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The Portfolio Bubble: Surviving Professionally at 60
The words seem so harmless now, but a half dozen years ago, they were devastating. I felt like a death row inmate walking that famous Green Mile. For the first time in my life, I was being fired, sort of.
I had done nothing wrong. And, most everyone acknowledged my bosses, my staff that I had done most everything right. But, there were those haunting words from the company's chief operating officer via telephone from New York: "We've picked someone else."
My office in the World Trade Center in the capital of Russia overlooked the Moscow River. I vaguely remember walking to the window, looking down from the ninth floor, and thinking it was such a beautiful day for a freight train to collide with my career. There are times in our lives when we seem to have these out-of-body experiences, as if this horrible thing couldn't be happening to me. But it was. It was 1998.
I was 53, and had a ton of responsibilities, none-the-least of which was I was about to become a new father at a time when most professional people are picking out RVs for retirement journeys. I had often joked that my next retirement goal was age 94, provided I don't pick up other responsibilities.
A few weeks earlier, I had returned from London after an emergency meeting with the chief executive officer of my company. I was sure the meeting had gone quite well, and, in fact, it had. He had largely agreed with me on my assessment of our business potential in Moscow, though was uncertain about another area of my responsibility, Ukraine.
However, in the intervening weeks, I had been out-politicked and outmaneuvered in the home office. Now I was about to be fired, optioned out, placed on waivers, put out to pasture - whatever one wishes to call the purgatory of unknowing.
This, even though the Moscow office I led was somewhat of a comeback story for the company, turning a profit on the commercial side of the business there for the first time in its history. A succession of managing directors some high-profile executives in the company had failed in the rough and tumble business climate of Eastern Europe. Several had lost a lot of money, but they were, for the most part, younger, and the forgiveness factor was great.
To my company, I was somewhat of a fossil, merely by being of a certain age in a game of youth. Rarely do you see public relations professionals over age 50 in the agency business, even in the high executive ranks.
(As I write this, Dave Drobis of the worldwide PR agency Ketchum has been offloaded by parent holding company Omnicom at age 62. Drobis is founding chair of the Council of Public Relations Firms. Omnicom previously dumped Drobis' partner, Paul Alvarez, at the ripe old age of 55. In year 2000, Walt Lindenmann, considered one of the PR industry's top researchers, was RIFed out of the business at age 64.)
In reality, however, I was like a fish in water in Eastern Europe. At any job I ever held, I had risen through the ranks. I had handled such difficult assignments in the past that Moscow was simply another test, and not really a terribly difficult one, since I had good people working under me. And I had excellent people.
I had excelled as a reporter, becoming, at that time, one of United Press International's youngest state managers at age 28. I went on to work for a U.S. senator at age 31, quickly rising to become a top confidante, traveling with him around the globe to meet with world leaders on the issues of the day. At 39, I had helped elevated a Rockefeller to the U.S. Senate as his communications director and at 40 started my first company, an advertising and public relations agency that won best of show honors in five of seven years in major regional advertising competitions. I had joined my current company in its Washington office, starting out as senior vice president and director of media. After a year, I was given responsibility for the federal government's most comprehensive education program in Eastern Europe. A year later, I was named executive vice president, or managing director, as the position later became known. Because of these successes, I had been lured to Moscow to lead my company into the black in that dangerous market. Up until this time, the thought of losing a job had never entered my mind.
On the telephone from his office in New York, the COO had been friendly but serious. He opened with that crucial line "We've picked someone else" then continued that the company might be able to find another position for me in Europe. He was and is a nice guy, but he was using weasel words. My options were limited, and he would have been happy had I fallen on my sword, so long as I didn't bleed all over the company. He knew I wasn't the type of person to be shuffled to a minor post, left to languish, and eventually let go because of lack of billable hours.
Charge, Not Retreat
I didn't quit. I fell back on my life's portfolio, and rebounded instead of retreating. Less than five years later, I emerged as one of the more noted and notable executives in the same company. By this time, though. I was on the outside looking in as president and CEO of my own company, affiliated with the firm that once harbored thoughts of letting me go. It was a much better and more profitable view. My portfolio was expanding.
