Assistant used stealth to manage his way to top

I don’t follow the ups and downs of the management business that closely, but I was pleased to learn that the 10-year-old firm run by Paul Young and Peter Principato was especially prospering. That’s because Paul Young was once my manager.

Only I didn’t know it at the time. I thought he was my assistant. At least that was the job I hired him to do. Not many months went by before I came to realize that he was running me, not the other way around. And he was actually doing a good job at it, as I will explain.

I should never have hired Paul to begin with. Back in 1992 I had just moved from New York to Los Angeles to preside over the newly merged staffs of Daily and weekly Variety. As editor-in-chief, I felt I needed an assistant who was tough-minded and who knew the town.

A number of seasoned assistants applied for the job — folks who had worked for studio executives or talent agents and who clearly could to stand up under pressure. The most uniquely unqualified applicant was a kid named Paul Young. At the time he was a waiter in a Venice restaurant, having also recently moved to LA. He didn’t know a damn thing about the entertainment business, but he had the smarts to read several books I had written — the latest dealing with Mormons and the Mormon culture — and discussed them intelligently. It turned out he was a descendent of Brigham Young and, despite that heritage, had graduated (like me) from Swarthmore College, which was a Mecca of Quakerism.

His critiques of my writing were intelligent, but distinctly non-obsequious. Some were downright argumentative. Finally, I put the question to him: “Working for me will be a high-pressure job. Why did you even apply?”

“Beats waiting on tables,” he replied nonchalantly.

I decided to give the kid a shot, and it turned out to be a good move. He quickly learned who the important players were and how to handle them. He never lost his cool when someone tried to apply the pressure.

I got my first clue that he was really taking over one day when I received two invitations to speak on the same day, both to important groups. Paul accepted one and rejected the other without even consulting me. “What was that about?” I asked. “I accepted the one that paid a fee,” he replied. I understood his reasoning.

Soon Paul was deciding who I should talk to on the phone and who I should ignore. He was also insightful in figuring out which people were bugging me.

Paul had asked early on whether it was appropriate for him to do freelance work after hours, and I agreed. While he always did his work for me, he clearly was getting busier over time.

“You’re very sharp at hustling up other work to do,” I said to him one day.

“You’ve thrown things my way when you didn’t have time,” he said defensively.

“Paul, you’ve hustled up most of this stuff yourself,” I broke in. “You’re a smart hustler.”

I let things continue for a year or so because Paul was doing a great job for me, but I finally took him across the street for a beer. “You’re a terrific assistant,” I told him, “but you’re too sharp for the job. You should be an agent. Or a producer. Or a manager. I feel like you’re managing me.”

He got the message. Some months later he departed to start his career in management, and he never looked back.

I always figured he’d do well — that is, once he figured out who he was.

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