Education & Workforce Development

NOTIONS: Learning what matters in the ultimate survivor game

November 7, 2005

When I was 21, I went to work for a mayor. I was an intern. I wrote speeches, letters, news releases and proclamations; took photographs; set up chairs for news conferences; poured coffee for reporters; sipped tea with sister-city delegations; photocopied documents; scheduled guests for radio and TV shows; produced an audio-visual presentation; showed it to scores of neighborhood associations; told them how great the mayor was. Things like that.

I made minimum wage, learned from some wise mentors and figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up.

I also learned how to play the ultimate on-the-job survivor game. The mayor was up for re-election. If he won, my mentors and I would have jobs. If he lost, we would not.

Because our mayor was a Republican, we trusted only Republicans, huddled only with Republicans, and-after hours-went door to door, making sure Republicans were registered and ready to vote.

Because our mayor's opponent was a Democrat, and that Democrat wanted to render us unemployed, we loathed Democrats.

When I was 22, the mayor lost. One of my mentors found a make-work job for me. But it wasn't one for the ages. So I went to work for the new mayor. I was a press secretary.

I wrote speeches, letters, news releases and proclamations; took photographs; set up chairs for news conferences; poured coffee for reporters; sipped tea with sister-city delegations; photocopied documents; scheduled guests for radio and TV shows.

I also plotted strategy, talked to reporters, leaked stories, managed crises, supervised staff, recruited volunteers, wrote ads, raised money, served on committees, informed community groups; told them how great the mayor was. Things like that.

I started with an annual salary of $10,200, learned from some wise mentors and confirmed what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Four years later, we played the ultimate on-the-job survivor game. The mayor was up for re-election. If he won, my colleagues and I would have jobs. If he lost, we would not.

Because our mayor was a Democrat, we trusted only Democrats, huddled only with Democrats, and-after hours-went door to door, making sure Democrats were registered and ready to vote.

Because our mayor's opponent was a Republican, and that Republican wanted to render us unemployed, we loathed Republicans.

When I was 26, our mayor won re-election. And while I cherished the victory and the make-a-difference afterglow of public service, I'd grown weary of the ultimate onthe-job survival game.

What's more, having served with public officials of both parties, I'd come to loathe the us-vs.-them, one-dimensional labeling of complex human beings as either scarlet Rs or indigo Ds.

And besides, I needed to make more money.

So while I was still 26, I went to work for an East Coast advertising and public relations agency. I was an account executive.

I wrote plans, proposals, speeches, letters, newsletters, brochures, annual reports and news releases; photocopied documents; scheduled guests for radio and TV shows, plotted strategy, talked to reporters, leaked stories, managed crises, supervised staff, wrote ads, raised money, served on committees, pitched prospective clients; told them how great our agency was. Things like that.

I started with an annual salary of $34,000, learned from some wise mentors and confirmed what I wanted to be when I grew up.

There was no ultimate on-the-job survivor game. No door-to-door canvassing. And the only us vs. them was agency vs. agency for new accounts.

But there were contests. Like who got window offices vs. interior space. And who got what title, be that "junior this," "deputy that" or "executive associate something or other."

At the agency, no one cared who was Republican or Democrat. The bigger issue was whether one preferred the Red Sox or the Yankees.

With no one out to render us unemployed, we trusted everyone, loathed no one, huddled with anyone, and-after hours-went home to our spouses and kids.

I turned 48 last week. I work for myself, dozens of clients and the 25 people on my payroll.

I write plans, proposals, ads, and newspaper columns; photocopy documents; plot strategy; manage crises, supervise people; serve on committees, pitch prospective clients and tell them how great our agency is. Things like that.

I started with one client and a $60,000 contract, learned from some wise mentors along the way and I am, professionally at least, what I wanted to be when I grew up.

But having raised two sons of talent and character; having built a team, watched it succeed, and seen it support families, health and educations; and having loved, been loved and lost love, I've grown weary of personal judgments, petty politics and the proverbial imposition of "me first."

We're all going to lose the ultimate survivor game. We're just going to lose sooner if we don't judge one another less and work together more.



Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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