Page 11, Issue No. 83, May 1994

A Profile of Ruth Lake
(An American living in Milan)

by Kathleen Mazzocco

It is not easy to pin down the peri­patetic Ruth Lake for an interview. Her calendar is crammed with business training consultancies in Bologna, Lebanon, Milan, Switzerland's TIcino, Verona, and U.S. conferences that hone her specialized skills in intercultural communications. Today, she fits me in between a day­long business meeting and last minute packing for a winter vacation in the Caribbean, where she will limber up her Spanish, one of three languages she speaks fluently (four if you include the elite patois required to teach the avant garde business management theories popular with her clients).

Always on the move, geographically and professionally, she is living an adult version of a childhood spent adapting to a new U.S. city every few years. Ruth has clear memories of herself approaching each new school (10 by the time of high school) as an opportunity "to start anew, to make new friends," rather than a reason to mourn the life left behind. In a sense, the habitual adaptations of childhood and young adult years (she attended five universities in as many places ­ West Virginia, Arizona, Kansas, Colorado and Puebla, Mexico, from where she got her Bachelor of Arts in International Relations), were her defining moments, where a native forward-looking attitude took root. That positive point of view has stood her in good stead in making the biggest move of her life to Italy.

After all, her very first setback presented itself soon after her winter 1982 arrival in Turin, at age 28, to take a job offered by the International Labor Organization's Training Center. She had just completed a double Masters' program, earning a Master's in Public Administration and International Business (M.P.A) and a Master's of Science in Communications and Public Relations (M.Sc.) at American University in Washington, D.C., and had had her heart set on working in Brazil. The ILO job offer diverted her to Italy, then fizzled, for funding reasons, in early 1983.

But in those three months stalled in Turin, swiftly picking up Italian and keeping busy with short term consultancies, Ruth made up her mind to stay in Italy anyway, eventually targeting Milan because of its work opportunities and international character. "All my Italian friends told me I'd never find a job since I didn't have any 'raccomandazioni', or connections" she recalls. "I just went ahead and did a very American thing, not knowing what else to do: I sent out my CV with 120 letters." She got eight interviews and three job offers, and in early 1984 accepted an exclusive long term contract at one of Italy's top companies, training managers and executives on time management, presentation techniques and quality of service. But ... she only got the job after six arduous interviews and daunting math and vocabulary tests, all in Italian. At the company, she was the only non-Italian in a stable of 150 consultants.

Ruth did hit some low points during the job hunt. One interviewer, predicting her failure because she was "young and female," offered the tense, shaking and tearful job candidate some meagre advice. "Always wear a gray suit. It will make you look more serious." Her confidence shaken by his criticism, she grabbed onto his words and hastily borrowed all her friends' gray suits for the next series of interviews, a move she assumed helped her get the three job offers.

Imagine her surprise when her new employer informed her of initial misgivings. "We wanted someone creative," he told her, "and you always turned up in a boring gray suit." She was given the job almost reluctantly because she doggedly carne out with the top scores on every one of the aptitude tests and the personality tests continually placed her in the "creative" style. "I wasn't being myself by taking someone else's advice so much to heart," she says, reminiscing on the episode. "And I almost missed one of my life's key stepping stones as a result."

Another hurdle to overcome was Italy's notorious sexism. At the Milan company, Lake was told to do something not required of male trainers - always introduce herself to clients citing her entire C.V. and two Master's degrees to "appear credible." Some clients specifically rejected female trainers. She challenged the double standard with employers, and won over some sceptical clients, but overall she persevered because she refused to become embittered by the discrimination, didn't take it personally, and, perhaps most important, didn't blame Italian culture. "I told myself it would be the same situation in rural West Virginia, a place she had lived while in high school and that there was no reason to devalue myself."

One lesson she has adhered to since the early days in Italy is to categorically reject negative feedback. "For a while, my naiveté was an advantage in countering the negativism of well­ meaning friends who were always telling me I couldn't find work." Now, more world wise, she has leaned through her own experience and her work training people in self-improvement, that a positive attitude and a solid sense of self are themselves means of advancement. In 1989, Lake moved to Bologna, in a centro storico apartment provided by new employers to take a consultancy contract she had - literally - written herself. A fat salary increase was topped by travel of the sort she had always dreamed: to Zimbabwe, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Britain and all over Italy.

Once again, she had gotten the job by answering a newspaper advertisement (for a different job at the same company), ignoring Italian friends' derision of her naiveté in "falling for a newspaper ad." This time, the odds Lake pertinaciously defied included the fact that the Bologna company had previously only hired professionals with a tessera politica or membership card from a political party, in this case the PCI (the Communist Party, now the reformed Democratic Party of the Left, or PSI, the now scandal-smeared Socialist Party.)

But this employer, a newly appointed company head, happened to be looking specifically for trainers with high standards of professional competence, and not political or personal credentials. The employer was banking on Lake's pure business background to pull in private sector clients from all over Europe. This experience validated Ruth's belief that success is indeed possible with high professional standards and self-confidence, not just connections.

