I’m usually a reserved and calm person. But, I cried really hard once at work a little bit over a decade ago. I still remember it vividly.
At that time, I just started working as Associates Product Manager at a medium-sized enterprise software company. My job was to manage the Application Programming Interface (API) product. It was a highly technical product. Sales training was coming up. I was asked to write a training doc and train the technical sales guys.
I was highly motivated. I spent days to understand the product, interview developers, play with the API, and make several revisions.
My boss asked me to review the document with Karen. She was a senior product manager, a rising star on the team. She used to work as a developer at Oracle Corporation. According to my boss, she had the rare combination of marketing acumen and technical skills. She would be the perfect mentor for me.
I went to Karen, and asked her to review.
She said to me: "oh, can you please just email me a copy of the doc? I’m swamped with stuff right now, but I’ll definitely review it when I get a chance. Sales training is still a couple of weeks away."
I emailed her my document. A day passed. Two days passed. A week passed. I still didn’t hear anything back from her.
So, I went to her again: "hi, Karen, did you get a chance to review my doc? I’d like to incorporate your feedback and prepare for my presentations."
"Oh. No worries. I’ll get to it. I’m really swamped now. Give me a few days."
I waited for a few more days. Still no feedback. There were only two days left!
I went to Karen again. "Hi, Karen. Sales training is in two days. I really need to get your feedback and get ready for my presentation."
"Oh, don’t worry about it. I’ll take a look at it. And don’t worry about the sales training. I’ll take care of it." Karen said.
I was confused — wasn’t I supposed to get ready to present my document? I asked my boss. He told me to follow Karen’s lead. She would tell you what to do. She was great.
Since Karen was such a great product manager, I figured that I should follow her lead.
It’s day for the sales training. Karen came in early. She dressed with super short skirt. She had her full make-up on. In the elevator I ran into several sales guys. They were literally saying "Karen is so hot!".
Now, the sales training started. Karen just finished presenting her own product. Then, she pulled out printout of my document and said: "I know our API product is highly technical and difficult to understand. I have prepared a white paper to help you understand." She distributed the document and talked for half an hour.
I figured that she must have made some major changes to my document, so I grabbed a copy. To my surprise, she didn’t make a single change to the document except putting her name as the author of the document and removing my name.
Only in the end of her presentation, she briefly mentioned my name: "oh, sitting in the back is the newest member of our product management team. He would be managing the API product".
I had to admit that I was mad at this point. I wrote the entire document, and she didn’t even give me a chance to present. For two weeks, I was waiting for her feedback. Not only she never got back to me, she took all of the credits for the document.
I felt I was being robbed.
I went straight to my boss, and explained to him what’s happened.
"Oh, no. You’re being too sensitive. Karen is one of our best product managers. She will never do that to you. You’re a recent college graduate. You still have a lot to learn. Karen will be a great mentor to you."
No matter what I said, my boss insisted that Karen would never do that type of things. He kept saying how great Karen was.
I broke down. I cried. I was taught to be fair and honest. I could not believe how someone could take advantage of me like this. And I couldn’t understand why my boss didn’t believe me.
Later I had to attend the dinner with sales guys. When we walked into the restaurant, several sales guys rushed to sit next to Karen. By this time, she had changed her clothes, but as exposed as before.
Karen was popular. In fact, very popular. She knew how to use her image to get attention.
I’m going to stop telling the story now before someone starts calling a sexist. ๐
Let me share with you a few lessons I learned from this experience.
- Corporate environment is not a meritocracy. For a young, naive, inexperienced person like myself, it was rude awakening. Some corporations might be better than others, but corporate politics is a fact that we all must face.
- Instead of feeling frustrated and cynical about corporate politics, accept it as part of organizational life.
- Some people will use their appearance and charm to gain an advantage — in this story I used a female as an example because it was what happened to me. But, this is applicable to either male or female. It could be deceiving. They could gain an advantage. Don’t let that discourage you. Instead, maintain your integrity, do the right thing, and press on!
- Sooner or later, you’ll be taken advantage by someone. My advice to you is to focus on the big picture. Don’t get bogged down by the political infightings.
Finally, but not lastly, for the past few years, whenever I encounter disappointing office politics, I’ve always reminded myself of a quote by Coach Krzyzewski:
""During critical periods, a leader is not allowed to feel sorry for himself, to be down, to be angry, or to be weak. Leaders must beat back these emotions."
If you want to be a leader, don’t get bogged by office politics!
- Too many managers, too few leaders
- Know enough technically to be dangerous
- Flow, career satisfaction and happiness