In fact, the president of the company was now inviting me to lunch, as was the new COO. The founding chairman, a giant in the field of public relations, was praising my books on a topic in which he had been a pioneer, and certainly had more expertise: public relations.
This, however, is not a story about one man's effort to overcome the career odds upon reaching that vulnerable stage in a professional life where one has a basketball tummy and oddly placed sprigs of hair. It is about all so-called baby-boomers - both men and women. It is a call to action, a manifesto of sorts. Charge!
Approaching 60 at 80 MPH
When I complete this book, I will be nearly 60 years old. Actuarial tables suggest that I will be 14.4 years away from the date when relatives will have to choose between bronze and pinewood for my remains. I prefer the pine, though other methods of disposal are available, from the ever-popular cremation to the newfangled and ecologically correct freeze-drying.
Living in Eastern Europe, the charts are not so liberal. In fact, according to World Health Organization figures, I have already lived my allotted time. However, I do not smoke, unless one considers an occasional Cuban Monte Cristo cigar or a bowl of Captain Black's pipe tobacco. My boozing days are long behind me, relegated to what I call drinking Fridays. I put away three vodka martinis on such evenings, whether I want to or not. However, I had led a rather hell-bent-for-leather life, and friends of mine joked that we were middle-age crazy back when we were mere lads of 25.
How Are We Viewed
We are stereotyped, just like the cartoon character Mr. Magoo, near-sighted and bumbling from place to place, or the commercial caricature of "granny" on so many television sitcoms. We are put into the same square box, regardless our achievements.
The presidential election of 2000, with the multitude of stories about ballots being disqualified due to the confusion of Florida's older citizens, is a case in point. We in the bubble and beyond were branded as being addled and helpless for not being able to read what was described as relatively simple punchcard ballots. The fact was that it had nothing to do with age and everything to do with the design of the ballot. However, the stigma remains.
A 1998 survey (American Business and Older Employees) of older working Americans by the AARP indicates that we are believed to have a good work ethic. It is also generally considered that we bring experience, knowledge and stability to the workplace. On the other hand, we are also characterized as being inflexible, adverse to change and resistant to learning and understanding new technologies (Tell that to my mother, Mary Willard, who started using a computer at age 80).
But this might be partially true. I wince at having to learn a new computer program, and admit that my digital Dictaphone took more brainpower to figure out than I would care to commit. Still, if need be, we do learn those software programs, and my recording device has become my next best friend. True, I haven't played a computer game since those table models of the 1970s and wouldn't know Mortal Kombat if I stumbled over it.
On the other hand, like most in the portfolio bubble those of us who want to extend our working lives I am an avid reader, and in the last six months have breezed through several books a month. Most were related to my vocation of marketing, advertising and public relations.
Among the qualities of all workers cited in the survey as most desired by human resources managers is a commitment to doing quality work. However, the perception Human Resources managers have of older Americans (and they count anyone over 50 as older) is that this group of people, above all characteristics, is most known for being loyal and dedicated to the company, with commitment to quality of work coming in a close second. This, to me, seems a rather admirable trait.
The HR people - in my view a rather expendable lot themselves cite the ability to get along with co-workers as the second-most desired quality. However, studies show that older folk are a cantankerous lot, and rank dead last in this category.
A Page from History
When I was only 25, I had the opportunity to interview a man named John Thomas Scopes. You might remember him from the history books as the subject of the famous and so-called Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee. There was a classic movie, "Inherit the Wind," made about the trial. Scopes was the tall, skinny defendant, and seemed so out of place in the midst of the courtroom's legal giants: defense attorney Clarence Darrow and prosecutor William Jennings Bryan, a fiery orator and politician.
My interview took place on the campus of Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee in 1970, while the spectacular trial had been in the sepia-tinted frame of 1925.
