WELCOME TO CORPORATE LIFE

WELCOME TO CORPORATE LIFE

After thirty years in the corporate world, Don Spetner shares his insights, lessons and reflections on life at the office.  Most of the pieces on this site are taken from his “Last” column from PR WEEK.   To view the full selection of writings, simply click on “Archives” and browse away.

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Change Management

Change Management

How would you like to be running an automobile business today? How about a toy company? Media conglomerate? Hotels? Maybe own retail stores? Virtually every client I work with is dealing with some form of disruption or change, and for many, it means the very survival of their business. The management of disruption is a [...]

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The Agony (and reward) of Firing Someone

The Agony (and reward) of Firing Someone

A friend of mine started a new job six months ago, and she already had to let someone go for poor performance. She was recruited to be the head of corporate communications and inherited a team that wasn’t operating at its peak. Apparently, the guy she let go had been foundering at the company for [...]

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Showing up with a Coffee Stain at my Big Interview

Showing up with a Coffee Stain at my Big Interview

I was once a finalist for a big job at Charles Schwab. I had made it far enough in the process that I had to meet Chuck Schwab himself. I was excited and nervous, and I booked a flight from LA to San Francisco for an 11 a.m. sit down with the business tycoon. I [...]

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Learning Not to Suffer at Work

Learning Not to Suffer at Work

I had a little run-in with a motorcyclist. I slowed down to stop at a yellow light, and didn’t realize that a cyclist was accelerating behind me, hoping that I would speed through the signal. The cyclist swerved to avoid me, and I heard a small bump. I was relieved to see him upright and [...]

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I’d Rather be Lucky than Good

I’d Rather be Lucky than Good

My brother had a roommate in college who became a millionaire, due in no small part to an amazing twist of fate. While the roommate was charming and hard working, he wasn’t a particularly good student, and his career got off to a less than promising start. After graduating, he managed to land an entry [...]

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The Magic of Grunt Work

The Magic of Grunt Work

A couple of weeks ago I found myself working in a suffocating, windowless conference room with bad fluorescent lighting. I languished in this room for an entire day, surviving on stale vending machine food while editing power point slides for what felt like forever. I was accompanied by two junior associates, each close to 30 [...]

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The Age of Transparency

The Age of Transparency

Here’s a very short, pithy clip of my insights on The Age of Transparency. Just scroll down to watch the video:

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Young and Dumb

Young and Dumb

When I first got promoted to senior management, I had a chance to meet a former intern for breakfast. She had just landed her first job and wanted to thank me for helping her. On the day of the breakfast, I arrived early so that I could read the paper and have coffee before she [...]

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U. City High Reunion Speech

U. City High Reunion Speech

Good evening everyone. I am so happy to be here, and I am flattered and honored to address the Class of 77. I want to thank Mark Gillespie, Stacy Safron, Kerry Wilson, Vetra Moore and Renell Couzart for pulling this together. First of all — how can it possibly be 40 years! 40 Years! Who [...]

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When Change Gets Lodged in Your Company’s Throat

When Change Gets Lodged in Your Company’s Throat

When I was a young account executive, the PR agency I worked for brought in a consultant to upgrade our IT system. The goal was to improve the technology infrastructure and implement new time- and money-saving processes. The agency had global offices, so this was a complicated and disruptive move, and fraught with risk. The [...]

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When Pupil Surpasses Teacher

When Pupil Surpasses Teacher

A friend of mine was recently appointed to the role of Chief Communications Officer for a Fortune 500 company, and she just turned 41. It’s a young age to assume such a big role, but she’s absolutely qualified and ready for the challenge. She’s got the brains, the stamina, the technical skills and the political [...]

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Sniffing Out a Snake in the Workplace

Sniffing Out a Snake in the Workplace

There is an old saying that if something looks rotten, smells rotten, and tastes rotten, it probably is rotten. The older I get, the more I understand the wisdom of this adage, especially when it comes to people. If I had embraced the concept earlier in my career, it might have saved me a lot [...]

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Is Your CEO Unreasonable?

Is Your CEO Unreasonable?

I know I’m a little late to the party, but I just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. I then watched the Danny Boyle movie based on it. Both paint an unflattering personal portrait of a man who will arguably go down as one of the greatest CEOs of our time. And they [...]

