My boss slid two manila folders across her desk.
“Well, you’re probably not shocked about what I’m going to say.”
I had an inkling about what she was going to say, but it didn’t mean I wasn’t shocked.
One week after returning from my 10-day honeymoon, I was getting the axe.
As we celebrate (ok, we don’t celebrate) the 5th anniversary of the 2008 economic collapse, I celebrate (and yes, I celebrate) the moment I was laid off from my final full-time job — my “Canniversary.”
The credit for that term goes to my friend Maura Johnston, who announced, on Twitter, her one-year Canniversary of being “shit-canned.” (And now canniversary is an “official” term in Urban Dictionary.)
In my case, this was the first time I’d been let go from a job. Ever. I’d always been that sit-in-the-front-row, hardworking, sleeves rolled, do whatever it takes kind of worker. I’d been promoted at every job I’d ever had. But in this particular digital editor gig, I had a personality conflict with my boss and a few other members of the team — folks who had been there for well over a decade. It was a job that simply never gelled. They say your first time fired is a badge of honor — but in the moment, it was devastating.
A week before I was dismissed (there are many, many words for this), I knew something was up. My boss started having meetings without me. The Special Projects Editor kept his door shut. The Executive Director left her door open but was never there. The Managing Editor teetered past me quickly in her red Louboutins. “Hi, hi, hi!” she chirped and shuttled along.
Then, finally, before my intuition nearly burst, my boss called me into her office. I held those manila folders in my hands and scanned the room The custard-yellow walls of her office were decorated with photos of her four-year-old son and his huge, torn manila paper crayon scribblings. Sitting on her desk was a photograph of last year’s company offsite, people piled on top of each other, egging to the camera.
My boss pointed a finger at me as if she was trying to give me good advice, “I know this is upsetting but you need to pay attention. You’ll find everything you need in there…”
To tell you what she said, well, I’d be making it up. I didn’t even open the folders.
As a manager, I’d been on the other side of this situation many times; I was impressed at how closely she followed the script. Look the person in the eye. Be compassionate, but never say you’re sorry. Stick to the facts.
It’s the hardest thing in the world to tell someone they’re being let go, you just want to hold their hand and tell them it will be ok.
I knew I was supposed to listen but it was the last thing I could do.
When I’d first started the job, my boss emailed me a list of my job responsibilities. She sent me a reading list of leadership books to give me a jump start.
She asked me to take the popular StrengthsFinder test to identify my work personality traits (this turned out to include “achiever”, “includer,” “positivity,” and “woo,” which, ironically, stands for “winning others over”) to see how I compared with her other direct reports.
She diagrammed the entire company hierarchy on a white board and explained who did what, who was nice and who wasn’t, who was a difficult personality and who was useful. I found this mildly alarming but chocked it up to her personality trait of “Arranger.” I figured she had good intentions.
One newly hired co-worker, however, was so upset by her “people diagram,” that we, collectively, planned to bring it up to our boss. After all, my boss told us she wanted to have an open office where we could discuss anything.
“Anything, I mean, don’t be afraid ladies!!”
Lesson #1: There are some things people just say in the corporate world that they definitely do not mean.
During one of our small meetings, I spoke up on my coworker’s behalf and told her that we were disheartened by her map of people “pros and cons.” I reminded her that as an, (ahem) “includer,” it was in my nature to help out and ensure that everyone had a voice.
Lesson #2: Always let people speak up for themselves.
My boss’s eyes widened and she folded her hands tightly. After a few seconds, she turned on a smile, “Look. I’m only trying to protect you guys from political pitfalls. It’s like when I say to my son, ‘Stranger, Danger! ”
She described the company as if it was some giant Chutes and Ladders game with nefarious characters lurking at the bottom of every chute. She wasn’t far off.
So it was one year later that my boss sat across from me with her steely gaze. She stuck to the facts.
“Your position is being eliminated. Your last day will be today.”
And so it was, also, my first day.
Amazing things can happen when you escape. That’s how I see it in hindsight, an escape.
Lucky enough to have a supportive husband and a bit of severance pay, I joined a long-lost friend on a head-clearing road trip across the Midwest. (Think Thelma and Louise at the Iowa State Fair – butter sculptures, fried Twinkies and all.) Coffee meetings became frequent and I spent quality time with a few old friends and colleagues. I hired a career coach to help me navigate my next step (her company is aptly called The Escape Club as in “Escape from Corporate America”)
I let my mind relax more than it had in the last 15+ years of my working life. and thought about what I really wanted to do next. Should I take another full-time gig? Or should I start something more meaningful of my own?
And yes, as trite as it is it’s true, that dastardly day turned out to be one of the best things to ever happen to me. It led me to start my own business, something I never thought I’d have the chutzpah or patience to pull off, but I did it — out of both necessity and passion.
Back to my friend who coined the term Anniversary: One month after she got the boot, Maura started Maura Magazine, a groundbreaking subscription publication.
“I’ve been fired publicly twice,” Maura, told me “both times for not going along with my bosses’ desired plan to dominate their particular online verticals… To be fair, in both instances, I definitely had a bad attitude by the time I got let go — I was underperforming, traffic-wise, because resources (technological and personnel-wise) were spare, shrinking, or even nonexistent. But these incidents also allowed me to view the problems of online content from the perspectives of sites that didn’t want to go along with the herd. It forced me to think about new solutions, and the support I got after I got fired also inspired me to keep going.”
The fire in your belly.
It’s been said that the most important catalyst for success is failure.
I wasn’t a total failure at that job. In fact, I’m proud of the work I did there.
Ultimately, it was just a bad fit…. Or they didn’t know what they had… Or I did my job so well, they didn’t think they needed me. Yeah, that’s it.
Oh, how we spin our tales.
In fact, it doesn’t matter what happened. I’m just so glad that it did.