We got so many good ideas from the comments in our Six Monthiversary post! Thank you so much for taking the time to tell us what you’d like to hear–we’re always open to suggestions, so keep ‘em coming. Here is the first of what we’ll call “Reader Request” posts, in which we tackle some of the ideas and issues you said you’d like to hear more about.
My suggestion: posts concerning female friendships and mentor/mentee relationships that aren’t from the frenemy/underminer perspective. I know that this archetype does present itself sometimes, but I’m just sick of the notion that it governs all female relationships.
Damn straight. I may have mistakenly contributed to that in my post “The Devil Wears Agnes B“, about the misery of working for such a woman. Fortunately for me, I also met her polar opposite.
K. was an associate, six years older than me, when I first began working for her. My boss at the time–I’ll call her Crazy Executive–was extremely demanding and I was busy as hell, but the division head felt that K. needed an assistant too, so I worked for her in a kind of assistant timeshare. K. would jokingly hold up her little finger and say, “I get about this much of Becky.” It was true, and it must have been frustrating for her, but she never complained.
My executive boss was high-profile, but also high maintenance and emotionally shaky (to be fair to her, she was diagnosed bi-polar). While she wasn’t malicious like the Devil in Agnes B, she was no picnic either. I had gone from a job that made me break out in hives and weep to a job that left me exhausted and fuming. It was an improvement, but only relatively speaking.
But despite the killer work load, being assigned an additional boss turned out to be my salvation. It’s no exaggeration to say that my relationship with K.–the junior boss who had only my little finger to work with–made my career.
For starters, K. turned out to be a great source of advice about how to handle my prima donna boss. In her assistant years, she had worked for one of the most notorious scenery-chewers in the business, a woman whose tantrums, cussing and messy personal life were frequently profiled in the New York gossip columns. So when I was about to blow my top because my boss had sent me–for the third time–to pick up a Prozac prescription for her hyper dachshunds, K. would roll her eyes at me and say “it could be worse.” And she was right. Her first great gift to me was perspective. Things might suck, but they probably didn’t suck as bad as I thought they did, and they certainly didn’t suck as bad as they could. If K. had survived her first couple years working for the Supreme Empress of Crazy, I could hack this job. The simple fact of K’s existence in that office near mine proved that my job was not the exercise in futility that it seemed. Someday, I might escape and make my fortune the way she had. That glimmer of hope helped me let some of the craziness roll off my back (although I still have never achieved K’s Zen-like calm).
The real turning point, though, came when Crazy Executive was (not surprisingly) fired. I was summoned into the director’s lair and told that I would be handling her orphaned projects and reporting full-time to K. I tried not to click my heels or burst into song as I left his office.
Over the next few years, K. and I rose through the corporate ranks together. I spent about a year as her assistant, and when she was promoted to the director’s job I was promoted too, and became a full-fledged member of her staff. It was pure workaday heaven. K. was cheerful, even when stressed, valued my opinion, delegated work that she knew would interest me and never, ever, not even once, raised her voice or did anything even remotely inappropriate. Gradually our work relationship grew into a close friendship. I got to know her husband and family and spent weekends at her house when they were out of town. We swapped clothes. We discovered that we took the same brand of birth control pills, and if one of us came up short, the other would hand over a spare pack. During the 2003 New York Blackout, I made the long, sweaty walk home with K–since her place was 6 miles from the office and mine was 17–and spent the night (in her borrowed clothes) at her house. We jokingly referred to our relationship as being very “big sister” and “little sister”.
Being that close to your boss has both an upside and a downside. The upside was that for the first time in my life, I trusted my boss completely. I knew K. had my best interests at heart. She knew how to call me out without being unkind. I actively sought out her opinion and advice and nearly always found them to be 100% correct.
The downside is that when life’s that good, it’s easy to become complacent. Being so cozy with the boss dulled the edge of my ambition. After eight years with that company, I was underpaid, but my relationship with K. meant I was mostly happy. K. tried to get me a raise, but when she was stymied by her boss, I stayed anyway out of loyalty to K. In retrospect, I should looked for other jobs much earlier on, but K. had been such a good boss and mentor that I didn’t quite know how to manage my own career or advocate for myself. It wasn’t until she went on maternity leave and was out of the office that I realized how badly I was getting screwed, salary-wise. I cold-called the president of another company, had breakfast with him, and got a job offer—with a 40% raise–three days later. I felt like a traitor when I went straight from that breakfast meeting to K’s living room, where we chatted as I held her newborn daughter. She had been part of my work life for so long that I wasn’t sure how I was going to cope without her. The good news was that when I officially quit, I gave notice to K’s boss, who I never liked. But I insisted that I be the one to break the news to K.
She answered the phone, and immediately said, “Hang on, I’m nursing, let me tuck my boob in.” When she got back on the line I said, “Um, I have something to tell you.” Without hesitation she said, “You got another job, didn’t you?” I was relieved by how unsurprised she was. Apparently I was not the only one who thought I was getting screwed. K. was frustrated by her inability to help me, and had been hoping I’d get another job, even though—as my boss–she felt she couldn’t tell me outright. “As your boss, I’m not happy,” she said, “but as your friend, I think you’re totally doing the right thing.” K. was still on maternity leave when I left. I was glad—had she been there, I would have felt dismal and maybe even second-guessed my decision to leave.
The new job turned out to be the job of my dreams and I’ve stayed for almost five years. The boss I have now is also unfailingly cheerful, outgoing and supportive, but he’s not my big sister: he’s a middle-aged dude with four kids and a lot of seniority. He didn’t know me when I was a 21 year old assistant–to him, I’ve always been a senior member of his staff. Much as I loved K., I had to get out from under her wing to finally be seen as a serious player in the industry. Of course, I never could have become that serious player had it not been for her care and mentoring.
My first two bosses displayed every negative trait that misogynists could possibly ascribe to women in power: backstabbing, undermining, bad-mouthing, sexual jealousy, dramatics, emotional instability, flakiness, shrillness, weepiness…the list goes on. It was disheartening, to say the least. As a dumb young bunny trying to stretch a tiny paycheck and move up the ladder, I really despaired. If this was what the woman-centered media world was like, maybe I should have just gone to law school and been belittled and abused the time-honored way, by the old-boy network. At least the paycheck would have been decent.
But K. pulled me out of that and helped me succeed. She also set the standard for How To Be A Boss; when I began managing people myself, I always stopped to think “What Would K Do?” Now that some of my former assistants have gone on to become managers themselves, I know that they’ve benefited indirectly from K’s kindness and experience.
So thank you for asking, tall-girl. There are definitely Devils in Prada out there, but they are not representative of all powerful professional women, and I’m glad I got a chance to share that. And yes, I’ll be sending K. a link to this post…