It was the fall of 2001 in New York City: a disorienting time following the toppling of the Twin Towers. I had worked for my employer for about four years and was promoted 18 months earlier. I really enjoyed managing a small team, but I was also feeling fatigued and uninspired after being dedicated to the same industry vertical since joining the company. And I felt stuck by the lack of leadership support that I craved. It was time to move on and seek a fresh challenge, but I was discouraged from doing so by colleagues. They argued convincingly that since our department was essential to generating incremental revenue, it would be a safe port in a powerful storm of impending job cuts. It wasn’t just water cooler gossip. My boss assured me that my team and I would be protected, so I listened and stayed put.
You can imagine my surprise when it was announced that 50% of the people in my department were losing their jobs. Despite my boss’s reassurances, I was among them. I was handed a thick folder containing the details of my separation from the company. Sixty days later, I turned in my computer and my security card. You don’t realize the importance a piece of plastic with your photo holds until you are forced to give it back.
There was no guarantee that I would have landed a position in another department if I had sought one. And if I did, I may have lost that job in the massive restructuring that befell the company following 9/11. Yet I deeply regret ignoring my own instincts based on hearsay and fear. I vowed that in the future, I would tune out the noise during times of uncertainty and tune into my own thoughts and feelings for guidance.
This philosophy was reinforced years later when I accepted a role as chief of staff supporting an executive. I started in the spring of 2008, just months before the financial crisis that decimated the global economy. One of my first projects was supporting a massive reorganization of the department that I had joined. There is a good deal of administrative coordination required to restructure a large organization, and this time around, I had a front row seat to the sausage-making. In this example, the sausage is made with Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint slides and not with pork and a meat grinder. Although the metaphor is apt as those of us that have experienced downsizing firsthand know.
As soon as we completed the new org charts and spreadsheets—with the names of those that would be impacted and their corresponding salaries—something would change. This was not due to whimsy or poor planning. It’s extraordinarily complex to make these decisions, and so they are analyzed, discussed and dynamic up until the point that the announcements are made.
Witnessing the process up close served as further evidence that it is unwise to make important decisions based on what you are hearing when an organization is in flux. Often, the people who actually know aren’t talking, and even if they are, what they know on any given day may be null and void by sunrise the next morning.
In recent years, I have taken up yoga. Among other important lessons, I learned that when practicing balance poses, you should focus on something that isn’t moving. Instructors teach that we steady ourselves by setting our gaze on a fixed object: not by looking at the people around us who are wobbling precariously. Yet during times of flux we often look to others for stability.
What if we focused inward instead? In replace of having conversations with others about what they’ve heard, or what they think will happen, have a conversation with yourself. Are you where you really want to be? Is this an opportunity for a needed change? What might you want to do if your job is eliminated?
These answers are harder to come by, but they are more valuable, enduring and certain to keep us upright: no matter how stormy it gets out there.