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Monday, June 06, 2005

Silk Stalkings 4: Mentoring Brilliance

It may be merely a side effect of my early inexperience with women, or it may be, as some people have recently claimed, something else, but I have accumulated four stalkers in the past few years. The first one was my first girlfriend, the second a reporter, and the third a drinking establishment girl. This post covers the most recent and fourth one.

I worked for a while at a major media company in a technology area. At the time it was a high-flying company with huge growth, and it made me some good money. More importantly, however, it taught me some real world project and people management skills, and business in industry experiences that I have found invaluable, especially given that I was able to learn them at a young age. For example, one of the most valuable lessons I learned was that I am not suited to management. Despite my employees generally rating me highly -- I just don't like it.

While I was at that company, I managed many different teams. But one team that was particularly interesting was a team of women working on a new project fusing media and technology. The project grew to well over a hundred people in engineering, but most of them were men (not counting administrative and support staff). There were maybe ten women in the project, and seven of them worked for me. This was one of my early management experiences, and because I had no idea what I was doing I took people management very seriously. One area I spent a lot of time working on was the personal and career growth of my employees.

One of my employees was a woman I will call Laura. She was a standout engineer, gender aside. She graduated near the top of a top-five engineering school with a Literature minor at the age of 18, with great aptitude. And she was very pretty. Believe you me, she was very popular at the company. She had male artists and engineers lining up outside her door after work hours, and she clearly enjoyed the attention. At one function she dressed as Buffy the Vampire Slayer in a short cheerleader outfit, and I am pretty sure there were several injuries from aggressive males rushing across the drool soaked floor.

Laura was one of the top recruiting candidates to the company, and I helped to recruit her to the company. At the time I was between teams, so she initially went to another group, but when I formed my project she applied internally and I gladly accepted her.

I made no personal advances to her whatsoever, nor to anybody else in the company, having had a strict moral code about not dating coworkers... and being chickenshit with women besides. (okay, I kind of broke the moral code thing with Jill Monroe, although I waited until after she worked for my company so cut me a break!) And frankly Laura showed no interest whatsoever in me, having maybe a hundred eligible and well-off male coworkers to choose from.

She was brilliant, though. Although not the highest rank in creativity, she was in the top echelon of smart and clever engineers and hackers. So, just like my other employees, I helped her out. I don't think I helped her out any more than anybody else: I sent her (and others) to presentation skills classes, art courses, Toastmasters, gave her opportunities to present to executives, and gave out measured advice in group meetings. Oddly, she was probably the employee I met the least one on one, pretty much confining that to performance reviews. But Laura was a very good and productive employee. Eventually I handed that team off to another manager to go work on my next project, as is my habit.

Several years later, I left the company to work on my own companies again. I managed Laura seven years ago, when I was about thirty and she was nineteen.

Fast forward September 2004.

Out of the blue I receive an email from Laura. She heard that I'm moving to Asia and wanted to get together with "the old gang" at an old pizza place we used to go to for lunch. So I figure I can get down there for this, although it isn't really on the way for my travel schedule. Eventually we get it scheduled for November.

So I show up.

And Laura is there. Alone.

I have to admit that my first reaction to seeing her is, "Man, she looks great!" Indeed, the last seven years has graduated her from cute to a real looker. But my second reaction is, "Hey, where the hell is everybody else?" and this is the one I verbalize.

Laura looks uncomfortable and confesses that she deceived me. Nobody else was invited, because she was uncertain I would come to meet just her. So now my brain is in "WTF?" mode.

She then proceeds to enlighten me. Ah, how I wished for a meteor strike that day. Or a car crashing into the front door of the pizza place. Or a sudden, non-fatal, operable aneurysm. It would have saved so much trouble.

She cashed out and retired about a year ago. About a year before that, she married a man who also used to work for me, although in a different group. She divorced him after a year, and all had been finalized two months ago. She had worked in several different groups at our former company. She had many different managers, some the very best our former company could offer, but said that none of them could understand her and mentor her as I did. And then, here was the unsolicited, knock-me-off-my-feet kicker: she has dated lots of guys and gals, but it is me that she has fantasized about having sex with since she was a teenager.

Now that's a lot to process over lunch. I nearly cough up a tonsil, but it is tough with my jaw on the floor and all.

I confess to her my utter surprise. That I never even suspected she thought of me that way. That I enjoyed mentoring her, to develop her potential, but it was nothing more than that. And I tell her that I am in a relationship and can't see her.

I watch as she mentally upshifts. Laura asks me if she is attractive. I say, basically, "Well, duh." She then tells me that she is very good at sex. No man or woman has been unsatisfied, and most have gone crazy for her after sex. That she doesn't mind if I have a relationship now, she just wants me to try the sex. She guarantees I'd be happy, that her skills are very impressive.

I should take a minute to savor this moment. It's like a fantasy dream I've had since I entered adolescence. But my resolve hardens.

Okay, I admit that other things harden as well, but give me some support here.

So I tell her that this kind of attitude turns me off. That I am disappointed that she would do this to me. And I leave before she can call me on that. I think that's the first time I have walked out on a woman like that. How ungentlemanly!

