CHAPTER 1 The Moment of Truth
“Experience is not what happens to a man, it is what a man does with what happens to him.”
– Aldous Huxley
Late in the day, May 18th, 1993, I was celebrating the completion of a very important piece of business with a few colleagues in my high-rise office in Times Square, right in the electric center of Manhattan. I was a 37-year-old senior vice president, heading up the consumer products and publishing division of Nickelodeon, the children’s’ cable channel, and we’d just announced a huge, unprecedented deal with Sony to create and market home videos of hit Nickelodeon shows such as Rugrats and Ren & Stimpy.
My team and I were experiencing that rush of euphoria, the physical high when endorphins flood the body after any competition is won, a test aced, an adversary outmaneuvered. Getting the deal done had been stressful, filled with tough meetings, late nights and frayed nerves -- and sharing in the glory of the moment of triumph heightened our sense of accomplishment. Like teammates obsessively rerunning the game films of our championship season, each of us took a turn, recounting different pieces of the story, weaving our collective insiders’ tale of the Great Deal by reliving the emotional ups and downs of the previous 18 months.
“How many business models do you think we ran? A hundred?”
“A million. If I ever hear the words ‘sell through’ again I’ll scream.”
“Or ‘stock keeping unit.’”
“Do you remember management grilling us on our P&L’s? It was like the Inquisition!”
“And the look on those guys’ faces at Disney when we told them sorry, but $18 million just wasn’t good enough! Damn, that felt great.”
We convulsed with laughter when a junior team member perfectly imitated the way a certain big-name lawyer had waddled shoeless around his office during some of our meetings.
Maybe our repartee was not the stuff of legend, but the experience of creating and closing the deal had enriched personal connections that we wanted to savor. We were giddy, simultaneously exhausted from the countless negotiating hours and ecstatic from finally finishing it. No matter how trivial the recollection or joke, we were members of a troupe performing for one another, and it felt great. It was a go-go time in the country and a seriously go-go time at Nickelodeon, then just 12 years old. We were the zeitgeist. We were the champions. And if you’ve ever closed a big deal or helped build an up-and-coming organization, you know how we were feeling. Golden.
The phone rang.
My assistant shouted out, “Oh, man – it’s Sumner! On line one!”
That’s Sumner as in Sumner Redstone, then as now the chairman and majority owner of Viacom, Inc., the parent company of Nickelodeon. During my three years at the company Redstone had rarely spoken to me, and had never phoned.
I gaily answered. How generous of Sumner, I thought, to take the time and make the effort to thank me personally. Now that’s a good boss. This was it. My personal moment of glory.
I eagerly picked up the phone, anticipating verbal high-fives, a congratulatory exchange about what a great job we’d done. Instead, Redstone, at that moment nine days shy of 70 years old, started screaming at me.
I was absolutely blindsided, sucker-punched. I hunched over the telephone, turned my back on my colleagues and gazed, unseeingly, at the high-rise across the street.
My vision narrowed, no ambient sound penetrated my hearing, as Redstone’s rant seemed to magnify in intensity and reverberate throughout my brain and body. I felt my heart racing. My head got that muffled sense of being stuffed with cotton. My palms, which never sweat, moistened. He was the lion and I was the prey. It felt like an out-of-body experience, as I seemed to watch my quivering helpless self from above.
Redstone wasn’t delivering strategic or tactical criticism, but rather personally attacking me. I could practically feel his spittle frothing out of my telephone receiver. I sat there, feeling tears well up, supremely disappointed in being so undervalued for my many months of hard work and mortified to be emotionally bludgeoned in this way in front of colleagues, particularly for something over which I had no control.
And the cause of his rage? In spite of healthy media coverage, including a positive piece in The Wall Street Journal, the public announcement of the Sony deal had failed to make Viacom’s stock price move up.
Unbeknownst to me and most of the world, Redstone was at that time planning a hostile takeover of Paramount Communications -- which he in fact consummated nine months later -- and it was thus essential to him that his currency for the acquisition, Viacom’s stock, rise in value quickly and significantly. But how could I have known that the announcement of Nickelodeon’s home video deal with Sony had been expected to push up the share price? I was an executive in a division within a division of the parent company. Perhaps my bosses knew of this high-stakes expectation, but I certainly didn’t. And even if I had known, how and why could I be held responsible for how the stock market responded? As important as the deal was for Nickelodeon, in the overall scheme of Viacom's annual revenues ($1.9 billion in 1993), our $25 million deal was extremely modest.
