It was 2002, not long after I’d lost my job following September 11th. It was a tough time to be out of work, so imagine my delight to get an offer about a month later.
I was thrilled I wouldn’t need to spend the money from my severance package for living expenses. Instead, it went towards a down-payment on my apartment in Manhattan.
But it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. I had a reverse commute to New Jersey, and then there was what waited for me on the other side: a corporate culture that didn’t suit me. The mismatch was especially clear when I was invited to attend a senior leadership meeting.
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
As a result of low engagement scores, the executive team asked me and some colleagues to provide feedback. I was the most junior person in the room, but that didn’t stop me from speaking up.
I posited that employees may not be aware of some new recognition and development programs. If they were informed, I hypothesized, it may improve perception.
The most senior person in the room responded tersely: “Didn’t you hear me outline these programs during my last town hall?”
I paused for a beat… and replied, “So, I guess this is where I’m supposed to say, ‘Yes’?”
The room erupted in laughter.
The Best Defense is a Good Offense
I hadn’t anticipated this reaction. I was fueled by one thing: I didn’t like being humiliated or belittled, so I turned instinctively to two of my signature traits—humor and directness.
When the laughter quieted, I said: “To answer honestly, I didn’t hear you share the programs in your last town hall, and if I didn’t, others may not have.”
I continued: “Marketing professionals [which I was at the time] leverage multiple vehicles to communicate our message to our audience. We may send a mailer, follow up with a call campaign, and then send an email. That way, there’s a higher likelihood we break through the clutter. Maybe a more comprehensive internal communication plan about your efforts could improve awareness and engagement.”
An Offer I Could Refuse
When I finished my soliloquy, the executive replied awkwardly with a hint of contrition. The meeting moved on, and it was time for me to do the same. In fact, I’d already started a job search and was waiting to hear from a hiring leader about a promising opportunity. I got the role and gave my notice without knowing how the executive felt about the way I challenged her.
She may not have appreciated it, but someone else did. The week before my last day, a colleague told me another executive in the meeting was impressed by how I handled myself, and he wanted to offer me a job.
It was a nice note to close an unfulfilling chapter of my career, and it taught me an important lesson.
The Real Deal
I learned when I show up authentically, I attract the right people. I had no idea my behavior in that meeting would result in a job offer. I was just being myself, and it was noticed by someone who respected me for it.
As for the antagonist of this story, I don’t believe she intended to come across harshly or defensively. She simply lacked self-awareness.
If she reflected on our interaction that day—and perhaps she did—she would realize that effective leaders have an additional burden: They need to show authenticity while considering how their words, behavior, and demeanor impacts others. That’s not easy, but as they say, heavy is the head that wears the crown.
I left that job twenty years ago, and I continued searching for a role where I could be the most ME I could be. I’ve found it as a leadership coach. I support exceptionally bright, successful people, and as I did in the boardroom in 2002, I use humor and directness to deliver truths that are sometimes hard for them to hear.
And believe it or not, they not only pay me for it, but they thank me for it too.