The words of my mother, were ringing in my ears. ‘A leopard never changes it’s spots.’
Little did I know growing up, just how true those words were. I remember always being told to fight for the underdog, help the oppressed, oppose bullies, never back down. I had ‘Rambo’ style imagery, playing out in my mind, but the reality was not as exciting, it wasn’t an action-packed movie, because real life doesn’t work like that.
I remember walking into the colossal chrome and glass building. The rain was horizontal, being driven by the icy wind. The words ‘open sesame’ echoing in my mind, as the gigantic automatic doors slid open. The doors closed to accept the lashing wind and rain, it was as if the weather was trying to assault me and was angry that I had escaped its clutches.
The security officer at the entrance, unlike the weather, was pleasant and warm. I secretly wished that my appointment was with him, because I sensed that I would be meeting with a gentleman who would be a lot more ‘challenging’ than Jeff, the security officer. Nobody climbs the ranks of any global corporation by not challenging others.
Jeff directed me to the large silver elevator doors, that slid open to the announcement.
A little while later, I heard the robotic female voice again.
‘18th floor, proceed to the last office on the left.’
Everything there seemed programmed. I stepped out of the elevator and walked down the hallway, it smelt like new carpets mixed with undertones of vanilla. ‘The corner office, where the big bosses sit.’ I thought to myself.
As my shadow darkened the doorway, I was greeted by a slim tall man in a suit. He looked very neat and ‘accountant like.’ He held out his hand.
His perfect hair styled in a side path, his eyes framed by silver rimmed glasses, that looked high tech and modern, they were a face-hugging, futuristic design, the latest trend in design at the time, inspired no doubt by the likes of cultish space movies.
After the exchange of customary greetings and formalities, our discussion moved to small talk about the weather, our families, and which football teams we supported.
Then the conversation took on a more serious tone. Hilton looked directly at me with crystal clear, light blue eyes, framed in silver. Eyes that looked like glass, they seemed cold and lifeless. I felt very uncomfortable as his eyes stared right through me. I felt a cold sweat trickle down the back of my neck. A feeling similar to that time, when I was called in as a witness in court. His words, like his glare, were piercing.
“Personally, I question your ambition, I mean look at me, I’m the same age as you, and here I am, marketing director of a global company. And where are you? You are two levels below me in a local company. I want you to understand something. There are two kinds of people in this organization, those on a career path and those on an exit path. Now with that as background, tell me, why should I hire you?” He never blinked as he spewed his rhetoric, his eyes piercing me, challenging me.
I decided to defend the character assassination I had just endured, against my better judgement.
“Hilton, as far as my ambition goes, I think you are missing some important facts in your analysis. You see, the brand portfolio that I manage is larger than the turnover of your entire division. So, in essence, I am running a larger business than you. Secondly, I don’t really have a corporate ladder climbing strategy. I do my best wherever I am and my results attest to that fact.” His comments had stirred something inside me, I could not hide my disapproval, as much as I tried.
The discussion was a lot less confrontational after that, but I couldn’t help but think that I had killed off the opportunity to work for this prestigious corporation. In the interests of self - preservation I had killed off the future potential career path I was hoping to tread.
The placement agency would not be happy with the way this one went. I comforted myself with thoughts of my current job which I enjoyed. I did want to get some global corporate experience, but maybe not this time. Maybe next time.
I got into my car, and sat there turning the interview over in my mind and I was startled by a call.
‘Jenny Executive Search’ was lighting up my phone screen. I looked at her name for a while, and paused, contemplating what I would say. I had to answer, she would keep calling.
“Hi there, so how did it go?”
“Not well Jenny, I think the guy is an egomaniac so I doubt he will look at me as a candidate. He was rude and personal. He was a judgmental and bitter individual that seems to have a chip on his shoulder.”
“Oh, that’s a real pity that you didn’t get on with Hilton, I know he can be a little awkward socially, he is a bit of a workaholic.”
“Jenny, you know what they say, all work and no play makes Jack.. You know how it goes.”
