By his own admission, my father had a great career.
He spent three decades, through the 70s, 80s and 90s, as president of a major commercial printing operation in San Francisco. Customers included many of the city’s important businesses as well as several of the new Silicon Valley companies such as Hewlett Packard and Apple.
He successfully steered the company in the face of rapid change throughout the industry brought on by computer typesetting and graphics.
He retired at just the right time, before commercial printing in San Francisco became essentially a thing of the past.
Now in his 90s, he has maintained relationships with people he met throughout his career, and he remains almost universally well-liked.
I had hoped my own career would come close to emulating his. Unfortunately, I have fallen very short of the mark.
There are a number of reasons for that, which I have discussed before. One that I will discuss here is the cultivation and maintenance of business relationships.
My dad was from an era when those relationships were everything. There was no social media or internet. Relationships were maintained through time spent in person or on the phone.
We didn’t go on vacation with the families of his colleagues. But we did have dinner at their houses, and they came to dinner at ours. He had lunch almost every work day with a colleague. (In contrast, I usually eat alone.)
My dad also had connections with many people not in the printing business. He kept in touch with former classmates, with other business leaders, and was active in the local chapter of the Rotary Club. All of it was important to him.
He once told me that, if one of his friends or colleagues said to him “My son needs a job” he would find that person’s son a job at his company. And he expected the same consideration in return.
Whether that was common for the time or just something my dad did, I don’t know, but that sure as hell isn’t what’s happening today. I admit that I have not cultivated relationships the way my father did, but I know people and I have former classmates. And this has been my experience:
Over a decade ago I began to think about a career move. I had some ideas and I started talking to people. I went to lunch with a experienced lawyer and asked for help with a career change. The most he did was look over my resume and say “Washington is an information town. I’m sure you will find something.”
I sent my resume to a member of my church, asking for help with getting a job in her organization. All she did was suggest that my resume should be formatted properly.
I sent an email to the then-managing editor of the Atlantic, James Bennet, asking for help landing a position with the magazine. This was at my dad’s suggestion, since he somehow knew Bennet through his network of connections. Bennet emailed back to say that he forwarded my resume to his HR department. I heard nothing further after that. (At least he responded. Some don’t have the courtesy to do even that.)
When I got laid off in 2009, my search for a career change took on a new urgency.
A friend put me in touch with a friend of theirs at the EPA. I scheduled an appointment to meet and ask for help landing a job there. He looked at my resume, but all he would offer was to say “We are always looking for smart people here. ” I never heard from him again.
I tried contacting someone locally who went to the same law school as I did. I didn’t know him personally, but I recalled my dad’s words about all it should take is to say that I went to the same school to open doors. I sent this guy emails and regular mail. I never heard back, not even to acknowledge receipt of my mail. Literally no response.
The sister of an acquaintance worked at a firm that placed temps in law firms. I met her for an interview. I never heard from her again.
And so it has gone, time after time.
I’m not entirely sure where I veered off course. Maybe I should not have asked for help, been more bold, told people what I can do for them, all the things that career coaches say to do.
But help was what I needed, and I wasn’t too proud to ask.
Which raises questions about the culture of work in America today. Much has been said (too much in fact) about how “no one wants to work.” And yet when someone is literally begging for assistance getting a job, backs are turned.
Maybe I was seen as a bad risk. I will never know for sure. No one is talking to me.
Epilogue: Once I told a friend that I felt as if I had been blacklisted. He said “How can you be sure that you’re not?”