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Why am I Dialing in on Vacation?

Why am I Dialing in on Vacation?

During my headhunter days, I helped recruit the Chief Communications Officer for Yahoo. It was a difficult search, the company was going through a CEO transition, its business model was under attack, and we struggled to find the right candidates. I mostly remember lots of tension and stress during the process, but there was one [...]

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There’s Always Someone Smarter, Richer and More Powerful

There’s Always Someone Smarter, Richer and More Powerful

In the tenth grade I transferred to a new high school. I didn’t have any friends, didn’t know my classmates, and was surrounded by a community of people who seemed to have been together since grade school. To add insult to injury, I was 15 years old, 5 feet 2 inches tall, wore glasses, and [...]

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Job Candidates Who Put Me to Sleep

Job Candidates Who Put Me to Sleep

I interviewed a candidate recently who almost put me to sleep. And this was during the icebreaker, before we’d even gotten to the hard questions. She was unfocused and inarticulate; at some point I realized I was thinking about my dry cleaning and hadn’t heard a word she’d said for at least two minutes. I’m [...]

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The Tough Question Your New CEO Will Ask You

The Tough Question Your New CEO Will Ask You

There’s nothing like a CEO transition to make everybody nervous. When a new leader comes in, especially one from the outside, fear and excitement tend to pervade the organization, and the rumor mill suddenly shifts into overdrive. There are always winners and losers on the management team. And there is inevitably an excruciating waiting period [...]

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Mindfulness Actually Works

Mindfulness Actually Works

I started taking a course on mindfulness in the hopes of getting better at dealing with stress. The basic premise is simple. The more aware – or mindful – I am of my reactions, the clearer I can be in my decision-making. If I can step back and notice how I’m responding, I can hopefully [...]

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Welcome to the World of Disruption

Welcome to the World of Disruption

My parents unwittingly trained me to work in senior management. It certainly wasn’t by design. Unlike today’s helicopter parents who constantly hover over their gifted children, I grew up in an era of Amtrak parents, who dropped us off at different stations of life and then hopefully remembered to pick us up when the trip [...]

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Career Advice: Don’t Freak Out

Career Advice: Don’t Freak Out

I help a lot of young people who are trying to navigate their careers. Nephews, nieces, cousins, children of friends, and friends of my own children have all reached out for advice and guidance as they try to navigate their way. A common misconception among young people is the notion that career paths are linear: [...]

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Professional Panic Attack

Professional Panic Attack

I almost abandoned the business world in my early 30s, ironically just as my career was about to take off. I had hit my emotional limit, and did not think I could take any more of the stress or pressure. I had come home one evening from a particularly bad day at work, sat down [...]

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Career Advice: Learn to throw a fastball

Career Advice: Learn to throw a fastball

I have a longtime friend who says very wise things. We were colleagues together in the ’90s, and he since went on to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. He’s one of the smartest executives I’ve worked with, and also one of the most plainspoken. He tends to use homespun phrases such as “that dog [...]

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Everyone is Human, Even Senior Management

Everyone is Human, Even Senior Management

I spent a few years of my career overseeing R&D at a global executive search firm. I managed a staff of more than a dozen clinical and behavioral psychologists who studied and synthesized data on why executives succeed and fail. These wise people could tell you the most critical competencies for climbing the organizational ladder [...]

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When Perception Matters

When Perception Matters

One of my clients, a major sports league, called to ask if I could suggest a guest speaker for a conference they were hosting.  I recommended a senior executive from Wells Fargo whom I knew would be great.  My client paused, then said:  “Well, I’m sure he’s great, but one of our biggest sponsors is [...]

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No More Corporate Speak

No More Corporate Speak

While I’ve been fascinated by the maelstrom surrounding the National Football League, I’ve grown tired of the endless talking heads picking apart the League’s crisis management.  But one critique  did strike a chord with me.  It was written by Bill Dwyre, a sports reporter for the L.A. Times, who took issue with NFL Commissioner Roger [...]

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Management by Anecdote

Management by Anecdote

  “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.”  This is the opening line to the poem Howl by Allen Ginsberg. It has always been one of my favorites. At the risk of causing Mr. Ginsberg to roll over in his grave, I’m going to paraphrase his powerful sentence to make a point about [...]

