LIFE IS LIVED IN EPISODES AND STAGES
In just over two months’ time, I was going to start my dream job: translator at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France. Then chance or fate intervened.
Six months earlier, my first serious position after college as a translator-interpreter and small-projects manager in the Paris office of a Swedish company had ended abruptly when the office was closed during one of those periodic tough economic times that leads to downsizing. I had worked there more than a year and was given a bit of severance pay. Quite a bonanza for a girl in her twenties. And it got better.
I needed a job, of course, and that led me to set my sights on the Council of Europe, which for young and innocent moi was the ultimate employer on my radar screen. I aced the qualifying exam and was offered a position as a translator starting the next session, in the fall. So, in the meantime, I used my severance pay to travel to America and Greece and on the spur of the moment took a last minute discounted American Express weekend trip to Istanbul.
On a bus from the airport to the hotel there, a handsome fellow with longish curly hair, blue eyes, and a deep tan said to me in French, "Vous êtes très intelligente de voyager avec un p’tit sac…." (You are very smart to travel so light).
I always travel light, but in this case it was because I had left my suitcase back in Athens.
I figured he was Turkish. He wasn’t.
He was an American from New York who had seen the same discounted trip from Athens to Istanbul.
He became my companion for the next few days, and then for another few days back in Athens, and then for another few days, and then I was hopelessly in love.
We wanted to continue our relationship, but he had to return to America, where he was completing his Ph.D. I went back to France. For the next weeks I faced what turned out to be the most important decision of my life. A classic: the job, the man, the city, the country? Familiar with it? The country, the city, the man, the job. The man or the job…the job or the man?
Forget all my previous planning and dreaming, I chose the man and New York, my husband and home now for more than thirty years. I never took up my early dream of working at the Council of Europe.
So much for planning, in business or in life. Lesson learned. Things happen. Opportunities are often unpredictable.
Life is lived in episodes and stages. Episodes because they are roughly self-contained and somewhat arbitrary, at least as they relate to time and place. Stages because they evolve out of one another and are linear and in many cases inevitable, like adolescence or one’s first professional position. Business, too, is lived in episodes and stages, and it has a sometimes cruel way of disarming our passions and shrugging off some of our most prized abilities as commonplace or irrelevant.
PURSUING ONE’S GIFTS
One stage in my life began when I was a teenager in Eastern France and discovered a passion for languages — my native French, increasingly important English, and old-world German, then the preeminent first language in Europe (though no one outside Germany wanted to admit it). When we are good at something — and I was very good at the study of languages — aren’t we proud and motivated to pursue it and encouraged to do so by others? Sure. People who are good at music, dance, or athletics, for instance, fill their early years pursuing their gifts and pleasures, perhaps even becoming world-class performers or nearly so, and some even turn professional. But generally not for long.
My interest in language and culture led me to become a high school exchange student outside Boston, then a college student in Paris, and eventually helped bring me to America to be with my soon-to-be husband, Edward, where I worked in the proverbial fields. Early on I was a translator, including for the UN, then, following my passion, I toiled in the lowest of the low positions at the New York office of Food and Wine from France. Then I moved on to a New York PR-advertising firm where I leveraged my French heritage and a bit of knowledge to become a director of the Champagne Bureau, a trade organization and U.S. division of the CIVC (Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne), promoting the entire Champagne industry. That’s when — college internships and entry-level jobs included — I truly learned business and benefited from the fatherly teachings of the American owner of the agency.
It seemed like a risk to me to take that first professional job in PR. As I’ve noted, I had no training. I feared I would be unemployed in no time. Even sitting in my own office on Fifth Avenue with a secretary outside my door — Fifth Avenue in New York City! — gave me the willies at first. But then I discovered something about myself and about overcoming fears and anxieties.
Maybe you, like me, can remember walking into your first real job or a new position after a promotion and wondering whether you could live up to your employer’s expectations, whatever those were. For me, it turned out that some of my first tasks would involve public speaking and giving radio interviews, activities that rank right up there among people’s most common dreads and anxieties. I’d not connected being on the radio with the job before and had never imagined doing it. But my boss explained that I had an opportunity at hand and that handling the media was a responsibility that went with my new position.