I remember Scopes' appearance: He had liver spots the size of nickels and a quivering lower lip. A slight dribble eased from the corner of his mouth when he talked. It was all quite in contrast to black and white photos I saw of him in a straw boater and nappy suit during what was billed as the "trial of the century." In facial expression, he appeared in 1925 as did the character playing his part in the movie; someone removed from the plot. His brief moment in history 45 years earlier was like the flicker of a butterfly's wings. He had returned to school, obtained an advanced degree and had spent much of his life as a geologist in Venezuela or working for an oil company. Aside from the one moment of fame, there had been little to rate a line in newspapers.
One can only guess that Scopes had led a satisfying life, and that was certainly the story he played out for me on this spring day, that of a character jerked from obscurity to appear on America's front pages for the briefest of moments. Several weeks later he died of natural causes. He was only into his seventh decade, a mere ten years into the red zone, but had looked much older. But then I was only in my mid-20s at the time.
Scopes comes to mind as one begins a book journey, and that is what a manuscript is in a portfolio frame of mind, a drama of awakening, an adventure of sorts that jells from need, rather than want. At the time, I looked upon Scopes as a fossil, a curiosity, a misshapen rock or shell with unique properties. He was a minor-league personage, an accidental happening, something to be put on a shelf, maybe under lock and key. He was not a person. He was a dusty history page, and, though the movie was 1960 vintage, he was not that character either, but someone terribly miscast.
As I sit down and commit words to paper, I find myself the judge and jury of my own portfolio life, and questioning whether it measures up to the minimal standards of John Thomas Scopes. Of course it probably doesn't. He had his Kodak moment, yanked as he was out of obscurity. Where was mine? What is there left for any of us who have crept deep into middle age?
Certain people in the news media have described my own life as colorful. Because of my habit of being where most people wanted to overthrow their government, my son-in-law dreamily thought I was, perhaps, a secret agent for a government. He wasn't sure which one.
This was not true, of course, and the colorful part would be a stretch to anyone who really knew me, what with my ordinary Main Street appearance and that tedious attention to routine. My driver can set his watch by my arrival at and evening departure from the office. I apologize profusely if I keep a client waiting 30 seconds, and have been known to walk away from a deal if a client were more than 30 minutes late for an appointment. Once, in fact, I was asked to hold an informal meeting with a U.S. senator and his staff at a mountain retreat in West Virginia. After an hour of cooling my heels in the reception area of the hotel, I walked out, driving the 20 or so miles back to my home. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV and his senior staff showed a few moments after I left, I was told. So, I have ordinary foibles and extraordinary pet peeves.
There are two places I have lunch in Kiev, one an Irish pub at which I have a bowl of chili and fish and chips, without eating the chips. Another is a fish house where I have, ironically, a salad followed by spaghetti. My work days last 13.5 hours, perhaps 15 minutes less or 15 minutes more, and after having dinner, I watch television, intermittently checking my computer e-mail, before cutting up two chilled apples, pouring a glass of iced tea and hitting the sack at precisely 10:30. I read for 90 minutes, getting up on workdays at 5:45 each morning, where upon I check e-mail at my home office, and then watch CNN from 6:30 to 7:00 while having a bowl of cereal. A shave and a shower and I am out the door at precisely 7:30. I am inanely Germanic in this respect.
But I bore you with this humdrum trivia to protect you, lest you suspect the author is more interesting than the book. I am not. I survived a series of accidental career landings, almost like a pinball in one of those dazzling machines with the near-naked lady illustration. I lit up the scoreboard on occasion, but never hit the jackpot. I seemed to be in the right place at the right time, most of the time. When I had bad luck, it seemed to be immediately followed by good fortune. It was serendipity or happenstance, two frivolous words that could be summed up by John Lennon's thought, "Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans."
John Thomas Scopes thought it rather ridiculous that one would think his life had any larger purpose than working for an oil company as a geologist. In fact, some stories had it that the town fathers of Dayton believed the community needed a financial shot in the arm, and sure enough, a barn-burner of a court case would bring in the bucks.
