May 11, 2007

Second Chance

In my first "real" paid job after graduating from college (sorry, Sears, but policing the linens section for a few months doesn't really count), I made a huge mistake.

I was the regional director of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, and my boss was Lee Stetson. At a time when many admissions offices had a tiered system of job descriptions, with newbie admissions officers having little in the way of real responsibilities, Lee took a different approach.

Anyone he hired was immediately given real responsibility, along with some guidance and support. So within weeks of arriving at my desk – in an office with a door and a window! (something that I have rarely had since) – I was making decisions about what to say to students in my school visits. When I got back from the road I was reading applications and making recommendations. (I still remember the first time I recommended "deny" on a student's application.)

And then, as we were preparing to invite accepted students to celebratory receptions in their home towns, the invitations I'd ordered sat in a box under my assistant's desk. I knew I'd ordered them, and might have even been aware that they'd come in, but she was new, and I was new, and I thought she'd pop them in the mail once they'd arrived. Somehow, the invitations never rose to that level on either of our to-do lists, and about four days before the planned reception, I woke with that horrible sinking feeling in my stomach.

No invitations had gone out.

The room was reserved, the food ordered, the transportation for the accompanying professor arranged... but no one was going to be there. And the reception was in Westchester County, NY, where we had hundreds of powerful and well-connected alumni and dozens of accepted students with plenty of other great college choices.

It was a fire-able offense.

Heart thudding so hard I thought my colleagues might be able to hear it, I talked to my assistant, ordered lists of alumni and student addresses and phone numbers from our resident database whiz kid, came up with a plan that seemed like it might keep the event from being a total disaster.

Then I wrote the scariest memo I've written yet.

I told the Dean what had happened. I resisted with all my might the urge to make excuses. I took full responsibility, apologized, and outlined our plan. I wish I still had a copy of that memo.

And since we're writing about second chances this week, you know he didn't fire me. He thanked me for my honesty, suggested some additional action steps, and said he was pretty sure it was the last time I'd make a mistake like that.

And it pretty much was. At least so far.

(Thanks to the women of Sunday Scribbling
for their continuing inspiration.)


Nancy Bea said...

Yes, it must have been EXTREMELY tempting to make excuses and to place the blame squarely on your assistant's shoulders (because, let's face it, sending out invitations sounds absolutely like her duty.) But you took the high road and more honor to you! I hope there will be more people of valor like you in the times ahead due to your role-modeling.

Oonie said...

Have you sent this to Lee? I'm sure he'd be touched. I know I was (and having worked for him too, my heart thudded just thinking about having to write that memo!).

Autrice DelDrago said...

It sounds like the dean was very wise; your honesty and sense of responsibility will take you far in life. Integrity is something that I wish all people possessed.

Crafty Green Poet said...

It can be so scary but honesty is best, glad it worked for you, your dean was wise.

Regina Clare Jane said...

Wow, what a story! My heart started racing just reading about it!
Honesty is always the best policy...

gautami tripathy said...

You did good. Honesty always pays.

Patois said...

Very compelling story. Of course honesty is the best policy and all that, but it sure as heck doesn't make things easy. Just right.

Rob Kistner said...

I would have blamed it on my assistant and then fired the person... ;)

NO -- you did the honorable but certainly more frightening thing.

It probably strengthened the confidence of your superiors, especially since you brought resolving actions with your admission.

MOST people can be counted on for human understanding and kindness in the face of true contrition and humility.

Tori said...

Oh, I just felt my heart sink when I read your post.
What a character builder that was and how relieved you must have been once things settled.

Bongga Mom said...

That's a great story and I admire the way you handled it. You showed real professionalism and a sense of honor. Good for you.

BellaKarma said...

Sounds like a scene from a "dramedy!"
Great storytelling!

SarahJane said...

great story. i think we know how that feels, but might not be able to face it as well as you did.

juliloquy said...

I wish some people in the current administration would follow your example! Great story. So, you made a bunch of phone calls and people showed? Whew.

Jenn said...

I've been thinking of this posting a lot, Brave Girl. Reminds me: After I made a mistake at the Philadelphia Inquirer (it was a process thing; I circumvented an editorial step), I took responsibility for it.

"That was my mistake. I didn't realize the next step should have been XXX. I'm sorry, and I won't do it again."

IT FREAKED PEOPLE OUT. People fell over themselves to say, "No, no, it's okay" as I explained, "This is what it looks like when someone takes responsibility..."

Too bad people don't see many good examples of responsibility-taking with aplomb, like you did in your story.

Maya's Granny said...

Having taken such a courageous step so early in your career is really impressive.