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Knowing the River

Knowing the River

While I was interviewing for the role of CMO at Korn/Ferry, I had breakfast with a woman who had run their communications function, and she was giving me the lowdown on the job. “You know,” she said as she sipped her coffee, “it is impossible to be successful at this job.” “Oh really,” I replied, [...]

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Wrestling with Corporate Bullies

Wrestling with Corporate Bullies

Corporate bullies come in all shapes and sizes. Some are sly and lurk behind memos or nefarious BCCs, whereas some get right in your face. And it’s not always clear how to deal with them.   Early in my tenure at Korn/Ferry, I arranged a trip to meet our top people in the New York [...]

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Playing Through the Pain

Playing Through the Pain

Last December, Kobe Bryant of the LA Lakers injured his knee in the third quarter of a game against the Memphis Grizzlies. He put some ice on his leg and then came back in to finish the game. Turns out he had fractured his lateral tibial plateau. In other words, he played an entire quarter [...]

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It Doesn’t Always Pay to Know All

It Doesn’t Always Pay to Know All

When I got hired in my first job as an account executive in 1981, I was disappointed that the starting salary was $16,500. My boss gave me a little pep talk. He told me that the rule of financial success at that time was to be “earning your age by the time you’re 30.” I [...]

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Making Complicated Things Simple

Making Complicated Things Simple

  I had a journalism professor in college who liked to lecture us about the way cops spoke at press briefings. It drove him crazy that they used words such as perpetrator, object, and inflict. As in: “The perpetrator utilized an object to infiltrate the premises with the intent to inflict harm on the intended [...]

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Preparing to Fail

Preparing to Fail

I used to drive my kids crazy by frequently quoting the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who said, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” I would dredge up this quote whenever they put off studying for an exam or when they waited till Sunday night to do their weekend homework. Which basically happened [...]

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Tough Choices

Tough Choices

Sometimes we have to make wrenching decisions at work.  I’m not talking about what to wear on casual Friday, though admittedly that did cause some personal angst for about 18 months. I’m talking about the moments where the personal collides with the political and the practical. I got my first in-house job with Nissan, who [...]

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Spetner joins Weber, leads CCO 4.0 platform launch

Spetner joins Weber, leads CCO 4.0 platform launch

Diana Bradley PR WEEK December 02, 2013   NEW YORK: Weber Shandwick has appointed Don Spetner as senior corporate adviser as it launches CCO 4.0, an analysis tool for chief communications officers. Spetner is reporting to Micho Spring, chair of Weber’s global corporate practice. He is serving as a strategic resource to clients’ communications leaders and [...]

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An Act of Kindness

An Act of Kindness

I went to a big public high school in the Midwest that had all kinds of cliques.  There were nerds, jocks, cheerleaders, stoners, and loners.  And, as with all public schools, there were also some tough and slightly scary kids.  When my oldest siblings went to the school, these tough kids were called “hoods”, but [...]

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New York City, Just Like I Pictured It

New York City, Just Like I Pictured It

I have three words of advice for every aspiring young professional – move to Manhattan. A couple of years in New York is the best basic training course I know. It’s the Camp Lejeune of the corporate universe. It’ll sharpen your senses, toughen you up, and teach you things you never imagined. My first night [...]

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Work or Life?

Work or Life?

One afternoon in the early 1990’s, I got a call from a producer at 60 Minutes.  She wanted to schedule a date to talk to about allegations of safety defects in Nissan products.  I was the head of communications for Nissan USA at the time, and needless to say, we took this very seriously. By [...]

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Eating Humble Pie

Eating Humble Pie

    I sat through a talk recently about the virtues of humility.  About how rare and wonderful it is to encounter an individual who is truly humble.  The speaker cited Moses as an example.  Not Moses Malone, the Hall of Fame basketball player, or Robert Moses who built the Triboro Bridge, but biblical Moses [...]

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New Job Anxiety

New Job Anxiety

      I had drinks last week with a friend who is five months in to her new job at a Fortune 100 company.  After a glass of wine and some real candor, she confided that she was anxious, uneasy and not sure if she made the right career move.  I knew exactly how [...]

