I didn’t see it coming. It wasn’t like I was engineering my layoff; I was working just as hard the day a corporate officer fired me as the day I started.
My layoff took place in Southern California. I was a district manager for a large chain of child care centers. We operated child care programs coast to coast, and the centers in my purview had previously been my family’s business. My father had sold that business, and I was demoted from being the general manager of a business spanning several counties, to a district manager of a much larger business. Instead of being the general manager, I was now a low level corporate officer.
I don’t think the company that bought my business wanted to keep me on, but they had made a promise to try to make it work.
I kept my office in one of our largest schools in Los Angeles country. The drive from my home in Orange County was about 90 minutes away, so I faced 3 hours of commute on most days. The child care director told me that some equipment in a classroom was malfunctioning. I rolled up my sleeves and tried to make it work.
Dennis walked in; he was not expected. He was the vice president of the new company. As far as I knew, he lived and traveled from Arizona. For him to be there meant that something big was up – and I knew it instantly when he came to see me.
He told me “you are fired,” in about the nicest way he could. He gave no reason, “don’t take it personally,” and relieved me of my duties. I spent the next hour removing my things from the office and left.
I felt shattered. My work was not just a job for me; my identity was tied up in what I did. I wanted this business to grow and thrive. I had made many friends in this company, seen people get married and have kids. My perception of who I was, was completely tied up in the work that I did.
There are bad people in the world. I never thought Dennis was a bad man. I am not going to tell you that the forces of evil crushed me. Dennis was a servant of the corporate machine, and he did not need to know how much I wanted to make this enterprise grow. He understood me, I believe, because he had a history of seeing his business bought up by a larger one, just as I had. I think he understood just how devastating this termination was for me.
Here’s the rest of the story!
In the next year, a group of investors friendly to me purchased the child care business back. Because this region of the business was failing financially, the new investors were able to purchase it without a lot of capital expense. These investors, who eventually hired me back, bought child care centers in California, Arizona, and six other states in the Midwest. We took large financial obligations away from the corporate machine and promised our expertise and hands-on management to grow the business back up.
The roles were now reversed, and one of the investors fired Dennis immediately. I took no pleasure in seeing him hurt by this transaction. The irony for me was the same corporate machine discarded him just as conveniently as it had discarded me the year before.
Getting laid off is a great awakening, especially when one had worked in a position for more than a decade. I learned that I could not find security even in a family business, and my experience in a small field of work would not guarantee for me future employment. As a result of these events, I came to value career agility and the opportunity of starting one’s own business even more.
I don’t know what happened to Dennis. I just checked, and I cannot find his name on LinkedIn and Facebook. He talked briefly about opening a specialty business having to do with an American craft. I hope he did well.
What I have learned is that change is part of our working experience. The people who fire others may be the next to be terminated. Treat people well and try not to take termination personally. It often is not a personal issue.
Steve Broe is an executive coach and author. He lives in Scottsdale Arizona. He answers the question, “How does leadership help people become successful?” in his new book, Leading the Way Up Mt. Olympus, now available on Amazon.