It’s Who You Know Until They Find Out Who You Are

By Donna Lee Schillinger

Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence, and do not claim a place among great men; it is better for him to say to you, “Come up here,” than for him to humiliate you before a nobleperson. Proverbs 25:6-7

I used to produce a publication for an organization that had a dream of finding the perfect executive director – or so it seemed. To that end, they would fire one, hire another, fire that one, hire another, and so on – about once a year. It made my life difficult as I had to contend with different personalities and agendas and orient each new director to their own publication. With each change, I started out with high hopes – maybe this will be the perfect director – maybe this is the one who will bring stability to the organization and make my life easier.
One new hire seemed particularly promising. She had a personal connection to the mission of the organization and had long been actively volunteering for related causes; she was also an attorney and well connected in New York City. However, after my conversation with her, I recall thinking to myself, “That woman doesn’t translate to Mid-America.” The matter was a somewhat curt style of communication and a bad case of name dropping. But with a board that proportionately favored the Northeast, I thought maybe there were enough people who could relate to her – maybe it would work.
This director took a particular interest in the organization’s publication. I think more than any other, she really saw the potential it had. She was going to get it on track, fix what was wrong. I had a lot of suggestions on how to go about that, having worked with it for five years, three as editor, and she told me to write up my feedback and she’d take it to her publications expert friends at Booz Allen Hamilton who were going to help the organization “pro bono,” she said, calling from the lexicon of her former profession. She added that Booz Allen (for short) was the largest something or other having to do with magazines, by way of explanation, in case I didn’t know what Booz Allen was. Of course, I had heard of Booz Allen before, but I didn’t bother to mention it, just as I wouldn’t go out of my way to tell someone I knew that DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid. The director also felt particularly qualified to take on the task of revamping the publication because prior to going to law school a decade or two ago, she had worked for Revlon for 18 months analyzing magazines for strategic advertising placement. I was happy to hear she was bringing some resourceful contacts and personal experience to the table; it would make my job easier. I was happy to hear of it, that is, the first time.
The second time, I admitted to knowing what Booz Allen was to save her the explanation – which it didn’t. The third time my eyes were rolling back in my head. And the fourth time she paraded her Booz Allen friends and Revlon experience, I just wanted to say, “Alright already! I get it! Can we get to work now?”
Booz Allen and Revlon weren’t the only names the director dropped. It seemed she had a name for every occasion. None were too impressive – wasn’t like she was weekending with the Kennedys or lunching with Giuliani. I concluded that name dropping in New York City must be a lot more important than it is in Arkansas.
Seems I was wrong. Before that meeting with the Booz Allen consultants ever happened, before we moved off of “start” on her ambitious quest to revamp the magazine, the board decided that she was not the perfect director. It didn’t take them very long at all – about three months. Big-name company she used to work for and the large corporation consultants who were willing to work for free were not reason enough to keep her on. To be fair, she seemed to be a hard worker and I believe she was let go because she didn’t share the board’s vision for the organization. She had different priorities and tried to advance them with her own people. She wasn’t hearing what the “king,” in this case the board of directors, was trying to tell her. In fact, she once so infuriated a board member that the lady hung up on us! It occurred to me that day that she was a bit confused about how the hierarchy in an organization works. She had put herself in the position of trying to lead the board. Many organizations with weak boards do function this way. However, the correct relationship of an executive director to a board is one of advising and assisting – it’s a subordinate position. The fact that they hire and fire the director is the first clue.
A little bit of knowledge and a few good contacts can be dangerous if we allow them to inflate our ego, and particularly in the presence of a person or persons with true authority. Do we think they arrived at their station in life without impressive experiences and getting to know a few important people?
Trying to impress people with who and what you know is a temptation that results from low self-esteem. People don’t care in the end anyway. What they really want to know is who you are. If you are a person of strong character, you don’t need to drop names, places or experiences to be respected by other people of strong character. Don’t think your strong character should garner you the seat next to the king either. Humility from the beginning is a great policy to avoid humility in the end.

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Hold this thought: It’s not who you know, it’s who you are.

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