I know someone who recently discovered that one of his untapped SuperPowers is writing insightful, painfully-honest and often-funny articles, opinion pieces and stories. When I suggested he write a piece about how it felt to "wake up" in his mid-late 40s in the wrong company/culture/career he responded by sending me this article. I haven't changed a word.
It's a lonely place to be so please share his story if you know anyone who might be in a similar position.
So why am I writing this?
Well, I’m on a journey that many others consider but never actually implement. It remains an aspiration or dream for them, but for any number of reasons (and there are plenty of good ones), it’s never put into practice.
So who and what am I?
Well, I’m middle aged (obviously) and an accountant by training. I’ve had a very successful career working as a senior Finance professional in diverse roles within a variety of different industries. I’m structured, methodical, thorough, sensible and reliable and I take great pride in the quality of my work. Like everyone, I’ve had good times and less good times during my career, but on the whole I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the ten or so different roles I’ve held. Most importantly, I’m a husband and a dad with children at secondary school.
So what happened?
Well, I resigned from my last position without a job to go to. Oops! That doesn’t quite match up with the “structured, methodical, thorough, sensible and reliable” character proudly depicted above.
So what made this pillar of all things sensible do such an apparently foolhardy thing?
Well, in summary, I found myself in a culture which conflicted with my personal values and work practices. In turn, this had a detrimental impact on my health. Nonetheless, it took me a number of years before I did anything about it.
The cultural change I experienced resulted from my company being bought by new investors with a very different agenda to that I had experienced in any of my previous roles or companies. Up until this point, I had always worked in environments where management was clearly focussed on the long-term future of the company. In contrast, the world I now found myself in was very much focussed on the short term. Specifically, drive profit as quickly as possible to facilitate a quick future sale of the company.
I’m not saying there is anything wrong with this. It happens all the time. The point is, I simply wasn’t suited to the environment which this brought and there were consequential repercussions on my personal wellbeing. Others will (and did) react in different ways to the world I experienced. I merely offer an insight into how it impacted me and why I needed to leave.
So, what did reality on the ground look like for me?
Firstly, there was an explosion in terms of corporate data requirements. I use the term data deliberately. It wasn’t information. Decisions couldn’t be made based on what was being requested. The immediate impact locally was a reduction in Finance support to the business as focus shifted to the global requirements. Finance became a data generating function rather than information analysers who partner and challenge the business. I’d spent my entire career championing the latter, with Finance at the forefront of strategy formulation and decision making. This was going back to the dark ages where Finance added up rather than added value. I needed to find my old abacus in order to fit in.
Key Performance Indicators were introduced at a remarkable rate of knots. I wasn’t the only one to spot the apparent lack of understanding of what a KPI is when we moved into the hundreds. Yes, that is plural. I couldn’t help thinking the word “Key” had somehow become lost in translation. Unfortunately, this didn’t result in any reduction in numbers. Nor was there any guidance to ensure global consistency in their calculation and measurement. What could possibly go wrong? Some even totally conflicted with each other. Oh dear. My structured and logical brain was struggling with this.
Conflicting priorities became a regular occurrence. The answer was that everything was a priority. Relief, there was no conflict after all! Yet my head wouldn’t accept this. “This doesn’t feel right” said my brain. “Where’s the focus?”
Pace came at the expense of rigour and quality. Mistakes were being made regularly but the requirement was always to hit the deadline. That was apparently more important than ensuring robustness and accuracy in what was being requested. Time will only tell what impact this approach will have. The personal impact on me was that I pushed harder and harder to try and ensure as much rigour was applied as physically possible. Personal pride demanded a quality product and I was going to deliver this at whatever personal cost. Days blurred into nights and week days into weekends.
The saddest thing I witnessed was the change in behaviour of local peers and superiors. The dynamics of a professional, talented, dedicated and collaborative team was undermined. Tension, aggression and fear evolved in a short period of time and became clearly evident on a daily basis. Tension can be beneficial. Aggression is unacceptable. Fear is a damning indictment.
What was the personal cost to me?
During the years I worked in this new environment there was a clear impact on my health and I was on more prescription medication than I care to mention.
In the evenings and at weekends I was often too tired to engage with family or friends. I was disinterested, distracted, snappy and reclusive. I’d lie on the bed for hours on Saturdays with nothing left in the tank. All physical and emotional energy was sapped. The Sunday feeling of gloom would always manage to rear its ugly head early in the day. “It’s Monday tomorrow.” In summary, I was unhappy and life was a chore to endure.
I knew deep down that things had to change. I knew my health was being compromised. I knew this was no way to lead a life. I thought about leaving, but never did. Why? With all the evidence suggesting (OK, “telling” me), I should. Personal pride played a big role. Fear of “what next” and “will I ever find another job” didn’t help. Maybe surprisingly, thoughts of “I’ll be letting the company down” appeared on a regular basis.
So, what was the final catalyst for my resignation?
Ultimately it was very simple. A serious health scare. A wake up call. But let’s be honest, it shouldn’t have taken this to get me to my decision.
What was the reaction of those closest to me?
My family expressed relief and were hugely supportive. Apparently they’d been worried for a long time! My closest friends were equally supportive. Phrases such as “about time” and “we wondered how much evidence you needed” came to the fore. I did sort of know this, but pride and duty are powerful traits which can cloud judgment and delay important decisions.
My wider friendship network has been outwardly supportive but in some cases I can see scepticism in their eyes. Especially those who work in a corporate environment themselves. Their brains can’t compute what I’ve done. They’re thinking “he’s mad” but they aren’t vocalising it.
How do I feel now?
A few months have passed and it’s been a bit of an emotional roller coaster. A huge sense of relief has been combined with feelings of being a bit lost and wondering “what’s next?” when my life has always been so structured. It can be scary not having all the answers. I’m out of my comfort zone but excitement about the future is outweighing fear. I do know one thing for certain though. It was the right decision. My health is improving for a start.
Nothing is ruled out. Maybe I do something similar but in an environment which aligns with my values and work practices (very much like the first 25 years of my career)! Or maybe I do something completely different. It feels as though I now have the opportunity to pursue the latter and that is what I am currently doing.
A final comment
I’m sure some people will read this and think I made the right decision. Others may think I’ve lost the plot. Irrespective of your views, I encourage everyone to read what palliative nurses say are the greatest regrets expressed by people on their death beds. Life is short and those at the end of it offer truly valuable counsel to the rest of us. Then it’s up to us to decide whether we heed it or not.