“Yes, I suppose Hilton is a bit like that. Anyway, I’ll let you know if I hear anything.”
“I doubt you will hear anything, and if you do, it will probably be negative. Anyway, I would be interested to hear what he says. I bet it will be something along the lines of not a good fit for their culture, or something along those lines.”
“Well, you never know with these things, let’s wait and see.”
Jenny was always hedging her bets, typical placement agency, if I knew anything about placement agencies, she probably had another three going for the same position.
I drove to work and never gave the awkward interview much thought. But when I got home and tried to fall asleep that night, the interview was back, front and centre, circulating in my mind.
What did he mean by questioning my ambition? That particular statement ran around my mind the whole night, like naked women used to when I was younger. Eventually after a few hours, I fell asleep, completely exhausted.
The next morning, I somehow felt better. I was tired, but I had processed the day before and decided to spend no more emotional energy on it, whatever would be, would be.
I was surprised to receive a call from Jenny, later that day.
“He loved you! He thought you were a thinker and someone that challenges him. He is going to offer you the job! He said you were different from the rest, the rest of them were trying to impress him, he got the impression that you didn’t really care about that.”
“Well, that’s a complete shock Jenny, but a nice shock.”
“I’ll send through his offer later today.” Her voice was happy and light, no doubt in part because she would be earning a fee.
Later that day the offer came through. The offer was good financially and I accepted it. Selling my soul for ambition.
I started at the global company a month later, after working out my notice period. Finally, I would get the global corporate experience I needed.
The first few days were wonderful and for the first two weeks I was the happiest I had been in a corporation for years. My colleagues were friendly and professional, my portfolio was challenging but exciting, and I had some great ideas on how I would grow my portfolio and add value to this amazing corporation.
Souring of the Milk
A few weeks later, and it had all turned sour, like lumpy milk that had been left out. I started questioning my own sanity for accepting the job. The money was brilliant, the car allowance was excellent, the benefits were magnificent and the ‘resume currency’ I would earn by having worked at the company, was stratospheric.
My colleagues were great, I got on well with all of them and we spent time with each other after hours. We were a close as a group. All of that was good, things were serene and good, but that all changed.
Hilton walked into my office one day and he closed the door. My colleagues, no doubt, were aware of his presence and my closed office door. We all used to track him like a heat seeking missile that had just been launched. We even had a codeword for him, ‘cheeseball tightpants’ would echo through the hallways when he was in the vicinity. Often shortened to just ‘cheeseball’.
He pulled up a chair and slowly sat down, everything he did was slow and deliberate, like a reptile, like a crocodile positioning itself on a river bank.
“You know, I was just thinking that Sue is a little bit of a dinosaur in this company, we need people like you, people who are quick thinkers, more mobile and agile and flexible. Adjusting to changes in the industry. What do you think?”
Thoughts were racing through my head as his cold, crystal, piercing eyes glared at me scanning for signs of facial reaction. I kept my face emotionless, my heart was racing, and adrenalin darts shot down my legs. I was not going to stab Sue in the back. I knew that he would use the same tactic against me when I fell out of favour with him, so I decided this would not be a game I would engage in.
“Hilton, Sue’s portfolio is doing well and she is ahead of last year’s earnings, I don’t understand how she works or what she does, but she sure gets results. I think she does a good job based on her numbers.”
I could see this angered him, the reply was slow, but curt, delivered with a look of condescension.
“Yes ok, I have another meeting to attend.”
He would often use this type of tactic, but we as his subordinates, discussed this amongst ourselves, making a pact that we would never turn on each other. And as long as we were united and achieving results there was nothing he could do. It was incredibly stressful and emotionally draining working in a ‘cover your butt’ type environment.
Hilton loved to engage in mind manipulation tactics to instigate division amongst his subordinates and he used threats of termination as an intimidation tactic.
Every board meeting would be the same. Hilton beating his chest and declaring his machismo by show boating his powerful leadership, in front of the directors. He did this by belittling his subordinates. Bullying others made him look strong, in his own twisted mind.