Redstone continued in full-on attack mode. “Do you know what you’ve done?” is the one line I remember from the tirade. Mainly it was his vituperative rage that registered in my mind. There was no pretense of civility, let alone reasonableness. I kept mumbling apologies: I’m so sorry, sir. I had no idea.
I was startled and incensed. My anger at the injustice of being singled out for abuse made me feel like exploding. But I couldn’t. To express what I was really feeling would have been professional suicide. I had no doubt that he’d have fired me on the spot. Instead, as I was outwardly groveling, inwardly I had a parallel conversation running in my head: “WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO WITH ANY OF THIS? GET OUT OF MY FACE, YOU IMPOSSIBLE OLD MAN! YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND ANYTHING ABOUT ANYTHING!” But you know what? Interior monologues aren’t very emotionally satisfying.
Less than ninety seconds after I’d happily picked up the phone, Redstone, without a goodbye, hung up. The viciousness of the assault and the suddenness with which he ended it were breathtaking. In shock and frustration, having been too stunned and scared to defend myself, the tears that had begun to well up during the call spilled out as I tried to process the information. Was I at fault? Had I done something wrong? Why hadn’t anyone told me how critical Redstone considered the deal? What could I have done differently?
I was physically shaking with the anger I felt I could not safely, appropriately express, and my body understood that I had to expel that anger somehow…so I cried. Bam! Just like that. In less than two minutes I’d gone from feeling on top of the world to feeling like scum on a pond – and, worse, a specific pathetic subspecies, crying female scum.
If I had been alone in my office during the call, I surely would have really sobbed, letting it all out, discharging my feelings, then gotten up, gone home, had a glass of wine (or two, or three), vented to my husband, helped myself relieve some of my pain and moved on. But because I’d been reamed out and cried in front of an audience I was embarrassed, and felt like I had to bottle up my feelings. By itself, being yelled at or feeling intense anger or crying in public is tough enough to deal with, but the trifecta combination felt exponentially humiliating. I wiped my eyes and while my roiling emotions – shock, anger, anxiety, fear, and sadness -- warred within, in the nanosecond it took to swivel my chair back to face the group I had to decide how I should present Redstone’s call to the team. On one hand, I wanted their sympathy and support. What right did that removed-from-reality jerk have to lambast me? To bolster my just-battered self-esteem I craved the team’s who-does-he-think-he-is outrage on my behalf, on our behalf. But it wasn’t such an easy decision. I worried that I might lose face. I also was concerned that I’d feel better if they rallied around me, but only at their expense. Did I really want them to think that all of their sacrifices -- their late nights, long business trips and stress were wasted? No way. I was their boss. Both to shore up my sense that we had done a good job and to shield the team from feeling discredited, I decided as I turned my chair to pretend like the call was no big deal.
I have no recollection of what happened next because specific detail from those moments has been lost to me in the haze of post-traumatic stress that followed. Fearing a total meltdown, I recollect that with a wobbly smile I avoided saying anything detailed about the call managing, perhaps, to force out an uninspired, “Great job, everyone. I am suddenly so tired I can hardly hold my head up. How about we call it a day and all go home?” I had no ability to fake it any further and needed to be alone. And fast.
You’d think a 15-years-in-the-workforce executive would have been toughened up and more cynical about work -- who among us hasn’t had a boss unjustly snarl or shout at us? -- but it wasn’t until the day after the call that I fully appreciated that my work was really, finally just a job. Up to then I’d felt like a member of the A-Team, part of one of those splendidly serendipitous confluences when a few very lucky people happen to be in the right place at the right time with a shared vision and the resources to realize their dreams. Only after the call did I viscerally understand that our mission was not to make the world a better place for kids, it was to produce a momentary uptick in a stock price. I was merely one teensy machine part that could be capriciously ripped out and smashed and discarded. That perhaps naïve seeming epiphany, that tiny isotope of grievance -- I’m killing myself for this kind of treatment? – began to metastasize over time.
