There's no time for chess

I spent the first eight years of my career in big PR firms, working my way from account executive to vice president.

I spent the first eight years of my career in big PR firms, working my way from account executive to vice president. I've since spent the past two decades slugging it out in large corporate organizations.

When I began my journey, these were dramatically different ecosystems that demanded highly disparate survival skills. The agency world required sprinters – people who could run the 50-yard dash without breaking a sweat and who thrived on competition. The corporate world favored chess players – those with patience, wisdom, and an unerring instinct for when to strike.

Back then, it seemed every day in the agency world was an adventure filled with excitement, intrigue, and lunacy around each corner. In a given day, I might switch from pitching Popular Mechanics on Matsushita's new Erasable Optical Memory Disk Recorder to developing a story for Brides on what to pack for a honeymoon. One of my client's back then was Cotton Incorporated. I remember having to ask my boss what espadrilles were before I called the magazine. (I thought they were lingerie!)

I worked on everything from Jamaica's Sunsplash Reggae Festival to the commercial shipping lines of the Colombian government to a tech startup that made Metal Organic Chemical Vapor Deposition systems for manufacturing Gallium Arsenide wafers. (You try pitching that!) Demographically, it seemed that everyone in the agency was either 23 or 53. Half of us were desperately trying to hook up with each other, while the other half were desperately trying to bring in business, control the hormone-crazed young people, or decide whether or not to open their own business.

And then I went corporate. I was hired as a director of corporate communications for a global auto giant. Because there was no VP above me, I was given a VP's office, despite my lowly title. On the second day of work, a man walked into my office with a two-wheeled dolly and began removing the big beautiful plant from the corner of my spacious office.

“Excuse me,” I said, “but what are you doing?”

“I'm taking your plant,” he replied. “This is a vice president's plant. You're only a director.”

I thought he was joking. I thought one of my friends was playing a nefarious trick on me. But the man very calmly replaced my big, beautiful VP's plant with a pathetic, forlorn, and drastically inadequate director's plant. And there was not a thing I could do about it.

I've since been in conference rooms in the corporate world where people's careers are literally advanced or destroyed by a single, well-placed anecdote that shifts the emotions of the assembled management team. I've seen 10-year silent grudges come to light swiftly and efficiently in order to kill a project and stall a nemesis.

These days, the lines between the corporate and agency worlds have begun to blur. Agencies are owned by publicly traded holding companies with tens of thousands of employees, and I hear stories from agency friends about the “bureaucracy back at corporate.” In the meantime, corporate staffs have been downsized so dramatically that there is little time for corporate chess or the padding of budgets. Most of my in-house friends have gotten quite adept at running the 50-yard dash.

I think even their line item for office plants has been zeroed out by the recession.

Don Spetner is EVP of corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.

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