How to know when to say “yes”
A week before Christmas, 2011, Jay the co-GM of Disney Parks and Resorts Online, called me as I was finishing dinner in my hotel room in Orlando. I was meeting with some of the Walt Disney World brand managers on last minute touches to our campaign for “One more Disney day”, a chance to take advantage of leap day in 2012 with a 24-hr dance party at the park. But his call wasn’t about working a party at 3am or Ryan Secrest’s announcement on NYE. It was an opportunity to get shipped to Paris.
“We need you to go to Paris to help on a web project there.”
You had me at Paris, but go on.
“As you know, we’ve been re-imagining the guest experience for Disney world and land and we want you to help lead a project in Paris to do the same.”
“It’s going to require you to be in Paris for two weeks a month.”
“You won’t have a budget or a team of your own, but there is a good team already in Paris you’ll need to partner with.”
I don’t speak French.
“The project will probably run about 6 months or so and you’ll be presenting your recommendations to the president of the division and local investors.”
Stomach drops. May lose my burger.
“I need your answer in 3 days.”
Christmas Eve is in 3 days.
Life-changing presents have a funny way of, well, presenting themselves. I was married, no children, and my husband was in grad school. I was wrapping up another project at Disney.com where we built a business from scratch in 18 months and I learned a ton about what can be done on a small budget with no team. I was ready for something new, but was I ready to work somewhere I didn’t know the language or culture or business nuances in a different economy?
Before I said yes, I bought Rosetta Stone.
Getting to yes….
I had multiple people, including my current bosses (yes, plural, matrix’d org), say that they didn’t think I’d go. That I didn’t have it in me. That I was too timid. Too connected to my life in LA. I wasn’t sure if they were just trying to trick me into going because they knew how competitive I was, but I took the bait. I jumped.
Landing at Charles de Gaul
I had studied abroad twice and was comfortable traveling in Europe. I’d backpacked, slept in train stations, hopped on and off with my eurorail pass, stayed out all night in Sweden during midsummer soltice because I ran out of money and couldn’t pay for a hostel. This wasn’t quite that.
Disney flew me business class on Air France. When I boarded, they were wheeling racks of what looked to be ironed newspapers down the aisle — Wall Street journal, Le monde, New York Times, Financial Times — and offering me aperitifs. I was 30 and this was a different world than I’d ever experienced.
I was naive and decided to stay on property and dine with characters during my first stay. When I arrived at the office with no badge and very poor French, I was welcomed as one of the family. The director of digital invited me over to her gorgeous flat in southern Paris. I brought the wrong kind of wine and ate way too much cheese during the fourth course of the meal. I enjoyed her chocolate mousse a bit too aggressively.
Another colleague from Spain explained his business analytics strategy in Spanish at the office to make me feel more comfortable — his English wasn’t that great; my French was awful; and I’d lived in Spain for 6 months, 10 years prior. It was the least common denominator.
Our entire team would take a break for lunch and eat together in the cafeteria; my badge never worked properly so I’d have to explain in French every day that I was visiting from America. They’d ask me for how long and I never had a good answer. We’d seldom work and eat at our desks. That was a faux pas.
We debated US politics and Obama getting elected a second time over way too much wine just down the street from the Bataclan theater.
My colleagues and new friends would take me to the hidden restaurants in Paris for dinner meetings. And then we’d hit up a corner karaoke place until way too late in the evening. By my second trip, I was renting an apartment in central Paris by Les Halles and commuting via RER listening to podcasts, or my Rosetta Stone lessons. I acclimated just in time to hop a plane back to LA.
But, really, this was work. I spent most of my days interviewing everyone that touched the eCommerce business, marketing, customer support, sales, revenue management, design and, most importantly, IT. Hours in a room with no windows talking about back end infrastructure I knew nothing about with side bars in French. Eventually you can assess the sentiment in the room through body language. What I couldn’t absorb through language, I did through looks and shoulder posture.
Eventually I convinced my US team that I needed some budget and technical help. I needed a back-end engineer to make sense out of a patchwork quilt of systems of record, commerce flows and business rules. They sent 2 guys and a VP. We had a few meetings with croissants, some coffee and eventually wine.
We powered through. We won the business.
I didn’t know the scope of the work. I didn’t have a team(at first). I didn’t have budget. I didn’t speak the language, but I jumped. I knew that I wouldn’t get asked a second time if I wanted to go. I knew I wouldn’t have another opportunity to lead a multi-million dollar project in another country on my own. I didn’t have anything to lose. And I said yes. Mostly because other people didn’t think I had it in me.
When you have a chance to prove people wrong and improve yourself at the same time, just jump.
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