I needed a win pretty badly. I’d just gotten off a project from two years that really never went anywhere. I didn’t realize there’s a skill not only to leading projects but killing them or figuring out how to get off one. I was used to doing what I was told and trusted authority, and assumed they knew more than I did but was wrong about that.
The new project was for all the real estate executives and brokers, my boss’s boss’s boss’s baby—his party, a public to-do in Las Vegas at the convention center. He was a skip-level down from the CEO. We had a couple meetings together and once I showed him the budget but he just crossed his arms and made a funny face and asked if there was anything “material” in it—and I realized it was only small potatoes, a quarter million dollars, and probably cost nearly that much just talking about it.
I was wounded from the last project but had the fire in me still. I drew elaborate charts and tables. I read the file from my predecessor, all the emails and issues from last time. The budget over-runs worried me most. Dealing with Las Vegas union people, strange charges for “drayage” (a word I had to look up), labor over-runs…I was determined to come in under. I made that clear with the vendor we hired for fabrication and install: we were basically building a Starbucks store without the plumbing and electricity, an elaborate booth that spoke to the grandeur of the Starbucks brand and design aesthetic and all its possibilities at a trade-show in Las Vegas.
The designer was new to the company and we quickly became friends, though he was unorthodox. We flew to Utah to do a first article review (to see the booth before it was done) and I confided in him I really wanted to write, and showed him some stuff he liked, and when it was time for us to go to Las Vegas we went down a few days early, and it was his birthday so we got drunk—and the next day Steve Miller played in the desert and both of us wanted to go, but neither of us felt like driving.
My VP was the project sponsor since he reported to the SVP. I knew him from another job and we liked each other. I sometimes saw him at the Costco with a side of pork or something he was going to smoke. He was down-to-earth, and I felt comfortable in his office. He trusted me, and I went with that.
On the day before the conference, my VP and I met at the convention center so he could see the booth. He’d only seen designs to that point, and I realized this was a moment of truth.
It was dark in the convention center with just ambient light coming in from outside, no one there. Some people were setting things up; we walked, made small talk and part of me worried he wouldn’t like it, and nothing could be done. His boss and all the people his boss wanted to impress would be coming the next day, and my VP would have to take the flak for my work if it wasn’t good.
And the same for the VP of Design—I wanted him to be impressed, and both of them were. But stuff happens you don’t expect, and a couple of the design elements acted weird between the change in humidity of Utah (where they were fabricated) and the dryness of Las Vegas, when the convention center air conditioning kicked on.
Starbucks wanted to showcase a couple brands they’d just purchased on the outside of the storefront but make it look like the signs were made out of chalkboards with elaborately drawn logos for each of the companies, indie coffee-shop like, “artisan.”
Rich, the designer, knew someone who specialized in making a kind of chalk art on acrylic that looked like chalk but really wasn’t, and looked perfect when I showed it to my VP but the next morning got bubbles in it, and the bubbles freaked me out, and made it look obviously ‘not-chalk’ the first day of the show.
When the Design VP came he told me to relax, and said it was all theater: get me a razor…and made deft slits in the bubbles and said see, no one will notice…and they didn’t, it was like the trickery they do with boxers who’ve had their faces bashed in, they make small cuts under the eyes to let the swelling and blood out, it looked fine.
I was in Vegas for six nights, which is like being in Disneyland too long, you start going nuts from all the stimulus, you get deadened and desensitized by it.
I started going to a cigar bar in the compound of whatever casino/hotel/mall I was stuck in and got to know the waitresses, I wanted them to see me differently, not your usual guy: a poet out of place on work assignment at the convention center for a real estate thing, for Starbucks. I tried to play it off like it wasn’t interesting, so it wasn’t.
Everything went fine. On the last day they all left early and the union guys came to tear it down and killed the AC and opened the doors, letting in the desert canyon winds, mid May, Las Vegas.
My boss’s boss called to say she had a new project for me—there was no down-time, and I was impressed by that. It made me feel important, in demand—and there’d be travel she said, to San Francisco.
The designer Rich and I got invited to my VP’s boss’s staff meeting, the kind of meeting that’s well attended, because people liked to be seen there.
And my VP gave us both praise and a big, fat gift certificate for the local steak house. And one of the direct reports there was my future VP, who’d take the place of the VP I liked, and requested me for a project not long after, which is when things started to go south.
I thought about it walking to the lake, why I’m happy to be in my new job now: it’s about trust. That moment walking down the convention center to see the booth with my VP and the fact he wasn’t nervous, he trusted me.
But the magic about trust is that it’s two-way (earned/granted) and like other positive human acts there’s a vulnerability to it, a risk…that ironically opens people up once it’s extended…or closes them down when it’s denied.
This post maps back to a series I wrote four years ago in May, with one of my favorites here.