The suggestion was that young Scopes, a schoolteacher just out of college, was recruited to be the Monkey Trial ringer; and that he, in fact, had never taught Darwin's Theory of Evolution in any class. I somehow doubt this theory, for he seemed at the time an honorable man.
He was simply an ordinary person thrust into an extraordinary, though minimally important, role. It could be that he also went to and left work at the same time, and had lunch at the same restaurants.
A Good Soldier
I worked hard to earn the title of Kentucky state manager and editor for United Press International when still in my 20s, but soon after purchasing a house, the company suggested that West Virginia was the place for me. They had a concrete reason based, of course, on more business and I laterally moved several hours east. I was a good soldier, and within a year a U.S. Senator I had not previously known in any way, shape or form invited me to Washington, D.C. to be his press secretary. I had no idea that he was about to become the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate. I had little knowledge of what a majority leader was, or the immense power that the position held. I had only once visited the nation's capital as a tourist while on a low-intensity job search.
Thus began an education of sorts, moving in rarified company among presidents, kings, and dictators, benevolent and otherwise. One could assume it added invaluably to my portfolio education, but, on reflection, it is difficult to gauge.
The globetrotting often seemed like a traveling vaudeville act, though certainly not because it lacked seriousness. It was, at times, too serious; and one would have to wonder if the entourage usually fewer than ten of us rolling around in a specially equipped Boeing 707 from the President's fleet - was of sufficient gravity to sit in on meetings with the wold's elite leaders.
But, of course, we were. We were young. We were on a holy crusade to bring peace in our time, or something resembling it. While we knew the various United Nations' articles could even recite them verbatim we didn't have a clear idea of the historical context that would have required a longer view, perhaps 2000 years. But, it was a learning process and we were still in our 30s.
That is what a Portfolio Life is all about. The maturing of that learning process, a journey that has 15-minute refreshment and bathroom breaks on occasion, but the black ribbon and white broken lines go on until, one day, there is a last wheeze and gasp before death.
There is no set time for this eventual happening. Mortality charts are averages. If the object of life were to cross off a to-do list, then, in reality, we have no given time frame. Much has to do with a pre-determined DNA pattern and avoiding that big gasoline tanker and its sleep-deprived driver on the Interstate. My father, Herald Willard, died at age 53 of a coronary. He didn't have time to chart a portfolio life, but I believe, given his nervous energy, he would have developed one.
To my knowledge he was never on a golf course, and he would have thought those big tricycles in Sun City a mite silly. In the office around the corner from me is my partner, David Payne, an Englishman whose father died at the age of 57, also of a heart attack. On the other side of my family, as my brother once noted in jest, "You can't kill them with a stick." My mother is in her early 80s, and she has two older sisters. My partner has a mother in her late 80s, and I once met one of his great uncles who, in his mid-80s, was a former ship's captain who was traveling alone around the world.
Aging is an inevitable and natural process, though some might argue to the contrary. It is also a fact that aging is being pushed both upward and downward. Barely post-pubescent girls of 14 can, in some cases, pass for 21, their bare midriffs adorned with navel jewelry. Children who once had Kool-Aidฎ stains on their lips are now smudged with China red lipstick, purple eye shadow and pink rouge. They are marched out to compete in beauty contests with similarly adorned children playing grown-up.
On the other end of the scale, a century ago middle-aged was mid-30s, but now the bar has been raised (or lowered) such that this benchmark is beyond 50, or, even 60 years of age.
In 2002, Americans spent $7.7 billion on 6.9 million cosmetic procedures on an effort to look and feel younger, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. This included 1.7 million Botox injections for facial wrinkles, 495,000 chemical peels, 125,000 facelifts and 83,000 tummy tucks.
But the fact remains that regardless of how much we spend, there is one universal truth: We are all predisposed to die at some time, and this has been the depressing situation since upright man arrived on earth some 300 million years ago. The question is when, and guessing and worrying about it is a rather useless pastime, even though many of us engage in it.
One day, scientists might be able to determine the precise year and month each individual will leave this Earth. I certainly hope not, for it does untold havoc to portfolio thinking. Until that day, however, a revitalized life can begin and a professional life can continue at 60 and beyond.
