I happened to be part of a conversation the other day about the US and the ethics of American companies. Unfortunately people tend to talk very negatively about American managers and the culture within American companies (basically about everything American, especially now with the election campaigns in the US). It never fails to irritate me not only because I believe that there are bad managers and bad management all over the world but also because I happen to know a number of Americans who are nothing like the stereotypes that people talk about.
Every time I hear someone talking negatively about American managers, I can’t help but think about the first American manager I worked with, someone who played a very pivotal role in my life and changed the course of my life dramatically for the better – not only professionally but also personally.
When I started to work in Germany in 1993, I had a post graduate degree in German literature and no work experience in the commercial world. So I started as a receptionist in a small German firm; changing companies within a span of 6-12 months; gaining experience and working my way up very, very quickly. Although I gained invaluable experience in these companies, I was often reminded that I was an “outsider”; that my Masters Degree had “no real value” in the commercial world; I was often put down, made to feel incompetent, mobbed by female colleagues and even harassed by male colleagues and managers. After putting up for about two years with a manager who not only believed in constantly making misogynistic jokes but who was also a choleric, shouting and screaming at his co-workers when he was in a bad mood (anything could set him off and he got away with it because he owned the company), I realised that this was not a healthy situation to be in and decided to quit my job without having another job in hand. What I had not reckoned with were the enormous debts that we suddenly “inherited”; that all of a sudden my name was on a bank loan to repay these debts, debts which I had not caused in any way but was now expected to pay off (the injustice of it all is the topic for another post). I realised that my life would now be very different than what I had hoped or dreamt about and that I had to get a job quickly. I started to apply for jobs but was seen as unstable and unreliable by most companies because I had changed companies so quickly and had resigned without having another job. Time was running against me and with each rejection letter , I was getting really panicky. I was all set to start applying for cashier jobs at supermarkets, as I was told that that was the only job I was good enough for. Out of sheer desperatuon I sent a speculative application to a well known company that manufactured airplanes (the last German manufacturer of airplanes and the company was a german-american collaboration). I still don’t remember how or where I had heard of the company and why I chose to send the application since everyone I knew then had told me that speculative applications were a waste of time). And yet my application landed on Ed’s desk, he was on the lookout for an administrative assistant and I was called for an interview.
I remember walking through the gates of this huge company campus and being completely intimidated and terrified. The companies that I had worked for so far were all small companies, the largest of which had a maximum of 100 employees. I could clearly see that this company had over 1000 employees and a huge campus with multiple buildings and even had their own runaway. All I wanted to do was turn on my heels and flee but somehow I didn’t. I still don’t remember much about the interview, I was petrified but I do recall that the American manager interviewing me was really polite, didn’t ask me the usual questions of why I had switched jobs so quickly, didn’t insult me even once and was very correct. This was my first meeting with Ed.
To my utmost surprise I got the job and started to work at the company Fairchild Dornier on August 1, 1999. I was convinced that the company would realise they had made a mistake in choosing me and I would be thrown out within a few days. During the first weeks I was assigned to a colleague Gabi who was supposed to show me the ropes. I was such a nervous wreck that I remember throwing up in the bathroom of the offices on the first day. Gabi immediately saw that I didn’t look well and sent me home after lunch. Gabi turned out to be one of the warmest and kindest colleagues I had ever known so far but that too is the topic for another post.
Ed was on vacation when I joined and after three lovely weeks with Gabi, who taught me all that she could and reassured me that she would always be there to help me, I started to work for Ed. Needless to say I was still very nervous although a number of my new colleagues had assured me that he was a really nice person. I needn’t have been. Very soon I realised that Ed wasn’t just nice, he was a born leader who had a great “clean” sense of humour, was very fair, had high standards of integrity and morality and had tremendous patience with someone like me who had no idea about airplanes (most of the people in that team were engineers who had worked in the aviation industry for a LONG time!)
When I started to work for Ed I had absolutely no self-confidence, personally and professionally (it had been completely shattered by the managers before and through all that I had gone through especially after coming to Europe six years before). I was trying so hard to fulfil the enormous expectations that everyone had of me; wanting to be accepted and loved by trying to become the person people were telling me to be – so much so that I didn’t even know who I was anymore. Ed was the first manager who saw the potential in me; encouraged and supported me; gave me the feeling that I was an asset to the company; told me that my masters degree was one of the reasons he hired me (!!) and made me feel that I was accepted and liked for who I was. Ed not only encouraged and supported me, he was also one of the first persons here in Europe who fought for me, stood behind me and believed in me. The confidence that I started to gain professionally affected my personal life in a very positive way too. I started to find my feet, to have the confidence to wear clothes that I liked (and not what was expected of me) and most importantly – I started to laugh again (I had stopped laughing because I had been told that I had a very loud and unfeminine laugh).
As I mentioned in my last blog, I knew then that instead of starting a family of my own and fulfilling my dream of getting a dog, I would have to work for the next 10-14 years at least to pay off the debts and would never be able to have children. At that time this felt like a life sentence. The fact that all of a sudden I had a great workplace; wonderful and loving colleagues; a manager who ensured that I was paid more than fairly; who appreciated, supported and encouraged me was proof to me that God saw my pain and the injustice of it all and sent me a manager who helped me find my first “wings”. It was what kept my faith alive in spite of the huge disaster that I was experiencing in my personal life.
I had the pleasure of working with Ed for about a year before he decided to go back to the US. After he left, my “streak” of great managers and great working environments continued even though I had to leave Fairchild Dornier in the following years because the company filed for insolvency.
After Ed, I worked with 7 brilliant managers who continued the “work” that Ed had started, encouraging and supporting me to grow both professionally and personally. I know that I have been very blessed to have worked with all of them and given the opportunity, I would work with each of them again today! I also know that I would not appreciate them as much as I do had I not known managers before Ed who did not encourage or support me!
A few years ago I was asked to talk at a conference here in Germany in front of about 200 people. I remember being very nervous since I had never done something like this before and all the other speakers were much more senior and had tremendous experience. And I knew that had it not been for Ed, I would not be standing there. It was Ed who first saw the potential in me and set me on a career path that went places I never could have ever imagined. And at every new step I always thought of him. As an HR professional I know that some people are born leaders and great managers because it comes to them naturally. Ed is definitely one of them.
We have kept in touch over the years and even visited him twice in the US. Ed knew about my dream to get a dog of my own and I was quite envious when I heard that he had got a golden retriever Sam about 9 years ago (sadly, Sam passed away about a month ago!). And last year we managed to meet him and his wife while they were here in Germany visiting her family. You can imagine how happy I was to introduce my-little-dream-come-true Jaden to Ed and his wife Ingrid personally.
I know that Ed probably doesn’t think that what he did all those years ago was something special. He did it because for him it was the normal and right thing to do and that is what makes him special. By the way, he was a great manager for all those reporting to him 🙂
For me Ed was a Godsend and a huge blessing in my life. He set the bar for all the other managers who followed and interestingly all of them were a little “like him” – they all believed in me; encouraged and supported me both professionally and personally; fought for me; had very high moral standards and integrity and had a great sense of humour which made working with them a lot of fun! The years that I spent working to pay off the debts were far from easy but I enjoyed working – most of the colleagues I had were wonderful, the tasks were interesting and challenging, I had fun at work and I had great inspiring managers.
Thank you Ed for all that you did and for putting me on the path that helped me find and become the person I am today!!