Monday, February 16, 2015
My world was rocked last September by the news that I was being laid off, my position eliminated. It was all I could do to keep a straight face during the meeting. While there was a daunting element to it, not to mention a sense of disappointment, it was also the best news I could get. I was free, free at last.
My post-college career trajectory has been an interesting one. In some ways, I'm not sure I've ever really "paid my dues" to the degree that I think most people are resigned to do or fight against until they finally resign themselves to it. Before I'd even left school, I was recruited to do contract work for someone's hobby website. Within a few weeks, he had a financial backer and plans were in motion to turn it into a business. I would work from the school's library or computer center and every week there would be a paycheck in the post office box from a publishing company in Wisconsin. On graduation day, I had a check (already deposited) for relocation costs, a truck packed and I was on my way to California. Before we had actual offices, I worked from home. When we all needed to meet, we'd meet at my apartment. After a few years, there were some big changes. Connections I had made at that job led to my next job with a large movie studio.
I started as an individual contributor and before too long I was managing my peers. That was good until the dot bomb and I was out again. A generous severance meant I had nine months to find a new job. It was the dot bomb and so all these people who had been cold calling me were now nowhere to be found. I began to volunteer doing web work for my church. That became nearly a full-time thing until the severance ran out and I had to disengage to re-devote to a full-time job search. After about a month the church called and said that they really did need me back and would work out the finances to make that happen. I contracted for a year, worked part- and then full-time for a few more years.
And then there was a sense that something needed to change. Which led us to sell our home in one state, but a house in a new state and move, wife, daughter, dog, four cats and mother-in-law, all without a job. Connections from that previous job helped me secure the interview and I was offered a temporary six month contract. At the end of the contract, they said they wanted me to stay, but they couldn't get a headcount to match, they could offer me a job but it would be at a lower rate and position than the one I was currently doing. It still felt like the right thing to do and within a day or two a peer at the same level I had been working at announced she was leaving and just like that, there was a headcount available. Before too long, I was managing my peers. I liked the environment, I liked that it was more than "just a job" - we were making a difference in the world. They may sure that you heard that often. It may have served to mask some other issues.
As time went on, I took on whatever was asked of me. I pretty much pledged that I would do whatever was asked of me. Often times, it was in a service-role, but all-too-often involved telling people "no" - their request (their scorecard, their objectives) didn't align with a more influential competing interests. That's not a great place to be.
A few times other opportunities had come up and I'd made a play for them, including two directorships. While at the time, I thought they had made the wrong choice. In retrospect, I came to appreciate their choice and see how the selected candidate had been the right choice and brought something to the role that I couldn't. In the other choice, I was disappointed to feel like years later the role had been wasted because I felt like I had a stronger vision.
If I look back, I think things really started to come apart the spring last year. In March the company made a huge blunder that alienated a large portion of its engaged supporter base and whipped up a media frenzy. It took two and a half days to reverse its position which then alienated the other half of its supporter base as well as the new audience they had sought to reach with the philosophical change. It was like dashing a fragile vase to the ground. All the superglue in the world will never made it the same as it was. The fact that those who made the original decision are still running the ship astounds me even now.
By then we were also about a year into the new normal -- my new supervisor was under a lot of pressure, kept his cards close to his vest, didn't share a lot about his vision and I was in a role that may have put me out of my technical depth and at odds with his overall objectives. We were also working towards a major product release - it crowded out everyone else's requests and relied a lot on another department we had a tenuous relationship with. I found myself spending a lot of time walking to and from the other building where they were located. It also felt like some of the roles under my purview should have been in that group instead. I had some smart people working for me, but it was't clear how much I was actually adding at this point. I began to invest more time (outside of work) into my job search. I was part of a leadership coaching course offered by our department's VP and I felt like I was being invested in, but I felt like my current role was quite the mismatch. While not a licensed doctor herself, Lori's pretty confident that if I had been assessed, I would have been diagnosed as clinically depressed.
I attended a phenomenal simulcast called "Leadercast" where lots of smart people talked about a lot of leadership topics (think like a day of "TED Talks") and it was clear that I was on the right track but I was with the wrong company.
I tried to look around the organization, but everything was so tight, so cut to the bone. There was no other place where I could see myself jumping in and making a difference. The prognosis didn't look good, a lot of my friends were leaving and I felt trapped. I had a few conversations and a few interviews, but not much was happening. We were praying like crazy and wondering what was next.
And then that one glorious day, the logjam cleared - they had rolled a number of my team's functions off to that other group where they belonged and I was now redundant. They had, as required, looked at other open roles to see if I would be a good fit, and finding none, were releasing me. Part of me was disappointed that they hadn't asked me to help in the transition or figure out the next steps, but it wasn't surprising, I had felt marginalized for some time. I was sad to no longer be part of the organization, but I think staying would have been unhealthy for me. So, we had our little exit meeting, I brought out the list I had made the day before of technology I'd need to return and questions I had while my work laptop sat on my desk transferring all my personal files via dropbox to my other computers.We were doing a shuffle of offices, too, so everything was already boxed up which was quite handy - I didn't have to return or pack anything - instead the HR person brought the boxes to my house and then came back a week later to retrieve the company property that had been mixed in the moving boxes.
I was already planning to meet my wife for lunch that day, so we met at a park, had a wonderful lunch, went to Costco and bought new phones and then the next day, off to my grandma's for her 97th birthday, a wonderful distraction, an amazing time with family. And then back home and had a big deadline for my consultancy for which I had to confiscate my wife's laptop while my new laptop was being shipped by Amazon.
So I had about a month of looking before someone called and said they had a few jobs they wanted me to look at. They had been aware of me and when they saw that I was looking for work, they called me right away. A few conversations, a phone interview, and suddenly I found myself in a contract-to-hire role with a great company in Bellevue.
So what happened? I wasn't in control. I allowed a company to define my career and who I was. I wrapped up a lot of my identity in a relationship that wasn't as equally into me as I was into them. A lesson I learned the hard way, but in the big money machine, the company is going to take care of itself. I need to take care of myself. I didn't have a strong enough vision. I was in process of trying to determine who I was, but I hadn't done enough to know where I wanted to go, where I wanted to be.
Fortunately, for me, I ended up somewhere good anyhow. But I must not repeat those mistakes. I must take care of me (including my family, my health, my sense of self-worth) and I must have a vision and a plan for where I want to go.
(In the end, I'm very grateful to the last organization - I learned a lot, I had a lot of fun, I worked with some great people and in the end, the generous severance helped sustain us over the break and is helping us replace our aging furnace before it dies.)