But shortly after joining this company, Lake reluctantly came to a conclusion about Italian managers: the majority practice little of what they, or training consultants like herself, preach. She estimates that the revolutionary leadership theories and techniques used in business training classes today, which are in fact taught to prepare managers for a 21st century business world, are only applied consistently by around 15% of Italian managers. Although she had met some she respected, disillusionment about the average low standards of competence set in.

She also became conscious of a line in the sand that she could not step over without painfully compromising her ethical standards.
At times she found herself arguing with supervisors and colleagues about ethical standards in a pre-tangentopoli era when such concern was considered, well, shockingly naive, or a case of cultural relativism. But Lake persisted. "You don't go to apartheid era South Africa and immediately adopt racist behaviour to fit into the local culture," she points out. "Why put up with ethics violations in Italy?" While in Bologna, one professor who collaborated in a senior position with the consulting company for whom Lake worked insisted that she had gained an important contract with a public sector organization ONLY due to his connections with a particular Italian political party and demanded that she recognize it. "Your competence is only secondary" he told her and my "lubrification" has made all the difference. She approached the director of the company and the client involved with her concerns, refusing to work on the contract is this turned out to be the truth.

Eventually, she vanquished the uncharacteristic anxiety by moving on ­ quitting the company in 1991 to risk freelance work. Her fiancé Tony, (a radiologist at a Milan hospital and now her husband), encouraged her to venture out on her own. "You want a boss you can respect? Work for yourself," he said repeatedly. By now, she had the experience, skills and contacts to do it.
Coerenza, or consistency, is a trait that Lake has come to believe in wholeheartedly. Her high professional standards make her a dependable bulwark of quality and integrity in the rapidly changing, some say reforming, business world. Her reputation was gold when she went free-lance and she had no problem filling her calendar with prestigious Italian and multinational clients all year round, whom she trains in leadership skills, team building, negotiating, and cross cultural communications.

l) Be positive, focused and motivated; trust your instinct.
2) Don't take prejudices, such as sexism, personally.
3) Think strategically when planning for the future.
4) Have faith in your professional standards, and never compromise them.
5) Know and stick to your beliefs for an unshakeable sense of self.
6) Consider applying for Italian citizenship if you want to stay in Europe.

How does the future look, with post­Tangentopoli upheaval and recession? Admittedly, times are bad for business. Invoices go unpaid and precious time is diverted from more rewarding pursuits to track down deadbeat clients. Contracts take more time to firm up. This is not a period for complacency and Ruth is back to strategically reviewing her long term plans, and updating goals.

First, she has applied for Italian citizenship. With the European Union more of a reality with each passing day, she feels Italian citizenship is insurance against being legislated into unemployment in Europe in the near future. Already, she has been cut out of EU funded training consultancies - not particularly lucrative work, but attractive to Lake in the valuable contacts they allow across Europe - because she lacks EU membership. Plus, "as a political scientist, I believe you should vote where you pay taxes!" she states emphatically.

She is soliciting work beyond Italy and diversifying markets, a possibility because of her command of five languages, including French, Spanish, Portuguese. This summer she worked for five weeks, using English, in Beirut (her husband's home town), returning home with a five-page list of Lebanese contacts. She is studying Arabic, hoping to tackle the oil-rich Middle East as a training market.

She recently became a published author. In spring, 1994, a client, the Glaxo Management School (affiliated with Glaxo, the pharmaceutical giant), published a book she wrote, titled Saper Presentare, or "Effective Public Speaking," (Franco Angeli, 1994). Its word-of-mouth rave reviews may have paved the way for an unexpected new career phase as a writer. "Writing would give me more time at home with Tony, less work on my feet, which can be exhausting, and no strain on my vocal cords!" she explains.

This spring she is teaching a course on International Human Resource Management at Milan's St. Xavier University. She hopes to use the experience to build bridges with academia. "One of the most attractive aspects of my work is seeing the changes in my clients, seeing them grow. It is especially exciting to me to work with university students, who are so eager to learn." University work is not the high-paying field she is accustomed to, but the upbeat Lake sees the experience an investment in personal and professional growth. "The remunerative value of teaching is not important; the intellectual and social stimulus and networks are."
And, she is nurturing her social supports through membership in Milan's Professional Women's Association (PWA), which she joined immediately upon moving back to Milan in 1991. "It serves me the same purpose as did the neighbourhood Welcome Wagon for my mother on ail our moves," she explains. "You don't feel so alone in the big city if you are a part of PWA, especially with so many Happy Hours, brunches and new restaurant dinners planned every month."

Three coins in a piggy bank. This early childhood memory of saving for university holds the image of a little girl excitedly planning for a challenging future outside the home. "I have always been focused and motivated because from early on I assumed I would have a career, and that if l did my best I would get results." she earnestly recounts. Ruth Lake has made a career out of practising what she preaches - she certainly deserves an "A" for coerenza.

Kathleen Mazzocco, May 1994