By Danny Cahill
Since my divorce two years ago, I have become good at resisting men, and I have always been good at resisting headhunters, so when you put the two together, a male headhunter has no chance with me. They want to know if I am happy. Would I like to hear about a dream job? I know why they call—I am a successful software sales rep with a massive network of clients, and I’m an attractive woman. I don’t think much about happiness anymore. And I don’t deal in dreams. So I don’t return their calls.
Harper Scott gets to me. He placed me once eight years ago when I was first learning how to sell software, and then again years later when my boss at the time started taking clients away from me because I was out earning him. Harper has been a successful headhunter for a long time. He seems to know everyone in my market space, and everything that is going on. Harper is connected. But that’s not why he gets to me.
“Casey, it’s Harper. I refuse to say my last name because that would imply you know and love another Harper, and that would kill me. Do you really think you can get away with this shabby treatment? You don’t send funny emails, you don’t call. I am seriously considering starting a relationship with you just so I can break up with you and have you know my pain.”
Okay, I admit it, I giggled. I’m 34. I thought I left giggling behind.
“Look, I can’t get in to this on voice mail. Call me. Notice I am not leaving my number. If you don’t still have it, all is lost.”
I told myself to ignore his message. Let it settle. I’ve been at my job for just over a year, and calling Harper back would mean getting caught up with the drama of interviews and the inevitable subterfuge with my current boss to make myself available. Why bother? Let it go.
So I held out. For about another four minutes. I got his voice mail and a few minutes after that his executive assistant, who irritated me because she sounded perky, (and the fact that I had no right to be irritated made me more irritated) called and said Harper wanted me to meet him at 1 p.m. sharp at Max’s Oyster House on West 76th Street the following Tuesday.
I convinced myself that morning that I was dressing in order to make a good impression on the CIO that my sales engineering team and I were doing a demo for that afternoon. But why was I reaching for the black, form fitting cashmere sweater, the charcoal grey skirt that even I, as my backside’s biggest critic, know hangs and clings in a flattering way? Why am I putting my hair up and exposing my neck? Why am I giving this account the full “Surprise, I’m very corporate, very astute, and wicked hot” look? Oh, what a coincidence, I pretended to recall, I have that meeting with Harper before the demo. Only those in commission sales and the divorced have such powers of delusion. They are essential tools of survival.
I sat in the restaurant for 10 minutes before Harper showed. Harper plans every move he makes, and nothing is more fiendishly calculated than his penchant for making everything look unplanned. Harper must be 40 or thereabouts now, but could easily pass for younger. Flecks of grey accent the brown hair, and at 6 feet, he is still at fighting weight, shoulders broadened by daily free weight and Nautilus toil, waist impossibly narrow from small, frequent high protein meals and miles logged on a treadmill. Eight years ago, when we first met, I came back from lunch and my friend Hannah asked me what he looked like, and I said, “Big in the right places, small in the right places,” and she understood immediately. Somehow, he looks even better now. Harper seemed to be at home no matter where he was. He seemed to have all the answers. But as I locked in and looked him straight in the eyes, the same way I start any meeting, I didn’t know for the life of me why I was there and what questions I had.
Harper folded his hands, placed them under his chin, rested his elbows on the table, and took the kind of beat actors take before delivering their big speech.
“You’re wondering why you’re here. You’re a busy person, you’re not looking for a job, you’re feeling vaguely guilty about meeting with a headhunter on company time. And yet, it’s so good to see me. Am I right?”
“About everything except the ‘it’s so good to see you’ part.”
“Bounce back, Harper. I agreed to see you because I’m in town rolling out a demo for an insurance company at 2:30 and because I was curious to see if you had gone to seed yet like most guys your age.”
“And have I?”
An impossibly cute waitress who was all of nineteen excused herself for interrupting, took our drink orders, and told us the specials. Harper asked her how she was doing, and told her he was a headhunter and when she graduated she should look him up. She beamed. I rolled my eyes.
