Right after graduate school I worked at a job I hated. The only good thing about it was that district leadership (in a large retail company that rhymes with Schmarget) designated me “High Performer/High Potential.” As an achiever (and sometimes overachiever), I wore it like a badge of honor.
Years later I was offered my dream job as an account manager at a boutique advertising and web development agency. The opportunity presented itself when we relocated for my husband’s job. To be honest, I hadn’t applied for this kind of job when we lived in a larger city because I didn’t think I’d be able to compete with people that had actual marketing and advertising degrees.
I thought the job would be a slam dunk—the job description seemed to fit me perfectly. The agency owner seemed growth-minded and supportive and the design and development team was super talented.
Little things happened right away that didn’t seem quite right, though. Within a week or two of my starting the job, I was thrown under the bus for a print proof mistake that wasn’t actually my fault. I took it in stride. Then it happened again. I focused even more intently than before, aiming to get projects delivered to clients on time and on budget.
I started making dumb mistakes because my boss stressed the need for projects to be perfect and done in a short amount of time, but offered very little actual structure as to how to go about it. My confidence started to falter as my boss went from telling me how awesome I was (when I had my baby on my hip, willingly working after hours) to talking down to me and subtly snubbing me in team meetings.
I became someone I didn’t recognize, leaving hours off of my time sheet because projects were taking longer than our budget allowed. I’d shake during team meetings and stay late or go pick up my baby when daycare closed and come back to finish what I had been working on, leaving my baby laying on the carpet at my feet.
As the months went on, there were good times and really challenging times. Then came a point when the number of projects I was assigned became fewer and fewer, and I’d heard rumors that that’s how my boss fired people, by letting the work “just dry up.” The week of my one-year anniversary at the company came around and my boss called me to his office at 2 p.m. We both sat down and he started, “We have been trying to,” stopped, corrected himself, and then went on, “We tried to make this work.” He went on to tell me that I was not a good fit for the team, effective immediately. It was the single most horrifying conversation I have ever had. Every insecurity I have ever felt and every anxiety with which I’d ever tortured myself were not as bad as that conversation. As I was in it, I asked myself and even asked him, “How did we get here?” I don’t remember his response, but I remember thinking this situation didn’t give an accurate portrayal of who I was.
I learned quite a few things during that time—particularly things I’ll never do again. As time (and humiliation) passed, I was able to see the cracks in the foundation of the company which had existed long before I worked there and may still exist to some extent.
I took that ugly, painful experience and structured what I’d do differently if I had owned the company and made that the outline of my own marketing agency, which I launched a couple of years later after my non-compete agreement ran its course. (Yes, I had to honor a non-compete agreement that I’d signed on my first day even though I was the one being let go).
Some things I learned that I will never do again:
Allow fear to dictate my capability.
I didn’t apply to my “dream job” until I was in a smaller market because I didn’t think I could compete. Now, as an agency owner, I’d hire my former self and would appreciate the unique background.
Work unpaid to bring a project in on time and on budget.
There is fundamentally something wrong with the project or the company if this is consistently a problem.
Accept responsibility for something over which I have no authority.
I was given the responsibility to lead a team, but no actual authority, and often, very little support from my boss.
It makes me sad to think back to that first year of my baby’s life and the emotional turmoil I suffered. I’d started what I thought was my dream job when she was just 4 months old and often worked long hours at home and at the office. I remember being so focused on my work one evening that I was startled when I saw something moving out of the corner of my eye. I sighed with relief when realizing it was just my baby.
I still see my former boss socially; we live in a small town and it’s inevitable. I think that’s part of what made getting fired so humiliating, but also such a great learning experience. If we had lived in a larger city it would have been easier for me to push down my feelings of inadequacy, not fully examined, and pretend like it never happened.
I’ve grown so much since getting fired from what I thought was my dream job. I am so much happier now than I ever would have been working for him, even if it had all gone well and I’d been his rockstar. I make more money and work the hours I choose, on projects of my choosing, helping other small businesses succeed.
I don’t harbor ill will towards my former boss. I did for awhile because I was just so darn embarrassed. But I let it go for my own wellbeing and sanity’s sake, even texting him at one point, “I don’t strongly dislike you anymore.”
Shanna Goodman is the mother of two daughters and the owner of a small business. She is the creator of AMP’D, a program which helps small businesses build a million dollar brand. With 15 years of business development experience, including five years as a brand strategy agency owner, Shanna provides invaluable insight for her clientele. Become an AMP’D Insider for free resources that will help you grow your own business—delivered straight to your inbox.