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Friday, June 08, 2007

Mentoring Part 2

Finally! I've been meaning to write this for a while. Part 1 is here.

I was introduced to Peggy by Margaret, the wife of my ex-boss, who worked with Peggy. So off I ventured, really quite excited about it, as it was an entry into the hotel business. Peggy had had a bad day, interviewing secretaries which had left her frustrated and at her wit's end. I was about the fifth applicant she'd seen that afternoon. Apparently, at the close of the day, Margaret went to Peggy to ask how it had gone and Peggy had replied that it had been so bad she'd taken the stack of applications and torn them all up and they were in her waste bin.

Margaret said, but what about Fiona? Peggy then reflected and said, oh yes, she was actually quite good. Between them, they rifled through the strips of paper and managed to reconstruct my application form, tests and certificates. That is why, during my entire career with them, my personnel file contained paperwork that had been scotch-taped back together. It was a strange badge of honour to bear.

Wow, I was totally flabbergasted at the way things were there. At the closeness, the teamwork, the charisma of the CEO, the drive, the excitement, the incredible vibe. The company was going through a HUGE development phase, opening hotels right left and centre. When I first started working there, we had a corkboard with all the hotels on it (we looked after the Asia-Pacific region) and the names of the heads of department. At that time there were six hotels. It wasn't long before I was printing smaller cards to squeeze in another four hotels. When it came to a three-year plan to open 25 hotels, I just took the board off the wall and went to a computer spreadsheet. Thank goodness I had my first computer by then! It was big, boxy, slow, a black screen with green lettering, no windows. Everything running from the DOS prompt. Aaaaaah those were the days!

We were maniacally crazy. I was the secretary to the head of personnel (yes it was that long ago) and the regional controller. Talk about having to spread myself thin and into two such diverse areas of business. But I did it and I learned so very much. You had to there, it was a sink or swim place and those who swam had to be olympic grade. Pretty soon I progressed to HR Officer (we had morphed into that by then) and oh my goodness the delight with which I handed my dad the letter confirming that I was no longer 'just' a secretary, well I was beaming. Though it took him many years to stop telling people I worked in PR!

Peggy was just amazing. Never before, nor since, have I met anyone like her. Serene, calm, incredibly knowledgeable and wanting to share her wisdom. She could walk into a room and command it, not through power but through her incredible aura. I sucked it all up like a sponge, I was so hungry to take in everything I could. She still laughs today, at the 'blob' she hired. Yes, I was passive (quit laughing out there) and shy and uncommunicative. In fact I would go so far as to describe myself in those days, as being taciturn (I said quit laughing!). But boy did I ever change under her tutelage. She showed me why I should have confidence, she nurtured my competencies until I felt strong enough to stand on my own, and she introduced me to so many things about personal growth. She took me from 'there' all the way to a very good 'here'.

It was an amazing place to work. We were all so busy that there really was no time for socialising outside work, so we brought that aspect into our work. We would go to conferences like a big family, each of us with our own role. We worked, ate, played (and in some cases) slept together. As I look back, I can see how incredible that group dynamic was. The respect we had for each other, the way we valued each other's contribution. We were like a well-oiled machine. The challenges the company faced were cascaded down to us and we were given responsibilities beyond our experience, which gave us tremendous scope to grow. And permission to make the odd mistake, which was inevitable. But management didn't use that against us, they used it to make things better, to help us learn. It's an incredible thing to be in a company with that mindset, at a time when so much was happening. The pressures were incredible, but so were the rewards as hotel after hotel opened and we put yet another pin in the map. China, in particular, was an area of huge growth at the time and we held a few conferences in our new hotels there. I'll never forget sunset cocktails on The Great Wall, dinner in The Great Hall of the People (I got SO drunk on maotai, chinese wine made from fermented sorghum), a fancy dress party at The Ming Tombs, cycling through Beijing and eating in the home of a family living in a commune (this was way back in the mid 80's).

I remember running a recruitment meeting with the general managers of six hotels that were all opening within a three-month period. The deal regarding Hong Kong's future with China and the return to the motherland had been signed in 1984 and there was a mass exodus of professional people to Australia, Canada, the US, Britain. People who were descended from the original refugees into Hong Kong many years before, escaping the forces that were about to absorb us into the fold, come 1997. Their parents had run once before, and now they were running from what was basically the unknown, but feared in any case. In those days in China, as it was just opening up to tourism, all the department heads were from outside the country and they were given a local 'shadow' to learn from them. I was working with a steadily decreasing talent pool in Hong Kong, so much so that there was almost a fistfight in one meeting where I had a really good chef and they all wanted him. I had to make the call that he'd go to the first one to open. I couldn't believe it when one general manager quietly left the room and was gone for about 20 minutes. Only to return to proudly advise me that he'd spoken with his project manager and they were going to push up completion date to three days ahead of the hotel which was leading the pack. Just to get a good chef! I ended up with an open offer to the candidate at both hotels, and they actually were competing to finish first. He did it, too. He completed and opened a nose in front of the other one.

