Moving across the country in 2019 changed everything, overwhelmingly for the better. Thinking about my Californiversary, I also looked back and considered my career to date.
I had a lot of odd jobs when I was young, and I learned a lot of skills, had a little fun, learned about a thankless grind in places, and at one point I worked FOUR different jobs: two during the week – both part-time – and two on weekends only. It was crazy, I was very young, and I almost never slept.
For the record? I don’t recommend that. To anyone. But moving ahead:
I’ve had three important segments in my career as an adult. The first was when I was just starting out, and I was hired at a small, family business, directly by the owner, who was ready to retire and sell the company. She wanted two reliable people she knew would help keep things safe. She had one – he’d been there for 2 or 3 years when I signed on. But she wanted a second sharp one to come in, pick things up quickly… and then she could move on with a clear conscience, knowing she left her customers (many of whom she had known for decades) in good hands.
She tried me out, found out I had the perfect blend of broad skills and adaptability (plus a dynamite learning curve) that she needed, and she hired me as a temp. She’d finally turned to a temp agency to let them pre-screen, because hiring straight in had brought more headaches than help for a while. As it happened, I came highly recommended by both my short-term clients to date and my agency, so when she asked them, they had someone promising on tap and sent me over.
On the job, I picked everything up quickly, and she was so pleased that she soon asked me when my contract was up. After confirming with the agency to be sure, I told her 90 days after hire. She said, “You put that on the calendar, and you tell me on the last day, because I want to put you on payroll!” That was encouraging (and welcome!) news when I was just starting out at a new job.
When that day came, she sat me down and said, in short, “Obviously you’re doing very well. I’m delighted to have you, I’m very tired, and I want out of this business that I’ve built. But before I sell it, I’m gonna put you on payroll, and I’m writing you and Jeff into the sale contract, where you cannot be turned over as a disposable asset. You will both be hired in and kept on.” (Unless, of course, one of us were to be fired for cause, but neither of us ever was.)
Of course I was delighted with that news as well! She asked me what I was making from the agency, and since this was the payroll conversation, we were direct with each other. I was making X; she was paying them Y. She took $0.50/hour off the higher number and made that my new wage, effective the next day! I thanked her for her generosity, and she replied, “You’re a young man who’s working to build his life. I’m in a position to give you some solid footing, and I’d like to help.” It was far more than the minimum wage at the time, and we were both satisfied with the arrangement.
Once the contract additions were in place, the owner promptly sold the company, having already negotiated most of the details with a buyer once she saw that I was working out so well. It was then sold two more times, but I stayed with the company – or rather, with that group of people, performing the same roles – for twelve years.
A few years after I began, it was acquired by a large company with an international footprint and a worldwide presence. They had systems for doing everything, and people were just numbers. We were all cogs in a wheel, but at least there were rules.
I learned the rules, I fit in very well, and I was promoted a couple of times. But then the company stalled out; they saturated their market, they eliminated ALL the growth opportunities and the available position I was applying for next, and they literally told me, “You’ve maxed out your pay scale, and you’ll never get another raise, unless you take another job.” And of course, they had just eliminated all of the other jobs in the company at large, with that contraction. So unless someone above me quit, I was stuck.
Needless to say, I started looking and training my successors, just in case. When I found a role elsewhere, I had also found someone sharp who could step into my shoes rather easily. I finished up the project I was leading (giving three weeks’ notice instead of two) and stepped into my new company: a small, family-run business once more.
Now, I had just completed nine years at this international mega-corporation, so the idea of being a more important part of a smaller group again held enormous appeal.
What I didn’t realize was this: at a large company, you can sometimes change roles (unless they decide they’re too big and they must eliminate their open roles instead of streamlining their operations); at a small company, you may wear more hats, but there’s no room for advancement.
There were five people who ran this family business, and everyone else was “floor level”. Either you were an owner/manager, or you were a foot soldier in the workflow. And that was all there was.
