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