Champagne is the traditional drink of New Year’s Eve, and a large percentage of annual consumption takes place from late November through January 1. Therefore, those are also the prime weeks for articles and interviews about Champagne. Over the years I have delivered the "how to open a bottle" talk countless times, usually during the last few days of December. Well, the first opportunity I ever had to give that little speech came my way just after I started this new job. I was told that I should pitch to radio stations the opportunity to conduct interviews about Champagne — and then I was to be the one interviewed, mostly live!
Let’s say (entre nous) I was "anxious" over the charge. I can still remember my hand feeling weak as I picked up the phone to call the first radio station and pitch them a story about Champagne. I needn’t have worried, they wouldn’t take my call anyway!
I found dusty old pitch letters in the file. Now, I could have just blown off the cobwebs and sent those out to the same people who had been ignoring them since Prohibition was lifted. But I realized I had an advantage: I had an authentic French accent that people in New York frequently told me they found charming. I needed to have the chance to speak directly with someone who could actually make a decision. Just as a job application letter is designed to get you an interview, the pitch letter needs to be designed to get read and remembered — and by the right person — in order to secure you a spot. (And there are oral versions of pitch letters, too, that need to be polished for use on the phone or in person.) Also, I had to recognize that lots of pitches get tossed out unread (Don’t we now do that constantly with emails?). So, first I called to get the name of the current booking manager. That proved to be extremely important. (Never misspell a name or send a letter to someone no longer in a position.) Then I recast the pitch letters to that person, always adding a little distinctive French phrasing at the beginning of the letter. Then the real work began. Knowing in advance that the success rate would not be high, I called and called stations across the country. Then I called some more.
Sometimes people were busy or simply did not want to speak with me (part of the skill set for selling is the ability to accept rejection). Sometimes I got lucky, and people remembered me from the pitch letter. Sometimes I got very lucky and they called me after they got the pitch letter (obviously, in those cases my pitch aligned perfectly with helping them do their job and fill their slots). But mostly I called and called. When I did get through and spoke with a decision maker, including a preliminary one, I enjoyed remarkable success. "Oh, is that a French accent?" That’s when I knew I had them and that I had a good voice for radio. We’d talk over the phone about whatever they wanted — from information about their trip to Paris to my recommendations for a French restaurant in New York. As we laughed and built a connection — a key element in successful business — interview after interview got scheduled. And with each interview that took place — from sixty-second spots to sixty-minute programs with call-ins — I not only overcame my fears but discovered that I enjoyed being interviewed and had a talent for it. I learned the importance of doing more than is expected and that there are lots of good ideas in business, but execution is what matters. And you can be most effective when you align your special talents to the task at hand. (What is it you have that your predecessors didn’t or your colleagues don’t? Perhaps just a better work ethic or simply a distinctive and attractive accent.) Plus there are new approaches to good, old ideas, like the ones I managed to find with the pitch letters. To the astonishment of my boss, I did fifty-three interviews that first season, compared with three the previous one. It was a year’s worth of results in a few weeks, and it built my business confidence enormously. And it helped build a stage in my life and career. C’était le bon temps.
I could still be doing that today — promoting Champagne across America — what a great job. I progressed quickly to the head of the line to take over the PR firm with its various accounts when the owner retired, but instead I took a chance and moved down one of those roads less traveled, and it made all the difference. So, life and careers are lived in episodes and stages, but taking some calculated chances (read: risks) also makes all the difference. And you cannot always time your opportunities. Controlling one’s fears and anxieties by not letting them dictate premature decisions is part of a solid professional skill set. And especially in tough economic times, fear has the tendency to try to pull us by the nose, something that’s hard to fight, but being aware of it helps.
STARTING OUT WITHOUT PISTON
Gaining my career-launching position at the Champagne Bureau in New York was a combination of luck and skill. Certainly it was a case of being in the right place at the right time. But it did not come through any networking or connections. In France and elsewhere, having some "pull" often gets you that first or second job. In French it is called piston, and I did not have any…something I was painfully aware of when I walked the streets of Paris and then New York searching for a suitable position. No father or uncle, sister or brother to make a call to a colleague for me. In America, meritocracy, college placement offices, and sometimes a mentoring professor-advisor play a larger role than in Europe in helping one get started professionally. Not that networking and some personal pull are not useful, especially as one advances, but in America you can get an interview largely on your own.