In 1932, Walter B. Pitkin wrote a book called Life Begins at 40, and it was published two years later. An amusing movie starring the humorist Will Rogers was made from it in 1935. At the time, the life expectancy of the average American male was 58. Today, it is nearly a decade-and-a-half longer. I think it is not too much of a stretch, given modern medicine, to suspect that many of us have a chance to reach our eighth decade (Current life expectancy for women is 79.8 years compared to a male's 74.4 years). The obvious question posed is this: What will we do with the extra time? Not all of us want to or can be greeters at Wal-Mart, and even that conglomerate doesn't have that many jobs.
This is another purpose of this book, to enlighten and encourage those of us aged 60 and beyond to choose a more enlightened and useful path - should that be your desire - and to convince the officer corps of corporate professionals that age is an advantage, rather than a hindrance. This is true, though, only if a particular man or woman has been portfolio-trained, and has steeled himself for a more goal-oriented, and with it, a more complicated life. There are no free passes for seniority and no discounts for being older if we decide to travel this route. You will need to find solace - even enjoyment - in its challenges.
It occurs to me that the term portfolio, used here, has room for misunderstanding. It is not a new term, and it is not my term. I appropriated it from business philosopher Charles Handy and his most famous book, The Empty Raincoat. Frankly, and this is purely amateurism on my part, I felt most of the thoughts Handy expounded about the future of corporate business to be more fanciful than factual, somewhat wishful. But the narration on the need to develop a life portfolio was like being Saul struck down on the road to Tarsus, particularly coming at a crucial time in my life. The problem was, he didn't lay out a roadmap on how to achieve that portfolio life, other than throw out a few scraps about being a consultant to the company putting you out to pasture.
A Crucial Time
I found myself at age 53 with the possibility of being out of a job. My working life - not including the usual myriad of part-time and summer jobs - began within two weeks after I left college, and had been uninterrupted for 35 years. In fact, from my first days of walking door-to-door selling donuts at age 12, it seemed I had been employed by someone or self-employed, usually pushing a rusty red lawnmower through various subdivisions or tossing daily newspapers on peoples' porches. After college, I had made five dramatic career turns: newsman, political aide, entrepreneur, Washington, D.C. PR executive and, finally, international businessman. In 1997, I was living in Moscow and enjoying my role as managing director and market leader of a worldwide PR firm, Burson-Marsteller. It was an exciting job, and I thought it was my dream job.
At the age of 49, I had volunteered for an overseas assignment in Kiev, Ukraine for Burson-Marsteller, running a large USAID privatization contract that followed the fall of the Soviet Union. For two years, I directed 150 people in six offices across the country, bringing the message of market reform through a variety of communications initiatives, including television and radio programs, newspapers and regional outreach efforts. When the contract expired, I opened B-M's first commercial office in Ukraine, taking with me the best and the brightest in my reform program.
Success does not necessarily guarantee job security. This is, perhaps, the first lesson one should learn as he or she enters what we will refer to as the portfolio bubble, a time when "what-if" decisions should have been made and acted on. The most vulnerable are those in their 50s in senior management positions. While being expensive to the company in salary and benefits, they are not, particularly in large organizations, the core decision-makers of company strategy or policy. They have fallen or are about to fall into a red zone, with each corporate downturn potentially spelling early retirement. There is also the distinct possibility they will work for a much younger executive.
The USAID contract had been a money bonanza for my company, and the new B-M office made all of the goals set for it in the first year. Then the company asked me to lead various programs funded by World Bank loans in Russia. I reluctantly accepted, preferring commercial activity to the government business. However, I saluted like a good executive soldier, and packed my bags. Besides, I had been told Ukraine was still my territory, and to spend sufficient time there to make sure it was also a success.
It was the wrong decision. While I loved Moscow, the government-funded portion of the job turned into a nightmare involving a personality conflict with a colleague much more steeped in Russian knowledge, and who had, at that time, more political pull in the New York headquarters. Within months, I made a strategic retreat, gravitating totally to the commercial side of the business which, even before, was also my overall responsibility. Instead of being tethered to the U.S., I became a member of the European board of directors, reporting to London instead of New York. I was happy once again, thinking I had maneuvered through my predicament.
