Recently blogger Evil HR Lady asked for stories of spectacular comebacks – career hard times that spawned spectacular success. I had just such an experience and shared my story with her. She liked it so much that she published it, along with six other stories of rising from the ashes. She condensed my story to its bare essence, so I thought I’d share with you what I submitted to her.
Several years ago my employer couldn’t afford to pay me anymore. My savings were paltry, my severance only lasted so long, and the software industry was in a slump so jobs in my field were hard to come by. So I took the first full-time permanent position I was offered, with the government services division of a major insurance company. I was to test a customer-service application they were developing.
After about a year I was promoted to manager over all the testers on that contract, which surprised me because the company was never a good fit for me culturally. I was used to freewheeling entrepreneurial companies; this was an old-line top-down environment. My ways of operating rubbed people wrong, and I struggled to adapt. Moreover, our relationship with the government agency we served was contentious, with both sides always suspicious of each other. I always felt that this was driven by the company vice president to which my boss reported; it seemed to be his style. I was not comfortable playing the game that way, so my dealings with my government contacts were always honest and friendly. Consequently, I developed good relationships with the government’s project leadership. Nobody at my company could figure out why I was so effective! But I ran afoul of my VP on a few occasions because I wasn’t playing his game.
One day, all managers were required to take a battery of intelligence and personality tests. There was no explanation, but they were compulsory. I’m plenty bright and play well with others, so I gave the tests my best but didn’t worry about them too much. I should not have been surprised several weeks later when my boss called me into his office to say that I “didn’t fit the profile” they were looking for their managers to have and would be terminated, along with about 20 other managers in the organization. As I began to find out which other managers were also let go, a pattern emerged — the managers who remained played well with the VP. Strangely, we were all allowed to stay on the job for 30 more days. I was offered reasonable severance. I was told that my government contacts would be notified.
I was gobsmacked, and wondered if what they did was even legal. But my wife and I were headed for divorce and I had just signed the lease on a tiny apartment. I didn’t have the energy to fight, so I decided to accept my firing and move on. But as my end date approached, my government contacts were scheduling me for conference calls that fell after my last day. When the government’s project leader called me one day to ask about more things I wouldn’t be a part of, I decided to let her know that as part of a restructuring I would no longer be the test manager, and that she would need to ask my boss about those matters. Yes, I hedged on the full story – I didn’t want to come off as bitter, and I didn’t figure telling it all would do any good anyway.
When she called me, I didn’t know she and other key project leaders were at my company’s out-of-state data center with the VP. She told the other project leaders what was happening – and they made a beeline for that VP. She called me later and said, “We cornered him and read him the riot act, demanding to know why he was demoting his best manager!” At once, I felt a rush from the compliment they paid me, but also dread, because I knew that as soon as the VP came back to town I’d be hearing from him. And sure enough, I did, and he was hopping mad. “Why the blankety blank did you tell them? Why didn’t you follow protocol? What were you thinking?” Not having anything to lose, I said, “Protocol? I wasn’t aware there was one. They didn’t know I’d been let go, and they were scheduling me for meetings after my last day. They needed to know.”
Then the VP changed his tune a bit, smiling a fake smile while he said, “Well, Jim, you’re good people. We want to take care of people we like. Don’t worry, there will be a job for you here.”
My main government contact explained to me later that, unbeknownst to me, during a contract modification I and several other managers had been written in as “key players,” and, unbelievably, as such the company could not reassign us off the project or terminate us except for cause. I’m sure the VP was trying to do an end run around that clause. I’m sure that his plan was to wait until I was gone and then just tell our government contacts that I’d decided to pursue other opportunities.
Even though any love I had for the company had been trampled upon, torched, napalmed, and nuked through all this, I accepted the job they offered me – a technical advisor role at my manager’s salary – because I had enough instability in my life and was grateful not to add a job search to it.
And in that role, I learned two new skills – software test automation and performance testing. And after about a year in that role, my personal issues having calmed down somewhat, I took a management job in a small software company where I built a test automation practice. (The entire government project leadership team came to my desk on my last day to wish me well.) I was just beginning to build a performance testing practice there when a colleague called to tell me about a great opening at a highly regarded local software company. I now manage a large team of testers and test automation engineers there. I’m at the top of my career today, and I would never have been able to do it unless I’d been fired.
Then there was the time I worked for a company led by a man who got his whole executive team to lie for him about a sexual harassment charge. Read the story.