Having impostor syndrome and finding out Vera Wang is a lovely girl
Updated: 4 days ago
We’re up to installment three of my aggregated life’s best wise words to be on the receiving end of. This week it is someone more directly business relevant than members of my family, although someone no less of a character. This week you will meet J Roth, who was no rapper but had his fair share of killer rhymes.
“What is your favorite ever job?” is one of those questions that always makes me cringe, because the true answer “I have got something valuable but different out of all of them” sounds like the worst kind of politician’s reply. But if my arm is twisted behind my back, my mind often goes to working in Investor Relations at Unilever. Why?
Because it was the taking-off-point for a stage in my life that gave me the opportunity to live in 4 new countries, and all the experiences that have come ever since. I’m pretty sure that without that job I wouldn’t be sitting here typing today (so now you know where to begin to lay the blame).
Because it was a window into a fascinating world where I realized that the world economy teeters on a brink, daily tipping this way and that, purportedly based on quantitative financial models, but boiling down to nothing more than how qualitatively confident the faceless men who own the spreadsheets feel.
Because it was the first time that I saw how executives behaved at close quarters, but wearing the non-threatening guise of a woman in her 20s who was clearly no player in the corporate game. The things I learned about how executives with integrity behaved with the people around them whether or not the spotlight was on them, and how others transformed when they felt like they were out of public scrutiny, taught me infinite lessons, not least about the kind of leader I wanted to be.
Most of all, I loved the job for the people I worked with. Isn’t it always really down to the people?
The slew of awards the team had won were the first thing I saw when I went to the job interview. It was my first time peeking my nose into the international head office, with its imposing wooden doors, its view over the River Thames, and people I had only ever seen in the Annual Report standing in the line at the coffee bar.
People often talk to me about impostor syndrome, and I tell them, trust me, I get it. For someone still not entirely sure that there hadn’t been a mix up in the phone calls when I got offered the job, there were days that walking into that building seemed liked a lucid dream, and part of me was waiting to be tapped on the shoulder and told, we worked you out, you can clear your desk now, take your commemorative golden jar of Marmite and your pallet of Dove pro-age hand and body lotion with you.
The other good thing about working so close to all those bigwigs is that I eventually worked out the secret that nobody tells you, which is that pretty much everyone feels exactly the same about getting found out. And the people with a C-title are not immune.
Generally speaking, you don’t get put into a big job you’ve proven you can do. You get put into the big job you’ve proven you’ve got the potential to do. The difference with the people in the big jobs is seldom ability. Aside from the obvious prerequisite of ambition, it’s having the belief in themselves that they can instill confidence in those around them in the learning stages until they actually know what they’re doing. At least that’s how it starts, until they realize that “knowing what you’re doing” is a very loose term indeed, and settling on 60% hit rate seems like a sensible strategy, because that’s better than 99.9% of the population would be able to do. And everyone else is too busy pretending to know what they’re doing to look too closely at the remaining 40%...
Any way… back to the job and the people and the wisdom. It's time to meet John Rothenberg.
J Roth, as we kids called him, was the Head of Mergers & Acquisitions and Investor Relations. The Roth was one of those people who thrived on hard work, the satisfaction of taking on the competition and coming out on top, but most of all the achievement of finding the right key to make the door of a negotiation swing open. I once overheard him coaching his daughter on making an offer on her first property. “Look, Becky, you need to get them to realize that selling a house isn’t just about the cash. Tell them, look, I’m a nice girl from a nice family, I’ll look after your home.” Wow. And that didn’t even make it to my main list of J Roth-isms.
John was incredibly direct in the way that only people respected by those around them can be, and I never saw him fazed by anything, he seemed to be able to truly take anything in his stride. One of the biggest disposal deals at that time was the sale of Unilever’s fragrance business, which meant a series of mysterious behind-closed-doors discussions with those who had put their names to fragrance brands. If you think that sounds like a dry activity, how would you feel about hearing the words “Prue, get me Karl Lagerfeld on the line!” boomed across the office, or learning that the “she’s a lovely girl, Vera” that was mentioned when he hung up was actually Vera Wang?
