Most of us have purchased an automobile. I don’t think anyone would argue that you’re at a huge disadvantage because it is something you do infrequently and the car salesman, especially the sales manager, does it every day. If you’re an above average negotiator, the best you can hope for is a fair deal. And if the sales manager is really good, you’ll leave the dealership “feeling” as though you got a fair deal. Whether you did, or not, of course is the subject for another day.
The job interview is a similar experience. It is not something you do very often. People change jobs about every five years according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. So, if you’re looking for a job, it is like buying a car. You are at a tremendous disadvantage. Oh sure, you can do research about the company and prepare for the interview. But, how do you know whether your boss is going to be a person who will help you grow or be threatened by you, especially if it your first job after graduating college… and you need employment?
As a young man, two work experiences set the tone for my entire career. The first took place at the Boston Brokerage Office of The Paul Revere Insurance Company where I was the first co-op student [Northeastern University] to hold a field sales position and subsequently was hired full-time upon graduation. My manager, who taught me a great deal, ran a sales contest one month and I was the winner among all the veterans in the office. It was exciting because the prize was that he would take me and my wife to dinner at a top Boston restaurant. This was 1972 and my boss earned about $140,000.00 per year. Years later I would learn that he felt the $18.00 lobster dinner I ordered was inappropriate and it tainted his view of me.
Despite the fact that my sales contributed about $3,600.00 to his personal monthly income, he believed I should have ordered something less expensive. In retrospect, what I didn’t understand was that he spent most of his career as an insurance underwriter and hadn’t made much money. Naturally, his frugal background and worldview dictated that I should have been more modest in my menu choice. Today, as a sales veteran, I am much more aware of my prospect’s worldview. I can tell that by his behavior, his office décor, and many other factors.
My manager’s viewpoint about the lobster dinner also affected his compensation decisions. I earned straight A’s during my last four years at Northeastern and was extremely achievement oriented and impatient at Paul Revere. His failure as a manager was to play to my strengths and create an incentive program that would have made him even wealthier. A little money and recognition would have done it rather than trying to teach me to wait several years like he did.
By contrast, Dave, a classmate of mine who I convinced to interview at Paul Revere took the same sales position in the company’s New York City office. He graduated first in our class and needless to say was also very achievement oriented. The big difference was that his boss in NYC did create an incentive program for him and Dave went on to become one of the most successful brokerage managers in the history of the company. I chose to leave the company and that decision could have been mitigated had my boss created a modest incentive program for me. He was in charge; it was my first real job and I was only in my early twenties.
That was the first experience to impact my career. Luck of the draw? At this point in my business life [self-employed now for 34 years], I can look back and acknowledge the role my own impatience played. However, I still believe that with an appropriate “harness” this race horse could have had a long career at The Paul Revere Insurance Company.
The second experience took place in 1975. My wife and I moved to San Francisco during October, 1974 and I took a job as a Life Sales Representative at Fireman’s Fund American Life Insurance Company. It was the same type of brokerage position I held at Paul Revere. My job was to convince the firm’s property-casualty insurance agents in my territory to also sell life insurance to their customers. I would train them and join them on sales calls.
My office was in Walnut Creek, California which was east of San Francisco. The territory I took over had placed 49th out of 50 in the company during the previous year. During my first three months there, I produced more sales than my predecessor did during the entire previous year and our office was now in third place out of 50! As a result my manager called me into his office for a private meeting and I was thrilled! Naturally, I expected a “pat on the back” and maybe even a raise or a bonus since I was receiving a salary.
Instead, my boss said to me, “You know Steve, in life there are people who need to eat steak to be happy and there are other people who are satisfied eating pork-and-beans. Around here pork-and-beans are just fine, do you get what I mean?” Wow! I did, and spent the next five or so weeks barely working. I’d go down to the Marina Green in San Francisco, sun bathe and jog half the day, at least. All the while feeling guilty because I was cheating the company, but also very angry about the situation. I was confused.
Then one day I was in the home office and the vice president of brokerage sales congratulated me for leading the company in sales for the month. At that point frustration and inexperience ruled and I said, “shame on you, I haven’t worked for a month and I’m leading your company in sales.” At that point he asked me to join him for a private conversation. The result after a couple of weeks and a threat to join the competition was that I would be triple-promoted into the home office in San Francisco to create the company’s national sales training program.
Moving to the home office was culture shock! I had always been a salesman and an expert calling on someone else. I had the company car, the expense account, and was bringing value to my customer because I knew more about the topic he was interested in than he did. The home office didn’t provide any of those rewards for me and when I created the training program within three months and presented it to management at a major sales meeting, it was a disaster. I failed to line up my alliances, which I didn’t know how to do in a corporate setting because I was always a field salesman. Besides, the program held everyone accountable. And as I experienced in Walnut Creek, and as hard as it was for me to believe, accountability and excellence wasn’t the corporate culture at Fireman’s Fund at that time.
As destiny would have it, one night during that period, a friend was coming to our apartment in San Francisco for dinner and met someone he knew on the train up to the city who told him about a business opportunity that I might be interested in. I was ripe to make a change. That was my first small business entrepreneurial experience. The second one, my own, has lasted for 35 years so far and has been a very successful run.
Looking back at my successes and failures in business, it is clear that I could have benefited from having two bosses early in my career who might have managed me differently. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened at Paul Revere if my boss was more like my friend Dave’s boss in New York City. My boss knew who he was hiring, but I didn’t know who was hiring me. Too bad you can’t hire your first boss.
© 2011-2012 Steven M. Stroum
Steven M. Stroum is the founder and president of Venmark International, a product publicity firm in Wellesley, Massachusetts. He served on a Small Business Task Force and was appointed one of 18 Small Business Advisors to the Governor of Massachusetts, toured South Korea as an Ambassador for the International Rotary Foundation, was a member of the Norbert Weiner Forum at Tufts University to study the impact of technology on society, and was listed in “Who’s Who in the East.”