I was going on a press junket, one of the many perks I was apparently going to have to give up. I’d made it clear to the PR woman I was no longer at Playboy but she quickly dismissed the issue, out of either charity or desperation. Going around the table the first night at the Vegas Lutèce (Lutèce-for free; it was like the last meal of the condemned) she introduced me as a freelancer and nobody paid much attention. I ate my raspberry ganache undisturbed.
Anonymity is tough when you’re used to brand recognition. I admit it: There were several times I suffered relapses. The first was in Vegas. I’d taken advantage of the Canyon Ranch Spa Club (free) at the Venetian (free) and was enjoying a chicken salad at the juice bar (free, charged to my room) when an attractive blonde in a white robe sat down next to me. Two minutes into our conversation she asked what I did and I told her I was the managing editor of Playboy. Call it one of those vestigial reflexes, like the chicken that keeps pecking when its head has been chopped off. Call it a mistake. Nice job, she responded. Then she said she had a great idea for a pictorial. Older women. Like her. With great bodies. If we weren’t in public, she said, smiling coyly, she could show me.
I made noises about having to go back to Chicago and a wife at the airport. She asked for my business card. I told her I had left my cards in my room. She asked my name and wrote it on a napkin. All the next week I plotted an explanation to my wife, who’d have to field a call to my listed home phone from a Vegas showgirl.
Then there was the fellow at the Arts Club of Chicago. Cocooned in black with silver hair, he stopped me in the lobby and said he was sure he knew me; maybe I’d stopped by his gallery. I didn’t know him from Adam. But when he asked what I did, what was I going to say? Nothing? Freelancer? “Playboy,” I murmured. Delighted, he asked for my card. More murmuring. He wrote down my home address on one of his cards, and two days later a huge catalog was crammed into my tiny home mailbox, turning the rest of my mail into ruined folds.
I make light of these blows to my self-esteem because, well, it’s important to maintain a sense of humor. This was pointed out during a two-day seminar on milestones at Lee Hecht Harrison, the outplacement firm. “It’s a grieving process,” explained Ann, a stern-looking woman with short frizzy hair and candy-colored glasses. “Bluntly, your job is dead. Let’s begin with SARAH. We’re very big on acronyms at Lee Hecht.” We proceeded to go through “S” (shock, surprise, sadness), then “A” (anger, anxiety, alarm, avoidance), and finally got to “H,” whereupon Ann abandoned her easel of flip charts to strike a more human pose. “‘H,’ of course, is for happiness, health, and humor,” she said. “Humor is good. We know that laughing increases serotonin and relaxes the muscles in your face.”
I had come to Lee Hecht Harrison because, two months after D-day-“D” for Dismissal, or Dismal, or Death-I was beginning to worry I would never find a job again. Not that I hadn’t tried. My first probe was the Tribune classifieds, but several Sundays yielded a grim fact. There was precious little copy between Drivers and Educators (hmmm; maybe I could teach). I did find one opening at a trade publication in a suburb close to Iowa for an associate editor who was fluent with spread sheets.
I had my pride. I also had my mortgage. So I went on the Internet.
At first glance the Internet seemed an encouraging place to rehabilitate myself. The major sites-Monster.com and Hotjobs.com-looked promising. On closer inspection there weren’t a lot of openings that fit my requirements. In fact there was only one, an “acquisitions editor” for the American Library Association. Sounded respectable and, good news, it was downtown. The bad news was the phrase “minimum two years experience.” Clearly I was overqualified-by a generation. What to do? Pointing that out would sound smug. Ignoring it made me sound desperate. I responded with a cute cover letter-“I’m a big fan of libraries!”-and attached my résumé. I got an automated response, “Thank you for your résumé,” and haven’t heard a peep since.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. At Lee Hecht just about every workshop leader preaches the same gospel, which usually is framed in the form of a query. Who can guess what percentage of jobs are found in ads? On the Internet? The Lee Hecht answer: 15 percent from ads, 10 percent from the Web. The rest-a whopping 75 percent-result from the “hidden market.” Get inside to the hiring manager, goes the mantra. Maybe he’ll like you and create a job. Maybe she’s got a friend whose boss was just hit by a bus. The trick is-pencils sharpened, class-to network.
* * *
Let me say a few words about networking. When you’ve been tossed from your job it’s an excellent way to keep busy. You call people you know. If they have a job, you suggest lunch. If they have a sympathetic bone in their body, they’ll pay. If they don’t have a job you select a Starbucks. I recommend the one at the corner of North and Sheffield Avenues, which has parking and comfy seating.
With your working friends you need to tread a fine line. Obviously you talk about your situation, but you keep the tone light, even upbeat. When one window closes another opens! You’re exploring your options. But don’t sound too vague. Identify your career targets, but keep it realistic. Oh, and dress in something nice, at least a sports jacket. The going is easier over a tall skim latte.