“Six degrees of separation,” he shrugged. “My network is my lifeblood. It is ever expanding; it never sleeps. You don’t know who she knows.”
“I’m ready for your pitch now, Harper. By the way, I Googled you this morning.”
“Isn’t that eerie? I Googled me this morning too. Any new entries since 7 am?”
“Oh God. I was going to congratulate you on making partner, but to hell with you.”
I always do this with men. It’s a problem. I remember what I like about them and forget the down sides. Harper’s ego was a bit much, and then, he redeemed himself. He took out his wallet and showed me the latest pictures of his daughter, Jess. I raved, which I would have done anyway because she really was fabulous.
“A teenager already. Has it really been that long since you tried to recruit me?”
“Don’t remind me. Soon it’s nothing but boys. Then the lying starts.”
“She may not end up that way, Harper.”
“I’m talking about me. I’ll totally lie if it keeps her away from boys.”
Harper shifted his hips and leaned back, and I could tell this marked the end of the icebreaking. At the end of the day, he was here to qualify a prospect that could make him money. I would be well served, I repeated to myself, to keep that in mind.
“So, here’s what my research associate tells me. Nineteen months ago you’re one of SAP’s resident stars. Big territory, established key accounts, and three direct reports that you were getting overrides on. W2 of over 330K. In software sales, it doesn’t get any better. You leave and end up at an underfunded supply chain company where you’ll be lucky to make 225K. It doesn’t add up, Casey.”
“I’m not going on any interviews, Harper. I like my job.”
“Were you sleeping with the boss? Was that it?”
“What?! John was sixty three. He had yellow teeth and eyebrows so close they looked like a headband.”
Harper shook his head with disdain. “So then, what? It doesn’t add up and you know it.”
I promised myself I wouldn’t share this. A solemn promise, made at my bathroom mirror just five hours ago, now waffling gently out the restaurant’s open windows.
“I got divorced, okay? Don’t look at me like that. It’s not that shocking.”
“No, what is shocking is my research assistant missed that. I’m going to have to fire her, and then hire her back right away because I’d be lost without her.”
“It’s no big deal. We had no kids; we both had careers. We evaluated, we made a choice, we negotiated and distributed our assets, and we moved on.”
“Well, look at you and your stiff upper lip. No collateral damage, no scar tissue?”
“Did you shake hands and say, good luck?”
“We did in fact shake hands. One folded over the other, like Clinton used to do. Then he said, ‘Godspeed.’”
Harper leaned back. “He actually said the word Godspeed?” I’ve never been able to work that word into a sentence. That’s fantastic! So you’re fine? No residual sadness?”
“No regrets about losing your prime years?”
“I’m suddenly regretting this lunch, but no.”
Our waitress bought me some time by asking if we had any questions. Neither of us had really looked at the menu, so we both agreed to the halibut when she raved that it was “phenomenal.” Harper was a sucker for enthusiasm in any and all forms, and he clapped his menu shut for emphasis to show how bought in he was to the halibut and its magical pesto sauce. I felt like I should leave, that leaving would be a sign of wisdom. I reached over for my jacket on the chair next to me, slipped my Blackberry out, and turned the power off.
“You turn thirty five soon, right? That’s typical of my research associate; she gets the birthdays and doesn’t update the marital status. So if you’re going to have a family, you need to pick one of the many guys I’m sure you’re dating, shorten the engagement, and abandon all birth control.”
“I’m not focused on that right now, Harper.”
“There are guys, right? You’re beautiful, you’re smart, and you don’t need their money. I imagine your social life is exhausting.”
His charms had run their course. I was now officially angry. What is the matter with me that I would subject myself to this?”
I started gathering up my things. I was going to walk out of there an absolute ice queen. I wasn’t going to show him anything.
“Have your research associate delete me when you get back to the office. If you would.”
