My messiest situation

In advance of her visit to the GSB’s “Winning Writing” course, venture capitalist and Stanford lecturer Heidi Roizen asked students to respond to the following prompt: “In 250 words, tell me about one of the messiest situations you’ve ever been in, what happened, and what you learned.’’ Here’s what some students wrote. (And you can find more stories of “My Messiest Situation” in our next issue of non disclosure.)

My Office Is On Fire. Literally | Max Artz

While working in a manufacturing facility in China, I was just starting a meeting when the air conditioner made a huge noise, combusted, and set the carpet on fire.

Nobody moved. Everyone was staring at the carpet, now engulfed in a three-foot circle of flames, growing and beginning to crawl up the walls. I had to take action. It was only my second month on the job as plant manager, so I had no idea where the fire extinguisher was. I yelled to everyone to leave the conference room, as there was no extinguisher in sight. Everyone left and I finally found an extinguisher in another office. I ran back into the room, sprayed the fire down, and emerged, watched by the office workers, covered in dust and feeling my vacuumed out lungs. The next day, when I came to work, my desk was covered with fruit, cookies, flowers and gifts.

Before this incident, my coworkers had shown me little respect. I was younger than most of them, foreign, spoke a different language, and was new. This situation taught me that actions better demonstrate loyalty than words do. I had demonstrated my allegiance to the office, and in doing so earned their trust. While I hope not to fight any more fires, at least not real ones, I know my work will mean more to colleagues than anything I can say.

What to Do About the Director Watching Porn at Work | Eva Trust

“The Senior Director in your client group has been watching pornography at work. A lot of it.”

That was the content of the first email in my new role in employee relations, where I had to deal with my company’s ugly underbelly. My first task was to investigate the porn-watching (I am sure someone out there would thoroughly enjoy my job) in order to recommend whether the senior director should be terminated.

The director worked for a close colleague and former manager of mine, James. James was up for a promotion, his department was having performance issues, and this director was an outstanding performer who was critical to the team and its success. He also was based in another city, where finding a comparable role at a new company would be nearly impossible.

Yet how could I not recommend him for termination? Not only did he violate company policy, he exhibited abhorrent judgment by disabling firewalls and jeopardizing the company’s security. At first glance, the decision was clear.

Taking advice from a mentor, I expanded my investigation. I learned how his direct reports talked about him. I pored over his performance evaluations to see if there was a trend of poor decision-making. I questioned him about how much he enjoyed his current role and tried to determine whether he was distracted.

I learned he was a talented, respected and decent guy who was having serious marital problems and had developed an addiction over several months. It became clear that terminating him would be hugely detrimental to his team, his manager, and him. Ultimately, I recommended that we support him through a brief sabbatical and provide coaching upon his return.

I was reminded of a lesson that can be all too easy to forget: to be humane.

I was reminded of a lesson that can be all too easy to forget: to be humane. To remember that a person at work is also a person at home, that a leader can also be a mother and a wife — and that organizations need to nurture the whole person for them to do their best work.

Lessons From a Suicide Bombing | Nick Pinkston

A loud explosion interrupted our peaceful evening in a small village in southern Afghanistan. I raced with my team on motorbikes to the scene. I was paralyzed by what I saw. Body parts in the trees, hanging like ornaments. Blood painting the mud walls. I will never forget the smell. A bomb had gone off at a large wedding celebration, killing 40 and wounding 70. The legs of the suicide bomber lay there cleanly sheared below his knees, where survivors said he nervously pushed the plastic button. Legs so small. So young. He was 16.

Suddenly, an old woman screamed, pointing at us, “It’s their fault!” Panicked, I realized the team was at risk. We were living in this village to work with the elders to help them defend against the Taliban. After months of negotiations, the graybeards had reluctantly hosted us at the risk of their village becoming a target.

I looked at Haji Mohammed, a respected elder. I hugged him. I told him I will sacrifice my life for his family, his village… for him. We’ll get through this, I said. His warm and quiet embrace said everything, and brought calm to the scene.

I would rather give my life over a lifetime of acts, not one.

True empathy was born for me. I then understood the village’s plight. People everywhere have the right to peace. Human life and youthful innocence are fragile. Sacred. To be honored and protected. Suicide bombers are confused. I would rather give my life over a lifetime of acts, not one.

The Phone Call From Hell | Kara Hollis

As the junior analyst in my group, I was the only person still in the office when one of our biggest clients called the desk. It’s not the call you’re hoping for at the end of the day. The client had earlier given the other analyst (who acted more like an archnemesis than a teammate) an order to be executed at the open of Asian markets and he had not received his confirmation.

Given the size of the order, I understood why he was irritated. I apologized for the delay and promised to send an email within five minutes with the details of the executed order. But after hanging up I couldn’t find the order in the system. I called my boss, the supposed trader, and the other analyst — none of whom picked up. Panic started to set in. The client called again, incensed that 30 minutes later I hadn’t gotten back to him. I apologized to deaf ears as he threatened to pull his business. Eventually (20 minutes later), my friends in the back office and I found the trade. Turns out a recent change in systems, which the other analyst had overlooked, was the problem.

