If Mom Can, So Can I

May 5, 2011
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

Anna Jarvis was from my home state of West Virginia. She introduced the traditional Mother’s Day celebration in 1907. It became a national holiday only seven years later. You may think Anna was delighted with how quickly her idea spread throughout the world. Actually, she spent the rest of her life and all of her savings protesting how the true meaning of Mother’s Day had been lost. She believed printed cards and candy were insufficient to honor one’s mother. On one occasion, her protests landed her in jail for disturbing the peace. Imagine what her reaction might be to people who simply Tweet their moms on this special day.

My mother was my career coach and the classiest woman I have ever known. While most moms in our rural community spent their days at home or as laborers in the glass factory, my mom was an executive who wore nice clothes to work in the nearby town of Weston. She and my father were life-long entrepreneurs who evolved through dairy farming, chicken egg production, and then a commercial insurance agency, which is still in operation since 1958.

Life as a teenager was awkward at times because my schoolmates referred to my mom as a good-looker. They ogled her as she drove our team at breakneck speeds down country roads to basketball games. She was a local beauty queen who got married and had her first of seven children within 14 years after graduating from high school. Rather than attend college she held a series of secretarial positions, including a stint in Washington, D.C. at the height of World War II. Thereafter, she worked in partnership with my father and was the catalyst behind their success.

Dad passed away in 1986, leaving my mother as the sole owner and principle agent of G. J. Garton Insurance. Not long before this happened, my parents recruited my younger brother Josh into the business. They must have done a good job training him since he has grown G. J. Garton Insurance into the largest independent agency in the state. Reps from the biggest U.S. insurance companies often visit my brother to discover his secret. They would never be able to duplicate the residual influence of our mother.

In business, my mother was bold, persistent, persuasive, and impatient. She was a wellspring of good ideas and maintained contacts with movers and shakers across the country. If she thought calling the White House would make a difference, she would make the call and inevitably get help from someone she knew. She was a natural born networker who delighted in helping people while maintaining their dignity.

Not long after Josh moved into the CEO position, my mother decided it was time to do her own thing. I cannot imagine how he dealt with her intensity on a daily basis for as long as he did. At the age of 65, and while hauling around a portable oxygen tank, my mother started a travel agency with the idea of capitalizing on reduced fares for worldwide travel. Not only did she see the world, she built and eventually sold another business. Sadly, the new owners could not keep pace with her indomitable spirit, customer focus, and get-it-done attitude. The business failed soon after transferring ownership.

While much of this drama was taking place, my mother was simultaneously coaching me through college and into my career. I was the first in our family to graduate with a four-year degree and take the corporate route. She encouraged me to leave our hometown for greener pastures. Her advice was simple: You will know what to do.

After graduating from college, I still did not know what to do with a degree in history and political science. There was no Internet at the time so I put over 300 resumes into the mail and received back nearly two hundred rejection letters. Apparently, there was no market for hillbilly historians who were willing to accept any job.

Six months into this shameful and embarrassing disaster, my mother and I were sitting across from each other with the stack of rejection letters between us. This was unfamiliar territory for the both of us, and we were clueless about next steps. Our only connections inside the corporate world were the faceless people who signed the rejection letters. Then it occurred to us, if those people could write those letters, so could I. My writing was just as good as theirs.

My career plan was established. I would become a Rejector rather than a Rejectee, and with this specialized knowledge, I believed it would shield me from future periods of unemployment. I sold everything I owned and made the decision to go back to graduate school and get a master’s in personnel administration. While in school, I accepted a commission-based recruiter position — and this is when I discovered the existence of this job title. The faceless Rejectors were recruiters. This brief experience helped to qualify me for my first corporate recruiter position. From then on, I was committed to become a staffing expert, and my goal was to write a book about my experiences so other people would not have to suffer through prolonged unemployment as I did.

In 1976, I left West Virginia for graduate school in New Mexico. At least twice each week my mother and I were on the telephone, and we maintained this routine until 2009 when she died peacefully in her sleep at age 84. She always said that through me she was vicariously experiencing the corporate career she never had. She encouraged me to stay specialized and said my recruiter skills would eventually come in handy one day. She said I would be able to make a living on a rock with a cell phone. Years later, her words would become a reality.

After graduation, I spent the next 23 years building staffing departments, creating college recruitment programs, introducing cost-per-hire metrics and new recruitment technologies, and eventually led the global staffing functions for both Kraft Foods and the Miller Brewing Company. I had worked on four continents and made it to the top of my chosen field and was fortunate to have won three SHRM/EMA Best in Class Awards for recruitment marketing. Along with our ad agency, J. Walter Thompson, we set the foundation for what would become employer branding in the early to mid 1990s. My colleagues in human resources could never understand my devotion to staffing, which they described as rote and unimportant. From my perspective, there was nothing more important than building my specialized knowledge so I could one day write my book. I was on a mission.

In 2001, after consulting with my maternal coach in West Virginia, I decided it was time to leave the corporate world and concentrate on research and writing. She encouraged me to leverage my recruiting skills to start a business. I figured what the heck. If she can do it, so can I. My first two clients were Kraft and Miller Brewing, and we quickly added SC Johnson, JohnsonDiversey, Johnson Bank, General Mills, Fiskars, and Gerber Legendary Blades. Unfortunately, 9/11 interrupted our plans. This is when I became a certified professional career coach and opened my next business.

My insider’s knowledge as a recruiter proved invaluable to my work as a career coach. I could speak with authority from both sides of the desk. If the market went down, I began coaching. When the market went back up I began recruiting, and I was earning more money than I ever did while on the corporate side. If only I had the courage to follow my mother’s advice sooner. She had started several businesses with no education or related experience while I had a master’s degree and nearly three decades of related experience. With fewer advantages than I had, my mother was able to accomplish more, and still raise seven kids. She was truly amazing.

In the meantime, I was still chipping away at my first book, which finally made the bookstands in 2008. This was about the time my mother experienced several small strokes resulting in her short-term memory loss. She would never be able to read the book I wrote or know it became a best-seller.

Following my mother’s death, I began a speaking career, launched a talk radio program, and published a second book and series of learning resources. I also started a training company to distribute our products through government agencies and academic institutions so jobseekers can avoid the embarrassment of prolonged unemployment.

Our clients thank me, and I thank my mom every day. Happy Mother’s Day, Mrs. Jeanne Vassar Garton. I love you and hope this article pleases you more than a box of candy.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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