Cross-posted from The Green Suits:
Greetings everyone! We hope you had a most enjoyable Thanksgiving Break.
Today may be the second day of the last month of 2013. But it was on this day–(ahem) 30 years ago–that my glorious business career started humbly.
On December 2, 1983, I joined a Washington, D.C.-based financial services trade association as its circulation manager, where I was tasked with overseeing the subscriber files of all of its many publications including an “audited” monthly magazine.
My first day on the job did much to raise my anxiety. And the problems I was tasked to fix surfaced as quickly as my new co-workers arrived at my desk to welcome me aboard.
Problem #1: I didn’t know a lick about circulation (nor did any of my co-workers, all of whom were career journalists). Fifteen minutes at the new job I met the person I replaced as circulation manager; she arrived in D.C. by “shuttle” from the soon-to-close New York office. She brought with her two large strong boxes each stuffed with thousands of 5 by 8-inch index cards. I was told that each of the cards listed the name and address of every paid subscriber. These records were neatly kept in alphabetical order (by company); up-to-date payment status was indicated on each card in pencil.
So I asked the person I was replacing as circulation manager: “Are any of these records stored on computer files, as well?” And she answered, “Well…yes and no.” She added that the New York office payment records were listed on these cards, but the Washington office payment records were stored on a computer file in the accounting department (one floor down). That’s when I learned that my new employer was the result of a just-completed merger between a New York-based trade association and a D.C.-based trade association. And it was at that moment that I determined that my job would be to merge all of the circulation records into one file.
I continued: “And what about the labels that go on the magazines?” The incumbent replied, “well, each office produced its own set of labels.”
Problem #2: I learned that producing the subscriber labels was an interesting challenge. My journalist co-workers did their work on (then state-of-the-art) IBM 8088 PCs and they knew how to use their technology fairly well. But my labels were resident in two un-merged ASCII files (maintained separately on the D.C. office’s DEC computer system). And the only person who knew how to access those labels was consumed with her Job One–merging the new association’s membership and accounting records.
The manager of that process told me, “I’ll get to your labels after I complete all of my work.”
“Well…okay,” I replied, not aware that the labels for the next issue of the magazine were due to the printer (the week before I arrived.)
Problem #3: It was lunch time and I was starved. As I had just driven to town the night before–and was temporarily living out of a suitcase at a friend’s house in the D.C. suburbs–I hadn’t bothered eating breakfast that morning, because I needed to make sure I arrived at the office, on time. So at noontime, I grabbed my coat and headed for the elevator. But my boss stopped me in the hallway and said, “Dan, (this is Andrew). He is here from ABC, to audit the magazine’s circulation.”
Confused, I asked my boss, “why is a broadcast network here?” When Andrew handed me his card I immediately realized that he wasn’t from the American Broadcasting Company but rather from the Audit Bureau of Circulation. My magazine, I learned, hired [this] ABC to audit its paid-circulation records. That way, it could justify all the money it charged advertisers for space in the book.
Panicked, I turned to Andrew and said, “Sir, today is my first day on this job. They haven’t shown me where the lavatory is, yet. And I am still learning the scope of my job. Can we agree on a date for you to return–weeks from now–when I can sit down with you to complete this audit?”
Andrew was the nicest fellow. We agreed on a date approximately 90 days later for him to audit the books.
Problem #4: When I returned from lunch, I had fully realized that the scope of the work I signed on to manage was far more complicated than I had been led to believe. I asked the [information services] person, who I learned was producing both sets of labels for the magazine, to join me in the association’s boardroom. I had arrayed everything I was given across the table’s vast expanse: the two strong boxes of cards from New York, the “green bar” print out of paid subscribers from the D.C. office, and then two sets of labels: one stack of “one-up” sticky labels from the New York list and one “four-up” stack of labels from the D.C. list. I asked my counterpart–whose name was Jannice (spelled with two “ns”)–”how do I turn all THAT [pointing to all the paper and storage] into one circulation file?” She didn’t have a pat answer to my question, but I could tell from her reply that Jannice was indeed a pro. She said, “It’s part my problem, too. We’ll figure it out, together.”
Problem #5: Jannice introduced me to the IT guy in charge of merging computer systems. “[Bill] can possibly help,” she said. Bill, who was a contract  resource knew technology, but he didn’t know about applying such technology to help the circulation department operate. Jannice and I soon discovered that Bill was probably not the right resource when he arrived in Jannice’s office in a flop-sweating state of panic. Holding a couple of printed pages in one hand, and pointing to a nearby fax machine with the other, he asked, “how do I send [THIS] with [THAT]?”
At 5:00, I stared at the walls of my cubicle wondering, “what have I gotten myself into?” It was then that two of my co-workers, Robert and Gordon, said “come with us.” I don’t remember where we three went–to a bar to drown my sorrows or for an early supper–but I know that soon after my two co-workers had me in stitches from laughing. It was then that I realized that I was working with terrific–and brilliant–people and that the problems that had been dumped in my lap would get fixed (eventually).
