Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Lessons of a Reluctant Corporate Mofo

Remember Arthur Andersen? After 89 years as the gold standard of accounting, in the spring of 2002 it became the poster company for corporate America gone wrong and within months had been stripped of its clients and completely dissolved. No, this is not a business analysis of where they went wrong or where the white-collar-criminals are today or anything. I just want to express the following: that was the best damn job I ever had. Why, O why did they have to go under?

Arthur Andersen LLP hired me as an executive assistant in January 2001. I supported four managers and two partners. I loved my place among the legion of secretaries and other staff who supported the accountants and consultants. One of the best things about my position was that I didn’t have to think. Mine were the mindless tasks that executives couldn’t be bothered with: answering phones, getting reports duplicated, typing up client bills. Andersen liked its administrative assistants in lockstep and we were carefully supervised on everything from the billing software to what winter coats were appropriate. Nothing ever changed without us being forewarned and re-trained in the new procedure, and there was a right and a wrong for everything. I loved it. And with so many other executive assistants around me, I was never at a loss for people to ask for help. If ever I was in the least doubt about a procedure or decision, there were countless peers and administrative supervisors I could consult. I could do no wrong unless I tried.

I remember brushing my hair one Monday morning as I got ready to leave my apartment. I felt happy and eager to be going to work at Andersen. The people were great and our floor always had some little event going on: someone’s birthday or a baby shower or a plan to bring snacks in for no reason at all. I enjoyed my co-workers and looked forward to making mail runs or heading upstairs to Document Duplication so I could visit with my colleagues in those departments. I reflected on how lucky I was to feel so good on a Monday morning. I knew I wanted stay at Arthur Andersen for a good long time.

The reason I remember that morning so well is that later that day, we learned that Arthur Andersen was going to be indicted by the U.S. government for obstruction of justice in the Enron scandal. I didn’t understand at first, but within days I realized this was the beginning of the end of my most favorite job ever.

I was actually lucky to be one of the first people laid off. I hit the job placement agencies and job fairs with zeal. It was April 2002, but I had no sense of a sinking economy or a tight job market. I just knew that God wouldn’t cast me out into a cold, jobless world (that was when I still Believed). And my unshakable faith paid off: within three weeks of getting laid off, I had job offers from the Aon Corporation, KPMG (another huge accounting firm) and Thrall Enterprises, a tiny holding company where I would be the executive assistant to the president.

A large part of my selection criteria was trying to figure out which company would be least likely to go under due to unethical activities. Shell-shocked by the trauma of learning that Andersen as a company had been deceitful and unethical, I felt disgust for corporate hubris and corruption. I also felt personally betrayed, as by a parent, since I had believed that while Andersen wasn’t saving the world, at least we weren’t damaging it. My faith was shattered and I sadly considered companies that seemed quite different from my former employer. In the end, I sacrificed my desire for community in order to go where the possibility of corruption seemed smallest: I went from the largest place I’d ever worked, to a family-owned, 10-person holding company on the 30th floor of the Prudential building.

It’s been two years since I made that decision, and I’m still waiting to love this job even a fraction as much as I loved Andersen. But these days I’m realizing it’s not going to happen. There just isn’t the heart here I found at Andersen. Here birthdays are dull, perfunctory events; holiday celebrations are stiff and tedious. My boss, a critical perfectionist, wants a take-charge assistant who, in complete isolation, can head projects, determine procedures, make confident decisions and know just how to throw together special events for dozens of people. I’m not that assistant. As the only secretary here, I’m lonely for peers and I long to be told what to do.

After two years at this job it’s time to admit that I’ve given it my best shot, but it’s time to move on. I want a job I can embrace and love. I want fun colleagues it’s a joy to work with. I want tasks I enjoy and a boss I like. I know it sounds like I couldn’t be serious, but I really do prefer a universe of tight rules and dress code conformity where I’m told exactly what to do. I’m a musician who needs to save her creative energy for her original songs. That’s where I pour my heart and soul into an artistic process that takes great focus and concentration. Because of the demands of the music, my day job needs to be much more mindless and take much less energy. I save my thinking for my own projects.

So, yes, I dream of standing shoulder to shoulder in an efficient and omniscient army of executive assistants. I don’t even care about the corporate corruption thing anymore. I want to be a sheep in the fold of dubiously motivated shepherds again. I want to be part of a staff of hundreds -- no, thousands of employees, all working in our beehive-like cells to make some nameless, faceless partners/shareholders wealthy while we spend company time celebrating each others’ birthdays and throwing baby showers. I’ve learned that community is more important to me than salary, happiness more important than ethics. Take me back, Corporate America! And this time, let’s not get caught.

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