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Getting Back on Track - How Career Derailment Saved My Job and My Family

Maya Angelou once said, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.” Resilience is often celebrated in our culture through the glorification of the comeback. Nelson Mandela spent twenty-seven years in prison before he was freed and eventually became the President of South Africa. Abraham Lincoln lost eight elections prior to becoming President of the United States. Who knew where John Travolta was before Pulp Fiction revived his stagnant career? Everyone loves the story of overcoming trials to triumph.

How does resiliency work in the real world? How do you push to overcome a setback in your personal life or career? What about when both areas are falling apart? How can you push past the pain of falling down and push forward?

In 2012, I was on a strong career trajectory. I was a Divisional Vice-President for a Fortune 100 company. I was responsible for considerable volume in global revenue for our organization. I was handpicked for accelerated leadership development and was considered a "high potential". I was on the proverbial career high. In my mind, I was focused on building a strong team, executing our corporate mission, and driving sales and profitability. My focus was to be promoted to the next level as quick as possible.

Unfortunately, I made unintentional missteps along the way in building my career that ultimately led to my “fall from grace”. While still employed and highly valued as a contributor to the organization, I was no longer considered for career advancement. In fact, at this time, another manager was promoted into the coveted VP position. He deserved it. He was better prepared than me. I was devastated. The day they announced his promotion, I went home, crawled into bed, and cried myself to sleep.

I was filled with self-doubt, which was reinforced by consistent negative feedback from my boss, direct reports, and peers. I could not seem to get out of my own way. During this time, my boss gave me the biggest wake up call. She said to me, “If you cannot figure this out, I think so highly of you that I will help you find a job somewhere else.” In a nanosecond, I went from high potential to should she work here.

It was also during this time that I was also struggling in my personal life. My husband and I sold our home to move in with my mother to help her as she battled with pancreatic cancer. My mother made it through a successful surgery which put her in remission. She no longer required our presence in her home. She began a brutal assault of meanness to make our living arrangements unbearable. We had to search for a new home and put our second adoption on temporary hold. To add insult to injury, I reached my all-time weight of 320 lbs. in August of 2012.

My life was in shambles.

This act of self-pity would plunge me into a two-year journey of self-discovery and reflection.

How did I get here?

Career derailments don’t just happen overnight. Relationships with your spouse or other family members don’t disintegrate from one incident. The erosion of the status quo of your life comes from the tiny decisions you make, over time, that leads you to a certain point. Derailment in your life comes from the offers of help that you decline. You fail and fall short when you refuse to listen to the people around you tell you that “there’s something missing”.

For me, the signs I missed were always there. I was moving too fast to see them.

Imagine driving down a highway in the middle of a brewing storm. In the beginning, you feel confident because your car is sturdy, your tires are new, and you’re confident in your abilities to drive through anything. Now imagine that you are going 75 MPH. The road is clear of traffic but you begin to see signs telling you to slow down. But the rain is just starting to come down and you think “if I go faster, I’ll reach my destination before the storm comes.”

Now imagine that the storm has surprised you and is now blinding you from the road signs completely. These signs are telling you to slow down, curves ahead, black ice, or maybe even steep drop ahead. You can’t see and you refuse to let your foot off the gas. In your mind, the faster I go, the faster I’ll get to my destination and safety. Now you are going 90 MPH in the blinding rain with a flawed plan.

How smart would that be? How safe would you or your family feel in that situation? What is the likely outcome?

That’s what happened to me. I went over the cliff and spiraled out of control. When the smoke cleared, I was unhealthy mentally, emotionally, and physically. I was spiritually bereft. BUT…I still had a job, my marriage, and a chance to be different. I decided that I would fix my life and get back on the road.

It. Took. Two. Years!

The Blame Game

When my career derailed and we were forced to move out of my mother’s home, my initial reaction was to blame others around me for my situation.

At my job, I felt that others had let me down. My situation at work had deteriorated because of a bad relationship I had with a counterpart. Her dislike of me and my acceptance into an executive leadership program led her to bad mouth me to our leaders. I often felt that I was on the defense with this woman. I reached out to others to help me figure out how to navigate this relationship but was always met with “that’s just how she is.” It was their fault that my career had derailed. I told them that I needed help with this woman but they refused. How could they blame me for bad business when she was clearly a problem? How could they not see that she was the problem, not me?

During this time, three out of my five direct reports gave notice. One left for a position higher than my boss. He was a long-term associate but who could blame him for chasing the money. Another one left to be a stay-at-home mom. Another left because her husband was relocated. Well, that was certainly out of my control. I mean, what was I supposed to do? I was definitely not to blame for my team leaving.

I traveled all the time. I was gone away from home at least two weeks out of the month. This meant I often ate restaurant food. These trips involved numerous meetings which meant that I was pretty sedentary. By the time I got back to my hotel room, I was tired and hungry. I didn’t have time to work out or think about what I ate. I was too busy. I was 320 lbs. because of my dedication to my job. My job was to blame for my weight gain.

Finally, my mom was way out of line for forcing us to leave her home. She was always unbearable. I remember her crying and telling me that I was too hard. I didn’t listen to her and I made her feel small. She was an emotional mess. She cried all the time at the smallest things. My mom’s feelings were always hurt by someone. She really needed to get her emotions under control. When we left her home, I thought to myself that she would be lucky to find someone who would go to chemo, help her with her bills, and take care of her like I did. Now I had to shell out $10,000 to move into another home with my family. She was to blame.