In politics, so the saying goes, if one goes after the king, he must slay the king. Figurative, the same is true for business. My adversarial colleague on the World Bank side of the business was rather vindictive. I had merely nicked him, a superficial wound at best. Meanwhile, I was blithely and obliviously happy, spending weekends wandering around this city I had grown to love, and with guidebook in hand, walking in the footsteps of Peter the Great.
My new role lasted just long enough for me, working with a brilliant team, to return the company's commercial efforts in Moscow to profitability. However, remembering the axiom of success being no guarantor of security, I was called to an urgent meeting in London to meet with the company's CEO. Thus began the spiral of what could have been corporate death.
(An aside here, I use my own angst throughout these pages not as a method of score settling, but because one's own experiences represent the most obvious fount of knowledge. And, in the end, I not only survived, but victoriously succeeded. Score settling is merely collateral damage, and I make it even less painful by not naming names.)
To many of us, however, without a certain amount of portfolio thinking, we end up premature corporate pensioners, or worse, the wards of our children as broken individuals. In my travels, I have met many of these people, veterans of IBM, GE, GM or any number of corporate alphabet companies, sucking down double Scotches and moaning that they "were somebody" long ago. It is a sad sight. When I entered a room with the chieftains of B-M's European leadership in attendance, plus the worldwide CEO, I was in danger of becoming such an individual though I didn't realize it at the time.
They were not obtuse, taking a mere ten seconds after handshakes to get to the point. I had flown in from Moscow the night before, puzzled at having been summoned to meet with the president and CEO, a fellow who had actually hired me several years earlier in Washington, D.C. We had both come up in the PR world through politics, he with Bill Brock, a senator from Tennessee, me with the legendary Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia.
With stone faces, they told me that the company most likely would close the Kiev office I had founded, and that they were not certain what to do with the Moscow office. After getting over the shock, I launched into a rather impassioned plea.
I obtained a stay of execution for the Moscow office, and they hinted at reconsidering the Kiev decision, though the profitable Ukrainian market seemed an afterthought. I felt the potential of commercial business in Moscow was huge, though the government-funded work had a limited lifespan. Kiev had its limitations, but we operated both advertising and public relations agencies. Between the two, we had racked up a considerable amount of business, including profitable Philip Morris and Kraft accounts.
"Look," I said, "Eastern Europe is made up of more than 200 million people. They drink soda pop, eat candy, smoke cigarettes and clean their bathrooms. We're talking Coca-Cola, Kraft, Philip Morris and Unilever here. You can't afford to abandon them."
They noted that the company's parent, Young & Rubicam, would soon be listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and they were trying to rid the balance sheet of risky markets. Already, the decision had been made to sell offices in Hungary and the Czech Republic to the managers of those offices, and the East European operations were hanging by a thread.
But they felt I had made a convincing case, at least for the moment.
The company decided to send a consultant to the Moscow market, someone who had previously headed European operations for the company. I flew back to Russia that afternoon, convinced that my Moscow team was secure and that with a little more effort, I could save the Kiev office as well. My logic in presenting the case, while perhaps not Socratic, was unimpeachable.
Remember that first rule about success being no guarantor of security? The second rule is just as important: Once a corporate argument is won, it is only won until the next voice is heard.
My Moscow adversary outflanked me, flying directly to the Madrid home of the consultant being sent in to evaluate the Moscow operation. The silver-tongued devil succeeded in laying out a convincing story, arguing that he should be market leader for Russia and that the funded portion of the business and commercial offices should be combined. And, he made a salient point: The current market leader (yours truly), didn't even speak fluent Russian.
Here I was, snookered on what might be called a portfolio fact, one of those nagging little nuances that seem obvious to all except the main character of the drama. At that time, I had spent nearly four years in the Wild East, and managed to lead the largest USAID education program in the world, established a successful office in Kiev, and turned the Moscow commercial office into a profitable operation. But, because I used translators as a crutch, I had not added language skill to my portfolio.