He would plan his attacks, and he would lobby the support of the rest of the directors prior to the meeting. Many of them would not even realise that they had been primed and manipulated into agreeing with him. Many of them didn’t have the time to find out the facts about the accusations he would level at various people.
I would sit and watch many of my colleagues go down in flames as Hilton would unleash his fiery wrath, spewing condemnation and character assassination like balls of fire from his mouth.
None of us could prepare for Hilton’s attacks, even though we knew they would come,because our work responsibilities were so broad, he could snipe at any part. Hilton was clever, he had all of us playing defence. Defence of self, and because of that, we were always on the back foot in these meetings. He would control the narrative, like any tyrant and didn’t know where he would strike next, or who was up for the sacrificial burning at the stake.
One day, I had walked into the boardroom a little earlier to get comfortable with the surroundings, to assess the general mood in the room. Michelle, a colleague of mine, had presented her business plan just before me, and she was now under attack.
“Michelle, are you aware of how overspent we are on the sales spends?” asked Hilton, sniping.
“Um, no I am not aware of the overspends Hilton. I have asked the sales people to update me on a number of occasions, but they are a little slow in responding to me.”
“That’s very disappointing Michelle, I have asked you to keep tabs on the sales spends, and it seems you haven’t.”
“Hilton, like I said, I have asked them all for their spends, but I am yet to receive the information I require.”
“Excuses are for losers Michelle. Excuses are for losers.”
I could see the tears welling up in Michelle’s eyes, and this particular facet of Michelle’s work was something I knew about, so I decided to venture into the hornets’ nest.
“Excuse me everybody.”
The room went silent and the directors turned to look at me.
“If I may just comment on this? Let me first ask Michelle a question. Michelle, does the sales team know that you have been given authority over them? And that they must report their spends to you?”
“No, they do not know, and this is probably why they haven’t given me any of their information. They think I am being nosy by asking them for their spends.”
I turned to Hilton, knowing deep within me that this was a career limiting move, but I was tired of the games and the ‘cover your butt’ culture he had created.
“Hilton, if it has not been made clear to the sales director that his sales people have to report their spends to Michelle, and she has no authority over them, how can she be held accountable? You always tell us to work within the structures of the company and to adhere to the lines of reporting?”
“Um, yes well, um, well I think we should move on with the agenda. You are next up, and I have quite a few questions for you on your portfolio.” He glared at me.
That was the response I received, when I challenged him, he backed down like a typical bully. He had quite a number of questions on my portfolio, and I answered them easily. I had prepared my ‘CYB’ (Cover Your Butt) rhetoric rather well for this meeting, now that I knew how he operated.
Michelle was grateful and I was happy to stand up for her.
It was career limiting, but I had to free my conscience, I had never been a butt kisser, and I wasn’t about to start with Hilton.
‘A leopard never changes it’s spots.’
The Unflushable Turd
I left that company a little while after that meeting, after working there for 4 years. (Hilton had spent two and a half of those years overseas within the global corporation) and I had forged a strong relationship with his successor. But then, like a turd that will not flush, Hilton returned.
A short time after his return, I resigned.
We had to complete an exit interview, and the global head office was intrigued as to why so many people were leaving the division that Hilton had returned to manage. Many of my colleagues, had also resigned. We told the truth about Hilton and it wasn’t long before he was given a choice to resign or be fired. He was found guilty of bullying, as well as sexual harassment of some of the ladies in his employ.
One of my most satisfying days, was the day I had just completed the exit interview and I bumped into Hilton in the hallway. He seemed rather awkward, the allegations against him were probably starting to bite at that time.
“We should catch up some time, I will invite you over for a barbecue at my house.”
I glared directly at him, just like he had looked at me during that first interview, my eyes burning holes into the man who no longer had any power over me.
“Hilton you and I both know that will never happen. Have a nice life.”
“Yes ok sure, ahem, go well…” He squirmed.
I walked out feeling exhilarated, free and light. I was unemployed, but free, and that felt good.