Lesson #1: Clients don’t care who fucked up, only that someone fixes it

I learned three big things early from this experience: 1) Clients don’t care who fucked up, only that someone fixes it; 2) don’t make promises when you don’t have full information; and 3) every relationship matters. Had I not had a close relationship with the back-office team, I likely couldn’t have solved the issue.

Your Money or Your Hot Dog | Tom Petit

Buy these guys a hot dog. (Image: Wikpedia)

Two in the morning in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Six hours before my flight. Walking home alone through dark Staroi Park.

Then I see them, two policemen, beckoning me. I had nothing to hide and was feeling jovial, having just had uplifting conversations with my Kazakh friends. I smile to them. They ask to check my pockets for drugs, and I comply while chatting with them in broken Russian.

They then ask me to buy them a hot dog at a nearby food truck. I say no, playfully but firmly. They want to do a more thorough search. They ask to check my wallet. That’s when I realize my mistake. In my wallet were five $100 bills, in preparation for my journey.

The policemen see the money and their demeanor changes. They ask for my passport. It’s at home. They ask for an on-the-spot fine of $200. I refuse. They insist. I tense up. They ask me to come with them to the police station. I hadn’t done anything illegal so I agree.

But they don’t take me to the police station. They drive away from the center. Again they ask for money. The city lights grow dimmer. They now want $100. I’m scared. I start negotiating. I’ll give you $60. Nyet. $40 each? Deal. They ask me where I live and drive me home.

My takeaway: when you have $500 in your pocket, buy Kazakh cops a bloody $2 hot dog.

Under Fire, Make ’Em Laugh | Maayan Halimi

In the second Lebanon war, in the middle of my officer’s training, I was called back to base to help with the enormous amount of intelligence work. Soldiers on the base were understaffed and overworked, so no one had time to help me. Instead, I was given a team of inexperienced young soldiers and thrown into the fire: Manage intelligence collection when lives are on the line.

I was both terrified and hyped up. With adrenalin pumping and a fair amount of muscle memory, I quickly remembered how to do everything. The biggest challenge was to keep those untrained soldiers, quite frankly in way over their heads, motivated and effective. The solution was humor. We worked 14-hour shifts each night for almost six weeks, and quickly fell into this routine: Work like crazy for 13 hours, then for one hour — between 3 and 4 a.m. — act as silly as possible. During this precious hour I ordered everyone to stop working, blast ridiculous music, and dance in our tiny office. This simple gesture gave them the strength they needed to power through. And it gave all of us something sweet to remember when thinking about this difficult period.

Forbidden Fruit | Dan Grunfeld

My best friend’s mom was explicit: “We’re having a dinner party tonight, so don’t mess up the kitchen when I’m out this afternoon.”

Dan and I were 12. (Yes, my best friend’s name is also Dan). It was summer, we were bored, and now there was forbidden fruit (the kitchen) dangling in front of us. There was also real fruit sitting in the fridge, so of course it was the perfect time to make a smoothie. No big deal. Cut some strawberries, dump in some raspberries, add a banana. A delicious way for two buddies to spend an afternoon, right?

All was going to plan, but then came the blending. To prevent the top from flying off — our worst fear — Dan held it down and pressed the blend button. The blades started whirling, but then the blender protested the unwanted force. It started sputtering, and before we could act, it happened: the bottom of the Plexiglas blender exploded, sending chunky red fruit juice all over the kitchen. Even Dan’s white Lhasa Apso puppy Sam was covered.

Do not cover in smoothie.

This, it’s safe to say, was not our desired outcome. The milk (based smoothie) had been spilled, and there was no point in crying over it. We had to act. We spent hours mopping, scrubbing, wiping and washing. Bathing Sam erased the last mark of our carnage, and after it was done, the lesson was clear: try not to make a mess, but if you do, be damn sure you can clean it up.

Addendum: Dan remains my best friend to this day and married my wife’s little sister, so he’s now my brother-in-law as well.

A Real Test of Our Love | Val Rivera

It’s a brutal thing to pit two people with two very different dreams against each other, but it happens all the time — especially among professional couples.

It was December 10, 2014. I’d been waiting for this day for what seemed an eternity. Would Derrick Bolton call with an offer of admission to the GSB, or would my hopes be crushed? That afternoon, the email came — I was waitlisted. And just like that, our world fell to pieces.

My husband was on the shortlist for a killer job in NYC, and our plan was to take it if I were rejected. Now what? There was no certainty of admission, but if it happened, I would go — whether or not my husband came with me. That night, he decided to withdraw his candidacy. But over the next few weeks and months, this act of love became an unbearable wedge.

An act of love became an unbearable wedge.

My husband values stability and security, while I value opportunity and adventure. The financial implications of my leaving my career with no safety net did not make sense to him, and he began to resent me. No matter how many times we tried to communicate, our conversations ended in tears, anger, or both. There was no romance that Valentines Day; instead, we decided to seek marriage counseling. Luckily, we weathered the storm, I got into the GSB, and he loves his job in San Francisco.

From this experience, I learned that love can withstand extreme stress — but sometimes, not without a bit of help.

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