“I’ll walk you out,” the executive recruiter said, after breakfast at the Harvard Club in Manhattan. “Give me your coat stub.” He held my arm and moved me in the direction of the checkroom.
I was trapped. I knew wearing my Woolrich coat to the interview was inappropriate and had arrived a half hour before our scheduled 8 a.m. appointment to avoid this very moment.
The attendant handed him the only red patterned wool garment from the racks of black cashmeres and chesterfields. He held mine like it was soiled cloth and said, “Whatever you do, don’t wear that when you meet the CEO.” I felt like a deer caught in the headlights.
I had planned on borrowing my partner Barbara’s black corporate coat for the interview — I hadn’t yet replaced the ripped lining of my old one. Unexpectedly, she had to be out of town on a business trip.
Feeling less than, I wore my barnyard-red wool with black stripes that traveled horizontally and vertically. It was described on its label as “country chic,” meaning, if you looked closely enough, small antlered moose heads sat atop each of the stripes. I loved the coat but knew it didn’t have the Harvard imprimatur.
Getting Back Into the Game
Let me back up a bit. In 2009, at the apex of a longtime successful career raising money for nonprofits, I was fired from a job I loved. But it was more than that. I was scared.
I was 64. My salary, title and the prestige that came along with the position had defined me. I was determined to get back into the game and renewed my relationships with nonprofit recruiters in New York, Boston and Washington, D.C.
Months went by. Seasons had changed. One day, I got a call from a prestigious Boston search firm. Their client was looking for a Number Two. Although they knew I had been Number One at my last two jobs, the company president was doing the search, which meant the position paid well into the six figures.
“Can you meet him tomorrow morning at the Club where he is staying?” his assistant asked. They assumed I knew what and where “the Club” was. Fortunately, I did.
In preparation for the interview, I recreated my corporate persona and revved up my career mantra: park your ego at the door. I knew not to dress in designer clothes like my donors — or boss — nor as low-key as anyone on my support team. I had my salt and pepper hair dyed at Bergdorf’s, became a dusty blonde and hated it.
The forfeiture of my job and the prospects of getting older triggered anxiety, depression and the loss of 15 pounds.
With no time to see a tailor, I wore my black Ellen Tracy pantsuit, held up with safety pins. My turtleneck sweater was accessorized with bargain basement Stuart Weitzman shoes and a Coach pocketbook bought at a thrift shop. I added my pearl necklace with matching earrings, a dated but still fashionable Raymond Weill watch and, lastly, my leather briefcase, with my initials embedded in faux gold.
Setting Up a Job Interview
The maître d’ escorted me into the breakfast room. Harvard’s coat of arms was everywhere. The place oozed gentility.
Fifteen minutes later, the executive walked in. Dressed in a dark blue suit and white shirt with his initials on the starched cuffs, he was nearly bald, tall with perfect posture.
He extended his hand and I thought he was going to shake mine. Rather, he had a bad cold and pulled out his handkerchief to blow his nose. He ordered a large breakfast. I had coffee and took notes.
Although we’d met on several occasions, he asked if we had met before. “Our CEO is looking for a partner, someone to help her grow the organization,” he asked. “What was the largest gift you ever raised?”
I told him $10 million. “Hmm. That’s not bad,” he said.
For the next 25 minutes, he pontificated about his client’s — the CEO’s — achievements. “When does she hope to fill the job?” I asked.
“Yesterday.” To my surprise, he added, “This job has your name on it. Set up a meeting with her.”
I looked at him. His nose was dripping. He stood up. The meeting was over and he said he would walk me out.
“Truly. It’s not necessary. Why don’t you go upstairs and take care of your nose, I mean, cold?” I countered.
“Oh, but I insist,” he assured me.
The Moment of Truth
As the recruiter’s comment, “Whatever you do, don’t wear that when you meet the CEO,” hissed in my ears, I exited the Club quickly and walked west on 44th Street.
First, a man, then a woman, minutes apart from one another, greeted me and said, “Wow, that’s a great coat.” And, “Is that a Ralph Lauren?”
For the next several days, I didn’t sleep or write my thank you to the recruiter. Nor did I call to arrange an interview with the CEO. Instead, I got sick to my stomach. Lying in bed, I replayed possible scenarios.
Hours later, I had an epiphany. I looked into the mirror and didn’t like what I saw: someone I no longer recognized, or even liked. I had always tried to fit in, wear “the look” and measure and compare myself with others. I let my ambition get ahead of me.
I called the recruiter’s office; the president took the call. “I’m withdrawing my application,” I said.
“Why? What happened?” he asked.
“It was a comment you made about my coat,” I said.
“I don’t understand,” he said. ”What does your coat have to do with it?” No doubt he had forgotten his instruction to me.
“It’s not your fault,” I said and hung up.
He never would have understood. Although I couldn’t put my finger on it, something had changed in me during those months of not working and not feeling good enough. What I did know was this: No longer will I ever let a coat define who I am.
Ann Jackowitz, a freelancer, writes on issues relating to social injustice, education, philanthropy and breast cancer advocacy. Her work has appeared in The Forward, Lilith and .Mic
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