Many years ago in my first management role, in Sydney Australia, I was Account and PR Executive of a large international cosmetics corporation. It was the leading cosmetics organization in the US and in Australia. I loved my job and took it, and, myself very seriously. I worked hard and I felt I needed to prove myself. I had joined the organization from outside the industry – never having worked in retail, sales or personal care industry. That was rare in this industry. Normal career path was you came up through the ranks or were poached from a competitor….so you get the scene. I was from the outside and had to prove myself.
In the first few months of being in my new demanding role, I arrived one day to help out on counter during a very busy “gift with purchase” sales promotion in Sydney’s largest department store. Some of you will know what that is like. It's a busy time with customers wanting to buy an item in order to get a free bag of cosmetics. It was particularly crowded when I arrived and sales were doing very well.
I decided to jump in and help “my” team, anticipating better relationships from my pitching in. I decided to clean up around the place post the lunchtime rush. I wiped down the counters, picked up soiled kleenex and cotton tips, put bottles of creams and lotions, lipsticks, eyeliners and mascaras back in the correct slots in their respective display areas and generally busied myself, while the beauty consultants continued to serve their many customers and make sales.
Once things had quietened down a little, I was able to say “hi” to the manager of that counter in a warm and friendly way. She glared at me and walked off. I was stunned. I followed her.
She wouldn’t speak to me until she made her way to the staff dining area and then uttered through her clenched teeth: “How dare you!” I was still shocked by her unexpected behavior. Here I was helping her out, I was her boss of sorts, and she was treating me in this disrespectful way!
“You come onto my counter and take over as if I didn’t exist.” She seethed at me. “You treat me like an idiot. As if I don’t know what I'm doing. You are so disrespectful. You humiliated me in front of my staff and customers!”
Woah! Who’s disrespectful here? I say to myself under my breath. “I was helping you by cleaning up your counter, so you could serve your customers.” I pleaded.
“You made me look like an idiot. As if I have no control over my own counter and my staff. Nobody has ever done that to me. Cleaning up, as if I have no pride in my counter! I am so humiliated.”
Oh my! What a lesson in “Communication is the result you get.” What I though I was communicating and what she understood were two very different stories. What I had communicated to her by my actions and behaviors no way matched my intentions. And I take full responsibility. When I see it from her perspective, I had moved in on her territory. I had undermined her authority. I had not enquired about how I might support her. I had made assumptions about how she’d value my contribution, and I screwed up big time.
I know what motivated me to behave in that way. I wanted to prove my worth and lead by example (which is what they taught me in Management School.) And, I was insecure in my role and felt incompetent, so by doing something that wouldn't reveal my own lack of competence (sales), I stepped in to save my own ego without considering the impact of my poor judgment and bad behavior on my colleagues or the damage it might do to trust and our tenuous relationships.
That relationship with the counter manager was wounded for a while, until I fessed up and declared my vulnerabilities. When our personal motivations and fears were in the open, an understanding and mutual respect began to peek through. Over time, we became excellent colleagues and deeply supported each other, and it took work to build that trust.
Better Relationships Through Authenticity
I see this as a high point story because I learnt so much about my relationship with myself, my relationship with others and my relationship with the big, wide business world.
I learnt I didn’t trust myself, because I felt inferior in that new context; as a result that impacted my relationship with others; I made them feel insecure because they perceived I didn’t trust them; and my relationship with the world was such that I felt the world would be unkind to me and unforgiving if I showed up as I truly was at that time – insecure and vulnerable. My authentic self was under developed.
I tell this story as it was a powerful learning for me, and is still so clear in my mind. Stories help us make meaning and sense of who we are. What's a story that resulted in insights about how you relate to yourself, others and the world in general, where you came out in a state of incredulity, but it was just what needed to happen at the time to help you grow and you are grateful for the opportunity?