Credit: Getty Images / Cédric Thibaut / EyeEm
This is a story about disaster, panic and humiliation. No, really. It starts where most stories of advice-for-the-aspiring end, with a big success, but then it works its way up to, or should I say down to, an epic f*ckup that could have wrecked my career. I still break out in a bit of a sweat if I think about it too much.
So why tell it at all? Because this disaster was my chance to get my head screwed on right about failure – and what to do with it. So…. cue the humiliation!
The background here is that after a giant effort, I had landed my dream job working in marketing for Virgin Atlantic Airways, the Richard Branson company that had made stodgy old air travel hip and sexy. But when I arrived I found that my boss had just left the company and the marketing department didn’t seem to have a clear strategy. People there spent the day reacting to what potential marketing and advertising partners pitched: “Virgin should be advertising on my media platform.” “Virgin should be sponsoring my event.” “Virgin should be partnering with my movie.” We had no clear road map, just a lot of marketing people reacting individually to different pitches. I remember thinking, these are smart people, but with this approach we may as well take our multimillion-dollar marketing budget up in a Virgin plane and dump it out the door. All those dollars would scatter in the wind, just like these marketing efforts.
The more meetings and lunches I had with the other members of our team, the more a little voice in my head began to ask: Where’s the road map? Do you have any idea what these smart people could achieve if they could all get lined up to follow a great overall plan? Soon I was reviewing my notes before I went to bed each night, so I could think about strategy when I went running in the mornings.
And yet, I was the newcomer. Lucky to have a job at all. I tried to silence that voice, but it just got louder. One Friday night, in the middle of a New York City heat wave, I opened my laptop in my tiny, un-air-conditioned apartment and began writing. And writing. My fingers ran like lightning over the keyboard as all the crazy ideas that had been rattling around in my head started to come together on the screen in front of me.
What emerged that weekend amid the sweat, the Ben & Jerry’s breaks, and the ice-cold baths was a complete marketing plan for Virgin Atlantic Airways and a new organizational structure and team approach. I felt so freakin’ pumped up to have gotten the ideas out of my head, and I knew they were good— some of the best strategic thinking I had ever done. Yet I felt equally terrified. What to do with it all? I didn’t have a friend at Virgin. I didn’t have a mentor or an ally. My credit cards were maxed out from my cross-country move and my pricey new Manhattan life. On one occasion, I’d had to make it through a three-day weekend without spending any money, even for food, as I waited for my next paycheck. (I was saved by the good fortune of a Sunday-night business dinner at which I inhaled the entire bread basket before my host even had a chance to ask me how I was getting on in New York.) I was literally counting pennies to make sure I could afford the commuter train to work. Was this really the time to get way out of line?
On my next morning run, I hatched a plan: I would give my marketing ideas directly to the president of the airline. But did I have the cojones? Honestly, it was my morning runs that filled me with the courage I needed. When I am running and thinking about something scary that I have to do, it never feels as scary because I am physically firing it up. I can feel my strength, my momentum. And that gives me courage. I printed my plan and put it in a large envelope with a handwritten note to the president of the US division of the airline. I said I hoped he might find some of my thoughts helpful. I signed the note and then slipped the envelope under his office door.
The next few days were excruciating. More waiting. No word from the corner office. Had he liked what I had to say? Had I pissed him off? Even worse— after all that work, had he just not gotten around to reading it? All those thoughts were going through my mind at the moment his secretary called and asked me to come up to his office. Deep breaths . . . this was it.
He told me that he was willing to go with my plan. (Holy shit! He liked it!) He said how hugely impressed he had been not only with my thinking but also with the balls it had taken to put my thinking down on paper. Then he told me he knew he was taking a big bet on me, promoting me to director of marketing, with the rest of the marketing department reporting to me, in order to get my plan under way.
All good, right? Wrong. This is the part where things get really ugly.
