Working in The Business World
1968 to 1988
My First Real Job: Western Electric
I never entertained any delusions that—coming right out of seminary—I might be able to land a job in the business world. That seemed out of the question. But I learned of an opening for a management trainer with Western Electric near Princeton, New Jersey. I figured I had nothing to lose so I fired off a resume, fully expecting to be rejected. Much to my surprise they granted me an interview.
This will be good practice, I thought. I was relaxed and loose during the interview and we laughed a lot. And I received the expected letter of rejection. Elizabeth had now finished her teaching job and we set about getting ready to drive out to California. And then Western Electric called. Their first choice for the job had reneged. I was their second choice. Was I still interested in the job? I just stood there in shock. But I was able to say “yes”.
Western Electric, which was the manufacturing arm of the old (ATT) Bell System, was one of a small group of major corporations that were shifting their approach to management training. The old approach was didactic; lectures from experts and case studies. The new approach was experiential learning.
With experiential learning, we put participants through a series of structured exercises (e.g. individual and group problem-solving tasks, communication exercises, business simulations). These exercises enabled us to measure the results of their efforts. Participants would assess their results and then reflect on how they went about their task. We encouraged participants to give feedback to one another. In particular we wanted them to look at the relationship between their own behavior and the results they achieved, with an eye to seeing how they could improve.
My father was deeply disappointed in my choice of a career. He explained that, in his company, the training department was where they sent the people who had failed at everything else. A training job was for losers. I understood his disappointment. I also knew it did not apply to my situation.
Our programs were designed to help participants 1) gain insights from their own life experience and 2) use these insights to become more effective at what they do. We wanted participants to recognize that their most valuable learning was back on the job where it really mattered most.
Experiential learning is still the most common approach to organization training today. This approach offers the possibility that participants might—if they are truly open to it—receive life changing insights.
At Western Electric I was completely focused on developing my training skills. This was not only a new job for me, it was a whole new field for the training industry. I was having a lot of fun. But after two years of conducting workshops three weeks out of four, I was burnt out. I had loved this job. It had given me my ten thousand hours of experience and the basic skills to excel in my field. But I was exhausted and I needed a change of pace.
One of our outside speakers offered me a job in Boston. But there was one little problem, they didn’t have any money to pay the people he had hired. The lack of money created chaos and conflict in our small 5-person consulting group. Once again, I seized up in reaction to conflict and had become ineffectual. I found myself in Boston with a wife, a one- year old child and no job. It was time for us to head on out west to California.
Elizabeth and I and our son ended up living in subsidized housing just north of Berkeley. The trauma of my Boston experience hung over me like a shadow. I was bottled up and needed some freedom to act out my repressed anger. It took a little over a year before I was ready to settle down and find another job.
Second Job: Training Officer, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory
In 1972 I was hired as the Training Officer for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore California. The Lab had recently laid-off its training department only to realize that it still needed one. I was hired to re-build the department and to make the training more viable. My boss, a wonderful man named Jack Brewer, confessed he was not sure he fully understood my approach, but he said he would leave that to me. He described his job as keeping my feet out of the “bear traps”. He was true to his words. He knew the lab politics and where the bodies were buried. He saved me on many an occasion. When I left 6 years later, the department had a training function. a career planning function and an organization development function. All told we had a staff of nine people.
Third Job: University of California San Francisco
After two successful jobs I was riding high. But it was not to last. At my new job I reported to the Vice-Chancellor of Administration at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco. He was also new and had no clue about organization politics. And he had no interest in supervising me. I was on my own.
I discovered the hard way that I was terrible at office politics. Very little seemed to get done by the university administration but a lot of time was spent jockeying around protecting one’s turf or trying to poach someone else’s turf. Once again, my aversion to conflict undermined my effectiveness. Before long I had two feet in the bear traps and no viable future at the medical center.
Fourth Job: Shugart Associates
My fourth job was in Silicon Valley at the company that made the very first floppy disc drives. Silicon Valley was a different world. Everything moved very fast. There was less time for office politics. My boss was an ex-therapist who had conducted substance abuse training programs. She seemed to know nothing about experiential training or group facilitation. An external consultant we hired pulled me aside to warn me that I was threatening her and exposing (not intentionally) her limited skills. The company was losing business to new start-ups, lay-offs began and —not to my surprise—I was gone. Three months later the whole company was gone. But it had been a fascinating adventure into the world of high-tech start-ups.
Fifth Job: Syntex
From 1982 to 1988 I worked for Syntex Pharmaceuticals (which no longer exists). In my first job I worked at the corporate level for a manager who closely supervised me and was good at office politics. This job gave me many opportunities to hone both my consulting and my facilitation skills. Here I came fully into come into my own as a skilled OD consultant.
Read: Men’s Retreat.
Shortly after the mens’ retreat experience, I was hired by the United States division to be an internal consultant to that division. My new boss, the vice president of human resources, gave me free reign to do whatever I felt was needed.
I was now free to explore the relationship between consciousness and organization behavior.