The Work World

Watch and Learn from the CEO

#titles — third in a series

Early in my career I worked for an ad agency as a writer. This firm had high expectations from its creative staff because the CEO was a seasoned art director. Mediocre work was not acceptable. My boss would repeatedly hand my copy back to me and tell me, “You can write better than that.” It infuriated me when I had to rewrite the same ad four or five times. But by the fifth time I grudgingly accepted that my boss was right. The rewrites were making me a better writer, but I also learned ads were more than just words.

The process of finalizing an ad — putting words and images together — was equally tough. I worked closely with the art director to craft an ad that would be memorable to whoever saw it. The Creative Director had to give the final stamp of approval before the ad was considered complete. More times than not, we had to go back to the drawing board to improve the ad. It was a brutal process that made us all better at our craft. But there was one final approval that was the toughest of all — the CEO.

In this agency creative was king and the king, the CEO, was a creative at heart. Everything needed his approval before it left the shop to go to the client. He demanded nothing less than our best. You can imagine my fear as I rode the elevator to the top floor with the creative director and art director to review the ad campaign we labored over for days. This was my first CEO review, but not for the other two in the elevator. No one spoke a word on the ride up, which only heightened my fear.

When the elevator doors opened, we were greeted by a receptionist. “He’s waiting for you,” she told us. My heart rate quickened as the three of us walked into the CEO’s office. A sharply dressed man in a deep blue suit with a stylish tie warmly greeted us. He acknowledged my two companions by their first name, then looked at me. “This is our new writer,” my creative director introduced me. I shook his hand. A firm, yet gentle grip that expressed confidence. He had an air of creative style about him, someone who felt details mattered.

“We can spread out the campaign on the table,” the CEO said. My creative director spread out the ad layouts on the table and the CEO instantly began to study each ad. The silence in the room was almost too much for me to handle as I watched him hover over each ad. When he finally spoke, he espoused creative wisdom, showing us ways to enhance each ad.

“The words and picture should work together,” he remarked. “If I put my hand over the picture, the words should become meaningless,” he added as he extended his hand over the photo in one ad layout. The moment he extended his hand, the watch on his wrist emerged from under his suit jacket. I didn’t hear another word he said.

“Oh my,” I said to myself. “That’s a Gucci watch he has on his wrist.” I stared at the watch and marveled at its sleek design — stripes of pearl inlay with small diamonds where the 12, 3, 6 and 9 would be on a watch. I once saw a pictures of this expensive watch and now here was one right in front of me. I became hypnotized as I admired the design of his Gucci watch while he waved his hand back and forth. “That had to cost a small fortune,” I thought as I stared at it, totally distracted.

“Do you see what I’m saying?” The CEO said to me as I watched his Gucci watch disappear under the sleeve of his suit jacket as he stood straight. “Uh, yeah, I do,” I nodded. “The pictures and words must work together,” I repeated the last line I heard. “Exactly,” he said.

A few minutes later we were back in the elevator with our ad layouts. When the doors closed and we started to descend to our floor, I blurted out, “Did you see his Gucci watch?” My creative director looked at me and smiled. “It’s a very stylish watch. It grabs your attention. It’s memorable just like our ads should be.” I smiled and nodded. He had made an excellent point.

To this day I still remember that Gucci watch on his wrist, waving back and forth. The image in my brain is vivid, as if it just happened a minute ago. I can still see the inlaid pearl strips reflecting multiple colors in the light. I wish I could say the same about the ad campaign we presented that day to the CEO. I can’t remember a single thing about those ads.

The Work World

Flushing Corporate Rank in the Air

#titles — second in a series

Early in my career, I was minding my own business as a lowly writer in the bowels of a large corporation. Suddenly a senior vice president (VP) appeared in the doorway to my office and demanded to know, “Did you write this?!” He was waving the company’s latest quarterly report at me, the one I just wrote that was now in print. “Yes?” I timidly replied as I watched my career flash before my eyes. He stepped into my office, slapped the report on my desk and said, “Great job!” Before I could respond, he was gone.

So you can understand my trepidation when a few months later a different senior VP suddenly appeared in my office doorway and said he wanted to talk to me. I had met this VP a while ago on another story I wrote and he insisted I call him Carl — so he seemed friendly enough. Yet I was still nervous, not knowing the reason for his sudden appearance.

“I see you wrote those articles on that air base project,” he remarked.

“Yes?” I timidly replied, not sure if I should expect a compliment or a scolding about something I wrote.

“Tomorrow morning we’re having a contract signing ceremony at the air base. I want you there to cover it.”


