A couple of years ago I got fired and I didn’t see it coming. My boss asked me to stop by the office at the end of the day. He wanted to talk to me about something. This wasn’t unusual, since I worked from home and he frequently asked sales people who worked remotely to come in to get updated on new product features. (I worked at a high-end sauna company that was constantly coming out with new improvements.) I had rented a car to leave for the weekend, so could stop by on my way out of town. I just hoped it wouldn’t take too long because I didn’t want to get stuck in 5pm traffic.
While packing it occurred to me that this “talk” could be a performance review. My sales hadn’t been great compared to the year before during the same time period. But I dismissed this idea by reassuring myself that surely the other sales reps were struggling to make their quota just like me. Besides, it took all I had to simply show up and deal with customers who would ask the same questions, have the same objections and basically, haggle for the cheapest price. I had had many different sales jobs in the past, and nothing had been harder to sell than saunas – not because it was rocket science. It wasn’t. But because customers tended to be blind to anything but getting the best price. And this made for predictably boring and rigid conversations. It was getting more and more difficult to not care about that.
A couple of hours later I arrive at the office. My boss has a tall, muscular build with a strong presence about him. He doesn’t have to say anything for you to know he’s the boss. He’s also got a million and one things going on – from employees on the floor coming to ask questions, to both of his phones ringing off the hook from overwhelmed sales people needing his support to frustrated customers asking to talk with the decision maker. Amidst all this he maintains a calm authority. I’ve never experienced being in the eye of a tornado but I imagine it’s similar to being in the company of this man.
I knock at his door and am both glad to see him but afraid to meet with him face to face. This surprises me. I have nothing to be worried about. “Come in,” he says, getting up from behind his desk. “Have a seat,” he gestures to the couch adjacent to his desk.
This couch is a gorgeous teal retro piece from the 50’s. To sit on it is to be transported to the set of a Mad Men episode. In all the meetings we’ve had over the past 2 years, not once has he asked me to sit on this magnificent couch. I settle in and scoot back all the way to be as upright as possible. It’s as if my body has sensed a threat and must brace for attack. Then the guy from HR comes in, closing the door behind him and I realize: I’m going to get fired.
My boss starts talking about pressure from corporate and that my sales aren’t what they were last year. I interrupt him despite my throat tightening and heart pounding. “But surely the other reps also have low sales,” I say, in a feeble attempt to challenge his data-based reasoning. As soon as I say it, he counters with the sales numbers of the other reps. I am so done for.
He continues talking, not once becoming harsh or expressing disappointment. Despite his stoic exterior, I could tell that this was hard for him. Toward the end, he made the comment that I was a wonderful person, this job isn’t for everyone. It takes a certain kind of killer instinct.
It’s true, I’m not a killer. And I can’t fake it. And trying to do so has become harder than the job. And right then and there, something shifted. Sure, my voice was chocked with tears, my hands trembling, my face flush and my body slumped – I had to force myself to sit up, take a breath, and focus. But at the same time, a little voice inside said this just is, it’s neither good nor bad.
Don’t get me wrong, it was an unpleasant experience. The very nature of the situation – an authority at work delivers the news that you are no longer a fit for the role you were originally hired to do and as a consequence you are being let go. And not only are you not a fit, you won’t get that check at the end of the month each month. And if this weren’t bad enough, you’re the only one who got fired, so while it’s not personal – it’s almost impossible to not take it personally. And yet it was still the ok.
I left the office shaken and a little ashamed – but by the time I reached my rent-a-car, I felt a hint of relief. Not just because I no longer had to do something I hated for a paycheck. But because of the way I took the bad news. Sure, my eyes looked like a popeye-fish from crying, and my mascara was probably half way down my face, but I didn’t lose myself. Something remained neutral inside – neither wrong or right, angry or defeated – while the outside world felt upside down. And just then it occurred to me that perhaps those qualities I admired so much in my now former boss, were in me all along.