In France, it is still much more of a club atmosphere, and I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve been asked by someone in France to help a friend or colleague’s son or daughter, niece or nephew to get a job or internship in New York. I generally do everything I can to help, remembering what it was like to be young and full of dreams as well as confusion and sometimes even hopelessness at that stage in life. I did not always like it when the young aspirant was connected to a top LVMH executive, because then the cultural expectation was that you’d create a position if you did not already have one with his or her name divinely affixed to it, yet that is the way of the world. Still, it is easy to understand parents and relatives who want to do everything they can to help their family members.
I was reminded of how tough it can be to get ahead without a little coaching and piston when I met Maria, a European in her late twenties, who was stuck in her entry-level position, living in a faded third-tier European city, and desperate to move to a new stage in life. (Remember that just because you are stuck in a stage now does not mean you cannot move out of it…preferably sooner, but it might have to be later.) Her world reminded me of the old European style and customs that I had known but had become distanced from while living in the electricity and culture of New York.
MARIA’S NEXT STAGE
Maria is a tall, attractive woman gifted in both science and languages. A top student, she earned a master’s degree in biology and took a job at a not-for-profit cancer research center in a small city an hour and a half from where her parents live. And there she stayed in a poorly paid job for two, three, four years, and then into a fifth year. She was more than poised for the next stage in her personal and professional life, but she could not see her way out. Her boss was awful, her work no longer a challenge, and she was chained to her cubicle, so she had little opportunity to explore jobs in another city. Plus, she had no money, less than no money. She had to count on help from her parents, who have modest means, to help her live extremely modestly. Not a pretty picture or rosy future. I am sure many people know or can relate to someone like Maria.
Our paths crossed when she was doing some freelance writing on health and nutrition and I was impressed by her knowledge and eventually by her personality, not to mention her ability to communicate in German, English, French, Italian, and Spanish. "I was so bored at work and at night, I would listen to and sing songs in those languages and read news and articles on the Internet to learn and improve my languages," she explained to me, as if it were nothing.
I met her in person for the first time in New York when a publishing company paid for her to come on the cheap for two days for a job interview. She was incredibly excited by this singular opportunity, but was quickly devastated with disappointment when a visa snafu shot down her dreams.
The episode and her situation moved me, so I told her to be patient and that I’d try to help her. I knew I could do that eventually but did not want to give her false hopes of a magic-wand solution. I invited her to spend some time with us in France, where I got to know her better and probed to find out what she really wanted to do. She started out saying she’d do anything, she was so desperate to get out of her job and city, where being single and young was a signal to get married or move.
Through many discussions of her likes, dislikes, passions and fears, talents, skills, and dreams, we narrowed down the realistic possibilities, starting with the fact that the job should be in Europe, where she could work with proper papers and also not be too far from her family. She likes publishing, but we kept the fields open and focused on positions where she could use her strong presentational and organizational skills to represent a company in management — coordinating a project or running a small department — or perhaps in marketing and public relations. We polished her résumé, which, because she’d had only one job, greatly underreported her skills, accomplishments, and what she could bring to an employer. We did an inventory of what she could take to a new company or field — from languages and communications skills to math, science, computer skills, and more — all things she had plenty of evidence to support. We reorganized her résumé with added sections to highlight her transferable skills and experiences with concrete data for what she had to offer, rather than just what she had done in the past in terms of schooling and job description. In short, we aligned her résumé to show she was qualified for a much higher and broader position than the one she was holding. It was the truth.
I told her it could take a year to find something worth accepting and to be patient. She had a little luxury of time; she wasn’t yet thirty. (Try telling that to someone aching to move on in life.) I introduced her to a few people and sent her résumé to a half-dozen others. She landed an interview with a Paris-based company, a global hospitality group that needed someone to join their PR and marketing team. (At her nonprofit foundation, she had written newsletters and helped schedule research conferences, so she had relevant, transferable experience…plus all those languages.) Perfect. That’s when I appreciated that I had to see her through this entire process, and reminded myself that mentoring isn’t only opening doors, it is also reaching back and pulling people through them.