“Tomorrow. Can you be there?”

“Yes, I can be there,” I responded, knowing it was nearly a four-hour drive. I had visited the former air base development several times for articles in the weekly company newspaper. “I’ll just need to know where on the base I should go after I drive there.”

“No, I want you to fly with us on the company jet.”

“Company jet?” I said in a surprised tone. I had flown on the company jet only one other time. It was to cover an event the CEO was participating in. It was a strange experience since the CEO sat up front with a few other executives while I sat toward the back of the mostly empty air craft. No one talked to me during the flight.

“Yes,” Carl replied. “Will that work for you?”

“Yeah,” I nodded. “It’ll be a lot faster than driving.”

He agreed with me and promptly called the pilot to confirm he had a seat available. “They have one seat left,” he told me as he held the phone by his ear. “It’s the jump seat. Is that okay?”

“Yes,” I nodded. “It beats driving. I’ll take whatever seat is available.”

“He’ll take it,” Carl told the pilot, then ended the call. “Be at the company hangar by 7:30. See you in the morning.”

“Okay. See you in the morning,” I said as Carl left my office. Not being a frequent flyer on corporate jets, I had no idea what the “jump seat” meant or where it was located on the plane. I soon learned that seat had dual purposes.

The Jump Seat

The next morning I showed up at the company hangar and awkwardly stood alone near a large group of finely dressed executives. I felt out of place until Carl walked over and greeted me.

“You made it,” he said.

“Yes,” I replied. “So where’s the jump seat?”

“I’ll show you,” Carl said. “Follow me. We’re boarding.”

I followed him to the jet where the other executives were now boarding through the open door. I was the last one to step inside behind Carl. All the seats were taken except one near the front. Carl sat in that seat and pointed to the back of the plane. “The jump seat is at the very back,” he said as he turned to face the front and buckled his seat belt.

I looked toward the very back of the jet and saw a narrow seat tucked into a small closet with an open accordion door. I nodded and promptly moved toward the back of the plane. As I walked to the jump seat, I noticed some of the passengers started to laugh. I was about to sit down when someone commented, “You know that’s also the toilet.”

I frowned and looked at the vinyl seat, not sure if they were joking or serious.

“Lift the seat cushion,” another executive laughed.

I lifted the bottom cushion and there to my surprise was a toilet. The plane erupted in laughter as I closed the lid, sat down and buckled myself in. The flight wasn’t long, but it seemed to take forever as I endured toilet jokes the whole way.

The Return Trip

After we arrived at the air base it was all business. I covered the signing event, interviewing people involved in the project and photographing the signing ceremony. We had lunch afterwards, then headed back to the company jet for the return trip. I dreaded the teasing I would likely have to endure on the flight home, but reminded myself it was much better than driving eight hours round trip.

I boarded the plane with the others and promptly went to the jump seat where I buckled myself in for a barrage of jokes. A moment later the jokes started. “Hey, hand me some toilet paper,” someone shouted to me. “You need to move, I gotta go,” someone else laughed.

It was at that moment I spotted Carl and he motioned to me. “Come here,” he said. I unbuckled and went to where he was sitting. “You’re taking my seat,” he smiled as he unbuckled his seat belt.

“No, that’s okay,” I replied. “I’m fine back there.”

“No!” Carl insisted. “You sit here. I’ll take the jump seat.”

I reluctantly agreed and sat in his seat while Carl went to the back of the jet and buckled himself into the jump seat. I marveled at how the senior executive on the jet gave his seat to the lowest ranking employee flying that day. With one move he had flushed corporate rank down the drain.

Toilet paper anyone?” Carl smiled as he waved a roll at the others on the plane. There was only light laughter. No one cracked another joke about the jump seat on the entire return trip. This one little act spoke volumes about this man I barely knew.

After we landed, I waited for everyone to exit the plane. Then I turned to look at Carl with his six-foot frame hunched over as he climbed out of the jump seat. “Thanks,” I said to him.

“Thank you for covering the signing ceremony,” was all he said with a smile.

I followed him as we exited the plane thinking this is the type of leader I would follow most anywhere.

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

The Last Half Century · The Work World

How a Stupid Typing Class Changed my Life

In 1975 I was required to take a half-year of typing during my freshman year in high school. “That’s stupid,” I remarked. “I’ll never need to use typing.” I could not see any reason to master a keyboard in a paper and pen world. Despite my grumbling, I endured the class and learned to type 25 words per minute (wpm) on a manual typewriter. At the time, I had no idea how important 25 wpm would be.

