Lady Bug and the Executive Table

Overreactions are common in today’s world. One wrong word and someone is in HR complaining. What is acceptable with one person isn’t with another. Or even riskier, what was acceptable yesterday isn’t today. It’s obvious that careers of the person complained about can be damaged, but what many people miss is that the career of the complainer gets damaged, too. Especially the frequent complainer – as they get labeled as just that – a complainer. If we listen to social media and the media, they tell us it’s “all about me.” The problem is… the work world is all about “we” and getting along. Career success requires exceptional navigation skills, great judgement, and good emotional intelligence. And it’s better to assume that social media is just always wrong. (Except I have appreciated knowing about those little tabs you poke in to keep the roll of aluminum foil in its box.)

I enjoy speaking on university campuses and sharing what it really takes to have a successful career, cutting through the myths and social media hoo-ha. Here’s an example from my own career that I frequently include.

Early in my career I was the Director of HR for a large government contractor with locations all over the US and internationally. A very good gig for a young woman riding the HR tidal wave. I worked for a man formally known as Admiral Theodore Walker – “The Admiral” to the other military types at HQ and “Ted” to the rest of us. He was all admiral, at about 6’ 6” with a booming voice to match. He could be intimidating, especially if he was going to bat for one of his employees, like me. Many of today’s women don’t like it when I start this story and ask their opinions.

The first question I ask the audience is, “Ted frequently called me Lady Bug. Was that okay?” You should see the shock on young faces. “That’s illegal,” they frequently reply. “Is it?” I ask. “I’m not aware of a law against calling people Lady Bug.”

Here’s the next question. “If Ted was in military mode, he would sometimes call me DipS#$t. Was that okay?” This one normally drives horror on audience faces. “NO!” they say. I agree with them and say, “Yeah, the word in there probably puts it across the line.” Sometimes he also called me Juliana.

But let’s go back to Lady Bug, since that was my most common nickname. Ted used only my given name in formal situations, like meetings or introductions. Lady Bug was normally reserved for casual or one-on-one meetings. I remember a few times where he’d walk down the hall with a report in hand that he didn’t like, and I’d hear him coming… “LADY BUG! I’d turn from my computer and get ready to do some explaining.

I had four options to handle Lady Bug. Now remember, I was HR. 1) I could have told Ted to knock it off, and I suspect he would have. 2) I had access to the CEO, and I could have walked into his office and told him to tell Ted to knock it off, and Ted definitely would have. 3) I could have tolerated it but fumed and been frustrated. 4) I could have accepted what was really behind Lady Bug and embraced it.

Let me tell you a little about Ted and me.

Not too long before I went to work for Ted, my dad – also a career Naval officer – died. Ted had daughters a little older than I was, and I received some of the same advice they did. It wasn’t unusual for men I was dating to come by the office, and I would make sure we exited by way of The Admiral’s office so they could meet. Ted was a fairly good judge of character and knew me well enough to have an informed opinion. One day I remember laughing when he said of a young Naval officer I was dating, “What is with that hair cut? I’d be careful with that one.” Maybe I should add that growing up, my mom called me Jul Bug. I’m not sure where the bug theme comes from.

So, what did I choose to do? Option 4. Now know this: I am not telling all women that Option 4 is the right answer for them. People must make up their own minds on these things. But it’s good to understand why I chose it. No, it’s essential.

Advocates and Relationships

If I had chosen Option 1 or 2, I never would have been called Lady Bug (or anything else) again. I also may never have had the close relationship again. But more importantly, I would have lost my advocate. And that’s really what Ted was. He liked me. He was headed toward retirement wanted what was best for me when that time came. The Admiral made sure that I was sitting at the executive table by the time I was 30 and that changed the trajectory of my career.

Pivotal Question: Do we look behind things like nicknames or even perceived slights to see where they are coming from, giving people the benefit of the doubt?

I could have fumed and bristled at being called by anything other than my name, which is what most women in the audiences think I should have done. But I looked behind it and knew I had an advocate, both professionally and personally. And the relationship was something I naturally valued.

Advocate and relationship. These are two words to consider before marching into HR or other offices when something happens. Because they are the foundation of career success. We may choose to throw them away and fall on our swords of political correctness. Or, we may decide to accept them for what they are and not take ourselves too seriously. In any event, Option 4 was the right one for me.

Admiral Theodore Walker died in December of 2021. His impact lives on in many people, from the Navy to Elon College to me, and to some of the socially conscious and emotionally intelligent people I have coached.  

Julie Nielsen is the President & Chief Human Capital Officer at Oyster Organizational Development. Oyster puts big-company OD tools in the hands of small and mid-sized organizations to increase effectiveness and success. They work with for-profits and non-profits and are a national leader in compensation analysis & design, employee engagement ecosystems, and organizational assessment. Got questions? Contact Julie on LinkedIn.

Looking for Success? Get Started Today.