Spetner: Cut your young staffers around the office a break already

Throughout my career I've been taught new things that save time, decrease stress, and preserve dignity. I'm grateful for all of them, and I try really hard to give young people a break when they make stupid mistakes.

When I worked at Nissan, I had a chance to meet a former intern for breakfast. She had just landed her first full-time job and wanted to thank me for helping her. I suggested a restaurant at an upscale hotel that was on my way to the office. I arrived and was seated early so I could read the paper and have coffee before she got there. When I noticed she was 10 minutes late, I started to get annoyed. When she was 20 minutes late, I was downright mad.

Suddenly she appeared at my table and sadly explained that she had been sitting in the lobby for the past 25 minutes, waiting for me. It had never occurred to her that she should ask a restaurant staffer if someone had already seated me. I was fuming, but I held my tongue, because I remembered I was once just as young and just as inexperienced.

When I was a junior at NYU, I signed up to write for the school newspaper. One of the first stories I was assigned to cover was the impact of a major drought on New York City. My editor suggested I interview an official from the city’s Bureau of   Water and Sewer Operations, and after much sleuthing, I located someone who could comment on the drought.

I got his address and duly scheduled an in-person interview. I was new to New York and had never been to City Hall. I remember struggling to find the right building, the right department, the right floor, and the right person.

I finally arrived at a cramped windowless office where a bored-looking bureaucrat sat at a messy desk under a depressing fluorescent light. This was my guy.

I asked him to comment on the severity of the drought, and he dug out a piece of paper and read an official statement to me, which read something like: "This drought is an aberration in the general trend and is not expected to last long."

I was elated. I thought the quote was sophisticated and official. I couldn’t wait to add it to my story.

When I thanked him and got up to leave, he shot me a quizzical look.

"Do you mind if I ask you something?" he queried. "Why’d you schlep all the way down here when I could’ve just read the statement to you over the phone?"

I didn’t have a good answer. I actually didn’t know that you could conduct an interview over the phone. I suddenly felt incredibly young, naïve, and ignorant. I trudged back to the subway, all the while berating myself on the trip back for having been so stupid.

It was just one of many small, but important, learning moments in my life. Like the friend who showed me how to roll up neckties and place them in my shoes when I packed for a business trip. That was the first time I didn’t have a wrinkled tie emerge from my suitcase. Or the boss who told me that "you have to be willing to be early in order to be on time." To this day I’m chronically early, because I’d rather sit in the lobby and play Words With Friends than be stuck in traffic and stressed over being late.

Throughout my career I’ve been taught new things that save time, decrease stress, and preserve dignity. Some of these lessons came from kinder, wiser people than I am, and others I learned the hard way. But I’m grateful for all of them, and I try really hard to give young people a break when they make stupid mistakes. It’s not always so easy.

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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