Opening the Rolodex

I recently met an old friend, whom I had not seen in years.

I recently met an old friend, whom I had not seen in years. We worked together in the early ’90s when he was a college intern. 

Back then, he was young and eager, and hoping to land a full-time PR job. His subsequent career path has been impressive: He’s now the VP of communications for one of the most admired companies in the world.

We spent the first 20 minutes of lunch reminiscing about our former colleagues and playing catch-up on our lives. As always happens at these kind of reunions, we reminded each other of people and events that had long been forgotten.

Then he dropped this on me: "You know," he said, "there’s a story I tell about you to the younger employees that work for me."

"Uh oh," I thought. I couldn’t imagine what I possibly did to this guy 25 years ago. Then, as I sat there apprehensively, he told the story.

He had come to see me when his internship ended at our organization. I was the head of the communications department, and he was hoping to land a role with us, or at least seek my help in finding a job.

According to his story, I informed him that while we did not have any openings, I would be happy to assist in his job search. At that point, my secretary apparently interrupted our meeting and pulled me out for a brief crisis.

Before I left the room, I physically handed over my Rolodex (this was long before email and contact lists on smartphones), and I told him to look through my contacts, and to pick out three people he would like to meet. When I returned, he had selected three executives.

"Did I make the calls?" I asked him 25 years later. "Yes," he said, "I met with all of them."

I have no memory of the event, but it clearly meant a lot to him, even after so many years. As the story began to sink in, I realized I had experienced my own version of this tale.

Three months before I graduated from college, I sent cover letters and resumes to the top 50 PR firms in New York City. This was no small task.

In those days, you actually had to type each individual cover letter, then hand-address, and mail every envelope. I dutifully called each of the 50 firms to follow-up on my resume.

Only one guy took my call – a young executive named Richard Edelman, whom I had never met. He located my resume and invited me over for an interview. While he didn’t offer me a job, he continued to be helpful for the next 30 years.

He was not alone in offering me help. When I landed my first job overseeing a corporate department, a group of senior communications executives took me in and mentored and guided me in the role. These were powerful people – the communications heads for Bank of America, Boeing, Charles Schwab, and PG&E. And though they were 20 years my senior, they treated me like an equal, introduced me to other influential executives, and gave me confidence that I could do the job.

These were acts of kindness I will never forget. I see now that these older, more successful executives were teaching me about the responsibility that often comes with authority.  

So when my good friend brought up the story of the Rolodex, I understood that it was not so much about me. Rather, it was what I had been taught, and that I was simply paying forward the kindness that had been sent my way.

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com.

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