Thursday, July 4, 2013

Lean in: When doing the right thing means breaking the rules

[Photo: An amaryllis just beginning its life—appropriate for the fresh new direction my own life has taken recently.]

Sheryl Sandberg's book, Lean In, has taken the technology and career worlds by storm this year. Her target audience—women—have particularly been talking about it. This Facebook executive encourages women to "lean in" to their lives, meaning they should take active ownership of their careers and decisions.

I count myself among the fans of this book and her philosophy. She echoes many of the ideas that I've believed for years, namely the fact that you should learn to trust your own gut instincts and actively work to change things for the better. And I believe that we should do these things for ourselves even when others may try to discourage us.

In the time since I graduated from college in 2006, my career path has taken a pretty traditional route: my first job out of school was in an area (PR and copywriting) that directly applied to my degree in Integrated Communications and English. I stayed there for two and a half years, until the company was experiencing difficulty and I knew my growth options there had run out.

My second job, as an account executive at a full-service marketing agency, was a great next step. I continued to use my degree (which seems to become more rare the further you get from school), I found an incredible boss and mentor, and I learned skills that are applicable in any field: customer service, organization, time management, etc. I stayed there for nearly four years, until I again realized that my opportunities for growth had run out.

That leads me to last November. I found a new job at a company I'd admired for years—a company that is a thought-leader and pioneer in the digital marketing industry. I knew I'd find many new growth opportunities there! I was overqualified for the position, but in talking with the hiring managers, it sounded like I could make it my own—and I wanted to get my foot in the door at the company. Sandberg wrote in Lean In that a great piece of career advice she once received is that the number one factor in choosing a new job should be potential for growth. In other words, "If you're offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don't ask which seat, you just get on board." This company fits that bill.

Unfortunately, I realized after just a few months that this particular position at the company wasn't a good fit for me long-term. The environment and opportunity wasn't what I'd expected after my interviews and first days on the job. While I knew that the team had been working hard and had a big undertaking ahead—launching seven websites, in five languages, on one day—I didn't expect chaos and 70-hour work weeks. Over the years, I've learned to recognize that stress affects me physiologically, whether it's through spontaneous sweating, digestive turmoil, hives on my skin, or daily tears. Those negative symptoms were showing up again.

Wanting to improve things, I talked with my two managers about my unhappiness and concerns. One of them initially seemed supportive and encouraged me to give it more time (about a month) to calm down and become more "normal," while the other wasn't so supportive and essentially gave me an ultimatum: I could either get used to it or move on.

At that point, I reached out to HR for support and connected with a great colleague there. She encouraged me to give the job more time and supported my interest in learning about other opportunities within the company. The company's official policy is that you need to work there for at least one year before applying to transfer to another position—but I knew that if things didn't improve soon, I wouldn't make it that long. Nevertheless, I wanted to do things as "by the book" as I could, and working with HR was important.

I took the next couple months to get through the intense period of launching those websites and network with other people in the company. I had coffee with people in my department and other departments and asked them about their working environments, work/life balance, what they enjoyed, and what had been difficult. Finally, around my five-month mark at the company, I knew I'd given my initial job enough time and effort to improve, and I'd discovered another position in a different department that I felt would be a better fit for me. I had support from my HR ally, who agreed to help me "break the rules" and attempt to transfer. Even though employees have an advantage in the fact that they're already familiar with the company and its products, we still have to officially apply and interview for a new job.

Leaning in: applying for a new job

I sat down with my two managers and shared my story: I'd given this job more of a chance, but I knew it wasn't right for me, and I'd found a different position I wanted to apply for. They were initially quiet, wanted to take a couple days to consider my decision, then we met again the following week.

At that time, they told me that they would sign my transfer request and wouldn't block it—but my last day with them would be May 24, whether I got the new position or not. If I didn't get the new job, I would be expected to leave the company. (Luckily, my HR contact had given me a heads up that this might happen—otherwise I would have been taken by surprise.) One of my managers, who'd been silent in that conversation up to that point, then stepped in to air his grievances. He told me that by expressing my discontent so early—both at my 90-day mark and now, at five months—I had disappointed them and invalidated the investment they'd made in my position. He also underhandedly threatened that this move would be detrimental to my career at the company and elsewhere.

This is a point where trusting yourself is more important than ever. I knew I was in a situation that didn't work for me, and following "company policy"—waiting until the one-year mark to make a change—would be bad for both the company (because they'd have an unhappy and therefore less productive employee) and me. I acknowledge that I'm at a point in my life where I can make decisions like this, because I don't have a family depending on my employment if I were to end up jobless. Not everyone has that freedom. I've learned over the years to trust myself and have confidence in my decisions, even if it's not popular with everyone.

I spent my final four weeks in that position interviewing for this alternative role, and it wasn't until I was four days from joblessness that I got the new job and accepted their offer. (A little close for comfort!) My direct manager, during that time, was cordial, but the other, who'd made his disappointment so clear, hardly spoke to me or acknowledged my presence in meetings. And since then, when I've passed him in the hall or on the street, he's given me a brief nod or has turned his head the other way.

And here's the great news: I've been in my new role for a month now, and I know I made the right decision. When someone asks me, "How was your day at work?" I can now answer, "Great!" with complete honesty. It's been a long time since I had that feeling. The department (with its processes and organization), my new manager (with his hands-off, mentoring style), and the role (that lets me actively use my brain in solving problems with a purpose for clients) are infinitely better for me.

By nature, I'm a rule-follower. But I know that by "breaking the rules" in this instance, I made the right decision for myself, my health, and my happiness. What do I hope you'll take away from my experience?

  • As Sheryl Sandberg says, lean in: Take ownership of your life and career. Make decisions for your own health and happiness, even if they're against standard company policy or don't fall in line with someone else's timeline.
  • If you're miserable, do something about it.
  • And above all, trust yourself. Trust your gut instincts. When they tell you something isn't right, tune in to that signal and listen to it. If we can't trust ourselves, who can we trust? 
I feel my spirit and optimism returning—so I'm looking forward to being back here, writing and photographing, a lot more soon.


  1. Thank you for exhibiting the same courage that led you to a more positive path with your job by sharing what you went through and what you learned. It's inspiring.

  2. Thank you, Aaron. I wrote this hoping that someone would read it and feel encouraged. It can be very hard to do what you believe is right when others are trying to discourage you, but I've always believed that we have to be our own advocates.