When my new boss sent me home that evening, I hopped on the train back to Manhattan in the best mood I could imagine— this transplant from New Zealand was making it in America, baby! The promotion was the win, the biggest of my career, and a win is for celebrating! By chance, that night was the annual Kiwi Club of New York Christmas party. This year we were joining forces with the Aussies for a booze cruise on the Hudson River. Let’s just say that Kiwis love to party. I remember the sauvignon blanc flowing freely. I remember all of us getting up to some mischief (it’s possible there were Christmas trees involved . . . ). Was I worried that I needed to be up at six to catch my train to be at the office for my big kickoff meeting with my new boss and the new team? I wasn’t worried. It’s fair to say that I do like to party, but I’m a responsible girl. I’m usually very good at knowing my limits. By midnight, I will usually start remembering that big things need to happen tomorrow and I have to be sure I’m there to get it done. Or if I’m still going strong at, say, two a.m., I’ll look at my watch and think, OK, so waking up tomorrow is going to be painful as all get out, but it’s all about endurance. I got this! I’ll just sleep like crazy tomorrow night.
At five in the morning, when I got back to apartment, my plan was to catch one hour of sleep, and then get up at six for work. But I fell asleep before I even set my alarm, and when I awoke, it was eleven. I had just slept through the biggest meeting of my professional life.
I hadn’t even called in to say where I was.
On the commuter train— shocked, sweating, head pounding— I kept trying to come up with an excuse to give when I arrived, but short of having lost both of my legs in a car crash, what excuse would have done it? I had nothing. I flashed back to childhood, and suddenly I could see my dad’s face , reminding me, “Never let the side down.” Where was my concern for the side in a stunt like the one I had just pulled? I had gotten out of line and risked putting my organizational plan under the president’s door to try to show him what I could do for the company, but the fact was, despite my promotion wild celebrations, I hadn’t done anything for the company. Not yet. The promotion, I realized, wasn’t the win at all.
Never in my life had I felt more ashamed. When I finally shuffled into his office, I saw my new boss sitting calmly behind his desk. He didn’t say anything. Not one word. He just waited for me to explain myself. Once more time, I reached down deep to try to come up with some reasonable explanation, or at least some clever spin. But I had nothing. This Kiwi lady had to man up and own it.
“Umm, I don’t even know how to begin. I wish that I could say there was a decent reason for my absence today, but there isn’t.” Deep breaths . . . sweat bullets on forehead beginning to roll down . . . I didn’t make it this morning is because I slept through my alarm. And I slept through my alarm because I got carried away celebrating last night at the Kiwis in New York Christmas party. I’ve never done anything like this in my life before . . . Well— I don’t mean the partying part, but the oversleeping and missing the biggest meeting of my life part. Truly, I can assure you I am not irresponsible even though I look it. I just hadn’t heard a familiar voice in weeks, and, well, it wasn’t even just Kiwis— there were Aussies too— and we were on a cruise— and the wine was free . . . and . . . and . . . I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry.”
And then, did he ever make me sweat. He just sat there. Silent. Saying nothing. Giving me that “parental” look of disappointment. Finally, he told me, rightfully, that I had destroyed his trust. Fuck fuck fuckety fuck. I was just waiting for the hammer to come down.
I turned toward the door, ready to retreat to my trusty bathroom stall and cry my eyes out, when called me back. “Sarah, you definitely let me down this morning,” he said. “But I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t tell you . . . I think it’s pretty hilarious—and it’s very Virgin!”
If I made one more move like that, he explained, I would be demoted. But he was giving me another chance.
I didn’t waste it. As director of marketing, I didn’t wait for ideas to come to us. My team and our fantastic advertising agency went hunting for a pop-culture tie-in that would help explain to the American market what our airline was all about, and we landed on the Austin Powers movies. I found myself in the amazing position of pitching Richard Branson the idea of branding the airline “Virgin Shaglantic” for the duration of the campaign. (Imagine giant billboards in New York and LA with Austin Powers standing next to a Virgin 747 saying, “Five Times a Day . . . Yeah, baby!”) This was unconventional for an airline marketing campaign, and it led to complaints from those it offended— and love from our core consumers. The campaign was a huge breakthrough in that the viral buzz and the PR around it far exceeded the reach of even our now-coordinated marketing budgets. I had made some ballsy, attention-getting moves for myself with that campaign, but this time I was not just celebrating my own success. It was a success for the entire company. That was the real win. That was the antidote to my humiliating f*ckup.
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