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Frequent Flyer Downgrade

Frequent Flyer Downgrade

I’ve been suffering through frequent flier status withdrawal.  It started four years ago when I achieved Global Services status with United, which was no small feat.  Forget about Premier, Premier Executive or even 1K.  Global Services is so stratospheric that United won’t even reveal the criteria for selection, you just get mysteriously voted in. The [...]

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A Stroke of Fate

A Stroke of Fate

A few weeks ago I went fishing with my friend Dan.  We only caught one fish, but the weather was fine, the lake was beautiful, and as always happens when I spend time with Dan, I came away inspired and enlightened. Dan was the CIO at one of the companies I worked for, and we [...]

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Blowing the Job Interview

Blowing the Job Interview

It’s hard to gauge the outcome of a job interview. I have had candidates call and excitedly report how well an interview went, only to learn the client was not impressed. I had that exact experience myself. In the 1990s, I interviewed for the top PR role at United Airlines. At the time, I headed [...]

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The Pleasures of Performance Reviews

The Pleasures of Performance Reviews

I would like to study a history of the performance review process. It’s got to be a twisted and circuitous development path. I’m sure everything started out with the best intentions, yet at some point, it all went bad. I picture a labor lawyer, an industrial psychologist, an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulator, and a [...]

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The Simple Act of Following Through

The Simple Act of Following Through

One great thing about living in Los Angeles is that a surprising number of people who live here have been contestants on television game shows. My cousin Randy once won a washer and dryer on Name That Tune. One of my colleagues at work chirped incessantly for weeks about his upcoming appearance on Jeopardy!, then [...]

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How Softball Launched My Career

How Softball Launched My Career

    I really don’t want to use this column to brag, but I feel compelled to share that I’m the starting shortstop for my synagogue softball team. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m the starting shortstop for the Division D team, which is the worst division in the Temple League. I call it [...]

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The Hermann Brain Wave Experiment

The Hermann Brain Wave Experiment

One time I attended a management offsite where everyone had to take an assessment called the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument.  This may sound like a torture device, but in actuality it was a fascinating look at how people think and process information. According to Hermann International, the assessment “evaluates and describes the degree of preference [...]

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Eating Crawdads, Drinking Sake and Talking Rambo

Eating Crawdads, Drinking Sake and Talking Rambo

For the first fifteen years of my career, I worked primarily with Japanese companies.  I had the good fortune of representing some of Japan’s greatest brands, including Hitachi, Matsushita, Minolta and Nissan.  I learned a great deal about business and about Japan.  I also had some awkward intercultural moments. In my first trip to Japan, [...]

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Defecating Chickens

Defecating Chickens

I don’t know the exact number of speeches I’ve listened to in my life, but it’s a lot.  Unfortunately, there are very few I can actually remember.  And there are even fewer that moved me in a deep way. Sometimes I’ll recall a specific point, or joke or visual, but I can probably count on [...]

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My Three Minutes with Greatness

My Three Minutes with Greatness

In 1999 the company I was working for was acquired by  AIG.  This was long before  AIG received one of the biggest bailouts in history. Back then it was solid gold.  One of only a handful of AAA-rated financial services companies, it was legendary for its size, reach, wealth and perhaps most notably, for its [...]

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The First Time a Reporter Screamed at Me

The First Time a Reporter Screamed at Me

I read an article recently about the reduction in business phone calls, and the prediction that voicemail would soon be extinct.  It makes sense.  Between email, texting and social networking, it’s remarkably inefficient to use voicemail.  In fact, my kids don’t even understand its purpose.  “Dad,” they say, “you don’t need to leave a message, [...]

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Vice President of Common Sense

Vice President of Common Sense

            When I worked for Nissan I jokingly referred to myself as the Vice President of Showing Up.  It was a decidedly meeting-oriented culture.  We would have pre-meetings to discuss what was going to happen in the big meeting, then a post-meeting to dissect what just transpired.  This was before Blackberries, and it was seriously [...]

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Losing Sleep

Losing Sleep

One downside to a glamorous, fast-paced job is the lack of sleep. The fact that we have to get up and be fresh as a daisy five days a week is a bit horrifying. It’s especially bad when you get into bed at night and your body is exhausted, but your mind is on overdrive. In the scheme of things, I think I lost more sleep while working at PR Agencies than while working at corporations.

