In 100 Years

We Can’t Independently Manage All Our Activities, But We Can Manage How We Look At Them.

By Thomas J. Roach

Perspective gives our actions meaning, and perspective takes it away. Years ago, when I worked in the corporate offices of the Carson Pirie Scott corporation, Vice President of Human Resources Bruce Rismiller got philosophical and told a group of his directors not to get too worked up about a problem we were trying to address. “A hundred years from now,” he said, “no one will remember what we did.”

At the time the old cliché seemed profound. I was a young rebel who felt like he was making history. Our CEO had been named Man of the Year in Chicago, we fought off a corporate takeover attempt, and I was benchmarking best communication practices and rewriting the business culture for 37,000 employees in a Fortune 500 company.

As it turned out, it didn’t take 100 years to erase the memory of our efforts. In less than 10 years, P.A. Bergner & Co. bought Carson’s, then approximately 10 years after that The Bon-Ton Stores Inc. took over P.A. Bergner, and in 2018 Bon-Ton was liquidated and The Tiger Capital Group won what was left of Carson’s at auction and, after 164 years of operation, closed all stores. The historic Louis Sullivan building on State Street now houses a Target, and I have no idea what we were worried about when I worked there.

The Future
I wonder how differently I might have handled things if I knew the future. The job dictated much of my activities, but I could have set some of my personal ambitions aside and smelled the roses along the way. Shortly after he waxed philosophical about the future, our vice president lost a turf battle at the board level and announced that they were eliminating corporate human resources.

I believed him and left. The rest of the directors decided to stay and try to salvage their jobs. A year later we all met for pizza, and I think I was the only one who was employed. I never saw any of them again.

Knowing what I know now, maybe I wouldn’t have pushed my agenda so hard; maybe the relationships would have been more important than the accomplishments.

Once, all the directors were flying back to Chicago from a conference in Phoenix, and our flight got cancelled. By chance, I was offered the last seat on the next flight, everyone else would have to wait several more hours.

One of the other directors was several months pregnant, and she sat at the gate looking despondent. Another coworker came to me and said I should give her my ticket. We were in a cutthroat business culture, and I knew no one would offer me their seat if I needed to leave first. She looked like she was acting. I said no and boarded the plane.

What Was It Worth?
So, I saved four hours. What were they worth? I had an uncomfortable flight home, and it still bothers me that I didn’t show kindness, even if it wasn’t deserved. In that competitive environment, it seemed better to take advantage of others than to let them take advantage of you. Now I think it is the other way around. It is undesirable to let others take advantage of you, but it is more undesirable for you to take advantage of them.

Probably most of our business decisions are driven by social and physical circumstances and by directions from our superiors. We can’t independently manage all our activities, but we can manage how we look at them – how we contextualize them.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says employees tend to stay 4.1 years at corporate jobs. Today’s to-do list and its deadlines are best viewed as tracks left on the path of a long career, and in the long run, what counts most is not what we do, but how we do it.

Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].

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