I mean I was the one who lost everything here? How could these people do this to me? What did they mean “Perception is Reality”? That was a crock of baloney meant to make excuses as to why they were treating me bad.

Quite honestly, I was so focused on blaming everyone around me, my work quality had slipped in several areas which compounded my problems. Yet what I told myself was that everyone was making my job harder which caused more errors.

With a thought process like this – no wonder my career and home life derailed.

Self-Awareness is a Gift

Somewhere during this two year stay on the bottom, I realized that no one was agreeing with me that I was blameless. As a matter of fact, the more I pointed the finger, the more people stopped trying to help me. I was so busy blaming others for my problems, that I could not step back and figure out my role in my own struggles. I fell into victimhood that kept me stuck in a vicious cycle.

Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever stayed stuck somewhere and blamed others?

There was a point that I decided that I needed to do something different. There was a moment when I realized that the world was not seeing me as I saw myself. There was a disconnect between how I wanted to be perceived and how others were experiencing me. My year of enlightenment came when a dear friend of mine said to me about someone else “her intent doesn’t match her impact.” Whoa….my mind was blown. That statement was much better than “perception is reality”. That comment helped me crystallize that I needed to change my behavior to help others view me the way I wanted to be seen. I also realized that if I changed the impact I was having on others, they may want to help me.

I went on a self-awareness crusade. I asked for feedback quite often. I changed the way I asked by asking others how they “experienced” me. I was shocked. I was viewed as intimidating, not a great listener, always moving too fast, and not taking others with me. I was not seen as a good leader of teams. People who worked for me thought that they had to try to keep up or they would suffer my displeasure. My peers found me to be overwhelming. I didn’t not ask for their thoughts or input into my ideas. Furthermore, they believed that I was the “chosen” one and our leader’s favorite.

Oh boy… I had a lot of work to do.

I sought out the help of my father and my husband. They both gave me amazing, honest advice that made a difference in how I solved my career dilemma. My father told me to drop the victimhood and start focusing on the work. He told me that when the work that I did was above reproach, I would quiet the noise and begin the business of repairing my relationships.

My husband encouraged me to be more aware of my surroundings. He taught me how to understand what people were not saying. He helped me learn how to pick up on the nuances of human behavior. Through Russell, I figured out how to read body language from others. He also taught me that it's not what you know, it's who you knew.

I started by shutting up.

I stopped being the one who had all the answers. I asked others for their thoughts. I asked more questions than ever. I learned everyone’s name and something about them. I included others in decisions. When my team asked me for direction, I would ask them “what do you think?” Slowly (and I mean slowly) I began to make strides to rebuild my career.

Rebuilding My Family and Myself

Rebuilding my family started with my mother. I began to think of all the times I wanted her to change who she was to suit my needs. I thought about myself. Would I want someone to ask me to change to fit their desires? Heck no! Well, why was I expecting this of my 60-year-old mother? She had lived on this planet, successfully, much longer than I. It was at this point that I looked at my mom through a different lens and realized that she needed me to be softer and gentler with her. She was facing her own mortality. My matter-of-fact take on life was too much for her. She needed me to ask for advice, listen to her stories about her crazy neighbors, and value her opinion. My mom needed my validation that she was important to me. When I realized this, I reached out to her and we began repairing our relationship. By the time her cancer returned in 2014, she and I were best friends, relying on each other for support.

I got my weight under control with a focused effort on eating less and moving more. I visited my doctor who created a plan for me to take charge of my health. I made friends in the health and fitness industry. Prior to my career downfall, I was arrogant about asking others for help. As a former Division I basketball player, I knew how to exercise. I thought I didn’t need any help. When I dropped the ego and reached out, my friends lined up to help me. Within 18 months, I dropped 120 lbs. and was a healthy queen.

Perhaps no relationship improved more than my relationship with my husband and daughter.

Prior to my career collapse, I saw Russell and our daughter two weeks a month if not less. I was prioritizing my career over everything. I would take calls at all hours of the night, work weekends, and leave them behind during holidays and birthdays. In 2011, I signed up to spend 10 days in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, missing Russell’s birthday for the first time in our lives together. I consistently chose my job over my family. My daughter drew pictures of her and Daddy standing by the house with me leaving on yet another business trip. I was moving down the road somewhere between 80 and 100 MPH and completely forgot about the family who loved me.

When my career derailed, I stopped and took a long hard look at what I was prioritizing. I was blessed that I married a man that supported my career aspirations. Our marriage was never in question. Yet, I was out of balance. Once my career dreams stalled, I looked at who was standing there, waiting to catch me in their arms as I cried from devastation. It was my husband and my kid. At that moment, I decided, that I would put them first, no matter what came my way. I changed jobs to a role that required me to travel only four times a year if I chose. This role offered me the flexibility of working from home and shifting my work hours. The role was less glamourous than the one I held previously but it was comparable in responsibility. Lastly, this role would allow me to reshape who I was in the eyes of my family – as a wife and mother first, career-driven executive second.

I often share my story with others to help them understand that your career is only one part of you. I learned an incredible amount about myself when my career was in jeopardy. I learned how to take my power back and own how others viewed me. I learned that self-awareness is the gift we give ourselves. I learned to release my ego, my “rightness”, my pride. I learned to ask others for help. I am still learning more about myself every day.

Most of all, I learned that no job or career can ever replace the bonds of love you have with your family.

Stephanie Walton is a business leader, executive and personal coach, and the author of Succeeding with Passion: Simple Strategies to Drive Your Life, Relationships, and Career Forward. Visit her at www.SucceedingWithPassion.com.


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