The Work World

Peeling Back the Veneer of Titles

The titles people carry can be intimidating. In the course of my career, I often had the opportunity to meet the people behind those titles. Because I worked a lot of years in corporate communications, I would often interact with vice presidents or sometimes a CEO. It didn’t seem to matter if it was a large company or small firm, the title always made me nervous when I first met with an executive. But more times than not, I left with an appreciation for the person behind the title.

This week I begin a series of posts I’ll call #titles where I’ll share a few of these encounters:

#titles – First in a Series

A Leak and Past Trauma Revealed

Early in my career I was a lowly writer in the corporate communications department of a large corporation. As part of my job, I frequently wrote articles for the weekly company newspaper distributed to nearly 10,000 employees. One week I was given the task of interviewing a senior executive at the company headquarters for a story on various overseas projects. I remember being very nervous as I entered his plush office on the top floor. He welcomed me with a warm smile and motioned me to sit on the couch in a small meeting area near his desk. As I pulled out my note pad, he sat across from me in a cushy chair and asked what I needed to know.

I promptly explained that we wanted to do a feature story in the company paper on the company’s overseas investments. I started the interview with some general questions about his background — what I thought were easy questions like where he grew up and what college he attended. Even though I tried several different angles, he avoided talking about his childhood or college years. He started to look uncomfortable, so I finally let it go and transitioned to questions about the company’s overseas investments.

We were about 20 minutes into the interview when his desk phone rang. “Excuse me,” he said. “Sure,” I nodded and silently sat as he answered the phone. I couldn’t help but wonder about the nature of the call as I noticed his face grew more serious the more he listened to the person talking on the other end.

“Oh no, that’s not good,” I heard him say as he rubbed his forehead. I wondered if he was being notified about some tragic event at a company facility. “Okay, here’s what you need to do,” he continued. I marveled at his calmness as he spoke into the receiver. I convinced myself that’s why he held the title “Senior Vice President” over a multi-million dollar division and I was just a writer cranking our corporate messages. He was cool as a cucumber as the crisis unfolded.

“Listen closely,” he explained. “Look under the sink and you’ll see two pipes. Turn the knobs to the right at the base of the pipes.” For a second I tried to envision what this emergency entailed. I pictured someone in a big building full of large pipes looking for two knobs as liquid sprayed all over the place. But then I thought to myself, “Wait, under a sink?” I glanced at him and he smiled at me. “Did that work?” He asked the person on the other end of the phone. “Good. Okay, call the plumber. Thanks.”

He hung up the phone and sat back down in the chair across from me. He chuckled and told me, “The bathroom faucet in my house broke and water was leaking all over the floor. My cleaning person was panicked and didn’t know what to do.” I nodded and smiled back. “Okay,” he said. “Where were we?” I suddenly felt more relaxed around him. I reminded him of our conversation before the phone rang and the interview continued. I appreciated that he openly shared his little plumbing problem with me and patiently explained to his cleaning person how to shut off the water. It said a lot about his personality.

Sad History Revealed

After the interview, I returned to my office and started to put the story together for the next issue of the company newspaper. In the course of researching this executive’s background, I found an article from years earlier where he talked about how his father drove a city bus. He revealed that when he was eight years old, his father was shot and killed when someone attempted to steal the fare box on the bus. I gasped when I read that, thinking how awful that must have been for a little boy.

I suddenly knew why he avoided talking about his childhood. His stern face when I persisted with questions must have been the pain he still felt about this tragic event. I now felt bad for pursuing what seemed like easy questions. It taught me that behind an important title, there is still a person — a person who may be dealing with emotions from past trauma; someone who is dealing with everyday issues like plumbing problems.

Next week: Flushing Corporate Rank in the Air

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