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Learning to Forgive Myself

Learning to Forgive Myself

One of my earliest mortifying moments happened in the seventh grade when, spurred on by my moronic buddies, I told Shellie Shultz that she was a fool for liking me. This was a particularly tragic blunder because not only did I make her cry and feel badly, I secretly had a crush on Shellie, and thus managed to hurt her and break my own heart at the same time. (Also, to the best of my recollection, she was a 1970’s version of a hottie).

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Listen to Your Mother

Listen to Your Mother

I gave a speech to a group of college seniors recently about how to get a job. After a number of fascinating and erudite slides about technological disruption and the creation of new communications models, I finally got to the point and offered three basic tips on how to get a job. The first, and really the most important, was this:

Listen to your mother.

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The Million Dollar PR Man

The Million Dollar PR Man

About 15 years ago, an article appeared about the Chief Communications Officer at Time Warner who at the time was earning over one million dollars annually. This individual’s level of compensation was so remarkable that he soon earned the nickname “The Million Dollar PR Man,” and most of us looked upon it as a wonderful aberration — something to dream about, but utterly unachievable.

Today there are some 80 or so “million dollar” PR executives.

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Getting Through a Painful Meeting

Getting Through a Painful Meeting

I think there should be a rule that no meeting can ever last longer than two hours. Studies have shown that after 120 minutes, enough oxygen has been sufficiently sucked out of any meeting room that the participants inevitably hit a point of diminishing intellectual and spiritual returns. Studies have also shown that there is a 50% chance you’ll be sitting in one of those weird conference room chairs that is either too high, too low, too stiff or too tilted and has too many complicated levers to figure out how to adjust it.

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Attack of the Adjectives

Attack of the Adjectives

I’ve always taken umbrage with our industry’s obsession for unnecessary superlatives. As in “third largest, privately owned, community-focused wholesaler of blah blah blah…”

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Nightmare at Coffee Bean

Nightmare at Coffee Bean

After 30 years you’d think I’ve learned something about crisis management. But I clearly haven’t.

You see I’m trapped in an emerging disaster that’s unfolding in real-time, and I don’t know what to do about it. It started with a simple lie, then a cover-up, and now it’s out of control.

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The Importance of Chotchkes

The Importance of Chotchkes

In every business person’s heart there is small warm place set aside for chotchkes. Pens, flash drives, umbrellas, mouse pads — every imaginable thing you can think of to put your logo on and give out to the public.

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Proximity to the CEO

Proximity to the CEO

Many ambitious corporate climbers mistakenly believe that a chance to interact with a chairman or CEO is a great opportunity to advance one’s career. They imagine that impressing or charming the great and powerful will lead to promotion and reward. While this certainly can be true, real life experience has taught me that exposure to the top definitely cuts both ways.

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Getting Fired

Getting Fired

I keep a list of jobs I know I’d be awful at. A portion of this list is borne of experience. For example, I was a terrible waiter. I started as a busboy and dishwasher at the Rustler Steak House in St. Louis, where I had to wear a humiliating cowboy hat, apron and bowtie. I smelled like grease at the end of every shift. Fortunately, however, my foodservice career progressed, and I got hired on as a dishwasher at Denny’s, with the promise of becoming a waiter.

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Always Be Nice to the Assistant

Always Be Nice to the Assistant

In the entertainment industry, one of the most common paths to the top begins with a stint as an executive assistant. It’s not unusual to find graduates of Yale and Harvard answering phones and arranging schedules for the high and mighty. It’s one of the few things in the entertainment world that actually make sense to me.

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Why I Never Talk to People on Airplanes

Why I Never Talk to People on Airplanes

I have a rule that I won’t talk to people who sit next to me on airplanes. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that there’s too much downside and not enough upside. Some colleagues say they procure clients from plane trips, particularly when sitting in business or first class. But I’ve done the strategic analysis, and it’s just not worth the risk.

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Cyberspace Train Wreck

Cyberspace Train Wreck

About three months ago I joined a group on LinkedIn called “Corporate Communications Executives Network” mostly to see what this brave new world was all about. For the most part, it was a series of pleasant exchanges and inquiries around topics related to communications. And then the fun began.

