Discover more from The Accidental VP by Susan Smythe-Bishop
I went from being an accidental VP to the CEO of ME
How connecting the dots from my past is helping to point me in the direction of my future
This is my story…
“You f**ked up!” were the chairman’s words that echoed loudly through the reception area, into the kitchen and eventually wound their way down the office-lined corridors as I kneeled on the floor desperately trying to clear the mess I had created in the middle of our reception area.
I had just returned from my 30-minute errand-packed “lunch” break, and the bottle of dish detergent I purchased somehow managed to rip its way through the plastic bag that was slung over my arm. It hit the ground with the alarming force of a missile, which caused the lid to snap off releasing a green soapy goo all over the freshly laid carpet. I remember thinking to my humiliated self, “at least the carpet will be really, really clean.” Always leave a place better than you found it...
That was in the fall of November of 1992, I had been working as a publicity and promotions assistant with Canada’s largest film distribution company for all of one week, and those were the first words the chairman of our division ever said directly to me. Come to think of it – they may also have been the last words he uttered as the door slammed behind me on my way out of the company some 15 years later, shortly after Goldman Sachs bought our division and brought in Harvey Weinstein's "right hand man" to lead the company. FUN! More on that some other time.
Without getting deep into the why of this right now, earlier that year, I convinced myself that I lacked the necessary talent to make a living doing what I loved, which was illustrating. So, I set out on a career path without really knowing where I was going, I only knew this:
I wanted to work in the arts.
I needed to support myself and keep a roof over my head.
I wanted to experiment with different artistic mediums in my spare time and explore art for my own pleasure.
That criteria eventually lead to me to accept this assistant position where:
I was working in the arts 😁!
I could cover rent and food, but that was about it 😐
I had such a heavy workload that I ended up having no spare time to experiment with art 😕
My art would have to wait.
Being led by fear
As was clearly evident in the reception area that day, I had fallen in with a company where the senior management led by intimidation. There wasn’t a week that went by without at least one person being yelled at and humiliated in the presence of the rest of the staff. We all took our turns on the receiving end, we all learned to suck it up and laugh it off (eventually) and we had each other’s back, thankfully. After each irrational tirade was unleashed on some undeserving soul, we would sneak into the victim’s work area to console them. Sadly, this abuse became our normal. A few years ago, I did a series to illustrate just how bad it actually was at one point. Below are a couple of examples.
So, I set out to prove to myself that it didn't have to be that way. I read whatever books I could get my hands on about leadership, personal development and management, and applied positive leadership principles whenever and wherever I had the power to do so.
When the unthinkable happened - four senior executives on our team, including my direct boss and our GM who we all dearly loved had enough and defected the company to start their own - my junior colleagues and I were suddenly thrust into the senior executive ranks which was the last thing I wanted, hence “The Accidental VP” moniker. My head was spinning as there was no way I felt ready to take on the responsibility of VP, nor did I want to be in the direct line of fire of the chairman and CEO.
I couldn't just quit my job with nothing to go to, so in a very deep anxiety-ridden state of despair, I made this my goal:
I set my primary intention to pour my heart and soul into my staff and to be the best boss that I could possibly be for them.
I vowed to shield them from the bullying "suits" and to let them focus on their creative strengths (where possible) and to foster their growth in any way that I possibly could while building more solid relationships with the media and our internal and external partners.
I chose to focus not on my own professional trajectory, but rather, on theirs and pledged to lead the way that I so badly craved to be lead.
And if that wasn't the right strategy, and if “the suits” wanted to fire me, so be it. I had polished off my resume and was preparing to look elsewhere.
That’s when everything changed…
A few months after that shakeup, something wonderful happened. I noticed that my staff were doing brilliant work - I was literally in awe of them, and focusing on my team's growth and their well-being actually fuelled my own growth exponentially, something I had not anticipated at all. Then, our company was bought by another, and while some of the senior executives did stay on - their negative behaviour was somewhat mitigated by thoughtful and inspirational new management. The workload was still heavy and the relentless deadlines were taxing, but we started having fun and garnered a reputation for having the best film PR team in Canada.
When I learned to focus positively on what was within my control, I grew to love my job💡💡💡
That lasted for a few awesome years until our division was spun off and landed in the hands of Goldman Sachs and the atmosphere took a drastic turn for the worst - the bullies were fully back in charge. I left the company and for the rest of my career, I made a conscious decision only to work with companies that practiced compassionate leadership and I stuck to it.
Why these stories, why now?
"You can't connect the dots looking forward; You can only connect them looking backward. So, you have to trust the dots will somehow connect in your future." -Steve Jobs
On my recent gap year, I was finally able to dig in to connect the dots from my past in an effort to guide me into the future. In doing so, I noticed a common thread that has run through my entire career: I LOVE to study, witness and practice compassionate leadership, both personally and professionally.
My career as a film executive granted me a very unique lens through which to observe the BIZARRO world of celebrity - that is, the world behind the curtain. Over the years I have worked with some wonderfully kind and talented artists who I have a great deal of respect for (Anthony Hopkins, Michael Caine and Jackie Chan just to name a few), but also some who have left me feeling deflated. I've also worked with many film executives from studios who have run the gamut from behaving politely and professionally to behaving like maniacal egomaniacs.
My intention is to write and illustrate stories based on my experience working with such personalities, but I also plan to illustrate how it is always possible to lead with kindness and compassion even while swimming with sharks so-to-speak. You really don’t have to take their bate.
Outside of the world of entertainment and into the world of culture/tourism - I plan to introduce you to some very inspiring local entrepreneurial leaders (our local celebs!) from where I currently live in Prince Edward County, Canada, as well as sharing some of the books and resources that not only helped me through some very challenging times throughout my life, but also to prosper and grow.
While my career path may have been very accidental, moving forward I plan to be unwaveringly intentional by creating art and sharing stories that I hope will not only entertain, but also shine a light 💡 on the power of kindness and compassionate leadership.
I have some fun stories and illustrations to share and once properly organized, I plan to share them weekly. I hope you’ll join me by subscribing below.
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