OF POSITIVE THINKING
Page 11, Issue
No. 83, May 1994
of Ruth Lake
(An American living in Milan)
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).
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.
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.
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."
WITH PREJUDICE AND NEGATIVISM
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."
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.
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.
YOUR BOSS. WORK FOR YOURSELF
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.
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
5) Know and stick to your beliefs for an unshakeable sense of
6) Consider applying for Italian citizenship if you want to stay
PLANS AND GOALS FOR THE FUTURE
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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
Mazzocco, May 1994