Fast forward 90 days: Day after day for three months, I had carefully assembled from both original sources a hard-copy representation of the magazine’s circulation. As a result of the work done, I determined that nearly 90 percent of the magazine’s circulation delivered to an institution’s main address. So I created for each bank a header page (for instance “Boston Five Cents Savings Bank”) and below that I listed the names of all executives at that bank receiving the magazine at the bank’s main address. I then created attachments to that header page listing all other subscribers from the bank receiving the magazine at alternate addresses. The balance of records–the “onesies and twosies”–got their own header page. No one had guided me in the organization of these records, but by scratch–and instinct–I created a merged hard copy file of the magazine’s circulation. The 20,000 or so records I started with on Day One I had now organized into about 2,000 unique accounts of 16,000 un-duplicated records. Andrew arrived for the audit expecting a mess of papers covering the board room table. Instead, I showed him a half-dozen neatly assembled 4-inch loose leaf binders representing the merged and de-duplicated magazine subscriber file.
To readers of The Green Suits who’ve grown up with information technology, know this: I completed the assembly of these records in hard copy form and entirely by hand. With a master circulation file complete, we hired a third-party magazine circulation and fulfillment management company to key-enter and create an electronic database of the file. A month or two after that, the company we hired completed and validated their work. We now had a clean-as-a-whistle database that would pass any audit with flying colors.
Looking back, my on-the-fly or (by-the-seat-of-my-pants) management of this early on-the-job crisis afforded me several opportunities:
First, it relieved me of the manual labor previously required to produce all the labels needed for the magazine’s monthly run. Manual work yielded many errors–duplication and omissions–that cost the association money. By all accounts, converting the paper circulation file to a computerized database saved my employer hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars each issue.
Second, it liberated me to grow the job into areas that interested me the most. My job was no longer clerical, but rather managerial; ongoing, I could purpose myself to grow the publication’s revenues and expand marketing. The automation provided by the third-party circulation and fulfillment house allowed me to convert almost all of our subscribers from one-year renewals to three-year renewals (which our member institutions gladly paid in advance). Within one year, my job became a P&L and marketing-focused assignment.
Third, I learned my profession out of necessity. When I arrived at that job–30 years ago today–I had no professional skill or experience. Two years later, with solid direct marketing skill under my belt, I accepted an executive position at a direct marketing agency. My new job was a dream job, one I would never had qualified for, had I not managed through and learned from my Day One crisis.
Thirty years have passed and I now have at my disposal some truly dazzling information technology. Where before my innovation resulted from a no-tech (paper, pen, and scotch tape) solution completed over 90 days, today I can merge/purge a similarly sized list of records, and output them in a variety of formats, in mere minutes. That huge problem that consumed the first 90 days of my first job could now be solved in hours with readily available office technology like Microsoft Office.
Thirty years have passed since I started my career. Yet I know that today’s entry-level executives still must be inventive on the job, so that they master their core tasks and build from it a successful career. Here’s what I did 30 years ago–very humbly–that my counterparts today can do to succeed.
- Stay resolute (and don’t panic) in the face of obstacles. My journalism school-trained management didn’t know about the circulation debacle, so it didn’t become a discussion point in my interviews with them. We all must allow that there will be stuff (a little or a lot) that we didn’t know about before accepting a job. With each new assignment we must accept and embrace as much uncertainty as we can handle, overcome our fear of failure, and soldier through the daunting challenges before us.
- Ask for help. I didn’t know much–if anything–about how to do my job on Day One. But I knew enough to ask my new co-worker Jannice and my ABC auditor Andrew for help. Together, Jannice and I figured out how to output and gather the circulation labels for the magazine’s run. And asking questions helped me invent an accurate handcrafted merged/purged database that I turned over to a third-party fulfillment house to automate.
- Monetize your value. Soon after I created that humongous paper trail of the merged/purged subscriber file, I established several baseline metrics for my boss and his management: a validated total number of subscribers (as represented in that paper trail), institutions represented, and total revenue. Then, once our third-party magazine fulfillment resource sent out renewal notices to our subscribers offering a three-year renewal option–and most of them paid for all three years in advance–I was able to accurately forecast a rapid growth in magazine circulation revenue. With that revenue-building success in place, I turned my attention to all the other publications I was tasked to manage–membership directories, white papers, newsletters, et. al.–and quickly found new subscribers for them via our magazine circulation file, but also third-party marketing firms.
- Once you’ve mastered the critical needs of the job, figure out where you want to take things next. While I loved to write–and still do–I knew I didn’t want to morph from circulation manager to staff writer (like my co-workers). I did know–with a lot of guidance from my college professor/mentor–that I wanted to focus my efforts on a direct marketing career. Six months in, I offered my boss proof of all my circulation department accomplishments and my insight as to where I wanted to focus my next efforts. Soon after, with my boss’s approval, I contributed my marketing skill to promoting the magazine (with cheeky “new-subscriber” cards stitched into the magazine) as well as advertising creative for all of our other publications. And…
- Know when to leave. At about the 18-month mark I knew that I had accomplished everything I wanted to do at this first job. And I knew then that if I stayed much longer, I would grow bored (and unhappy) with the job. So, with my mission of furthering my direct marketing career mapped out, I started planning my next move. At about my two-year mark, I got a job in the Twin Cities (Minnesota) working for a terrific direct marketing agency. My co-workers sent me off to my new role with hugs, handshakes, and staff-autographed thermal underwear!
I look at the thirty years passed and marvel at how a fine career started with a messy stack of labels and two strong boxes. Yet, I look forward to my next thirty years–empowering executive talent in marketing, insights gathering, and green business–with the same fire-in-the-belly that I felt on my first day on the job in D.C.
As I’ve written many times, I repeat today: Our best days lie ahead!