Sunday, March 18, 2012

Innate Intelligence and the Workplace

My best friend sent me a link to a New York Times article that I found particularly good. In the subject heading my friend writes, "interesting interview I thought might be relevant to you." And he was right. The subject of the piece is Pamela Fields of Stetson. Fields is not only impressively successful and full of business acumen, she's a perfect example of what the very educated can contribute to the business field. She, like very few I have read about and know in real life, has the ability to capture the essence of success and what it entails.

The opening of the article contains the following:

"I majored in nuclear engineering and nuclear arms control through the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton. But when I went to work for an engineering firm, it was the wrong fit. It was terrible, and I had no business to be there. So I decided I wanted to go into cosmetics, and I went to the phone book, opened it up to the cosmetics and beauty section, and I started with A. The first company I saw that I had heard of was Avon. So I called them up — this goes under chutzpah — and I said: “I’m Pam Fields, I can speak Portuguese, French and Italian fluently. I know you’re a global company. Surely you need me.” As it turns out, they did. They had an opening on the Brazil desk, which is to this day one of their biggest markets. I learned to choose which of their thousand products should go into their little biweekly brochure."

"Ha," I thought to myself. My friend knows I'd react to the piece the way I did. When reading the article I was reminded of the many times I felt oddly placed in the most unique of places. What gave me comfort every single time, however, was knowledge and the information I had to offer. I was in those places for a reason. I was there to contribute what I knew. First, there's the medieval conference in the Pacific Northwest to which I arrived late as a result of a connecting flight being delayed. As a result, I got to the University of Washington's campus in the nick of time for my own presentation. I had no time to change. And I remember vividly what I was wearing. I had a vintage green tanktop on, brown corduroy pants I used to call my 'flight pants,' and brown and beige Puma shoes. Ah, and a leather bracelet my friend Nat had made for me which I used to wear to all the rock shows we'd go to. I looked like the opposite of a university professor. Deep down I got a kick out of it, actually. So what, profs can't rock corduroy?!

I clashed in a sea of suits, grey hair, well-trimmed beards, tweet jackets, yes, and old but respectable-looking leather bound notebooks. In typical fashion, I did not have a hard copy of my presentation as I had made last-minute edits on the flight to Oregon. Instead, I took out my iPhone, opened the attachment from my email and started my presentation by saying, "I apologize for my unorthodox sartorial decisions. I had no time to change. My suit, freshly pressed, is in the rental car I picked up at the airport and parked in the loading zone five minutes ago. My presentation is on perversions of courtly love not Courtney Love even though considering we're in Seattle and I'm looking how I'm looking... " At this point, a few of them started to crack something resembling a smile. I knew I was ok. I had said and looked the opposite of what was expected. But I had made the effort to there in time. I spoke about my work. I knew my stuff. I got it done. Often, we get bogged down by presentation and form and forget that it is actually the content that trumps all.

The day of my PhD defense my parents got me a tweed suit. I am not joking. It was a form fitting skirt and jacket combo. Instead of wearing it how it was 'meant' to be worn, I paired the jacket with a shirt that said 'Kick Like a Girl' on it. Oh, and I had my hair in two pigtails. "You realize you're going in pigtails to talk about Plato for the next 8 hours, right? It's your PhD defense... Alright, well, let's roll then." I said nothing on the drive to campus. We stopped at Starbucks. I got my venti macchiato and the rest is history.

The second example comes from a recent interview I had for a promotion. After the 2-hour interview I was asked what I thought of it. In my answer I said that if I could have employed less economy of speech when explaining my work and experience during the past decade I wouldn't necessarily do it. Then I said, "I know lots of big words. And lots of small words. I also know there's many more I need to add to my inventory. Of words." We do not need to recite our achievements to the world. That's what a resume is for. Abilities are showcased by a composite of performance, experience, and behavior that can't be captured by static words on a piece of paper. Ah, and humor matters. If your work on courtly love won't be paid attention to because you're in corduroys as opposed to tweed or your business abilities won't be appreciated because you just know too many big words, then it's best for all involved to break up. There's a lid for every pot, after all. If not, those who adapt with more ease than others, will fit into some pot that's closest to their lid.

I've always had a hard time with the ownership part of knowledge and achievement. I don't know why. I'm constantly having to deal with it and I don't like it that I do. There must be others out there who feel like they're reading about someone else when they read their own work or their own list of achievements.

When I got my PhD, my person started cracking jokes around the house calling me "Dr. Bri." When in academia, students, often twice my age, would come to my office and say, "Dr. Ribaj, do you have a minute?" Or write emails saying, "Dr. Ribaj, would you grant me an audience during your office hours?" Often, I'd find it too hard to resist smirking. I guess they're talking to me. And then we'd talk about the stylistic nuances of Thomas Aquinas and Augustine. You know, things one discusses generally and on any given Monday. I never internalized that part of life. I had things compartmentalized beautifully. But that informs the other compartments as well. Living is not something that's done in isolation. It leaks. It gets messy and compartments collide and spill over. They cannot help but inform one another.

In sum, I'd like to 'circle back' as I just learned middle management loves to say, to the article on Fields. When asked about what she looked for when looking to hire, she said:

"I look for innate intelligence. You hear that by the way people talk, by the way they express themselves, by the level of sophistication of their answers. I ask them to send me a letter after the interview about what they thought about our conversation and what they thought was good, what left them uncomfortable, were there any areas that we didn’t discuss, is there something that they forgot to brag about? A lot of people can’t write anymore. I mean, they would be thrown out of eighth-grade class. In my house, my father learned English as a second language, and if I got an A on a paper and I spelled a word wrong, that’s what I heard about.
....The other thing I look for is people who have varied experience. I will always give the nod to people who have done different things over people who have grown up linearly within an organization. It’s my own bias, because I think that by working at Company A and Company B and Company C and Company D they can bring tremendous perspective to the discussion that they wouldn’t have if they only knew one."

I get her. And she's yet another good example of someone who proves that higher academia and business are not territories that preclude one another.


Anonymous said...

First, I miss reading you. But I can tell that life has been leaking, to quote you.
I was just chatting with Joe the other day and he actually said, to "pull a Bri" when expressing his desire to learn how to compartmentalize better. He needs to read this now. He'll feel better knowing that your living leaks too. ;)

Anonymous said...

It wouldn't be a Nicki comment if I didn't quote a fave sentence....
"So what, profs can't rock corduroy?!"

That should be on a t-shirt, actually.

Dana said...

Something tells me I'll have reason to use this soon....
"Living is not something that's done in isolation. It leaks. It gets messy and compartments collide and spill over. They cannot help but inform one another."

Any plans to add the podcasts from Ohio State to iTunes?

Sra said...

Great post!