My company had hired a new president. Again.
My fist startup, changes in management were to be expected. But to me, still wet behind the ears, every shift change was dramatic.
This time they'd hired a woman.
You'd think, since this was my first time working under a woman CEO, that she would have made an ideal role model. She wasn't. Not because she wasn't worth modeling but because I was terrified of her. I would feel lightheaded before every (rare) meeting, worried that I would fail at what I perceived to be an intellectual pop quiz. She was whip-smart, articulate and beautiful. She was blond. Around her I felt awkward and inadequate. And so I never looked up to her. I never looked up up up at her and said to myself, "that could be me."
So, if this is a post about role modeling, who gets the title of 2.0? Who was the person who turned my head around and taught me a life-lasting lesson?
Oops, excuse me. Even way back then they were called Administrative Assistants. I have a hard time keeping up with the evolution of titles. I still, from time to time, refer to flight attendants as "stewardess."
The CEO's assistant was also blond and beautiful and smart as a whip. She sat outside the CEO's office as if she owned it. And really, she did. Smarter and quicker and more powerful than many of the executives who attempted entry to her boss's office, she was the keymaster. And she had her boss's ear.
At this stage in my career I was the company graphic designer which mostly meant creating collateral and powerpoint presentations. This job taught me another of life's important lessons: never admit to anyone you know how to do powerpoint. I wish someone had actually taught me that lesson, I had to learn it the hard way - by doing hundreds of them.
As the graphic designer I had to work with the CEO on her presentations, other than that we didn't cross paths very often. To become the graphic designer I'd had to claw my way out of administration and the chip on my shoulder was still fresh and easy to jostle. I'd had the good luck to work for a man who recognized and encouraged my ambition to go into marketing, but even he couldn't convince me I would ever get past the perception of "she's just a secretary." I allowed it to haunt me.
But the Assistant? We became friends. I was amazed to learn that she had chosen to become an assistant, even though she had studied to be an architect. It took me a while to grok this, that someone with the talent, education and brains to be anything she wanted would choose to take the job that I'd spent years trying to escape. What was I missing?
The big difference between her and me was that she knew she could be whatever she wanted. Her job title never defined who she was in her own mind -- and what other people thought of her simply didn't matter.
I watched her interact with the CEO with fascination. With authority, respect and humour, she got th CEO to do things she didn't want to do, meet with people who annoyed her, take over projects that needed executive attention. The CEO clearly loved her. More than that, she respected her.
Respect for oneself. To have faith in your own ability regardless of what others think of you, this is an amazing and important quality to posses. I learned it by example. From someone whose box of a title couldn't begin to contain her. It couldn't possibly describe who she was or what she was capable of. Is capable of.
Now that I'm an executive, I look at this lesson from a different perspective - from the other side of the looking glass. Titles are still meaningless, but that's mostly because I know how titles are often acquired. In lieu of money. Out of convenience. To create or maintain hierarchy. And while I am always curious to understand what people are called, or wish to be called, I know better than to make any real decisions based on that. To know someone, you have to watch them think. You have to listen. When they open their mouths long enough, you'll know.