Peggy, dear amazing Peggy. My annual evaluations were conducted in her office, usually after hours. First we would go downstairs to the wine shop and purchase a nice bottle of white. Then we would return to her office with a beautiful harbour view and look at the city lights glittering on the water. She'd take the guitar one of the general managers had left in her safekeeping when he transferred to one of our new operations, and strum it while we talked. About everything. Not just work and goals and evaluations. But about life, and the whys and wherefores. About how we felt and how we expressed our joy and sorrow. About what it all meant to us. And it's amazing how, from all that, good things came to us both. Clarity of vision for planning and clarity of understanding for evaluating. I think one of the most important things Peggy taught me, was that work can be a lot of fun and it can be a good part of life, not just 'work'.

We had a glorious five years together and when it was coming to an end for her, with the new regime after the company was bought out (it went from being American-based to British-based) and an entirely new way of doing things, she did the most wonderful thing for me. Long before she was due to leave, she found me somewhere else to go. She arranged for me to interview with the head of HR of another hotel company, one of world-class repute. A job of more responsibility and with a 150% increase in total pay. I remember at the interview, he was asking me where I lived and I told him (a particularly seedy area in this town, all I'm saying is the 'Seven Sisters Bar' was on the ground floor of the building where I lived and one of my neighbours worked in a topless bar. Lovely girl, we became friends and she even tried to entice me into her line of work!). He said oh well, you won't have to stay there, in fact we'd rather you didn't and with $xxxxx you won't have to. A quick calculation in my head estimated a very good increase over my current salary and I was delighted. When he then added, 'and that's for your housing allowance', I about fell off my chair! By the end of the lunch, I had a firm offer from him.

On my way back, I bought Peggy a huge bunch of flowers. And I just handed them to her and said 'thank you'. She smiled and said how happy she was that my wings were so strong and my heart so true, that someone could make a decision so quickly about my value. But then I knew she'd been singing my praises to him for days before I met him. I think I made my dad prouder than he'd ever been of me, the day I told him where I was going to be working. And I did move out from above the Seven Sisters Bar, into a really nice three-bedroomed apartment. Oh my goodness, the excitement at having a dining table. And real walls. My old 'apartment' had a bedroom in one corner, separated from the rest of the room by plywood. I laugh when I think back to how bad it was, remind me to tell you my rat stories sometime!

Peggy 'retired' from that job and returned to the UK with her family in 1991. There she set up a beautiful shop and holistic centre, with a focus on 'soul nourishment'. The shop and centre have since been sold on but Peggy continues to contribute to people's lives. At the moment she is the UK Conversation Leader for the Alliance for a New Humanity founded by Dr. Deepak Chopra. Peggy is one of the few people in the UK certified by Dr. Chopra as a Primordial Sound Meditation Instructor.

There is no doubt in my mind that Peggy gave me back the person I'd lost in my childhood. By gently and caringly working with me, by taking me into her heart and into her own family and empowering me with the knowledge she imparted to me. And I really do miss those annual evaluations.

Peggy (centre) and her 'gals', Kay and Fiona, in 1987.


Jac said...

What a great story! The Peggy's in life remind us of why we do what we do. And how fitting that her tribute has overtaken yesterday's hat-ache!

Fusion said...

What a wonderful friend she is to you Fiona, we need more Peggys in the world, thats for sure.

Fiona said...

Jac - she is wonderful, truly wonderful. I am so lucky to have had her in my life then, and now :)

Yup, hat-ache is gone!

Fusion - aint that the truth!!! :)

D said...

Fiona somehow I feel there will be someone telling a similar tale featuring your goodself in future years. It's great to see positive experiences being passed on to future generations.

George said...

What a wonderful story Fiona ... it is so nice to hear somebody speak so positively and eloquently about a job and co-workers ... I don't hear that too often.

Be well.

anna said...

That was beautiful! How fortunate you are to have known such a woman. I have never worked for a boss who encouraged growth. Most of them lacked knowledge and management abilities and were too busy covering their own asses. It's the one thing that makes me want to get out of the corporate world.

By the way, I am so jealous of that gorgeous hair - the colour, the curls! You're just lovely!

Fiona said...

Anna - Yes, I am really blessed to have Peggy in my life, she has done so much for me as a person, as a woman.

My sister had poker-straight hair growing up, I had those curls. She wanted my curls, I wanted her straight hair. We've both grown into our hair :) It was beautiful hair but sadly there's not that much of it left, old age and stress have taken their toll ;)


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