Could This Happen Today?

I was talking to one of our favorite clients the other day.  She’s a member of this elite group for a number of reasons; she’s smart, talented, generous, a life-long learner who’s fiercely committed to her people and their development, an authentic leader.

She shared a funny ‘teachable moment’ story with us.  I was struck by the quality of character demonstrated in her story and asked if she would allow me to share it here.  Not surprisingly she said ‘Yes, but only if you don’t use my real name.”

So for the purposes of this blog entry, let’s call her Elizabeth Burrows.

It was 1966. Elizabeth Burrows, a young professional woman, who had moved from New York to California, was having a hard time. Having landed the job as the first female Production Editor for a monthly auto magazine, she was facing some of the historical gender bias of the time. The Managing Editor had just quit, no replacement had been named, and a new Publisher was coming in. “A hard-ass,” Elizabeth heard, “Legendary.” To add to the chaos, Elizabeth was having issues with the writers (all male) meeting deadlines.  Given all of this, Elizabeth was sure that as soon as the new Publisher took over, she would be fired.

“Bets were being taken about how soon I’d get the boot,” she said. “So I did everything the best way I knew how. I cut down overhead – I was the first person who did that. For two weeks I kept asking for the over-due articles.  No one cooperated. The issue’s deadline was looming, and the writers still hadn’t turned in their stuff. So the night of the deadline, I asked the custodian to lock the door at 5pm, and not open it until I told him to. The writers bitched and moaned. But by midnight, they had all finished their manuscripts and were free to go home. The message was clear: “Deadlines are real. And this will be our weekly process until the manuscripts show up on time.”

A week later, the new Publisher showed up. He called Elizabeth into his office. She was sure it was her D-Day. But before she said anything, this “legendary hard-ass” pulled out a business card with her name on it – and ‘Managing Editor’—underneath. He told Elizabeth, “I don’t care if you’re blue, green, red or purple. I need someone to get the magazine out on time and you are doing it. The day you aren’t, you won’t have the job anymore.”

“When he announced it,” Elizabeth told me, “you should have seen the jaws drop.”

I asked her what it was like in the office after that. “Surprisingly,” she said, “I became good pals with many of the guys. We used to have drinks after work. I learned from them what some of their challenges were. They learned from me some of the business issues. In fact, they would even ask me to come along on some of the stories they were covering. It became a very nice working relationship.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about Elizabeth’s story the last few weeks, and the value of taking personal responsibility for your work, and doing the right thing – not just the easy thing. Elizabeth could have covered for her writers, but instead she held them to higher standards – making them complete their jobs and fulfill their commitments – even if that meant she had to lock the doors to make sure promises were kept and budgets met. She helped those men see they were responsible for the success of the business too, not just upper management. She thought she was risking her job. Instead, she was rewarded for it.

“Ultimately, I think if you make a contract, you have a personal responsibility to fulfill it. Not just me, but everyone, at every level. You have to operate under the idea that you are responsible for your career. You are responsible for your own destiny.”

How many of us operate this way? Do we stand up to make sure challenges are met, or do we make excuses for why the work doesn’t meet the highest standards possible? What is our responsibility for the culture we are creating—intentionally or unintentionally—by the attitudes we bring? Would we be willing to risk our positions to make the work better? Would we have the confidence and courage to put it all on the line, the way Elizabeth did when she was first making her way in the business world? If not, why not? What’s standing in our way?

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