At 9:00 am I got a phone call from my boss, the President of the company. Nothing new here, he would often call me while he was on his drive to the corporate office in Chicago…a couple hundred miles from the regional office I worked from. “Shawn…how you doing?” he asked. “Fine,” I replied. He responded…“Let me cut right to the chase…I gotta let you go. <PAUSE> I have decided to re-structure the company and merge your region into another one. I’ll give you the rest of the day to inform your staff and get your stuff together.” That was pretty much it. He said a few other things, but I don’t remember them nearly as clearly as “I gotta let you go.” After some shocked silence…I responded with something like, “OK.”
I was on the executive team of the company. I was an insider…been there four years…actively involved in discussing and shaping the future of the company. Yet I had no idea I was about to be “re-organized” out of a job. Although I was a top executive, I had no right to know ALL the plans. Lesson #1: Unless you own the company, there is a good chance you don’t know all the plans for the company you work for. And, if you don’t know all the plans, then you need to work every week as if it may be your last…not from some fatalistic viewpoint that the world is ending, but more from the perspective of doing great work while you have the opportunity.
As a Regional VP, I had put a regional strategy together to help grow the company and got approval from the President to run with it. So I opened and managed several new offices around the country, hired some awesome talent, and acquired new clients. It took a while but we had finally turned the corner to profitability. But apparently it took too long and was not enough. After catching my breath that morning, a year ago today, that last statement really started to sink in…it took too long and was not enough. In a follow up conversation with my former boss later that morning, I took a step of humility and admitted that I understood his decision. I even admitted that he probably did the right thing. It was not easy, but it was the right thing to do. It was clear this was hard for him too…I could hear it in his voice. It was time for me to do something new, different, and…what I later learned…”better.”
The day after…Tuesday, January 24th was just as important of a day as Monday the 23rd. I got up and saw the kids off to school… we even had a foreign exchange student from Costa Rica staying with us while this change occurred. I could hear the question…”Why isn’t your dad going to work today?”… talk about humbling. My amazing wife and I brewed some coffee and sat at the kitchen table to talk about the future. I was given a fair severance, but we did not have a lot of money in savings and not a lot of time to figure things out…maybe a few months. So being the consultant I am, I decided we should take note of three key things about my previous job, to see if that could provide direction for the future. Lesson #2: Here is what we talked about: 1) What are the most important things I learned doing what I did? 2) What did I really enjoy about my previous job? And 3) What did I like the least about my previous job?
We talked for over three hours about all these items, and it has had a huge impact on our lives.
Here are a few examples…I learned how to unprofitably run an analytics consulting business, and how to profitably run an analytics consulting business. I learned that I like mentoring staff and investing in their careers. I learned that I really like working with my wife…I know that may not work for many of you, but my wife also lost her job one year ago…today. She subcontracted for me part-time and in that time, she learned what I really did at work. She saw how I related to my staff, and what a good day and a bad day at the office was really like. It has been a blessing to our marriage, and I learned I wanted that to continue. I learned that relationships with people in business are as important as relationships with people outside of business. I also learned about types of business deals that take place that just don’t feel “right”, even though they are not technically “wrong.” And, I learned that my frequent travels for business put more of a strain on my family than I wanted to admit.
So what happened? I put a plan together and then talked with a few trusted advisors to see what they thought. Some of my ideas were a little too ambitious and I just did not have the “capital” to make them happen. So I took their advice and narrowed my options. I talked to a number of companies to see if they had positions that might fit those criteria I documented with my wife back at the kitchen table. But none of the options seemed to fit. So…I did two things…I started a new business and I decided to start helping another company expand their business in the US. The two work well together and have both grown successfully over the last year.
So what’s the point? There are actually two key points here. The first is that sometimes we get too comfortable doing what we do…so beware of becoming too comfortable. It is important to note that being comfortable and being content are sometimes very different things. I have learned through my faith life that I can be content in all things, regardless of how comfortable I am. That is a blessing. The second point is that as good as you might have it now, you just don’t know what good can come from something different. The way I look at it is that my plans might be good, but God’s plans are so much better…and we need to learn to appreciate “better.”
But what is “better?” In business today, if someone says they have a new job that is better, it usually means some combination of more money, shorter commute, more benefits, more vacation time, etc. Mostly, it means “better” for them. I have learned that “better” can often mean so much more than that.
This last year, my oldest child went to college. Great timing to lose your job, right? But in my new role, I got to start some client work near my house in Southern, WI and I started helping this other company expand in the US by working from my home office. Therefore, I got to spend more time with my oldest child than I ever would have been able to working at my previous company. I got to see him compete in track meets alongside my next oldest son (senior and a freshman) and encourage each other like I may never be able to see again. I got to know him so much better and truly appreciate the man he is becoming.
I got to show my three children what it is like to be faithful through adversity and challenges and how to trust in those plans that are “better” than our own. I got to join a non-profit group that is investing in the local community to support organizations that might never get funding to do what they are trying to do. And, I am getting to rekindle and invest in personal and business relationships that I would have missed. And finally, because a lot of what I now do is “project-based” and/or “client-based”, it can end any time. I have to stay focused and do great work because projects end, and clients can change their mind any time. This keeps me from getting too comfortable. For me, it turns out, this is all “better.”
So today, of all days, is an important reminder for me that “better” can mean so much more than equity in a company, financial stability, more vacation days, or a health club membership in your benefits package. “Better” can mean addressing challenges, becoming more humble, becoming content while being uncomfortable, giving back through service, pouring into relationships and trusting in a plan that is so much greater than our own.
Losing your job is a challenge, so I am hopeful this account might encourage you if need encouragement, and inform you if are getting too comfortable. And lastly, embolden you if feel there is something “better” you can be doing.
Shawn Helwig is the Managing Partner of Total View Analytics, based in Madison, WI. He is also the Director of Product Strategy at Pomerol Partners, headquartered in the UK and now operating in Chicago, IL. He has been helping clients use data to make faster, more effective decisions for 25 years. He also serves on the giving committee for the Madison Christian Giving Fund, serves as a volunteer for Compassion International, and has been a member at High Point Church for 14 years. You can reach Shawn at firstname.lastname@example.org or at email@example.com.