Back in my reckless youth when I was newly out on my own, I lived in New York City. Few people realize I was actually born there, and it was the first time I’d returned to my birthplace, living in an apartment with a textile designer and an artist. I had leveraged my meager marketing and advertising experience into an internship at Grey Advertising (which has left me with the unfortunate tendency of forevermore spelling gray with an e, not an a). I reported directly to the Director of Marketing, a woman of formidable power — think Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada. (Not kidding.)
When her assistant was hired away to run the office of a small but fast-paced political consulting firm, she called me a week later to see if I wanted to join her. While I wasn’t looking to leave Grey, I agreed to meet with one of the two partners over lunch. It was one of the most bizarre interviews I’ve ever had. He was reviewing the latest :30 spots they’d just cut for a client and could barely take his eyes off the television screen while he asked throwaway questions about my qualifications. To this day, I’m not certain he ever really listened to my answers, but twenty minutes later he said, “Okay, I guess you’re hired.”
And suddenly I found myself with a new job.
The one rule I had to remember was this: whenever The Other Partner called, I was to immediately hand him off to the office manager. He travelled 21 days out of the month, was always on the go, expected to get what he wanted when he wanted, and had no patience for fools. Dick Sykes never waited for anything or anyone. His reputation proceeded him, and I was terrified to speak to him. On my third day I picked up the phone and suddenly found myself on the line with Sykes. Whether I liked it or not, I was on, and it was trial by fire. As it happened, my travel experience and ability to get things done made my interactions with him easy.
Three days later, I was Sykes’ personal assistant with double the salary.
From that moment, while I made sure Sykes’ life rolled smoothly, he taught me about political campaigns, shooting commercials, placing media buys, creating benchmark surveys, playing hardball and, oddly enough, what integrity was in an industry that was decidedly devoid of it. There was no telling him no, so whether I felt ready for the task at hand or thought it well over my head, I had to make it happen. His confidence in me was contagious, and I learned to project it, whether I felt confident or not, because it got things done — and he always had my back. I had senators, governors, FedEx and American Air on speed dial. It was the first time I felt a professional trust, and it positively impacted my work. Whether running surveys at the phone banks or handling political hot potatoes at the most inopportune times, there was always something to learn, and it was always fun. I even went to California to help manage a grassroots campaign for a local ballot proposition. Just another first and another layer of trust. That was the era of my life of 60 hour weeks and where I learned to wear a lot of black, since it was easy to drop at 2 am, sleep for 4 hours, get back up at 6 am, dress and be out the door again.
Some of the lessons Sykes taught me were easy to learn. Others took years before I finally realized they were bigger lessons, lessons that needed to sink in. I learned that strength of character and personal integrity were powerful components of leadership. So was being unafraid to make the tough decisions, or to show people you care. Sykes was a master of taking care of people who were important to him. Though we were based in New York, Sykes was rarely there (in fact, I worked for him for five months before I ever met him). He traveled non-stop three weeks out of four. The third week of every month, however, he was in Hawaii, on the island of Molokai, to be with his two sons. Nothing changed that. Not clients, not elections, not business responsibilities. His priority was his relationship with his boys, enough so that he rented a place close to his ex-wife so the boys’ lives wouldn’t be disrupted when he entered and left again. Because Sykes flew almost daily, he racked up enough miles to bring his parents to the island from Wisconsin every winter, as well as his favorite nephew. I got the message: work hard, play hard, but remember to keep your loved ones close at hand.
I spent almost three years working for a man whose leadership has become my measure for others. Personal accountability. Honesty. Laughter. Trust. Expectation of the best job you can deliver. Integrity when few others could point to their own. And never did he speak of leadership; he simply lived it. As a man, he was formidable. As a mentor, he was inspiring and empowering. I haven’t thought about Sykes in years. And yet, I realize I reference the gifts he gave me on a daily basis.
I guess it’s true. You never forget your first.