May 2, 2016

The 4th Choice for the Job

I was the 4th choice for a job in a "dying" business from which I retired a CEO 30 years later.

Image of success

People tend to look at any successful individual and believe that his or her success was foreordained and that the path was made easy for him/her.

My path to the CEO position at Pitney Bowes was anything but that. In September, 1978, the law firm at which I worked told me that I should seek other employment. I thought I had a new position in late 1978, and even notified my firm to seek my replacement. However, the firm offering me a job withdrew the offer because we could not agree on a starting date.

I panicked and responded to over 100 newspaper ads. I was uniformly rejected using this scattershot approach. A recruiter set up six New York interviews and I was rapidly and insultingly rejected by every firm I interviewed in one horrible January, 1979, day. One partner told me that I was unqualified for anything above an “entry level” job, despite my strong educational credentials and five years of work experience.

I realized I was approaching the job search completely wrong. I was making two big mistakes:

  • I needed to stop pursuing law firm jobs, because I was uncomfortable acquiring new clients, something law firms demanded. Moreover, I was poorly matched to a business in which billing more hours to a project, when fewer hours would be sufficient, was more heavily rewarded.
  • I had not determined what kind of corporate legal department would match my capabilities and values.

My fiancée, Joyce, whom I married a few weeks later, told me that she preferred that we relocate to the New York metropolitan area. Hence, I narrowed my geographic search considerably.

I identified 15 companies that met my specifications: a corporation whose markets and values were compatible with mine (e.g. I would not work for a tobacco or armaments company); a small legal department in which the attorneys were generalists, rather than specialists; a corporation that could guarantee me ready access to senior management; and that valued its attorneys.

Poet John Milton once wrote that “Luck is the residue of design.” Pitney Bowes was on my list, but I had no idea how to make contact with it. Luckily, my fruitless response to an ad for another corporate legal position led to a conversation with a recruiter. He was most impressed with the thoughtfulness of my letter in describing my interests.

He asked me if I had any target companies. When I mentioned Pitney Bowes, he told me that the company was looking for an attorney. He secured interviews for me on February 7, 1979.

The recruiter called me back four days later to tell me that Pitney Bowes had instituted a hiring freeze on all staff positions because of a pending acquisition of Dictaphone Corporation. Dictaphone had a General Counsel and two senior counsels, all of whom had to decline the position before it could be offered to me.

All three Dictaphone attorneys declined it. I accepted the job starting at $32,500 on March 31, 1979. The pay was so far below market rates, as was all Pitney Bowes’ corporate staff pay, that everyone in corporate staff positions received 14% pay increases in July, 1979.

Colleagues at my law firm told me that I was taking a big career step backwards and that my pay would top out at around $50,000. Others told me that I was starting at an unexciting company in a dying, unglamorous business. The recruiter told me that I had virtually no chance to become the General Counsel, because the Deputy was the “heir apparent” and that a senior counsel was the backup choice for General Counsel.

I worked exceptionally hard and immersed myself in understanding everything I could about Pitney Bowes’ business. I attended a two-week sales training school to get a ground-level understanding of the Company’s products, services, and top sales professionals and managers, all of whom had great CEO-level access.

I also did a lot of unglamorous work of preparing affidavits for a major case in 1979 and 1980, which helped me learn a lot about the Company and the people who made things happen.

The Deputy left in 1984 to take a General Counsel position elsewhere, and, tragically, the more senior counsel became ill and eventually passed away at age 43 in 1989. The Company’s CEO George Harvey would only fill the General Counsel position from inside, and I was the most senior candidate. I secured the job in 1988 when the General Counsel retired.

Over the next eight years, I took on a variety of assignments and became the CEO in May, 1996.

Looking back on my career, there certainly was luck involved at multiple points, but, in each case, the “design” factor made me able to take advantage of the “luck.” Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers started with the account of how Bill Gates was “lucky” that his private school had an unusually well equipped computer lab that supercharged his learning about operating systems. My reaction was that, while Gates was “lucky” to be in that school, he was the only one who had the passion and foresight to take advantage of the access.

Likewise, anyone else could have done everything I did to prepare myself for a high level position, but I was the only one who chose to do so. In fact, the opportunity to get a job at Pitney Bowes was most likely available because the Company paid well below market.

When I advise people looking for jobs today, I understand the differences between their situations and mine. However, there are lessons from my experience:

  • The key to successful employment is to understand thoroughly what you want and to do your homework before sending off a resume. The “shotgun” approach of sending resumes to hundreds of prospective employers is like playing the slot machines in a casino.
  • Responding to online ads is also often an exercise in futility. You need to find another way to acquaint the prospective employer with you. LinkedIn profiles are a wonderful way to find someone with whom you can connect.
  • If you should get an interview, you need to articulate how your vision for the organization and your skills uniquely match what the organization has articulated for its vision. When I interviewed at Pitney Bowes, I was well acquainted with the many predictions about the likely decline in mail, and was uniquely prepared to address them.
  • Employ basic common courtesy. Write thank you notes to everyone you see, and reinforce what he or she has said or done that enhances your interest in being hired.
  • If you are hired, do as much as possible to understand everything you can about the organization’s people, markets, history, and culture, and help out however you can. I always remember the retired Los Angeles Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda, who often said “I bleed Dodger blue.” Your supervisor and others in senior management should be able to observe that about you.
  • Always remember Albert Einstein’s famous quote when someone described him as a “genius:” “It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer.” Become someone who stays with the problems of your organization longer and tries to solve them.
  • Getting to the CEO job requires both luck and skill, but, even if you fail to get there, you will land in a great position. As the great football coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Perfection is not attainable, but, if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.

I would not trade my journey for anyone else’s. I hope those who follow this advice will feel the same. I did quite well for being a “4th choice” for a job in a “dying” business that is still around and promising 37 years later.