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How to Learn from the Past

By: | May 2, 2019 • 6 min read
Martha Finney is HRE’s Advice from the Top columnist. She is a lifelong HR career trends watcher and best-selling author or co-author of 26 books on HR career management, leadership and employee engagement. Her passion for the HR profession has given her unique access to CHROs, current and past, who trust her with their most powerful insights into what it takes to build a world-class HR career destined for the C-suite. She can be contacted via LinkedIn or at http://marthafinney.global/lets-get-started.

There is probably no corporate job that is guaranteed to be drama-free; there’s just no getting away from people. And it’s the people who bring the unscheduled complications and welcome diversions from the elegantly thought-out business and career plan. Nobody goes unscathed in their lifelong career journey—that is especially true for anyone who chooses the HR profession.

But it’s not what happens to you that counts—it’s how you turn the experience into wisdom that you can pass on to help along their way.

To explore how to overcome obstacles in a way that can positively impact others, we posed this question to three HR leaders: What is the worst thing that has happened to you in your career, and how would you advise your past self, knowing what you know now?

Michelle Crosby, founder and principal of Crosby Consulting LLC

“Getting laid off was the worst thing that ever happened to me. My advice would be: Don’t be in denial at any time in your career.”

I would say [the worst thing] was getting laid off from FRHI Hotels & Resorts—Fairmont, Raffles, and Swissotel brands—when I was global head of human resources and we were acquired by another company. It was a job that I truly loved, in an organization that I also loved. It didn’t come as a total surprise but there were indications that they wanted to keep me, all the way up to the moment when they made the call. I thought that I would have at least six months to a year to help with the transition period. I didn’t think it would happen so suddenly.

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What caused me the most heartache was the loss of something that was very important to me. I had come into the role after having been a consultant with them first. They’re an amazing brand, with a wonderful culture and fantastic people. We were mid-journey and, while we had done some great work together, there was much more to do. So I felt like the rug had been pulled out from beneath me.

I knew that getting laid off was likely to happen, but I still didn’t want to believe it. So I guess there was a big piece of me that was in denial. I should have prepared myself psychologically for the inevitability of it; I should have been more honest with myself. And then I would have been more active in rebooting my consulting practice again, laying the foundation for getting my business back up and running more quickly.

This would be my advice to my younger self: Find a place in your mind where you can fully invest in the role you’re in. But don’t be in denial. Be realistic. Never lose sight of the fact that leadership and owners have goals and plans for the future. And they may or may not include you.

And take comfort in the knowledge that talent always has options. You will always have a place in the world. It may not be immediately obvious what that place is. But when you’re talented and you have a track record of success, you will land again. You just need to get from here to there.

***

Name withheld, vice president in the HR department of a national retail company

“I filed a sexual-harassment lawsuit in my late 20s. My advice would be: Seek out essential emotional support.”

The sexual harassment itself was bad enough. But what happened to me surrounding the lawsuit itself was the worst thing that ever happened to me. I was in my late 20s, just starting a career in a field that I had actually gone to school to prepare for—I was that passionate and committed to the profession.

But there was such a fan club around this guy. He was a top performer in the company at the time, and even senior women tried to tell me that I was the problem: “You’re a lunatic.” “You don’t understand European personalities; it’s just his way.” “You’re unstable.” He was a rock star, not only in our company but also in the entire industry. And the power players were out to get me.

There was no doubt I was putting my lifelong career dream at risk. It got to the point when I started questioning myself, “Am I crazy?” This could brand me as a troublemaker forever, and I wouldn’t be able to get another job in the industry I loved so much. But I never saw my dad or brothers behave this way to women. And I was certainly not going to allow myself to be treated that way either.

It was a brutal experience. In addition to being pressured and attacked by senior women who were taking his side over mine, I was up against one of the most infamously powerful attorneys in the industry. But I won the case, and my harasser lost—his job, his benefits accrued over a long career, everything.

Fast forward to now, almost 25 years later, and all those women who took his side are now vocal advocates for the #MeToo movement. I see their names everywhere. The hypocrisy makes me want to scream.

This would be my advice to my younger self: Lean on others more—especially family and faith. I had one mentor, who was my boss and who supported me. But before long, we couldn’t talk either because she officially became a witness. The process isolated me at work, and I bottled up a lot of stress. I should have turned to my private resources more.

I also have to give my younger self credit, though. I’ve since told my daughter and son the whole story. And while I rarely pat myself on the back, to my younger self, who can now serve as a role model for my own children, I can say, “Good job.” That was a very difficult chapter in my life. And I’m proud that I stood up for myself when it wasn’t a popular time to take sexual harassment head on.

***

Tresha Moreland, publisher of HR C-Suite

“I was laid off by a CEO whom I had trusted. My advice would be: Even when you feel betrayed, don’t let that feeling stall you in taking active steps on your own behalf.”

The worst thing that’s ever happened to me has actually turned out to be the best thing. As you go through the bad events in your career, they eventually lead you toward the good. I’d say that the worst thing that has ever happened to me was being laid off—but not really. I’ve gone through it three times, and I wound up better off each time.

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I was laid off by a CEO with whom I once had a strong working relationship. This one was especially painful because I thought I could trust this person. But, over time, we had been at increasing ethical odds with each other, and I suppose I should have seen it coming. Still, the layoff itself came out of the blue, and I spent a long time afterwards coping with my feelings of betrayal.

In the aftermath, I spent a lot of time feeling sorry for myself and wondering why I hadn’t taken the warning signs seriously. And, believe me, there were plenty of warning signs. But I had just kept hoping for the best. If I had spent less time feeling sorry for myself afterward, I would have accepted reality sooner and could have moved on to a better place of planning, being in a productive, healthier state of mind.

The one thing I don’t regret, though, is that I maintained my professionalism with the remaining staff members who had been with me as much as four years. They’d call me to check up on me and tell me what was going on at work. They still needed my coaching and leadership. I kept telling myself, “Tresha, you’re a professional first. This is not the time or place to complain to them about your thoughts of betrayal. They still work there, they still have to make a living, they still have to take care of their families.” They needed to hear a strong person on the other end telling them, “Take care of yourself and your family first. Don’t hinge your future on me. We’ve had our time together, and I’m hoping that you learned a lot from me. I’ve learned a lot from you.”

You can either lose yourself in self-pity, or you can remember that other people are still looking up to you and learning from how you handle the situation. You’re still teaching people by your example. And they needed to be reassured that it was OK to let go of me now.

This would be my advice to my younger self: Accept reality for what it is as quickly as possible. This is the only way you start letting go of the past and begin building a better future.

***

It’s a common truism in HR that, as you rise through the ranks, if you let the fear of losing your job influence the decisions you make and advice you give, you’re not doing your job. In truth, losing your job isn’t necessarily the worst thing that can happen to you in your HR career. Betrayal, the feeling of being embattled from all sides, crushing disappointment, even the dreaded woulda-coulda-shoulda, can actually make you want to say, “Here, take my job, I don’t want it anyway. It’s not worth the heartache.”

That feeling will pass. I promise you. And it will pass that much faster as soon as you can turn it into wisdom to pass on to others. There is no reason why anyone should repeat your experience, especially not when there are plenty more “worst things” that might be heading their way. The opportunities to get more wisdom are endless.

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