This week, I got asked why I left the gig I had straight out of college. I was on the road to a big seat in the corporate world, and I just stopped. What’s funny, this isn’t the first time I have been asked this question. When people find out my background, I get this question often.
And I have a canned response about family, time, obligation, etc. Which, all of that is partially true. But that isn’t the whole story on why I stopped climbing the corporate ladder.
In addition to the above items and having to put your life on pause forever, my life goal was always to leave my shitty hometown. I completed that right out of college. So, even from the start, being a CEO or something was never my ambition. I just didn’t want to have to go home again. After that, everything else is just lagniappe.
I kept climbing anyway cause we needed the money. Saving for a house took a ton of dough. So, I kept at the gig. My frustrations were sort of at the edge. I didn’t like the way Silicon Valley did business. I didn’t like how cutthroat people were compared to where I started my career in the midwest.
But, there was really one incident that killed any ambition I had left. The straw that broke the camel’s back.
One year, I got assigned a project that was….much like every other project I had ever done. Had 6-7 people on my team. And it was typical heavy corporate bullshit. 12-14 hour days. Unreasonable clients, etc.
Our team got along well. I remember there was a website back then where you could DJ songs to a crowd. That was cool. We each took turns. Etc.
I had this one person on my team who was…fine. Like you can just tell people aren’t long for this kind of work, and this guy was for sure out once the project was done. But, he wasn’t terrible terrible. Just not good. He had apparently done even worse under other people’s parts of the project that he was helping out with.
Project got done. Same as usual. And my team was still around doing cleanup. But you know, 8-10 hour days. Much much lighter. And no pressure. So, part of that time was performance reviews.
This person was having their performance review, and the review this guy was getting was substandard. Like it wasn’t horrendous, but it had criticisms. My boss is having the review with this person. I am in the other room.
Then I hear my boss stomp out, and into our team’s room. “All of you come in here now.”
So, we all file in. My boss goes, “This person just told me that his performance was substandard because The Right Reverend is the worst boss he ever had. That it was impossible to perform under the pressure he was providing, and that he was miserable the entire time.”
Silence. My face must turn ghost pale, cause my boss goes, “What do you think about this?” I am stunned. I wasn’t a screamer. I didn’t throw stuff. I didn’t say anything inappropriate. In fact, I barely interacted. I gave instructions where needed. I gave feedback. Yes, we worked late, but no worse than anyone. So, I don’t tell my boss much other than ‘I don’t know what is going on right now.’
We had someone on the team who was brand new to this whole world, and this new person pipes up, “Yeah it was awful…” blah blah blah. This new person goes on for a while.
Eventually one of my staff members who had been with the company a few years was asked for her perspective and she goes, “I have no idea what these two are talking about. I have worked on a ton of teams, and The Right Reverend is easily the best direct report I ever had.”
Other discussions happened, but honestly, I don’t remember any of it. My mind went blank and I retreated internally. I swore that I wouldn’t be one of those horrible bosses that I had. I was crestfallen.
I eventually was dismissed. As was staff member with a few years experience. She turns to me before we walk in the room, “Whatever happens. You just need to know. You did nothing wrong. I don’t know what this is about, but I would work for you for the rest of my career.”
I didn’t even let her words sink in. I was gone.
The person who started all the mess got his performance review altered to something more medium. If anyone reported me to any higher ups, no one ever told me.
I had to work with the same team for another month. I said basically nothing that whole time. The person who started this mess was trying to get the comradery we had back. Starting up the DJ conversation. Trying to have personal conversations. Etc. Nothing. You could hear a pin drop in that room for the next month.
Eventually the biggest boss took me out to lunch. Something must have happened because he was basically like “Do not worry about any of that stuff that went down. You didn’t do anything wrong. Don’t pay attention to it.” Again, words on deaf ears.
I spent the next year completely depressed. I remember my favorite song at the time was The Becoming. I listened to it every single morning on the way to work at least twice. I just completely withdrew.
Not quite a year later, around Christmastime, I get a random email from the person who started the whole mess. The person with the bad review. Moved out of state. Completely different job. And then he admitted to me that he made the whole thing up.
That the whole reason he started the mess was to alter the performance review. He did not expect the brand new person to complain. Didn’t know what it was about.
I never replied back.
I am not going to say it made me feel better, or I got back in the saddle. Things were never the same after that. I was always scared. Paranoid may be a better word. That something may happen. That I would push my team too hard. That it would be my fault again.
By the way, the next assignment that new person got was with probably the worst person they could have picked. She also ended up leaving the company.
I stayed on a few more years….plenty more projects. Never had something like this happen again. But the whole incident took something out of me.
I didn’t like being toyed with. I didn’t like being having a target on my back just for being someone’s assigned superior. I didn’t like the thought of having hurt anyone.
Down the road, I found a job that pulled me out of that miserable part of the corporate world, and I am grateful for that every single day.
I don’t know if there is a moral or lesson to any of this.
I think I just found out where my limits are. Where the line is. What I had to do for my mental health.
So, if I had to give the actual reason why I left that world, I would say that is designed to be cruel. Its a miserable experience and forces you to take the part of you that is the most human and bury it in a deep hole never to be seen again. I left because I couldn’t deal with it anymore. It was time to go. So I left.