“Two minutes.” I looked at him with the stock, half querying, half irritated way I would look at Donald when he would leave wet clothes in the dryer. Men hate this look, so I keep it near me at all times. “Give me two minutes and this meeting will have been worthwhile for you, whether you eat or not.
And as if on cue, the food came. I wasn’t going to let our waitress think I had been hurt or was weak in any way, and I couldn’t very well exit I while Miss Teen America was warning me the plate was “super duper hot.” I sat down.”
He cut his food slowly and didn’t look up while he spoke.
“Thank you. Answer me this, and remember, I only have two minutes, so don’t over think it. You traveled 85% of the time. He was home, a desk jockey. May I assume he cheated on you?”
Oh, what the hell. Could it be I want to talk about this?
“Yes. He did. Apparently for a long time.” I will not cry. I will not turn this arrogant headhunter into Barbara Walters.
“And if one of your friends knew? If I knew? Would you have wanted to know?”
“You’re sure? It’s touchy. You reconcile and then the friend or friends who told you are the bad guys on the wrong team.”
“So they said. They were wrong. They should have trusted that I would never blame them.”
“I agree with you. In fact, if you ever find out my wife is cheating, let me know.”
“Right after I reassure her nobody in the world would blame her.”
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He smiled wanly, and then a sigh, a slow, dense sigh. Suddenly he didn’t want to be here.
“You’re getting fired, Casey. Your manic depressive owner, Tynan, is bringing in a new EVP, and he’s going to clean house. Replacing the whole sales force. He starts in six weeks. I’m sorry.”
“How do you know?”
Harper nodded. “I placed him. Tynan gave me the search four months ago to replace your boss.”
“And you tell me now?”
“I told you. I didn’t have to. Ethically I shouldn’t be telling you now. Look, Casey, your boss was going to get fired; someone was going to get that search. Any new EVP is going to bring in his own people, and you were going to be replaced. Because it’s me, you are the only one in the sales force who knows. You have at least three or four months to prepare and plan, and find a job, and it will be better. All because of me. Because I care.”
I was twirling linguini drenched in pesto sauce with my fork. My stomach felt like it had jumped off a bridge, leaving a note under a small rock that outlined how wearying it was to continually be filled and emptied, filled and emptied. What was the point? I lowered my fork.
“Stomach, right?” Harper said. “It’s usually the first responder to this kind of news.” I nodded.
“Look, Casey, this is a good thing. You’ll get out before they let you go; you’ve got track record, leverage. In the long run, this is the best thing that could happen to you.”
“Oh save it, Harper. Really. Every time something bad happens to me, I am surrounded by people telling me it’s the best thing that could have happened to me. And always by people who are not affected, who don’t have to wait for it to become, in retrospect, a great thing to have happened. Donald falls in love with a co-worker’s wife, a woman I introduced him to, and it’s a good thing because he didn’t love me, and now I can find someone who does. The fact that their affair humiliated me at work and made my cushy job that I had killed myself for over a decade to attain, untenable, was a good thing in the long run, because at a new company there’d be no ghosts, no gossip. And now that I have picked myself off the floor, now that I am established, albeit at a crappy company, now that I have made the best of my reduced circumstances, they are being taken away and I have to hear that it’s the best thing for me. You know what? It’s not. It’s not good that I’m going to be out of a job; it’s not good that I don’t have any dates with any men; it’s not good that I only go out to eat for business; it’s not good that I am in sweats all weekend and am addicted to Court TV and hi glycemic foods. It’s not good, Harper. It is the exact opposite of good, and I would only ask you to let me have that for just a while!
Is that too much to ask?”
“How is everything, you two?” said the reigning Miss Teen America.
“It’s good,” I said.
“No,” Harper nearly bellowed, “it’s not. It is the opposite of good, and we would just like to experience the food’s opposite goodness for a while. Is that too much to ask?” Miss Teenage America withdrew, slightly dazed.