And that should be that. I, lacking the traditional garb of a priest, am unable to offer her absolution for her outrageous confession. Or perhaps I fear that she would enjoy penance too much...

I catch a flight to faraway destinations. Upon landing, I have email from Laura. She is contrite. I tell her to bugger off, and eventually I stop replying to her emails. And this starts the by-now-familiar-to-you-the-dear-reader long cascade of email and phone calls. Yeah, in order to schedule the pizza lunch she had asked for my phone number, and I had given it to her.

Did I fail to mention that I am a slow learner?

I have to confess, some of the emails had some pretty interesting paragraphs. I enclose some here, rudely without permission, to illustrate the variety of tactics Laura employed. Her pursuit was breathtaking. Early on she tried a philosophical approach:

But rather than responding with moral outrage, I know there is a creative, experimental and entrepreneurial side of you, perhaps you could regard me as a new and exciting kind of project? You will recall that I respond well to creativity, and I am myself very creative.

Then she mixed it with faint praise:

Who knows? Maybe [name of pizza place] was a test, a final test to see if your character was as strong as I thought. If so, you passed because no man has put up this kind of resistance.

She gradually moved toward calling my entrepreneurial manhood into question:

Meanwhile, let's consider your risk. There isn't much to lose [...] and there is soooo much to gain. There is nothing wrong with having fun in life. I know you aren't a puritan in ethics, although you are very moral. At the very least let's talk about it. You are strong enough to resist my wiles, so we can make this very platonic. I will try to convince you. You can resist or not, but I only ask for an open mind. There is much I can offer to you that you do not have, and I presume you will want. Let's discuss it. Don't be closed minded and shut me out.

At some point she switched to a management or mentoring tact. She confessed that even if we did not meet for sex, she desperately wanted guidance:

Once you told the group that there are few people like us. That we are special and although many people would not believe, you would help us prevail. You were looking at me when you said that. It has stayed with me forever. [...] I worked for so many other people as a company superstar, thanks to you, but none measured up to you.

She elaborated on this paternal approach:

It [her plan] grew when you managed me. I have lacked that feeling of security and direction ever since.[...] That's what I want.

If not for the sensitivity I had from my previous three experiences, I might have found that very complimentary. But I was very suspicious of motives. She continued with this Electra theme:

But since you left, there is a hole in my life. I want you to lead me again. Lead me to greatness, and I will support you every step of the way. I will support you in ways that nobody else can, far better than you have had, and in ways you cannot imagine. I will make you my focus, and I will be what you deserve.

Wow. Now that's nuts.

Meanwhile, she also tried elaborating on the more carnal proposition.

I know we will enjoy each other. I am good. Very good. You know I don't exaggerate. Men melt in my hands. I know I will please you. Whatever you want to try, I am willing. A menage a trois? Or a more uncommon fantasy?

Fortunately experiences in Asia have elevated my scepticism on her skills claims, and vastly diminished the number of fantasy experiences I have yet to try. Laura also tried spicing it up in an interesting way:

The second part is harder to say, since I'm talking to the ether. Maybe this will amuse your email administrator or blocking software. But here goes... I have fantasized about you almost since we first met. Yes, I was young at the time, although experienced sexually. But I never had such a craving. When I was wound up from work, thoughts of you, along with my wandering hand, would be my lullaby. [...] Perhaps a daily fantasy for six years has skewed my view of you as a human. [...] The fantasy is not just sexual. It's really about being controlled. About being a housewife. Or a programmer. Or an apprentice. Whatever. For you. And I crave that for some reason. Could it be in my nature? Could it be a phase? Either way, can you help me explore it?

I'm starting to channel The Secretary, and it's one of my favorite movies. And here is a powerful summary that appeared as a postscript in one email, shortly before Jenny strongly advised me to block Laura's messages entirely:

Shouldn't you call me and talk about this? I have a lot to offer you, a brilliant mind, a young and beautiful body, and a creative and dedicated soul.

Laura is another kind of sad story. A brilliant mind that may have been too popular and too sexual too early. Could she go the way of Kelly Garrett, the ultra-smart Asian executive? Some combination of too young, too beautiful and a woman in a male dominated industry... perhaps it leads to this form of jadedness and the too-easy confusion between sex and power. How sad that would be.

Around this time, the truly ugly nature of Laura's stalking became apparent. Not only did she send emails and phone messages, but she also was in the audience of a speech I gave, creepily not drawing attention to herself. She spoke with mutual friends to find out my activities. She allegedly paid a private investigator to discover my activities. Too much free time and too much money can turn focus into fire.

And most recently, I found that she had applied for a job at two of my companies.

Well, at least I can head that one off at the pass.

She is too smart and too rich to brush off. I can only hope she'll get bored of failing. Fortunately my logs indicate she hasn't sent me anything for over six weeks. (Although I found out about the job applications only in the last two weeks, she applied as much as two months earlier while her communications were still fast and furious.)

In a funny objective way, this is all very unfortunate. Had I not Jenny's advice (and I promise more on her later) and had Laura taken a different approach, I might have fallen for this. On paper, she has all I've asked for: brainy, beautiful, creative, few limits, open-minded, financially independent, lots of free time, and interested in me. Hard to beat. On paper... but sanity is important as well.

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