Two years, seven months and fifteen days after I cried at work, I quit, without a new job.
In the scheme of things was what I experienced that afternoon really such a big deal? No. Was Redstone’s anger at me legitimate? No. Was crying my only option? For me it was. Should I have felt even worse because I did cry? No. Did Redstone make it personal? Yes. Did I take it personally? Yes.
But let’s widen the scope of those questions beyond my case. Is it a real problem that while emotion underlies nearly all important work decisions, most of us most of the time pretend it’s not so? Yes. Is it a problem that we remain clueless about why and how emotion drives work, and about how we should handle it? Absolutely. Might someone else handle a similar situation differently? You bet.
Take the case of Cyndi Stivers, the managing editor of Entertainment Weekly’s EW.com. On paper she and I are similar. We both started working in the late seventies, part of the second major modern wave of women to enter the labor force, and we have both worked in a variety of different areas of the media. But we are very different in our operating styles.
While I like to believe that at core I’m a relatively even-keeled person, the truth is that it is always a huge effort for me to project outward calm. As you might guess, my emotions, both good and bad, always run close to the surface. I regularly tear up reading stories of personal sacrifice in the paper and even when watching treacly television commercials celebrating our shared humanity. I become overtly enthusiastic when good ideas emerge during brainstorming sessions or when someone does their work exceptionally well. To me, these are good qualities – ones that make me empathetic and fuel my creativity. But the flip side of this sensitivity is that I also tend to obsess about slights or problems that would be insignificant to others, a stewing-over-everything quality that makes me vulnerable to feeling overly agitated by the inevitable ups and downs of everyday life. And yet while this thin skin sometimes can interfere with my effectiveness, my preoccupation with how others view me can also inspire me to consistently try to do my best. So who is to say what level of emotional sensitivity is optimal? I believe that I was born sensitive and that’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing in and of itself. It’s simply part of who I am.
What was an almost insurmountable challenge for me as an executive, I now know, was my sense that my sensitivity was something negative in the context of work, something weak and inferior in me that should be subverted or conquered. Consequently, the whole “man-up” bravado that I felt was required of me on the job became a chronic and ever-increasing source of stress during the 20 years I rose through the ranks. The “work” of acting like a manager often felt more challenging to me than the work itself. Whenever I walked into the extremely extroverted, game-on! MTV Networks culture, a hard partying, cowboys-making-up-the-rules-as-we-went-along, the more-outrageous-the-idea-or-behavior-the-better office environment, I felt like I had to put on my game face. I developed an artificial persona of the tough-talking, hard-drinking executive. Which meant, in other words, that I forced myself to act more like a guy.
Cyndi, on the other hand, seems to thrive in a variety of different kinds of work situations, always projecting a seemingly effortless level of calm and, unlike me, she doesn’t seem prone to chewing over possible slights. While I’m certain she deals with extremely high levels of anxiety, from my perspective she could be the poster girl for the unflappable executive. Unlike my perpetual state of personal/professional personality dissonance, Cyndi also seems to have no difficulty reconciling her professional and private selves. At work or at a party, she radiates an optimistic attitude which is in sync with her cheerful exterior. Her appearance, particularly when she was younger – a turned-up nose, apple cheeks and dimples – often would make people in work situations dismiss her as un-serious. But it’s more than just appearance -- Cyndi projects the aura of a person with a high internal set point for happiness. In the same way I believe I was born sensitive, Cyndi says, “I am hard-wired to be cheerful.” And she turned her naturally upbeat disposition to her advantage, discovering that “there is strength and resilience that some may not expect. And I guess because I’m a WASP, I’m not a big crier.”
To demonstrate her even-keeled nature, Cyndi recalled a time when she felt challenged. Fairly early on in her career as she was discussing the ins and outs of a new job for a competing magazine over lunch at the UN Plaza with her former boss and mentor, Clay Felker [founder of New York magazine and former editor of Esquire and The Village Voice], Cyndi benefited from valuable professional advice from an unusual source.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from It's Always Personal by Anne Kreamer. Copyright © 2011 by Anne Kreamer. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.