Back when I was a young man, I found myself unable to get a job. A friend of mine was the City Manager for Plitt Theaters in Waco, so I asked him for a favor and got hired as a doorman at the cinema. Over time, I was promoted to Assistant Manager at a 2-screen cinema, then Assistant Manager at the City office (under a new City Manager), then Manager of a 2-screen cinema, then Manager of a 6-screen cinema, then opening manager of a new flagship cinema near the Galleria in Houston. Along the way, I learned from my superiors and colleagues, and over time I saw their fallibility as well as their skills. When I worked in Houston, which was the Gulf Coast Regional Office for Cineplex-Odeon (which bought out Plitt Theaters in 1986), I happened to work under a particularly cruel and vicious Vice-President of Operations, a man who seemed to take great pleasure in causing stress and trouble for managers in town. Nothing we did was ever good enough, and if we made even a minor mistake (or if one of our staff made a mistake), we were punished severely for the offense. For example, in 1990 I won an award as the Outstanding Manager in the Gulf Coast region. At the ceremony, this VP took me aside and bluntly told me I did not deserve the award – he simply had to give it to someone and I had “screwed up the least”. I beat profit and attendance expectations four years straight at the Spectrum Cinema, but received no praise for it. I trained employees well enough that the same VP who regularly yelled at me for minor and sometimes imaginary mistakes found my staff competent enough to make managers of three other theaters. I could have topped that, except that this VP was so boorish and vile that he fired or chased off at least a dozen great managers who had worked for me – one the VP drove off because he was gay, another was bullied because she wore a pantsuit on a weekend instead of a dress, still another was told he would be fired unless he wore a silk tie with his suit. Charming fellow, that executive.
And yet, years later in a different industry, I was able to apply lessons learned from this executive to help me in my own career. I did not, of course, copy his behavior but looked for his opposite. Where this executive would steal credit for work done by others, I made sure my bosses heard when one of my people had a great idea or did something great. The funny thing is, that didn’t hurt me a bit. Where the VP would yell and scream at managers in front of staff and customers, I made sure praise was always out in the open, while criticism – if needed – was delivered in private and always with the idea of finding solutions to problems, not attacking the person. I worked hard to respect my colleagues and to see their point of view, and in so doing established myself as a team player and a good fit in any project. From my return to school, where I used these skills in team-building, to working with customers and colleagues, I found constructive lessons even from painful experiences.
You never know how you may make use of something, even if it seems bad at first. If someone drops a ton of bricks on you, maybe you can build a house.