I learned this a little way in, but just a few months after I arrived, the Great Recession of 2008 shut everything else down, and everyone did a hiring freeze, so then there was no place else to go, either. Might I have gone and begged for my old job back? Perhaps. But stubbornness kept me where I was, convinced I could make a difference in this place, and knowing that in the smaller company, even with fewer resources, they had greater control over how those resources were allocated. So I thought if I could help the bottom line, surely I could improve my position.
However, small companies have their own issues, and I frequently found myself pigeonholed if I tried to step outside of my primary duties. When I taught myself some new skills, scooped up technical work from in-house, and kept us from having to outsource that (saving money and often time), that was a welcome change. When I learned a new technology for our website or some new device for our office, I could confidently troubleshoot it and bring everyone else who needed to use it, up to competence as well. Translating systems from one person’s lingo into that of another, has always been a strong suit of mine.
Well, these were suitable changes, but when the bottom line was suffering, and the owners told everyone, “We need to increase sales!” I considered this, found a few ways that I thought we could do so, brought them to the owners, and offered to take point, or even just to participate on the side without telling anyone. And the first time I heard, “But YOU can’t do that; you’re not in sales!” I was dumbfounded. It took a very long time for me to wrap my head around this, but I was an Executive Assistant; if I started doing more sales, I might be working with a different group of people in the company. And since I was the ONLY Executive Assistant for all of them, I think the CEO and a couple of others thought that I would be unavailable to handle their needs while I was busy helping us bring in enough money that everyone could keep getting paid on time. Either way, most of my ideas were shuttered, and when that happens often enough, most people will stop volunteering new ideas.
The company stagnated for a while, had a couple of changes in leadership (in and out of the family – not being sold like the other one), and eventually, I left them, too, although I had at least been preparing this change for several months. When that time came, I had built them a series of reference documents for tasks from the basic to the complex, and I taught a crash course for the successor they hired at the last moment, after cross-training as many of my colleagues as possible in the months prior. I kept my personal phone on their speed dial for a few weeks after my departure, and the company officers sent me with glowing letters of recommendation for my future roles.
I moved to California for love, not for employment, so of course I still needed an income. While I’ve done some freelance work here and there, most of my income for most of my life has come from a traditional job, and I am very good at what I do. Though I applied at several places in and around my new hometown, and even walked in cold at a few more to find out what was going on, I had also registered with an agency or two in the area, and much as had happened more than twenty years ago, I soon got a call. The agency told me that this great company with which they’d worked for years needed an experienced Executive Assistant who can handle a lot of things at once while working for at least five different people, maybe more. I could not hide my smile on that phone call as I replied, “You’re in luck!” The recruiter laughed and asked me a few questions (she was not the same one who had completed my registration, so we were new to each other), and when she confirmed that I had in fact worked for five different executives at the same time, successfully and with glowing recommendations at my departure, she let her client company know that someone might just fit that bill perfectly.
Sidebar: her exact words were, “They basically read me your résumé in their job description!”
That Friday, I had a long, delightful conversation with the client’s in-house recruiter, who set me up an interview for the following Monday. That interview went well; I liked the first executive who interviewed me as a temporary addition, and we seemed like a clear professional match. As I got back into my car, I decided to send the in-house recruiter a simple but gracious email from my phone. I sent the thank-you note, and before I could start the car, I received an email back. She told me that the interviewer had been quite impressed and wanted to give me a shot. Could I start tomorrow, she asked? Of course I did so!
In the past year with this company, I have learned something important. Large companies that are very well-run understand the roles their people play, and that they must develop those people to invest in their teams. Investing well and wisely in your people is a tremendous incentive for them to explore new areas, master new skills, and generally add value every single day. This is reflected in the best attitudes and often the best teamwork, as enthusiastic groups of curious people with even decent communication skills among them, are incredibly productive! Add in an atmosphere of continuous improvement, and you can blow the game right out of the water.
Now I am in a workplace where everyone believes in development. I have been given the chance to explore numerous fields outside of my “generalist” areas as an Executive Assistant. While my primary role can encompass an unlimited breadth of challenges, I have been able to step into specific new roles as well.
Finally I can see a number of options for my future with this company, instead of just the one.
I only moved across the country, but it’s a whole new world where I landed.