It’s not easy taking a leap of faith. But what’s even more challenging is to continue working in an unhealthy environment. Toxic corporate cultures are more pervasive than CEOs and Human Resource Departments want you to know. One of the few solaces I always found while enduring this misery was that at least it was out in the open. The company knew precisely what they were, a profit-driven machine willing to put profits before people at every opportunity.
But one, in particular, did everything in their power to portray how they differed from other companies, especially those in their industry. It was even believable, at least for a while. But as with all charades where words are used solely to manipulate others into actions that betray their best interests, eventually, the cracks began to show. It was like an untreated infection spreading throughout the entire body.
Back then, I didn’t know what I do now about leadership and culture. I did not have some of the amazing experts in my life I do today. But there is also nothing capable of replacing learning these lessons firsthand. And after three years of suffering from the affliction, I decided to put myself first for once and exit. I barely had a clue what I would do to replace the six-figure income. There were bills to pay, but living that existence was not an option anymore.
For months, I worked tirelessly to get my business off the ground. I started writing all the books I had been putting off due to the toxic environment. I took odd jobs and consulting gigs whenever possible. Some of the money went to everyday living expenses, and the rest was invested in the infrastructure needed to feed a small business. Most of the time, more money went out than came in. There would be a big win here and there, but more often than not, it felt like I was running uphill with a backpack full of rocks strapped to me.
It got so rough I thought about quitting and crawling back to the industry I swore I would never work in again. One evening, while out with a friend, I was asked if I would be interested in interviewing for my old position with the company he now worked at. Apparently, my struggle was more obvious than I thought, and he thought it could help temporarily. His new boss was someone I knew and respected from my previous company. If I was going to do it, I figured it better to be the devil I knew.
The following week, I was instructed to attend a hiring event where this senior manager would be interviewing candidates. Even though I thought about not showing up multiple times, some on the car ride there, I went through with it because going back on my word was not something I could do. I arrived early and sat in the designated waiting area where all the glass-enclosed offices were visible.
I make eye contact with the person I am supposed to meet with once as he walks by to take another candidate and am met with a half-smile in response. This would happen at least three more times, although with less of a smile each time. My friend was there as well and reassured me multiple times that I would be going in shortly. Until his manager decided to sneak out a back door without explanation, never to return!
Needless to say, I am sitting on the border of depression and anger. In what professional world does someone just walk out on a waiting candidate, one you once had a working relationship with no less? I heard through the grapevine a few days later that this manager was still friendly with many I used to work with and was informed that my “stock value” in the industry had declined, making me a risk to hire. Now, of course, none of this was said to my face nor confirmed, but it didn’t matter.
I am forever grateful for that evening. That was the fuel I needed to haul that sack of rocks to the top of the mountain and toss it down the other side. Based on the underlying culture and ethics that prompted the reaction from the hiring manager that evening, getting the job there would have more than likely become a repeat of the last company. Instead, I doubled down on myself and continued to invest more in my business than most thought prudent. Due to that experience, I can say with complete confidence for the first time that they could not pay me enough to stray from my passion and sell my soul back to them.
Too many people in the workforce today are faced with this problem. Employers force them to choose between their dignity and their financial survival. I know some incredible business owners and consultants who have turned this negative into a positive, using it to attract and retain the best possible talent. People are the most valuable resource any company has. It is up to the leadership to inspire them to unlock their full potential, not to beat them into submission, or chase them into the arms of their competition.