Musings on Former Moments: The Beauty and Fragrance Department

I once worked for a global consumer products conglomerate within their beauty and fragrance division for a few months.  I was two and a half years out of college and I had decided to leave my job without actually having anything lined up about six months earlier.  I could have stayed after my two year commitment was honored but I was afraid of being stuck in a job I didn’t want, no matter the financial security it provided, or the prestigey name behind it.   So I left and floated.  I had ideas of fields I was interested in, and one of them was the beauty industry.  So, when a temporary assignment came up to work for the beauty and fragrance division of a company, I jumped on it not really knowing what I was getting myself into, but open for the possibility.

Going from a really conservative corporate environment where men ruled to a women dominant environment was interesting.  You know…interesting….Perhaps, it wouldn’t have been so interesting had I gone to an all girls school?  Everything was coded and everything was NICE except it wasn’t really.  I was the assistant to the female mid-level executive and naked social ambition could not have been more nicely dressed and nicely elocuted.  Financial ambition and career ambition, I understand.  But, I guess the eternal nerdy girl in me just doesn’t get social ambition.  Social ambition is pretty epheremal when you think about it and requires round the clock self-surveillance.  There are certainly a few people who exude a natural magnetic charm that draws people.  These are not the people I am talking about.   I am talking about the ones who scope out who it is they need to know, and who they have to be, to be in that circle, and then do a full personality and style makeover.  Every second is about gauging who is at the “top” and how  they can get closer to that person, to be in the same circle.   Just thinking about it stresses me out.

Some might call this networking, but I always assumed the point of networking was establishing contacts for potential career growth, and personal growth, through like minded individuals, or mentors.  You know, career advancement, not necessarily “social” advancement.  Maybe, it’s one and the same, depending on how you look at it, or use it?  While I may have seen this type of behavior (from afar) in high school, I was intrigued (and kind of disturbed) when I saw it displayed in a corporate office by a female executive in her thirties.  I will never forget how the executive had asked me to ensure that she sit next to the famous designer/licensing partner/dinner honoree, which involved switching chairs with the (female) president of the division who WAS assigned to sit next to said designer.  Also, making sure that very expensive flowers be sent to the designer under her name and not the company’s (or the department), but which would (likely) be expensed to the company.

I never bothered to check to see if these plans worked out, or if the (female) president was royally miffed at being ousted from what I believe, should have been her seat.  I didn’t stay long enough to find out, and I wasn’t interested in finding out.  It was a perverse “mean girls” environment.  Where lower level managers would tell me they could not stand the executive and you just had to suck it up, while flipping the switch and being “best friends forever” in team meetings.   After almost three months, I knew this place was not right for me.  From the coaching on “how” to answer the phones with the appropriate amount of “flourish,” since standard greetings were not sufficient, to the “helpful” tips she passed on how to succeed on life and work, I just didn’t feel right being there.  I gave my notice and left.  But I hated feeling like a quitter.

Being older and (a little bit) wiser, I wonder how I would have handled that situation now.  Part of me would like to think I could have played that game and won.  On the otherhand, what would have been the reward and the cost? Winning for winning’s sake is dangerous.  It’s one thing to be strategic and it’s another to completely change who you are to fit in someone else’s idea of who you should be to succeed.   I don’t think it would have mattered how “functionally” well I did my job.  What would have mattered was that I present the right image of who she thought I needed to be, which was essentially a younger version of her.  Staying would not have won me anything but a perpetual treadmill of lies, subterfuge and grasping.  It is easy to get caught up in the idea of winning, without asking yourself if you really understand the cost.  I was too young and inexperienced to ever verbalize to myself why I left, but I knew instinctively, what I can put to words now.  It was the right decision. 

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