Many small comments have had a major impact on my life.
Bernie Weitzer was a VP at Western Union. In a casual conversation we had he referred to me as a “Professional Manager.” Although I did not have a great deal of respect for Bernie Weitzer I accepted that comment and from then on considered myself a professional manager.
When Western Union sent me back to Middletown Virginia I got an agreement that they would send me back to San Francisco 6 times a year. On one of those trips I was flying back to Washington on the red eye. I was careful not to start a conversation with a seat mate on a long trip because I might not be able to stop a chatterbox once they got going. I always thought it was safer to be quiet and sleep for at least most of the trip. This trip was an exception. I was seated next to a tall thin, grey haired man wearing a black suit, white shirt and black tie. Very conservative. But that’s not all. This was 1973, January, I think. He had a beard and an earring! I did not speak until we were awakened to start our descent in to Washington. He had been an artist, a sculptor in LA. His sculpting, in metal had led to a manufacturing career which he left to move out into “The Valley.” Where he took up real estate and bee keeping. This trip was to meet with people in Washington to be briefed before being sent by USAID to Afghanistan to consult with their agriculture department about improving pollination of their crops. Here I was, a hot shot 33 year old with 125 people working for me, presiding over a 26 million dollar physical plant and a three million dollar a year budget. I was pretty proud of myself. He told me ”not to get stuck in a job, or in my ways. Be open to new opportunities. There will be many changes in your life.” Well, about a week later I was in a conference room with a bunch of guys going over some problem and I think “What am I doing here? Who needs the telegram? Why am I sitting a room with a bunch of guys? There isn’t even one woman in the group.” My life has never been the same. I wish I knew his name and address. I would like to have thanked him. He opened my eyes to new possibilities. Without that conversation I might have buckled down and been more a corporate man and achieved more in my career but I doubt I would have been happier.
When I was in high school I saw the movie “Mr. Roberts.” Henry Fonda, James Cagney, Jack Lemon were the stars. Henry Fonda was Mr. Roberts. I forget his rank but he was above Jack lemon and below James Cagney, who was a ruthless skipper of their ship. Mr. Roberts was a good manager. He got the respect of his men and he stuck up for them. James Cagney was a bad manager. I learned a lot from that movie about how to be a leader rather than a boss, how to put the needs of your team above your own. It inspired me to become a manager and it inspired me to do some of the things that got me in trouble as a manager and even got me fired. But it never cost me a wink of sleep. One time at Western Union I was told to change my budget for raises for the rest of the year because someone at home office had made a mistake And I wouldn’t have as much money for raises as I had been told. Well some of my people had already gotten nice raises by March. They would eat up all the new budget for the year. I would have to diminish or eliminate the raises for all the rest of my people. I thought about it for a while and I called my boss and said “Cliff, I know that the direct refusal of a direct order is a firing offense and that you will have to fire me but I refuse to cut my people’s raises because someone in the home office screwed up. I know you will have to fire me. All I ask is that you tell your management my side of the story.” I didn’t get fired. My raise budget was restored and I silently thanked Mr. Roberts. I figured that what was done was that My raise had been taken to give to my people. When I got the letter at home telling me what my raise was I was very happy to see that it had gone thru. When I got the first paycheck under the new raise I called my boss to tell him that they were paying my $700 a year too much. He told me there was no mistake. When I went home a rechecked the letter and realized I had misread it and had only seen that I was getting a raise but not the detail of how much.