Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Into the Neutral Zone

Two days ago, on Monday of this week, I walked into my Boss's office and told him I didn't think that I wanted to work at the company any more. That set in motion a series of actions that resulted in me now being at home, without contact of any kind with my former fellow employees. It is definitely an odd feeling.

I now feel like I'm entering into the neutral zone -- a place where I know I need to spend some time, and from which the exit isn't clear. Let me explain...

On April 13th of 2009, I was fired from my position at a Nebraska public manufacturing company after working there for 11 years, moving up through the ranks, and believing that I was the most likely successor to the the CEO. It wasn't a shock -- the signs were there in the last year of my employment: the peeling away of some of my responsibilities, a call to bring in a general manager for one of the businesses I was responsible for and was personally managing, the declining economic situation, and some business performance problems that cropped up and couldn't be dealt with quickly. I was an expensive, high level guy that they could get away without having for a while in a time when the economy was in tough shape. In short, I was expendable, and was soon 'expended'.

Even if you see it coming, losing a job for the first time is a shock. At age 46, this was the first time that, other than some short vacations, I had ever been away from work for more than a couple of weeks, and certainly the first time that I had ever not had ANY business items to think on or worry about. It was disorienting. It was strange. I didn't like it. But it was, as I've come to see, a time that I should have taken to explore what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Unfortunately that didn't happen.

On my first day at home in April of 2009, I sent a blast email out to my entire contact database telling people to use my new gmail email address. That prompted a response from one of my former competitors, who asked me to call him. Over the next couple of weeks, I discovered that he had the 'ideal' job for me. It was a much smaller responsibility, in a much smaller (though still public) company, but essentially it was doing what I had been doing, which was managing general managers and presidents of manufacturing businesses. Best of all, I wouldn't have to move. It seemed like the perfect fit. As it turns out, my assessment was completely wrong.

I committed a classic blunder -- I checked to make sure that all the things I didn't like about my last job were better in the new position, and then I stopped. I didn't really think about how this new position might be unpleasant or uncomfortable to me. And I certainly didn't think about that uncomfortable, disorienting and strange neutral zone that was open in front of me. That was something to avoid. So I accepted the job by mid May, and was back to work by the end of June.

It didn't take long for me to feel dissatisfied in this new role. The primary problems were ones of size and authority. The new company was smaller in total than what I was running in the prior job. My new assignment was about 1/8th the size. My new boss was suffocatingly involved in every decision, and seemed to develop endless action lists, the follow up for which took most of my available time. I was used to calling my own shots, now I had to ask permission for everything, and I really had no time to implement my own shots, even if I could call them. This wasn't going to work. In addition, nagging in the back of my mind, was the need to think through what I really should be doing with myself.

In November, I attended a seminar called "Courageous Conversations", put on by the Apogee group, and sponsored by a local bank. The seminar, though only a half day in length, spoke deeply to me. I realized that I had blown through a rare opportunity I'd had to re-examine my life and my purpose, taking an easy path back to familiarity. Not surprisingly, I was feeling some of the same dissatisfactions that I had experienced in my prior job. Unfortunately, I came to realize after much thinking and discussion with the seminar presenters and others that there are no easy answers to this situation. No 'process' to go through, no list of options to consider, no one to tell you what to do. To really resolve the feelings of unhappiness that were permeating me, would require time, deep contemplation, experimentation, lots of discussions with others, and, it couldn't be easily done while in the midst of the chaos of my normal work environment.

I resolved that I would plan a one year sabbatical, and use that time to sort out the direction for the rest of my life. After lots of internal debate, some fear, and discussions with those I love, I was finally ready to act. On Monday, I expected to have my boss talk with me about my transition out of the company, which would likely happen some months in the future -- after I helped to hand off my responsibilities to my successor, closed out some of the projects I was working on, and had a chance to wrap up my relationships with those few people that I had developed friendships with. I even fantasized that he would become more consultative in our relationship, instead of feeling that he constantly needed to assert his control. I was wrong again.

So now I've plunged into the neutral zone, a bit before I planned to do so. It is a little scary, especially the prospect of quiet solitary deep contemplation. I know that my first step in the process has to be to make peace with the past. I'm meeting with Bob M., one of my advisors tonight to discuss just this point, and hope to have more direction on this step in the next few days.

No comments:

Post a Comment