’d known all along that he’d been getting ripped off by his old friend. He told me the story of how they’d started together in the business as partners but over time his life had gotten better and his partner had had nothing but bad breaks. A costly divorce, a problematic son, personal bankruptcy, car repos - all had collectively taken a toll on the guy. He’d sold his half of the business to the boss years ago. Mercifully, I was told, the boss let him take a few bucks here and there and deliberately turned his head the other way. From now on, he wanted me to do the same. The boss had given him a week off with pay to think things over but didn’t expect his behavior would change much. My new systems limited what he could “take” but if he did do so now and then I was to look away as well. The boss finished by telling me I should have come to him first.
I sat there quietly thinking I was in a “no-win” situation. Months ago I’d learned not to let things go by without taking action. In a situation where I should have spoken up, I hadn’t. In a new situation where I’d chosen to handle it my way, giving the offender the chance to come clean on his own, there had been things I didn’t know that put me in the wrong place again. This one made it appear that I should have found a way to bring it up to the boss so as to get my facts straight.
That became the only sentence that got me through these situations because in the 30 years that have passed since that graduation day similar experiences have popped up many times. Each of those times had different circumstances, different relationships that could be violated, different protocols that would have had different impacts on different situations. The only answer was that there was no “set” answer. It would require judgment and intrinsic reflection with each and every new event. And therein lay the answer to the original questions.
How would I set myself apart? What would make me different?
Utilizing a combination of being myself and telling the truth.
Maybe not always telling that truth the same way but getting that message across so the truth is exposed. My commitment to this simple realization has served me well for three decades.
Ron Ciancutti is the Director of Procurement for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.