Six years later in college, I changed my major to journalism. I soon discovered one of the requirements to get into my first reporting class was to type at least 25 wpm with only five mistakes. Basically I had to pass the typing test or change my major. I knew I could type up to 25 wpm thanks to my high school typing class, but could I do it with five mistakes or less? I still remember the stopwatch ticking as I furiously pounded the keys on the manual typewriter, knowing my future was at stake. One minute later I passed the 25 wpm mark with seven mistakes.

“Do you think you can keep up in the reporting class?” The teaching assistant said as she looked at me after pointing to my seven mistakes. “You have to type stories in class,” she explained. “Sure,” I confidently replied, not really sure if I could or not. All I wanted was to get into that reporting class. She approved me for the class and I soon found out I had a lot to learn.

“I’ve been a reporter for more than 20 years,” my instructor announced the first day of reporting class. “I run the news bureau at the capitol.” I felt intimidated by his experience and immediately feared my mere 25 wpm would not cut it. “First rule of journalism,” he continued as he reached into a large paper bag next to the podium. “The newsroom runs on caffeine.” He proceeded to pull out a drip coffee maker and told us he would provide all the coffee we needed. He made a point not to provide stir sticks to mix in the powder creamer and sugar. “Use your pencil for that,” he explained. “And call me Bill.”

After we all had a cup of coffee next to our manual typewriters, Bill then asked us to type a sentence he had written on the chalkboard. The room instantly came alive with the loud racket of 25 manual typewriters— keys clacking, bells ringing at the end of a margin and the zipping sound of carriages advancing to the next line. The noise made it hard to concentrate.

I was one of the last to finish typing the sentence and when the room was quiet we all stared at Bill. “Did you hear that?” he asked. My fellow students and I looked at each other with blank expressions. “The typewriters?” A classmate finally offered. “Exactly!” Bill smiled. “You need to get used to working in a noisy newsroom full of typewriters, shouting and wire service printers,” he explained.

A few weeks later I entered the classroom before the start of class and everyone was at the windows staring outside. I joined them and immediately spotted the rising column of black smoke from a burning building on campus not far from where we stood. “Well, just don’t stand there,” Bill said when he entered the room. “Go get the story! Be back here in an hour and type up what you find out in an article that will be due at the end of class.” I felt sorry for the fire chief on the scene as 25 inexperienced journalism students descended on him with questions about the fire. We quickly learned how to work under the pressure of deadlines — that breaking news can change your plans in an instant.

The practical things Bill taught in that reporting class served me well throughout my career. He nurtured my writing skills, even though the first few articles I submitted were horrible. He taught me to have a natural curiosity about things, to thoroughly research a story as he challenged me to have more sources in the stories I submitted to him. When I worked in a rambunctious creative department in an ad agency, I thrived on the creative energy displayed in the noisy work environment. Each time I stirred my coffee with a pencil, I recalled Bill’s words from that first day of reporting class. I always appreciated the fact that somehow Bill saw my ability as a writer even when I doubted myself.

If I hadn’t learned typing in high school, I probably would’ve changed my major instead of taking a typing class in college. I would’ve also missed out on Bill’s wisdom and encouragement. Which also means I probably wouldn’t be blogging. Sometimes in life things that seem insignificant — things we are made to do that seem stupid at the time — can prove to be important to our life.

The Last Half Century · The Work World

How Someone Helped Me Get My First Job at Their Competitor

When I look back on my career I recognize that I owe a lot to the people who helped me along the way — people who took time to mentor or advocate for me when there was nothing for them to gain by helping me. One person in particular stands out to me.

A few decades ago, with college graduation a few months away, I began looking for a job by sending out a paper cover letter and resume through the mail to 50 targeted companies – yes in those days we used paper and the U.S. Postal Service. Many never responded, some sent rejection letters, but one person took the time to call me.

Dave from J.I. Case called to tell me he did not have any openings but he would be happy to meet with me. A few weeks later, during a spring break trip to visit relatives, I stopped to see him in Racine, Wisconsin. I remember sitting in his office and talking for almost an hour. I’m sure he had better ways to spend his time, but he told me before I left that he would watch for any potential job openings. I left thinking I would never hear from Dave again.

About a month later an envelope arrived from J.I. Case. I was surprised when I opened it to find an Advertising Age ad from Deere & Company seeking a copywriter in their advertising department. Scribbled on the copy of the ad was a note, “I know they’re my competitor, but I thought it would be worth a shot.” It was signed, “Dave.” I couldn’t believe he actually thought of me and took the time to copy the ad and send it to me. I was even more amazed that he sent me an ad from his competitor! I immediately sent my resume to Deere & Company.