Maria was scared and felt unprepared but of course excited for the interview, which kept getting moved between Paris and the Riviera to fit the schedule of the woman who was doing the hiring. The false starts certainly were tough emotionally on Maria. By phone and email from New York, I rehearsed her for the interview. She had very little interview experience, after all. I gave her a mock interview. We teased out the likely questions and rehearsed her answers. What are your strengths? Your weaknesses? What do you bring to this particular job? What interests you about this company and position? Are you willing to work long hours? Travel? Relocate? How is your previous experience relevant? The toughest proved what salary would be acceptable. Maria was ready to take almost anything offered, but I managed to convince her that anything less than twice what she was currently making would be insufficient to move to Paris and live independently though not lavishly. "Wait for the right job, Maria, you still have your old one," I droned on.
"How do I handle the salary question?" she wanted to know. "There are at least three options," I answered. "You can tell her what you are earning now and say nicely that you would not consider a move without an increase. You can tell her what you assume the position pays, thereby getting a number on the table. But I would not do either. In your case, regardless of how the question is posed, I would tell her the salary range that would enable you to move to and work from Paris. Don’t waste her time or yours."
A good researcher, she had already surfed the web effectively for all the latest information on the group and was prepared to ask a few informed questions of her own when the opportunity arose in the interview or when she was asked. Always anticipate being asked if you have any questions…and have some good ones ready. Before she set off for the interview, I gave her one more dose of advice I have often shared. When you are sitting in the interviewee’s chair, just relax and be yourself. You are who you are, and the safest thing is to show sides of your "regular" self. The person you are speaking with is doing you a favor. They are more qualified than you to know whether the person you present would fit well in their organization. If they choose you, congratulations, you not only win the job but their commitment to helping you succeed in the new position. That’s in the interests of both of you.
The interview went well. The woman said she would get back to her about the position, which would not begin for another six weeks. She never did get back to her. (Typiquement français!) Another emotional setback and another occasion when Maria needed someone with whom to talk through the situation. I give Maria a lot of credit for taking my advice to heart and not being defensive about needing help. It is important to be able to reach out for help when you need it.
A month or so later, another interview at another company where I had given her an initial contact materialized. This was for a better position, with clear further growth potential, and for a better company — a midsize, multinational family business with a name everyone knows. The woman she would be reporting to travels a lot in Europe and America, and it took a while to fix an interview, which turned out also to be in the South of France. (Hey, it was late summer and perhaps people were looking for excuses to go there.) Maria researched the corporation in preparation for the interview, and I counseled her that this position should pay three or four times what she was earning. "Don’t think of taking this for anything less than three times," I said. "They won’t respect you if you are willing to accept a cut-rate salary, and this company can easily afford to pay the going rate and more. Plus, you are a highly presentable woman with a master’s degree and five years of business experience, and are fluent in five languages." I think from her perspective the money was so much and she was so lacking in opportunities and confidence, she thought I was from a different universe. She needed to show confidence and not succumb to fear or negative thoughts. Being the person to pep her up and advise her was what I had signed on to do, and I was determined that she not sell herself short.
After a good first interview, two HR guys from the corporate office wanted to meet her in Madrid. That interview almost lost her the job for being overqualified, we learned later. I think they must have been intimidated by her education and intelligence. But they said they’d get back to her in a week. They did, and said they’d like her to meet someone else, a top person in Geneva. It seemed at this point they were considering adopting her into the family and the patron wanted to meet her, but he would not be available for a couple of weeks. By now, Maria’s head was spinning with possibilities and responsibilities. She was thinking about how to resign from her current position — "not till you have something in writing from the new employer," I counseled — and when and how to tell her landlord she’d be moving, et cetera, et cetera.
To bring this story to a close, she went to Geneva, got the job, screamed with joy, and was soon on a plane to the United States for a month’s training. The job in administration with plenty of hands-on important responsibilities (accompanied by an impressive salary) was so beyond what she was thinking just months earlier, she could hardly believe it was true. "They are sending a car to the airport to meet me and take me to an apartment they rented for me for the month," she told me via Internet phone from the airport on the way to America. It was such a fantasy, only her ecstatic mother, father, and grandmother knew about it. I suspect she was waiting for it to be her "real life" before telling her friends and relatives — for it to move from being an episode to a stage in life. Over the course of a few months and from a bleak situation, a dream became concrete. Life can be like that. It only takes some luck, some talent, some work, and perhaps a little help.
MY NEXT STAGE(S)
Yes, but with talent, hard work, and being in the right place you can help make your own luck. By my late twenties I had something of a vision of myself in some sort of management position that permitted me to eat at all the top restaurants on someone else’s dollar. C’est vrai. Thanks to my PR position at the Champagne Bureau, I had partly achieved my goal, and through my position I eventually met the heads of all the major Champagne houses (brands) imported to the United States, and at some point most tried to recruit me — therein is a lesson in both networking and patience.
