Five things I have learnt from being retrenched

Being retrenched is hard. It is a major shock, comparable to getting divorced or losing a life partner. It happened to me, and the team I was managing, at the end of 2018. In the process, during my journey of acceptance, I have learnt some hard lessons.

#1 – It was not our fault

#2 – It was not a reflection on the work we did

Seven months ago, at the end of November, I said goodbye to corporate life, after thirty years. Overnight, my team and I went from being the people who got things to “move” – we were a team of project managers – to “surplus to requirements”.

The first two lessons are so intertwined I could not write about one without touching the others.

As the organization transitioned to Agile management practices in the IT department, we were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not our fault – the organization evolved around us, and we were not given an opportunity to transition, although we had already all obtained Agile certifications. It was a numbers game. We drew the short stick.

Never mind that some of us had been awarded hefty retention bonuses in March 2018. Never mind that we had won accolades and recommendations from all over, for the unique and valuable work we did. Never mind that some of us had received the highest performance rating there was for two or three years in a row. Never mind that most of us had 20 years and more of experience.

The organization chose to downsize to contain cost. A new boss was in the driver’s seat, and when he looked at the organization’s structure, an organization who was transitioning to Agile, he probably asked why we still have project managers. The people in the room could not answer, or could not answer eloquently enough to save this group. My team. We were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was not our fault. It was not a reflection on the work we did.

What the organization decided about us, in some remote boardroom upstairs, by people far removed from the work that we did on a daily basis, did not change who we were. What we could do.

Who I was. What I could do.

#3 – There is nothing to be ashamed of

If you can internalize the first two lessons, the third comes easier.

There was nothing to be ashamed of. We were the same people we were the day before, with the same skillset and same work ethic. If allowed, we would have continued to do the same sterling job, moving the organisation and its IT Department forward into new technology, new ways of doing things, new ways of looking at cause and effect.

We were not given an opportunity to plead our case. A decision was made, far above us in the hierarchy of the organisation, and we happen to be affected. It was not personal.

# 4 – A whirlpool of emotions is triggered by retrenchment

Stepping out of that building for the last time was stepping into a whirlpool of emotion. A feeling of being set free, from the prison of my working day. A feeling of sadness, knowing that I might never see some of my friends again. A feeling of nostalgia, remembering how intimidating I found the building in my first days there 6 years ago. A feeling of relief, that the uncertainty around the situation was resolved. A feeling of shame, that I could not save the team I treasured, although I was not given a chance to plead for them.

For the first two months, with Christmas and the holiday period to deal with, it just felt like relief. Relief from incessant meetings, relief from the travelling and relentless traffic, relief from keeping up with technology, from being accountable and responsible.

My world shrank. I no longer listened to the radio news in the mornings on the drive in. I lost touch with the news and economic forecasts.

Only when the holidays drew to a close, and others went back to work, did I start feeling the loss. The loss of a routine. The loss of knowing I am adding value. The loss of a regular income. Being able to provide for my family. The loss of friends.

I wanted to go back and plead for a second chance. Find another job and become a spectacular success. I was small enough to find relief in the rumors that my erstwhile employer was in trouble, trouble resulting from no longer having my team. I found solace in my team moving on to new opportunities, new countries, new lives.

I slowly started rebuilding a routine, a life. I found some work elsewhere on a freelance basis. I realised that I do enjoy some of the new things, getting rid of some of the shackles that used to bind me in corporate life. I enjoyed my new commute – all 5 seconds of it – down the passage in my slippers. I enjoyed being home more, enjoying our garden and pets in ways I did not have time for previously.

With time, the whirlpool of emotions started to become easier to navigate.

# 5 – I cannot move forward if I do not forgive

I struggled with feelings of anger for a good six months after being retrenched. Someone suggested that I undertake a journey of forgiveness. I googled forgiveness, and methods to find forgiveness, and what I found that appealed to me was to break things down to individuals and individual actions.

What can I blame my immediate boss for? Not fighting hard enough for us? Maybe he did not have a seat at that table either. Maybe he did not deep down understand the value that we added.

What to blame our programme sponsor for, the most senior person we interacted with? What did I need to forgive him for? Did he have a seat at the table when they discussed this? Was he a lone voice in the room, advocating the work that we did? I knew I would never be told.

That new boss, who must have ultimately signed off on the decision? What was he guilty of, in my mind? Re-organising to contain costs? That was probably written into his performance contract, just part of his direction from the board.

I found it easier to forgive each of them individually, for what they contributed, than for the outcome of their collective action. That took more work.

Another technique that resonated with me was to create a list of things I was grateful for, things I experienced or achieved while working at my previous employer. I delivered two major programs, ending my career with them on a high, especially with the last one. I spent close to three years in a team that became my work family. We learnt so much from each other. I was privileged to lead a high performing team. I made a difference for some of my direct reports. I relearnt the joy of learning new things. I was given the freedom to use my time as I saw fit, in order to deliver our goals. I was exposed to outstanding training in my last year with them, including the training for my new career.  

I had met amazing people. I had learnt amazing things.

Placing my gratitude on one side of the scale, and retrenchment on the other side, the gratitude far outweighed the loss. Living that gratitude, thinking about the gratitude as opposed to the loss, eventually gave me peace.

And I found it in myself to forgive, and to start moving on.

#fivethings #coachtoignite #retrenchment #selfdevelopment

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