There was another factor. The government-funded business which, of course, would have a limited run in Eastern Europe was apparently going gangbusters at this time. My adversary held the trump card when it came to the World Bank business, while I was slowly, but consistently, churning out a ground game with commercial clients. At that time, the company felt funded business was profitable, though over time and after a closer look at the costs to obtain and staff the business, they felt otherwise.
This brings me to the third portfolio rule: Corporations rarely think in the long term. Publicly traded companies rarely think past the next quarterly report, and some seem challenged to plan past the next tick of the clock. Hence, decisions are most often made with the speed of a camera's shutter, and on that which will represent the most immediate payoff.
A few years earlier, a good friend, just entering the portfolio bubble, had seen his career sidetracked because as chief operations officer for his company he managed people and things, but was not responsible for a single line of business. While he had been instrumental in bringing most of the Philip Morris business through the door, that had been a few years earlier, and now the hot hand belonged to someone who was flying high with a pharmaceutical client. She was named president of the office, and he resigned a few months later.
The telephone call from my company's chief operating officer was short and to the point. "We've picked someone else to head up the Moscow operation. We think we can probably find room for you elsewhere in Europe."
The word probably hung in the air like stale cigar smoke. And then, "Oh, and by the way, I know you're close to the Ukraine operation, so I wanted you to know from me we're probably going to close it down."
I shouldn't have been surprised, but the reality of the words floored me. There had been various signs, fairly obvious tea leaves taking form. A colleague who worked directly under me had joined my Moscow adversary on a dinner cruise made up primarily of his handpicked people. The hush of the prevailing wind should have been deafening. Alliances were being formed by frightened people who wanted to pick the right horse, lest the loser not only finish last in a two-horse race, but somehow manage to veer off the racetrack entirely.
Of course I heard the buzz. I simply thought I would prevail. I always had. I had fought my way through bureaucratic wars at the U.S. Senate, which can closely be compared with the intrigues at Versailles Palace during the rule of Louis 1V.
After 30 years in the news business, the political business, the entrepreneurial business and now the public relations business, I had almost always emerged with a few cuts and bruises, but it was the other fellow on the canvas. My instinct for survival was legendary.
But no more. Something had happened. It seemed I had grown old overnight. I looked around, and I saw youngsters all around. They were me in my 20s and 30s. They were smart. They were brash. They were ambitious and they were cheap. On the other hand, I had become one of the most expensive managing directors for my company in all of Europe, pulling in, at that time, close to $200,000 a year.
What special skill did I have to offer? The office under my guidance had made money; but perhaps they figured any monkey could make money in such a vigorous business climate. With all my experience, I was an excellent mentor, and was even called "coach" by some of the staff. But mentoring was really a part-time occupation. I was a motivator, but that is one of those intangibles that are impossible to put on a human balance sheet. I had energy. "But you're over 50," perhaps they thought. "Relax."
I immediately began surveying my possibilities as the panic level went into overdrive. I began looking through the ads in The Economist magazine. I remember there being one for a crisis resolution director at a foundation in New York. They didn't respond to my e-mail. A friend said a subsidiary of my company needed a good CEO of the Atlanta office, and I immediately hopped on a flight to London where I was to meet the decision-maker, and thus my salvation. We had a nice dinner and drinks. But, I acknowledged to myself, I wouldn't buy this expensive product during an on-the-fly interview. Besides, being born in Georgia was not exactly the same as knowing the Atlanta market. I was a year old when I left the state. Why would he? Why should he? And, of course, in the final analysis, he kindly didn't.
I began thinking about a fire sale. I could live on less money, perhaps. I could certainly forego having to make a decision on what exotic place to travel on vacations. I could give up good whiskey and even those better-brand cigars. I could .
"Get a grip," I told myself. It seems I had become the latter-day version of John Thomas Scopes, though without the liver spots and the dribble - or his moment of fame.