“You’re an idiot, Harper.”
“Yes, but an empathic, listening idiot.” He gave me the kind of smile that made me want to feel better for him, so that he’d keep smiling. My whole life has been spent doing whatever I need to do to keep men smiling.
“So now what?”
“You need to read my book.”
“You wrote a book?”
“Does that seem inconceivable?”
“On getting a job in software sales?”
Harper winced. “Writing a simple book on getting a job is not going to get me on the Times bestseller list and Oprah’s couch. It has a far more ambitious scope.”
“What’s it called?”
For some reason, Harper didn’t think I would ask a question so granular. Within a second, he haltingly said, “It’s called, I uh, have decided to call it, Harper’s Rules: The Headhunter’s Guide to Love and Career.
“You’ve written no such book, have you, Harper?”
“I certainly have, and I find that insulting. Now, to clarify, I haven’t written it in the sense of having actually committed words to paper in some structured, organized form.”
“In what sense then, given that tiny distinction, would it qualify as a book?”
“Continued ridicule will take you right off the dedication page and onto the bottom half of the names in the acknowledgements. Here’s the deal. You wanted to hear a pitch, here it comes: I’ve been a headhunter for 20 years. I interview, I evaluate, I dig deep because I need to know how people make decisions. If they don’t accept the job, I don’t get paid. And here’s what I’ve learned.
There is no difference between making decisions in your career path and making decisions in your romantic life.
It’s the most natural analogy in the world, and one every headhunter uses. We all know an interview is like a date, that we seek attractive jobs using the same skill we use to find a mate. The best relationships come from referalls from friends, not from postings, giving notice feels like breaking up, and as you now know….getting fired feels like you’ve been cheated on. Get the premise or do I go on?
I had to admit I had often felt, when deep into the interview process with a company, that I was sizing up the various staff members I met: how they would be to sit near, how dull or funny they seemed, the feel of the office zeitgeist. It was like walking into a party.
“My book is meant for someone just like you. You are the prototype; you are my target audience. Usually, we’re happy in our relationships but our career is in trouble, or we love our job and are conspicuously successful, but our home life is terrible, so we gravitate toward the positive reinforcement of work, and the problem gets exacerbated because our loved ones feel ignored.”
I put my napkin on the table and folded my hands in front of me. It was my way of admitting I was guilty as charged.
“I find there are only two types: the type that knows how to manage a career move, and the type that knows how to manage their personal lives. Precious few have done both. Do you agree?”
I would have liked nothing better than to shoot Harper down, but my thoughts flashed to the evenings on the road, sitting at a Marriot bar with the road warriors, and how quickly the conversation descended into the ingratitude of the spouse left at home or the unfair expectations of a CIO changing the specs of an order, and how easily, given enough alcohol, the conversations steered toward the choice of covering each other, just for the night, in the simple, empty blanket of a sexual encounter. I had never been seriously tempted, but I had felt truly sorry for many of them. Near the end with Donald, I found myself the one with the horror story, the impossibly positioned victim. This is not to say I didn’t know marriages that did work, but if Harper was talking about the world’s work force at large, I would have to agree. Not too many happy people. I conceded with a nod.
“My book’s ambition is to point out how, if you understand the correct way to get a job and manage a career, the power of the analogous relationship between who you love and what you do cannot be separated, becomes synergistic, and creates a new you. One who is whole; one who is real. Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up in the morning and not have to make a distinction between what your life is and who you have to pretend to be?”
“Is that how your life is, Harper? You never talk about your personal life.”
“This is about you. You need my book, Casey. You need a new career, and you need to stop living without love. The two can be done at one time.”
“If you ever write the book.”
“I believe I’ve just started.”
Reprinted by permission of Greenleaf Book Group. Excerpted from Harper’s Rules: A Recruiter’s Guide to Finding a Dream Job and the Right Relationship. Copyright 2011 Danny Cahill.