A few weeks later I heard from Deere. They wanted me to go to a John Deere dealer, get a brochure for their hay equipment, and write an ad for their round balers. I secured the brochure, wrote the ad and sent it off. They liked the writing sample and flew me out to their headquarters in Moline, Illinois for an interview. That ultimately led to a job offer and my first job out of college as a writer in Deere & Company’s advertising department.

When I received the job offer, I immediately called Dave and thanked him for taking the time to meet with me and for sending the ad. I told him that I would not have gotten the job if he had not taken the time to send me the ad. He laughed and simply said, “You can thank me by doing the same for someone else.”

More than 30 years after Dave took time to help me land my first job out of college, I still have to be reminded to “do the same for someone else.” In the course of a busy work day, it can be hard to stop and think that there is a person at the other end of a request. Taking a few minutes to respond could change someone’s life.

© 2020, CGThelen

Below: The toy tractor and wagon that sat on my desk at my first job out of college.

The Work World

The Chance of a Lifetime

Every once in a while you encounter the chance of a lifetime. I’m not talking about an opportunity at fame or fortune, but those rare moments in life when you upstage someone who has more power and prestige than you. I had one of those moments early in my career and I lived to tell about it.

In the early 1980s I was hired by John Deere as a copywriter. I was in my early 20s and it was my first job out of college after receiving a degree in Journalism. I was thrilled to earn a regular paycheck even if I was only writing machinery brochures and advertisements. As I cranked out the copy month after month, I kept telling myself that I was building my portfolio for the next step up. Two years into the job, my opportunity came.

A headhunter called me. She was looking for a writer to work for the advertising agency that handled the marketing for Ford Tractor, a direct competitor to John Deere. There was something about going to work for a competitor that gave me a sense of adventure. I agreed to send her my resume and writing samples. Two weeks later I was sitting in the conference room of the ad agency across from the creative director and the vice president of the firm.

“Our client is beating us up about our work. He’s challenged us to hire a writer from their competitor,” the vice president told me. “You’re just what we need.”

Suddenly my ego was over-inflated. They actually needed me to keep their client happy. I would be their hero if I went to work for them. I agreed to their job offer and the following Monday I was back at my old job plotting my departure. I knew that the moment I told them I was going to work for a competitor, they would immediately escort me out the door for fear I would take trade secrets with me.

For two weeks I slowly cleaned out my desk, keeping only enough items on display so as not to create any suspicion. I also worked to wrap up as many projects as I could and assembled a list of pending projects. Someone once told me to leave a job on good terms because you never know when you might need your former employer. My wife and I also made arrangements for a moving van and a temporary place to live. After three weeks of preparations, moving day was upon us.

The moving truck showed up in the morning on schedule and I went to work. My plan was to tell my boss after lunch and then I would promptly be dismissed. Everything went as planned and the next morning we were off to a new city and a new job. Two days later I was sitting in my new office getting oriented to my new job. The vice president of the ad agency was anxious to have me meet their client. That opportunity arrived about a month after my arrival.

The Vice President (VP) of Marketing for Ford Tractor, the agency’s major client, was sitting at the head of a big table in the ad agency conference room with two of his staff members sitting on each side. The entire agency creative and account team filled the rest of the table. I was sitting at the back corner of the table almost directly across from the VP from Ford Tractor. The vice president of our agency wasted no time in introducing me.

“Here is the writer we hired from John Deere,” he proudly announced, pointing to me.

I nodded and smiled. The politeness abruptly ended at that point.

“So, you wrote advertising for our competitor,” the VP said as he frowned at me with a skeptical look.

“Yes,” I replied. My pulse quickened as I prepared for an interrogation by a seasoned professional. How could I possibly match wits with my meager three years of experience?

He quickly scanned a dozen or so John Deere product brochures he had spread out on the table in front of him. I watched as he grabbed a brochure and waved it at me.

“What makes you think you can write a brochure as good as this one,” the VP snapped.

“Because I wrote that brochure,” I replied with a smile.

To my amazement, he had selected a brochure that I wrote for John Deere a few months before joining the ad agency. The room was dead silent for a moment. With one sentence, a lowly writer had disarmed this executive in front of the entire ad agency staff.

Suddenly the VP broke out in laughter. The tension in the room immediately lifted and we began a productive discussion of the marketing strategy for the coming year.

I now realize that was a rare moment in my career. It’s not often we get a chance to disarm someone with position and power who is intent on tearing you down. It was a chance of a lifetime that I more fully appreciate now more than 30 years later.

© 2020, CGThelen

(Below: The infamous brochure.)