Brave the Beast: A Cautionary Tale of Slaying and Parlaying

“Uh, Carol…” Doreen began every one of our conversations with these two words (I’ve changed her name to protect her legacy). It was the heady ‘90s in my industry (retail), business was booming, and I had just been promoted to district manager for a major apparel company. Doreen was a power buyer for one of the largest department store chains in the country at the time. In the retail world, if Doreen liked you, copious commissions followed. The only problem was that Doreen didn’t seem to like anyone—least of all me, as our excruciating conversations would confirm time and time again.

When I called her, she usually wouldn’t answer. When she called me back, every single conversation would go something like this: 

Me: “Hello, this is Carol.”

Doreen: “Uh, Carol…”

Me: (stomach lurch) “Oh, hi, Doreen. How are you?”

Doreen: “If you don’t cancel my March order, you can just forget about our appointment on Thursday. Don’t even bother coming.” (hang up)

After the call, I would scramble to make her wishes come true so I could earn a painful in-person meeting that would usually begin with a minimum one-hour wait in the lobby (I always brought a book). Once ushered into the showroom by her assistant, and with a bit more waiting thrown in for good measure, Doreen would make her grand entrance.

Doreen: “Uh, Carol, don’t even think about taking out a sample. I'm not looking at anything until you give me a 25% discount on that late (by one day) order.”

Sometimes, after running her gauntlet, I actually got to show a few samples. Often, a few good orders followed. But every time, I dreaded the sound of her voice on the other end of the line and the scowl that greeted me upon every visit to her presentation room.

This went on for two solid years. 

Then one day, everything changed. As I was leaving one of my meetings with Doreen, shaken and defeated as usual, I bumped into a fellow salesperson. His greeting was one of the biggest gifts I’ve received in my career: 

“So, is Doreen in a good mood today? Ha, just kidding, of course not. Well, at least she likes you. Wish me luck!” 

Wait. What? Surely he had the wrong person. My look of astonishment must have prompted him to elaborate.

“Yeah, Doreen is always talking about ‘Carol’ this and ‘Carol’ that. How she wished everyone worked as hard as you do. It’s kind of annoying, actually. But, seriously, good for you.” 

Doreen liked me!? I was floating on a cloud all the way back to my office! More importantly, my attitude toward Doreen changed from that day forward. Instead of dreading her calls, I decided to look forward to them. I found humor in knowing the little secret that her actions would not betray. I called her more often and dropped in on her when I was in her corporate offices, smile on my face, impervious to her gruff responses. 

Then a funny thing happened. Doreen transformed… 

“Uh, Carol” was replaced with “Hi, Carol.” Lobby wait times tightened up. I even presented an entire season’s worth of separates, collections, and accessories without threats. Big orders (and commissions!) rolled in… and stuck. Then, just as our professional courtship was reaching new heights, Doreen announced her retirement. And she did so during a tear-filled meeting she had called just to tell me. The memory remains one of the most poignant highlights of my career.

I miss working with Doreen, but thankfully I internalized the lessons she taught me before she left. They’ve transformed my career trajectory, and now can provide shortcuts for you. Try them on for size.

GIRL TO GREAT MANDATES

  1. Never take it personally – As deflating as my early interactions with Doreen were, at least I knew that I wasn’t alone. This was the only shred of solace I had during those two dark years with Doreen, and I clung to it for dear life. Had I taken her scorn as a reflection of my worth as a salesperson, I probably would have quit and potentially derailed my career. Chances are, the Doreens in your life are not singling you out (and may even secretly like you). Look at the big picture, get over yourself, and adjust your strategy.
  2. Let your competitors retreat – In hindsight, I realized that my competitors were badmouthing Doreen, avoiding her calls, and minimizing visits. I only had to move toward her a couple of inches to stand out by a mile, and therefore gain her trust and favor. It may have taken validation from a third party to get me moving toward Doreen, but I never waited for it again. Difficult people can be frightening. Let them scare off your competitors!
  3. Don’t join the chorus – Difficult people, particularly ones who hold sway over your professional or financial fate, can also make you feel lonely and disempowered. Misery may love company, but badmouthing only feeds the beast (the one in your midst and the one in your head). By keeping my own counsel and directing my energy toward perseverance, I didn’t just soften the blow, I landed on a feather pillow. This dynamic has played out in my career more times that I can count.

Take that next step toward your beast(s). After all, your Doreens are your beeline to betterment.

Isn't that great?

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