By Bill Peace

Bill PeaceIn the mid-1990s, I found myself in a new town working in an entry-level position for a start-up telecommunications company. I saw endless growth possibilities within the organization. This was my chance to get in on the ground floor of a growing business and prove myself through hard work, dedication and a genuine spirit of wanting to help others.

I studied the business inside and out and made myself visible for important projects and tasks. I was often called upon to help the training department, even though that was not my title or job responsibility. When outside vendors presented their products, management asked my opinion.

As with most start-up companies, change was the order of the day, and folks were quickly moving around to different departments and getting promoted. Soon, it was my turn. The call-center director pulled me aside one day and asked a favor. A team manager was being promoted to another department. I was needed to take over her 12-person team as “interim manager” with the clear possibility of moving into the role permanently.

I didn’t hesitate. I got to know the entire team, answered all their questions, stayed long past my shift, arrived much earlier than expected and quickly learned my new duties. It wasn’t long before I started receiving rave reviews from the team members — and even from other team managers. After one month, the position was posted. The call-center director strongly encouraged me to submit my application. Again, I did so without hesitation.

Two weeks later, I learned, along with everyone else, that two other entry-level employees were named as the new managers, one taking over my interim position.

I was crushed, though I ultimately knew the position was not promised to me. My initial reaction was confusion and hurt. What had I done wrong? Where were my shortcomings? Privately, I was distraught; publically, I supported the decision and graciously moved back to my original entry-level position.

But several close colleagues approached the director with anger over his decision. They didn’t know why I kept quiet. They wanted me to revolt, or lash out, or at least ask why I had been overlooked.

“How could they do this to you? Why don’t you leave this company? It’s obvious your hard work and talent won’t be appreciated here,” I heard. I held my head high and quietly dismissed the negativity. I stayed true to my values and principles, believing in my hard work, skill and taking the high road. My integrity won out.

Soon after, I was approached by the company’s sales director, who pulled me aside and asked if I had an interest in helping him grow his department. He needed a manager to supervise the data-entry portion of the business unit. To my surprise, he offered twice my salary and a significant signing bonus. I said, “Yes.” My time had come.

On my first day, when we sat to review all the paperwork, I asked about his interest in me and his response has stayed with me to this day. “I observed your hard work with the other department’s team and I liked your approach,” he said. “I also wanted to seize an opportunity. I saw what happened to you. You were asked to fill an interim role and did a stellar job only to be overlooked for the promotion.”

“I figured if that department wasn’t going to capitalize on your talent and knowledge, I was,” he said. “And ultimately, I appreciated how you responded to not getting the job. You handled it with dignity and professionalism when everyone around you wanted you to act differently. I respect that.”

Looking back, my time in sales was a great learning and growing experience. But it was that first job that taught me the importance of keeping my integrity. A negative experience opened the door to management, and I’ve been there ever since.

I often tell this story to young or new managers as they navigate through their first leadership roles. Keeping true to who you are and what you value is a leadership lesson worth learning — and you never know who might take notice.

Bill Peace is director, Training & Development, for Merck Sharp & Dohme Federal Credit Union in Chalfont, Pennsylvania.

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