Have you ever expressed your excitement about a project or an event to an organizer and it was interpreted as more than a compliment on the project or event itself? Have you ever been blindsided by someone interpreting your actions as you being interested in more than professional collaboration?
In the introduction of this series of blogs, I shared that it was inspired by one of the contributing authors of the book “How To FYAIL in Digital Transformation” when she shared how she walked in on two of her co-worker looking through a Playboy magazine. The bizarre part of the situation was how it was handled, or rather not handled, by her boss. When I shared the vision behind this project, more bizarre stories were shared with me, and I remembered one of my own that I will share in this blog. I don’t know if men will relate to this story, but I know from what was shared with me so far that many women will relate to this story.
I was in my mid-30s. My career was taking off, and I was feeling at the top of the world. I finally rid myself of my insecurities of not being smart enough, and I was confident that I shined at my job. This was over a decade ago. I had the opportunity to go to a Lean UX conference in New York with over 700 attendees. At that point in my career, it was the biggest conference I had ever attended. I was holding a book on Lean UX, and the author was sitting at the next table. What an honor. The event organizer kicked off the event, and the energy in the room was wild. Each speaker was more inspiring than the next and I was learning a ton. I went to workshops and had all kinds of aha moments. I was learning a lot about the subject, and I was learning a lot about myself. I was realizing how amazing it would be to one day, to be able to teach a workshop like that, at a large conference. I was thinking how amazing it would be to learn how to actually organize an event like that. On the last day of the conference, on the way out, I saw the organizer. I went up to him and gave him all kinds of compliments about the event. I told him that it was an unbelievable experience! I was all smiles and my energy level was through the roof. He asked if I would write up about my experience and share it. There might have been a mention of Twitter because I remember sitting on a bus and creating an account. I emailed him my write up, which I did on the bus ride home and he appreciated the content. We went back and forth and at some point in our email exchange, I found the courage to ask if I could help in any way with the conference the following year. He said yes, and we brainstormed different ways I could contribute, including leading a workshop.
I came home that day and shared with my husband my excitement about the opportunity. I went to work the following day and shared with a few of my colleagues how amazing that conference was and how I will potentially be involved the following year. Then, I received the following in the email:
“Hey, listen, a few of us are getting together at a Russian Sauna in New York to chat about UX and such. Would you like to join us?”
I reread this sentence a few times. Seriously? You go to a sauna to talk about UX? You want me to join you and discuss UX being half (or fully, I was not sure about their rituals) naked with strangers?
It was like someone kicked me in the gut when I realized that he had no interest in me running any workshop. He didn’t see me as someone who shined professionally. I knew I had to reply but I was lost for words.
What should I have replied? What suggestion would you give me if I asked you back then for advice?
Being a decade wiser, I realize I could have replied in many different ways. Perhaps one of the ways could have left room for further collaboration. Perhaps. I asked one of my kids and a few of my writing colleagues for their opinion, and this is what I got:
My 14-year-old daughter suggested I could have replied, “I would love to! If you don’t mind, my husband will also join us!”
Aruna’s thoughts were the following, “Wow! I'd be shocked and dumbfounded. This is definitely a huge red flag. As disappointing and offensive as it may feel, I'd politely decline the invitation and make up an excuse. It'll be interesting however to learn about the dynamics of the situation, who's going, why the Russian Sauna, and such. It sounds like the underworld movies where the Mafia gangs usually discuss their next move discreetly at Sauna places and bars. I'd have some curiosity later though. Would the organizer still keep in touch and follow up on content ideas? Or would he be disengaged there after? How does he respond to the emails and discussions? What happens after would help us decipher the clear intent of the meeting. But I'd follow my gut and flee.”
Viktorija suggested to thank for the offer but refuse, “Thank you for inviting me, but I can’t accept your offer. Regardless, I still believe that my input to the conference would be valuable for both of us, so please let me know if we can discuss it in a more formal setting. Have a great time in the sauna.”
Amanda had specific suggestions as far as what a reply could be. “This is a really powerful story that at its heart magnifies the point of 'don't meet your idols' since they will only disappoint. I'd also be interested in how this person would handle follow-up questions, like "no thanks, but what other items are on the agenda for the trip?" or "is the sauna where you hold all your UX meetings?"
I guess I could see a bunch of potential responses, but I didn’t like any of them...
if you want to make a point - "Interesting place to have a work meeting. Who else would be there?"
if you want to burn a bridge - "Not my speed, but thanks for the previous conversations. Maybe in the future, I'll find someone interested in the value I can provide to plan the event"
if you want to lead him on and see how deep he digs this hole - "Maybe I could meet you somewhere else for dinner? Drinks? Dancing?" But then make excuses for each suggestion that comes up
if you want to try to salvage the working relationship - "The sauna sounds fun but what sounds even more fun to me is xyz idea I had about the workshop I want to do next year!"
Karen agreed that she would be very disappointed reading such an invitation and suggested to keep the answer professional and not burn any bridges, "Thank you for the invitation, but that is not my style. I'd love to meet in a more professional setting (office, restaurant, etc), so please keep me in mind for future meetings! I am still very interested in helping with next year's conference, and running a workshop next year." After all, Karen said, “you loved the conference and learned a lot, so maybe that part can still be salvaged”.
Yes, I did!
HOW I HANDLED IT
If someone truly acts inappropriately, it is ok to wish them the best of luck and never see them again. One lesson I learned over the years is that not all bridges need to be salvaged. In this particular context, however, I should have held off replying on instinct and too quickly. I could have consulted with one of my mentors, and perhaps if I had taken the time to think it through, I could have replied more professionally, pointing out that I prefer a more professional setting. I could have described in more detail the value I could bring to the conference and suggested that he reach out to me when such an opportunity presents itself. This would have left the door open for me to reach out closer to the conference, and perhaps there would have been an opportunity for us to collaborate. I have no regrets, though, because when one door closes, another one opens! That conference opened my eyes to the possibilities, and I have been designing and delivering workshops ever since! For that alone, I am forever grateful! Regarding the sauna invitation, I would love to remind folks that brain and beauty are NOT mutually exclusive!