Seeking outside counsel can be key to keeping your cool

Don Spetner on navigating his first major corporate job

My first big corporate job came when I got hired as a manager of corporate communications for the marketing and sales division of Nissan USA. Three years into the role, Nissan created a North American holding company to oversee sales, marketing, manufacturing, design, and R&D. Staff functions were centralized, and I was put in charge of all PR activities for North America. At the time, I was 34 years old.

I was also mildly freaked out. I was ready for the job, and confident in my craft, but the politics and people side of the equation felt overwhelming. I had business unit leaders who were unhappy about losing control of their resources. There was pressure on me to consolidate costs and reduce headcount.

And there were people reporting to me who felt they should have been given my job. They resented my leadership role and were actively working to undermine me. My biggest internal customer, the CEO of the sales and marketing unit, was upset about losing direct authority over the communications department.

He took me to lunch and declared that my department and I should report directly to him. I told him I didn’t think our boss (we both reported to the head of North American operations) would like the idea. He looked me in the eye, smiled, and said: "Then I expect you to convince him otherwise."

My boss was Japanese, very senior, and new to the US. I went to him and explained that I needed help because the sales and marketing division wanted control of the communications function. He listened to me carefully, then said: "In Japan we have a saying – we keep the fist under the table."

I pondered this for a moment and then politely asked what the hell he was talking about. He looked at me and smiled: "It means that of course I have the authority to force cooperation, but I don’t want to use it. I want you to work it out."    

I was struggling. I was at war with my biggest customer, I had people on my team whom I felt I couldn’t trust, and I had a boss who didn’t really need or want to be involved in these details. I realized I was now in the big leagues and this was what they were paying me for.

So I did something that helped me then, and has helped me throughout my career. I sought outside counsel.

I found someone older and wiser who had been through all this before. Someone who had weathered myriad political storms, understood corporate intrigue, and who could help talk me off the ledge that I found myself headed for. It was exactly what I needed.

It’s not that this adviser had a silver bullet or could fix my political quandary. In fact, the politics only got worse and I never really healed my rift with the head of sales. But my wise counselor helped me to keep my head and stay focused on what I could control and influence. He also reinforced my resolve on the tough personnel decisions I had to make. More importantly, he normalized my challenges and helped me sleep better at night.

And he showed that much of my stress was self-imposed – it was coming from within me, not from my boss.

I stayed at Nissan more than eight years and built a high-performing department. Ultimately, I was recruited to a bigger communications job and then on to other paths. But I never stopped seeking counsel – even to this day. 

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

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