Losing your corporate innocence

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Mark Schaefer is an author, speaker, podcaster, and business consultant. He lectures at Rutgers University, teaching MBA digital marketing programs, and has written nine marketing bestseller books. He is the host of The Marketing Companion, one of the top 10 marketing podcasts on iTunes, and his blog {grow} is often listed as one of the top marketing blogs in the world.

Biggest fuck up

Either by luck or by design, I’ve never made a mistake I could not recover from. Not sure if that is a theme among successful people or luck.

As I look back over a career that now spans more than three decades, there was one traumatic incident that occurred, and certainly, I had some role in it.

To simplify a very complicated situation, I was the account manager for my company’s biggest client, a customer, in fact, who bought more than $1 billion in products from us every year. The close dependency between our companies created a love-hate relationship at the top of the companies. Leaders from both companies depended on this supply, and each was always scheming for a way to scratch out even a tiny advantage.

I had done a very good job orchestrating this perilous dance for several years. My performance reviews were stellar, I had just closed the biggest long-term deal in the history of our company, and the customer noted that relations between the two companies had never been better. Or, so I thought.

The president of our company came to me and asked me to re-negotiate a small line of the new contract. It was very confusing to me, and I couldn’t understand his seeming preoccupation with this matter. As I began to peel the layers back, I discovered that my company was planning to use this seemingly innocuous contract language to create a giant legal loophole and a long-term financial windfall.

Nothing about it was illegal, but it certainly would create a vast and probably irreconcilable rift between these two titanic partners.

I pleaded with the company president and his leadership team not to pursue this course, knowing it would devastate the fragile alliance I had built over four years. But the possibility of this enormous financial gain and even “revenge” over this powerful customer was too strong, and I was told to get the wording changed.

The day after the contract was amended, my company announced a pricing change that exploited this new loophole, and predictably, all hell broke loose. But I did not foresee what came next.

A few days later, I was mysteriously taken off the account. I was promoted to a marketing job I had always wanted, but the timing of the move made it look very suspicious, and I was devastated. What I had learned was that my boss had flown to my customers’ headquarters the previous day and told them that the loophole change was my idea all along.

When I discovered this, I felt humiliated and angry. I confronted my boss about it, and he was frank: “Somebody had to take the fall. It was either you or me.”

That moment marked the end of my innocence in the corporate world. It marked the end of loyalty, the end of trust, and the end of my youth, in many ways.

That may sound sad, but it was really a wake-up call to how the business world often works. It hasn’t changed my ethics or my approach to business, but it put a dent in a heart that was probably too trusting and innocent.

And oh, by the way, my boss was shortly fired after this incident while I continued to thrive in my career.

Lightbulb moment

I want to talk about a lightbulb moment that has nothing to do with the incident I described. It has to do with relating to people on the internet.

When I left the corporate world, I was still in a “traditional” marketing mindset. I had a message. I had a target audience. I had a plan. The problem is this sort of communication felt stiff and boring. Finally, I relaxed and had the courage to show more of myself on the web. That’s when everything changed. Instead of finding my target audience, my target audience found me!

I see lots of folks making that same mistake. People are people. Relate to them online as you would if they were offline.

Useful Advice

Over the past few years, I have written a lot about the idea of personal branding. That’s a term that carries some emotional baggage, maybe even controversy,  but it is so critically important nonetheless.

Think about it this way. If you are known in your field, you have a permanent and sustainable advantage over people who are not! Doesn’t that seem like something you should own and actively develop?

Becoming known is not the same as being famous. It means having the presence, reputation, and authority to help you achieve your goals, whatever they might be. My hope is that people will begin to think about their personal brand strategically and take action. It doesn’t have to be perfect out of the box, but it is important to begin.

The first step is to really spend some time considering what you want to be known for. Imagine yourself on a stage two years from now. The audience is so eager to hear what you have to say. What are they going to learn from you? What is YOUR message to the world?


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