You can let down your hair with your jobless friend. You confess what is really on your mind (did they happen to read that Sunday Times Magazine cover story about the $300,000 exec who is selling pants at the Gap?). You bemoan well-meaning friends who pass along job tips, like the “cashier wanted” sign in the window at Chipotle. At some point you swap names. So-and-so used to be at Somewhere and knows the people at Somewhere Else. You write down So-and-so’s phone number and offer your own So-and-so. You part with a heartfelt “Good luck!” Maybe it will lead somewhere; most likely it won’t. But at least you’ve got a new pal. You’re part of the club.
That’s part of the appeal of Lee Hecht. It’s a club for the working wounded. It’s kind of like AA. Everyone has a story-except you don’t get into the gory details. You’re here to move on. Pick up some pointers, get leads. Get out of the house.
I’d never heard of outplacement firms, until the woman in Playboy Human Resources handed me the mystery packet. When I finally opened the envelope I found a handsome booklet and the business card of my contact. I called one afternoon and that evening there was an urgent message on my answering machine with the man’s home phone number.
“Maybe he thinks you’re going to kill yourself,” said my wife, who is a lawyer, “and they’re worried about liability.”
Occupying the entire high floor of a handsome downtown building, Lee Hecht looks like any office space. There are lots of cubicles, banks of computers, fax machines, nice windowed offices that overlook the city. There’s coffee. It looked like a nice place to work, or just hang out. Which is both the good news and the bad news. “You have a three-month contract,” explained my consultant, a pleasant fellow named Keven. “You can come in every day if you want and people do that. They wear suits and bring in their briefcases, though frankly we discourage it. It’s better not to become a nester.”
The best way to avoid being branded a nester was to take lots of the seminars and workshops. At first, I admit, I was kind of leery. Who needed a roomful of other pathetic pavement-pounders? But the place did have its appeal. I liked the free phones. You can’t beat T1 Internet access. It was a good chance to socialize, too. The guy from Kraft who had handled some condiment accounts told me all the energy in the food industry went into degrading the product, adding water, then glue to prevent separation. I’d always blamed mustard separation on my refrigerator.
There were career tips, too. I think it was Ann who offered this bit of inside baseball: When asked a question during an interview, if you hesitate and glance up to the left it signals you are using your left brain and trying to remember the facts. Glance in the opposite direction, the realm of your “creative” right brain, and the interviewer thinks you’re about to lie.
At the “Dynamic Interviewing” seminar I learned the following: What you say during an interview accounts for only 7 percent of your impact. Your words, in other words, are eclipsed by “tone” (38 percent) and “body language” (55 percent). I made scrupulous notes. Research the company. Case the place a day early. Figure out where you can park. Put your best foot forward; dress up, even if the office code is shorts and sandals. Eat an apple or granola bar prior to the interview. The last thing you want to worry about is your stomach growling. Arrive early. Nice firm handshake. Sit up straight. Answer questions succinctly. Don’t volunteer why you’re out on the block. Have several copies of your résumé ready-you never know if others might join the interview.
Oh, speaking of résumés. Never send one. I picked up this tidbit at the “Productivity” seminar. “You’re shutting the door,” explained the workshop leader. “I get a résumé and I think, ‘Now I know who you are. I don’t need to talk to you.’ So I shut it in a drawer or pass it along to HR, where it goes into the circular file. Which is death.”
Résumés got me thinking about the Entrepreneur Workshop. Well, why not? Freed from my shackles, it suddenly occurred to me how much energy had gone into pleasing my boss. My face had become frozen in a subservient rictus. If Ann was right, my serotonin had probably dropped through the floor. Enough with the daily grind. I was definitely going to start my own magazine. Or maybe open a consulting business. Or-and I have my wife to thank for this lead-buy the toy store on Halsted Street that had recently sent out a mailer inviting bids.
There were only six of us in the Entrepreneur Workshop. One man wanted to open a funeral parlor. A woman had an idea to go into massage therapy and sell a line of nutrients. Then there was the high-powered gentleman from Hewlett-Packard who had run a department in finance. I listened in muted awe as he rattled off his prior businesses. He seemed both nonchalant and driven. He had already traveled the world. The next day he was off to Singapore to nail down a contract to sell software in Bangkok.
How had HP let this dynamo slip away? I drove home, north along Halsted, and cast a rueful eye at the toy store.
* * *
It’s now May, six months after D-day. No job yet. I’m still plotting to start a magazine. Lots of skim lattes under my belt. I had lunch the other day with my old boss, whose announced retirement was what occasioned the hiring of a new editor at Playboy. My old boss had morphed into a consultant but I had to pay for my own tuna salad. He left the tip. There are good days and bad days. A bad day was the morning I sent off my W-2s to the tax guy and realized what a nice deal I had at Playboy. A good day was the next afternoon when the temperature hit 80 degrees and I strolled happily around Bucktown, where I had rented a small office to start writing.
My contract with Lee Hecht has ended. Maybe it’s just as well. After a final workshop, Building Resiliency, I dropped in on Keven and asked how things were going. Not great, he said. The Iraq war had put everything on hold. A lot of companies had reported good first quarter earnings, which was not good news for Lee Hecht. Keven was working only three days a week. Business was slow.
“But it should change soon,” he said hopefully.
We agreed we’d talk in a month or so, maybe over coffee at Starbucks.