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How Coffee Cups Paralyzed our Mangement

How Coffee Cups Paralyzed our Mangement

It’s hard to run a big company. It’s hard to be nimble when you’re huge. It’s hard to innovate while managing risk. It’s hard to be responsive while watching costs. I had the entire DNA of a big company revealed to me in a simple snapshot, all because of Styrofoam cups.

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We’ve All Worked for Sociopaths

We’ve All Worked for Sociopaths

In every company I’ve ever worked for, there was at least one sociopath in a senior management role. Some were screamers. Some were smarmy and manipulative. Some were just miserable. Many were narcissistic and almost all were control freaks.

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I’ve Made a lot of Mistakes

I’ve Made a lot of Mistakes

I’ve made a lot of dumb mistakes in my career, and I accept responsibility for all of them.

Well, most of them.

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The Importance of Grooming

The Importance of Grooming

I keep a file called “ideas” where I squirrel away articles, clippings or personal thoughts that seem really smart, only I don’t exactly know what to do with them. Every couple of years I look at the file and mostly end up baffled as to why I put any of these items in a file called “ideas.”

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Surviving a High School Publicity Crisis

Surviving a High School Publicity Crisis

I’ve only run for elected office twice in my lifetime. The first was in 8th grade when I beat Marty Borenstien to become student council treasurer at the Epstien Hebrew Academy. It wasn’t all that great a victory — I think Marty lost because he had the unfortunate nickname of “Barney” which didn’t convey fiscal acumen. Plus I conveniently broke my wrist playing basketball three days before the election which dramatically increased the mercy-vote factor.

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Just Be Charming

Just Be Charming

When I was 24 I got sent to Bogota to spend a week with my client, the commercial shipping fleet of Colombia. I was nervous about the trip; I was sure that I needed to be knowledgeable and smart and full of useful business insights that would enlighten the client. “You’ll be great,” my boss said, “just be charming and you’ll do fine.”

I of course did not believe him.

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Agency vs. Corporate

Agency vs. Corporate

I spent the first eight years of my career in big PR agencies, working my way from account executive to vice president.  I’ve since spent the last two decades slugging it out in large corporate organizations.  When I began, these were dramatically different ecosystems that demanded highly disparate survival skills: where the agency world required sprinters, the corporate world favored chess players.

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Blame it on the Agency

Blame it on the Agency

Sometimes we in the PR business lose perspective. Every other PR person I meet represents an entity that is invariably the “second largest” something, somewhere:

“We’re the third largest manufacturer of industrial carpeting in the world,” or “we’re the single biggest reseller of organically generated methane gas in the western hemisphere.”   The statement is delivered without irony, and always with a dose of pride.

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Surviving The Corporate Wilderness

Surviving The Corporate Wilderness

I learned many things in my brief stint as a Boy Scout, but the most valuable came in the form of the “Boy Scout Wilderness Survival Kit.” For an 11-year-old, this was among the coolest things I had ever seen. Unfortunately, it didn’t prove useful in my corporate career.

Except for the painkillers.

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Now That’s Inspiring…

Now That’s Inspiring…

I keep a crumpled and yellowed article on my desk next to my computer from the court trial of a former Ku Klux Klan member. The part I like doesn’t focus on him but on a surviving sisters of his victim.

“Ms. Davis,” it reads, “had decided not to hate Mr. Cherry. He just don’t know better.”

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What does this have to do with Donald?

What does this have to do with Donald?

When I was a kid, I always wondered what “professional courtesy” meant. I thought it had to do with doctors getting special treatment, but the whole concept seemed murky. I’ve come to understand that professional courtesy is essentially a favor bank for grown-ups. It works in all sectors and at all levels. Doormen, teachers, cops, lawyers, doctors, and even CEOs extend it to each other on a daily basis.

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How to Give a Really Good Presentation

How to Give a Really Good Presentation

It was off-site hell: a two-day series of meetings consisting mainly of PowerPoints. I don’t know why people think a series of slides presented in a dimly lit, oxygen-deprived conference room can enhance delivery of a complex message is truly ludicrous.

One of the most cogent communicators I ever met was a shirtless 12-year-old boy from Alabama.

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