The Catbird Seat

2010 September 22
by david

“Pretty soon you’ll be sitting in the catbird seat,” my boss said with a sly grin.

I mumbled a reply, hoping to hide my confusion, and looked up the expression when I got back to my office. Yes, it meant something good was going to happen and I began to speculate feverishly about what he had in store for me. But my boss, Bill Young, General Manager of Content at Prodigy, hadn’t elaborated. As always, he seemed to delight in keeping me guessing.

Mysterious Ways Cat Bird's SeatI’d heard rumblings that a reorg was imminent but Bill said nothing as the rumored date approached. In fact, he seemed distracted and I tried to fight the feeling that he was avoiding me. Finally, on the day of the announcement, I learned he was leaving the company to be a VP at AT&T’s new Internet division. My new boss was someone named Clark M., a former media company flunky who’d been lurking in an obscure department. Everyone was shocked. Clark was a blowhard and know-it-all, one of those WASPs who embodied the well-deserved decline of the upper class hailing from Southern Connecticut. Clark did his best to rally the troops in his first meeting but we all knew he was utterly lacking in charisma, not to mention the mental agility to bob and weave in an industry undergoing hypergrowth.

I put my head down and shrugged off the “catbird seat” comment as another of Bill’s cryptic koans. His management style was to keep throwing you off balance and see how you did. The only praise I remember hearing from him was in my first annual review when he gave me an above-average raise. Other than that, you had to stay on your toes because you never knew what was coming next.

I hadn’t anticipated missing him but I did. Not only was Clark ineffectual, he was downright irritating. I didn’t like him but he seemed so lonely and vulnerable I couldn’t help pitying him. Bill was brilliant, an experienced marketer and had a way of getting more out of you than you thought you had in you. He would peer at you over his glasses and send you back to your office to take another pass on the deck or the marketing or product plan. The only book on his barren bookshelf was called “A Swift Kick in the Seat of the Pants.” That about sums it up, I told myself.

Then word came that Bill was seriously ill. Earlier in the year, he’d been out sick with a bad back but had seemed to recover. This time the diagnosis was bone cancer. I didn’t reach out to him. I was too busy and, heck, it seemed our paths had diverged.

The only time I talked to Bill after that, and it turned out to be the last time, was when I called to ask him for a reference. I had been interviewing at AOL and they were asking for references. “I’d be thrilled to give you a recommendation,” Bill said. He was still working, commuting between his home in Westchester County and the AT&T offices in New Jersey. He died less than a year later. He left behind a new wife—everyone who worked for him had attended his second wedding—and two sons in college.

I sat down to write this post about mentors but realized that I had something different to say. Bill wasn’t a mentor in the true sense. For one thing, we didn’t work together long enough. But I still regret not reaching out to Bill during his last days. I was young and focused on my career. And he seemed so tough. He was an old school guy, a hardass. I know now that he was hard on me because he was trying to teach me about my job and about life. He helped me in many ways and I owe him a sincere thank you. Rest in peace, Bill, wherever you are. The lesson: if someone has touched you, don’t wait to reach out and let them know. Because they may not be around when you finally come to your senses and have something to say.

I found out after leaving Prodigy that I was supposed to get Clarks’ job but at the last moment the president had intervened. He’d brought Clark into the company and needed to put him in a senior role to justify the fact that he’d hired him. Bill hadn’t been lying that day after all. He just didn’t want to speak too soon and it turns out he was overruled. Lucky for me because I might never have left and gone to AOL, which was the opportunity of a lifetime.

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