I Was Fired, And It Was Not Quiet

Written By: Melissa Centers

Melissa Centers | Attorney, Author, & Consultant

Many years ago, I was recruited away from a cushy “big company” job to my first dream job at my dream company. I was tired of talking about things, making powerpoints, using theory words, producing products that are really just paper and thoughts, and pitching projects to fund. I wanted to build things. Real tangible things. In this new dream job, which was my first truly “big girl” job, I was going to get to do that. And, as an added bonus, I worked directly for a CIO who was smart, wickedly funny, and incredibly tough. I learned something every time I talked to him, even though talking to him was terrifying and often caused me to sweat through my shirt in very embarrassing and visible ways. He was like John Dutton in IT executive form. He was quick, slightly scary, and kept everyone on their toes, else they might be “taken to the train station.” I worked harder than I’ve ever worked, prepared more for every conversation, and tried to anticipate where he might go in every interaction. And this fear made me better, stronger, and faster than I’d ever been (queue the theme song to the Six Million Dollar Man).

And then one day, he was gone. And a new sheriff rode into town. One who had different goals for the organization, a different approach to how things should be done, and a vastly different personality. He wasn’t scary or challenging, just really nice.

Before I go further in this tale, some context. I am a “hall monitor.” I do what I am supposed to do, I try to follow the rules, etc. I had spent a career being a “top performer,” and getting great performance reviews, raises, and promotions. I say this not to toot my own horn, but to give the context to what comes next.

Basically, I had never really failed.

And then I heard these words from my new “nice” boss after just a couple of months: “you are just not a good fit here, thus I am going to have to let you go. Today is your last day. Someone will be here soon to walk you out.” I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye to anyone.

In short: I was fired. Not as part of a reduction in force. Not because the company was out of money. Not because my job was being eliminated. No performance plan with a chance to correct. No quiet firing. I was fired because they just did not want me around anymore. And it hurt. A lot. And then it didn’t. As I read the articles about “quiet quitting” now, it seems like something that isn’t new at all. In reality, I was quietly quitting every day. I was not a good fit for the new direction, and the vision, while fine, did not speak to me. I was not enjoying the other changes taking place around me. I was getting sick more, and feeling really run down. I had a hard time getting out of bed in the morning, and Sunday night was a really depressing time every week. What I didn’t realize was that these physical ailments were clues that I needed to change. And as I look back now, I am glad that I wasn’t given permission to quietly check out. I was shoved out of the plane at 30,000 feet and it forced me to use my gut to make some quick decisions.

“I realized that comfort is the enemy of growth and professional development.”

Tough, scary, and hard to work for bosses often teach you way more than kind, soft-hearted and supportive ones.

The first lesson I took from being fired was to keep looking for difficult, tough, and challenging bosses. During interviews, I didn’t just seek fellowship and affinity. Instead, I actively looked for people that scared me (at least a little), and that I knew I would learn from. I realized that comfort is the enemy of growth and professional development.

You can definitely stay too long at the party. Leave them wanting more.

It is always hard to know when to leave a job. For some roles, a couple of years is the total shelf life. For others, it might be decades. But deep down, your gut knows when it’s time to go. Maybe your learning velocity has slowed to a stop. Maybe you’ve been passed over for promotions enough times to realize that this particular place may never value the unique things you have to offer. And unlike the popular breakup mantra, it is YOU. And that’s okay. Take your particular set of skills and interests to a place where they will be a fit. For me, I did not enjoy going to work anymore, even though I liked the people I worked with. I struggled with the culture, which was a good fit for a lot of people, but not for me. And most of all, I wasn’t forced to be on my game, and my game slipped. Just like some relationships and hobbies, all jobs may not be right for the long haul. And rather than stay for the dumpster fire, it is always better to leave before you absolutely have to go.

There are clues that things aren’t working for the long term, even if your performance reviews are great.

I remember when I heard the “firing speech,” I was shocked. I was being fired? How is that possible? All of my performance reviews were great. But looking back I realize, there were signs. The subtle ones, like being excluded from critical decisions and meetings, or not receiving funding for proposed initiatives. The occasional eye roll when I suggested a cultural change that didn’t fit the new world. And then there were louder and more obvious ones. Which of course I missed. Such as, just a few weeks before I was fired, a friend from another company called me out of the blue to congratulate me on my promotion. As it turns out, one of her peers had resigned and described his new job, which sounded suspiciously like my job. So she assumed I was moving up. I, of course, convinced her that wasn’t possible, as I was staying in my role but thanked her for the vote of confidence. The lesson here? Pay attention to the signs. You may not know the full story, but as I have shared at prepovercoffee.substack.com before, people show you who they are.

“Change is the one thing that is constant, and that change, even when it comes in the form of two hands firmly shoving you out of the plane, can be a gift if you allow it to be.”

The worst thing that could possibly happen to your career is not that bad. Embrace it and make it part of your story.

I was embarrassed about being fired, and since I was not the child of a Rockefeller, I needed a new job right away. As I applied for roles and started to interview, I was terrified of the dreaded “why are you looking to change roles” question. I could not come up with an answer that made sense and painted me in a better light. I considered trying to describe it as a “reorganization.” But that didn’t make sense as I wasn’t sure how a reorganization could involve only one person. So, even though it was scary, I decided to go with the unvarnished truth, sprinkled with some humor. During interviews, I openly talked about getting fired, AND missing the clues along the way. I told it in a way that I was still the hero of my story, and this small obstacle did not change what I had to offer. I actually got people to laugh with me about my experience, and several even shared their own stories of being unceremoniously fired. We discussed how being fired makes a person tougher and more resilient (both of which are very true). And, before the rent was due, I had a new job. I stayed at that job for almost sixteen years, working my way up through a number of dream jobs within its walls, making lifelong friends, and graduating from law school along the way. And I never stopped sharing my firing experience because none of us are defined by our worst day.

We no longer live in the era where people work at the same company for their whole lives. Technology changes. Leadership changes. The world around us changes. And the result of this is that people lose their jobs, and have to get new ones. Change is the one thing that is constant, and that change, even when it comes in the form of two hands firmly shoving you out of the plane, can be a gift if you allow it to be. And to that man who fired me so many years ago, thank you. It was the best thing that ever happened to my career (and to me).

About the author » Melissa Centers

Melissa Centers is a board member, consultant, and attorney who provides strategic advice in a variety of disciplines to boards, executives, and companies of all sizes. Before entering private practice, Melissa was the Senior Vice President, General Counsel, and Corporate Secretary at State Auto Insurance, a $2 billion publicly traded insurance company. She has also held executive roles in IT, communications, marketing, human resources, government affairs, audit, and of course, legal and compliance. When not helping clients, Melissa is a writing enthusiast and teacher. You can check out her business blog below.

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