When my "ultimate" came calling, the House of Veuve Clicquot (my mother’s favorite Champagne), I was ready. The opportunity to work for Clicquot based in New York promised me work in my chosen field, trips to my native France with the chance to see my parents, and, yes, hundreds of meals in top restaurants every year. So, I enlisted, against a lot of industry advice to the contrary — the strategy would not work, the brand was too far behind in America, the business model was not affordable (all from people who later ate their words in overdoses). I took the leap and became Veuve Clicquot’s first employee in a start-up venture in America. In retrospect, I wonder whether these men who were so free with their opinions and predictions were jealous, simply lacking vision, or arrogant in their confidence that if they could not make it work for their brand, I, as a less seasoned woman, would have no chance of success with Veuve Clicquot. Several of them subsequently lost their brands and went out of business. Yet Clicquot, Inc., the U.S. division of the company, grew into an import and marketing company with a couple of dozen brands from around the world, a top image and reputation, and quite handsome profits, profit margins, and financial turnover (plus eventually more employees and lives to worry about than is fun).
So, again, the lesson learned: don’t let fear be a barrier to your achieving your ambitions. Success, like failure, is relative, and out of a stage of modest professional achievements (failure is such a dramatic and generally inappropriate word), there is always the potential for upside. You can wake up one morning and find that your prospects and perspective have changed overnight. Sometimes it is simply that you are ready to enter a new stage in life and embrace new opportunities and challenges. You then need to go looking for opportunity. Or perhaps an opportunity comes to you and announces, "It’s time."
Not that I did not have apprehensions when I decided to make my career move, but I made a calculated decision. I saw how the company and brand could work — such quality, history, and competitive advantages waiting to be exploited — while others did not grasp them, and I embraced the challenge and responsibility to see that it did. Sure, I feared all the things that could go wrong, but if truth be told, the lure of a good challenge and the enticement of perks and a good salary can be the emollients that soothe fears and tip a decision. More important, in this case I could accept the personal risks involved, in part because I had some control over the outcome. Too often we become paralyzed by worry over the worst things that can happen. We lack confidence and security, panic over financial risk, get locked into careers and lifestyles that are not what we dreamed for ourselves or can achieve. Our passions get displaced and we become sad and even depressed. All because we were afraid to take a risk at a moment of opportunity.
Of course, there are risks that prove too risky, and not taking those are some of our best decisions, but those decisions shouldn’t be made because of fear but intelligence. The best decisions I made in terms of my personal and professional life were risky ones…from moving to America for the man, to (on a more modest level) doing the radio interviews, to signing on to a less-than-certain start-up, where I would stay (and thrive!) for more than two decades, including a long stint as CEO.
Women tend to be caregivers more than men and thus often have some of their "stages" and "episodes" circumscribed by marriage and stages in their husbands’ careers, by rearing children, and even caring for older parents. (Until her recent passing, we looked after my ninety-six-year-old mother and are currently still caring for Edward’s ninety-three-year-old mother.) Concluding such stages in life presents opportunities and invitations to relaunch or reinvigorate a career or professional life. They are also times when you can make your own luck or at least put yourself in a position to be receptive to "lucky breaks." So, again, think opportunity. Whether these are sad or happy times emotionally, remember not to think failure. (Where does that get you, anyway?)
I did not have a goal or grand strategy for achieving success in business beyond being committed to working harder and smarter (and, I hoped, eating better) than my colleagues and competitors.
In writing about exceptional achievers in Outliers (none of them women!), Malcolm Gladwell shares as one of his big ideas that men of genius possess as common traits hard work; stick-to-it-ness when faced with tough challenges and seeming failure; and some good, shrewd people skills. Moreover, he finds their highly successful careers were advanced by lucky breaks, sometimes multiple ones, surprising and unpredictable moments of opportunity and circumstance that these men had the cleverness to capitalize on. Well, that’s not true just for men of genius. It works much the same for women of ability, a wide range of ability. And to me, it is about being open and prepared to seize opportunities for a new stage in business and life and to work harder and smarter than the next guy.
Copyright © 2009 by Mireille Guiliano