Exactly 15 years ago — on Feb. 1, 1999 (my birthday!) — I walked away from the best PR job in Chicago.
At the AAA-Chicago Motor Club I was vice president of public affairs, nearing my 18th year of service. As spokesman for the company, I was occasionally seen and heard on TV and radio offering tips on cold weather driving, gas prices and traffic safety; I was regional editor of the club’s travel magazine; and an active participant in a number of government and community committees and task forces.
It was my annual practice to bring a cake for the office on my birthday. (It was also my practice, on days that were not my birthday, to wander from department to department all around the building, foraging for other employees’ b-day goodies.)
On this particular occasion, I instructed my staff to refrain from cutting in to the cake until later.
I had been planning this day for some time.
For the previous few years, I had been doing some free-lance work for several Jewish organizations and a small business. That business was owned by my long-term friend, Joe Sameh, who sensed (before I did) that it was time for me to move on with my life. He offered me a part-time position, with a computer, an office, a phone and a health-insurance plan. Too good to pass up, right?
In pursuit of poetic justice, I targeted my birthday as Day One of my new career. It was not unusual in many companies for a resigning exec to be stripped of his company stuff and escorted to the door by security. I had no reason to think that would happen to me. But in the weeks leading up to the big day, I copied files from the computer I thought I might need and surreptitiously took home my Rolodex and other personal items. I also cleaned out the company car that was assigned to me and arranged for my wife, Estee, to pick me up at the office in case the car was taken away.
After depositing the aforementioned cake on top of a file cabinet to discourage hungry staff members from jumping the gun, I called Zoe, the executive secretary, to get me an appointment with the company’s president, Rich Bensen.
What would I tell him?
Shove it! (Or maybe not.)
Truth is, I’d been thinking about a rhetorical approach best described as “take this job and shove it.” On advice of a few friends, though, I took a different tack.
“The story of my time at AAA has had many chapters,” I told Rich. “It’s time for me to write a new chapter.” I told him of my desire to try working on my own, and of the opportunity my friend Joe had put in front of me.
Rich didn’t beg me to stay. Instead, he shocked me by offering a consulting agreement to help me get started with my new venture.
With that, I went back to my department, took the cake out of the box and told everyone “I have an announcement.”
While Rich may have seen this coming, my staff was completely shocked. They had expected I’d spend the rest of my life there. Which was exactly why I left.
During my nearly 18 years at AAA, I had gotten pretty good at challenging myself creatively, finding new ways to manage annual programs, avoiding the trap of rehashing and recycling. But that wasn’t enough.
For me, the security of a corporate job with benefits was outweighed by the world of possibilities just outside the office door.
As a newly hatched consultant, I ended up working directly with Rich several hours a week, helping him identify a replacement for me, creating his presentations for the board of directors and facilitating the update of the company’s strategic plan. When Rich’s AAA career ended abruptly two years later, my consulting deal ended, too.
Clients from A to Z
But by that time, with Joe Sameh’s support, I had developed a solid client base. I never could have imagined that my creativity would be applied to everything from associations to zinc manufacturers.
It’s fun (to a point) to contemplate the successes and challenges of the past 15 years. But even today my career wanderlust still beckons me to a world beyond my Gmail inbox, a world populated by interesting clients, rewarding projects, smart business partners, new technologies and endless creative possibilities.
Meanwhile, I could really go for a slice of that cake from 15 years ago.