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15 Letters On A Plaque

If you wanted to be branded a winner, this was the team you played for. I now know to be careful with brands. As a young professional, roughly seven years out of college, I was hungry to make a name for myself as a corporate mover/shaker. This particular company had been voted four years straight by Forbes Magazine as the “most innovative.” The company’s CEO and his wife were well-known philanthropists in Houston. (One time I had the privilege of attending a fundraising dinner where the wife shared a beautiful story about her husband’s humble beginnings. She capped her speech by reaching for her purse and writing a $100,000 check on the spot to the local Boys and Girls Club hosting the dinner.) This company also donated to Republican and Democratic candidates for local, state and national campaigns, which gave the illusion of balance. On the day they extended an offer for me to come work for them I marked a “W” in my personal “wins column”, and at 8:00 AM, January 5, 2000, I reported to new hire orientation…for Enron North America.

Enron never did anything average, they were all about the excess! Every other company’s new hire orientation, for example, was in the conference room on the first floor of the HR department. At Enron, it was at a five-star hotel around the corner from the corporate headquarters. We ate breakfast on fine china, dabbed the corners of our mouths with cloth napkins and buttered our toasted croissants with sterling silver flatware. One of the executives gave the keynote address, not missing an opportunity to let us know how competitive we had been as candidates and how appreciative we should be for being given the opportunity to join “the most innovative company as rated by Forbes Magazine four years straight!” (he hit that note several times in his remarks; in other words, Enron had been vetted and highly approved).

Once orientation wrapped, I parked my convertible mustang in the employee garage. It was flanked by at least a dozen silver Porsches on either side (when Enron paid out annual bonuses, Porsche dealerships saw an uptick in car sales). The glass doors parted, I entered the lobby and waited amongst a small crowd of fellow employees for the elevator. Upon entering it, I took the ride up to the 27th floor, patiently enduring what felt like 20 stops in between. As the crowd thinned, I read the plaque posted on the elevator wall across from me. It listed the four core principles of Enron, two of which were ethics and integrity.

I exited the elevator and entered the HR recruiting department where I was met by one of my new colleagues. He stood dead center in the middle of the aisle, his hands extended out in front of him blocking my way. He said, “You’re just coming over from...," he states my previous employer, and caps with, "Correct?” “Yes,” I responded. Then he said, “I’m going to test your worth as a recruiter – did you bring their employee directory with you?” “No,” I answered, then added, “it’s online.” He put his hands down, stepped to the side and said, “Well, I guess that’s a legitimate excuse.” As I pass to the left of him, I privately muse how company directories are also proprietary information, and would be like, uh, theft. I turned the corner and to my immediate right was a library of company directories that other recruiters had brought over from previous employers. Whenever someone needed to fill a job they’d do “research” in the library, where they had names, email addresses, job titles and phone numbers to make casual calls to see if they could entice candidates to interview for openings.

Very early on I began to refer to employment at Enron as being shackled by velvet handcuffs. They never did anything low-budget. The employee cafeteria had three gourmet stations with actual chefs that took special orders. Every employee celebration would be catered by “the most…” restaurant. Even raffled prizes were for things like convertible BMWs and family trips to Italy.

Didn’t take long before I, too, was caught up in their excess…just a little bit. Everyone dressed to the nine every day at Enron. On days I didn’t feel great about my outfit, at lunch I’d go shopping at The Galleria, purchase a new suit and return to work feeling better about myself. That’s the most outlandish thing I did, even though others kept trying to talk me into trusting the system and going further out on a limb, like them. They postponed dreams and redirected their life’s mission to make money at Enron. One of the HR executives was recruited away from an investment bank in New York. She really missed the trading floor, but had been promised greater opportunities if she’d “endure” the HR assignment for a year. An administrative employee talked incessantly about the stock options and bonuses she’d reinvested in Enron stock over 20 years, and how she planned to retire in late 2001. Another woman I remembered had aspirations for broadcast journalism, but had traded them for “stability” at Enron.

I think about them often, how they postponed their dreams in exchange for a million-dollar retirement account, mostly invested in Enron stock. I envied their courage to take bold financial risks. But I had my own markers for gauging risks. I remembered that ethics and integrity are more than 15 letters on a plaque. I was only at Enron for five months. I left April 2000, one-year plus before reality hit everyone else. I left to write YA books and form an independent publishing imprint. I called it Unshackled Publishing. Whenever I’m faced with difficult decisions, I remember I have good instincts, and great stories as a result. It all works out…eventually.

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