Given his way with words, there are so many J Roth quotes from that time that mean nothing to anyone else but that just thinking about are making me wheeze with laughter. For instance, the time he spent ten minutes giving very direct but encouraging feedback to a brand VP about a presentation for an investor event, put down the phone, looked at me, winked and said “no fucking clue, right?” But John was also a font of very applicable wisdom to anyone in business, and so the rest of this post is dedicated to:
Best advice in life #3 – the J Roth-isms
3a Recognize when the time is right to “agree with them and then ignore them”
Oh boy, this really is one of my favorite J Roth lessons, maybe because it is the next logical step from, “take no notice”. Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who just had to be right? Who was also banging home a point that you didn’t actually agree with? Of course you have, that’s what many workplace conversations are like. Have you ever considered just agreeing with them, then moving on to something else? It doesn’t work if it involves going against your values and selling your soul, or if it means agreeing to do something that you have no intention of doing. But it does work if what that person is looking for is acknowledgment of their opinion, and validation that they deserve one. Which is most people, let’s be honest.
3b Know when you are “negotiating with yourself”
A common theme emerged with the calls I would hear one side of between John and the internal team as they prepared to talk to the other side as a deal reached its close. Sooner or later there would be a pause, after the major issues and opportunities had been covered, but still more questions seemed to be outstanding. And I would soon hear the phrase “we’re negotiating with ourselves now.”
What did that mean? That they had gone beyond an appropriate level of scenario planning, and spiraled into a realm of “what if they…” and “if they don’t go for that then I don’t know what we offer next” and “they might realize that we don’t really have another option”. J Roth was the best at raising the flag on fruitless or destructive speculation and saying – we can only prepare so much, nothing will ever be perfect, and if we get put off by all the what-ifs, we’ll never do anything. I call myself out on negotiating with myself to this day, when I know that I’m talking myself from doing something out of an abundance of risk aversion, or when I’m setting too many parallel path scenarios in my mind. It’s a very human trait, and one that is much easier to hold yourself accountable to with this snappy turn of phrase.
3c Keep an eye out for the times when you need to “take the emotion out of it”
I think many people have the perception that business is a deeply fact-driven, logical realm of analysis and numeric targets and decisions made on objective grounds. Which of course, to some extent, it is. However, businesses are also populated by human beings, and as such are a melting pot of relationships, pride, ego, scores to settle, loyalty, determination, intuition, favoritism, blind spots, bias, motivation, drive… All the good, the bad and the ugly of human characteristics are on show, and ultimately play much more of a role in many decisions than the people making them normally own up to. Especially when it comes to how you represent an issue to the outside world, anyone who has worked in communications will tell you how many opinions there always are, none of them ever definitively right or wrong.
Sometimes things reach boiling point before a decision is made, sometimes there’s festering in corners, more often than not there’s the invisible dividing lines between the people who normally agree and those who never do, but if there’s an impasse, the only thing to do is, as John would say, “take the emotion out of it.” Or if you prefer: detach yourself from the personal connection or pride you are associating with the outcome you want, and refocus on what the best outcome is over all. This is also a great example of the respect that John was held in by those around him, because some people would be met with sheer derision for coming out with this sentence; in his case I never saw it met with anything other than acknowledgment that things had maybe got too personal.
When I started writing my wisdom posts a few weeks ago, I said that what they mainly had in common was simplicity. Someone once told me that they had noticed that smart people have a way of making things very simple. I agreed with them (and didn’t ignore them), and I think the J Rothism list is the perfect example of that theory. So much of business is people trying to make things very complicated to make themselves look essential or untouchable. There is something truly refreshing about someone through their actions teaching you lessons that are both valuable and easy to apply. So I encourage you to try a few out for yourself. It makes me smile to think of Zoom calls across the world today benefitting from "we're negotiating with ourselves now."