“I was raised to believe that you work hard, do your job and be conscientious. But experience has shown me, to some degree, this advice just goes out the window. You could be made redundant at the drop of a hat and you have no control over it.” Joseph reflects on a major episode in his life that occurred more than six years ago.
The episode was a major restructure that occurred in a large community organisation where Joseph was one of the senior staff. Even though his role was not cut, he witnessed many friends and colleagues lose their jobs. “It’s pretty sad really. You could be quite brilliant at your job, have considerable knowledge and skills and you could even have a unique skill-set. It doesn’t matter. You could still be asked to leave.”
For Joseph, the irony is that he does not believe that the restructure was necessary. In fact, he believes that very few are, based on what he has experienced and discovered from talking with others. “When you weigh up the impact on people, losing their jobs, experiencing uncertainty, the emotional toll it takes against what was achieved – I just look at it today and don’t think it was worth it.”
A further irony as Joseph saw it, was that he worked for an organisation established to care for people. “It was difficult seeing people who had given their heart and soul to the cause, some for more than 20 years, leaving. My advice to them on their last day was to think about all the families that they had helped and all those whom they were able to support. No one could take that away from them. Yes, it was right to be sad, but no-one could deny their amazing efforts.”
A new strategy
Our discussion focussed on the details of the restructure. Several new executive staff had joined the organisation and soon changes were being put in place. However, they came from a business background with no experience in the community sector. Joseph felt that their view of the world was misaligned. “They came up with a new strategy. But it was very strange that it didn’t even mention our clients. It was all driven by bottom-line considerations. But all the decisions were made from worse-case scenarios. We were not in any serious financial difficulty.”
What seemed even stranger to Joseph was the way in which the strategy and the new structure was communicated to staff. “All the decisions were made behind closed doors. Even though I was one of the executive, I had little idea of what was happening. I was in a very difficult position. I felt like our strategic planning processes had gone back 20 years with such little stakeholder engagement.”
Ultimately, Joseph felt that he could not continue in his role.
“I couldn’t see how the new structure would work. I didn’t agree with the cuts, but I decided I would stay to implement it, largely to make sure my staff were supported and that our client services would not suffer. But once that happened, I simply could not stay.”
A new life
Life after Joseph finished work changed considerably. “I had a lot of leave owing. I decided that I would take the next two months off and not worry about looking for another job. I just wasn’t in the right headspace.”
He was surprised on being contacted the day after he left by someone from HR asking him to do some contract work. “I thought it was funny getting a call from them. Unfortunately, they realised that they did not have anyone with my experience to get them through an accreditation process. I told them I was taking the next two months off and if they were still interested in my help, to give me a call then. As it turned out, I got a call two months later, to the day.”
Those two months off were strange for Joseph. “Even though I wasn’t on the frontline, I was always alert to getting calls and checking emails, even on the weekend. I remember my early memories after leaving work thinking, ‘this is different’. I didn’t have to rush anywhere or return any calls. I hadn’t experienced this for a long time.”
Joseph also struggled with a range of emotions. Even now, there is still considerable emotion for him when he speaks about his experiences. As a Christian he leaned on his faith, but confesses it was difficult to pray for the people whose decisions had adversely affected the lives of others. He also struggled with anger toward God. “I knew that God could bring good out of the bad, but that didn’t make it easier for me at the time.” But taking the time off meant he could get some separation from an intensely emotional period in his life and prepare himself for something new.
Reflections on leadership
He had worked with a few senior leaders during his years in the community sector and made some observations of those who most impressed him.
“One particular CEO I worked with also came from the corporate world. What made him stand out was that he was prepared to listen. Thankfully, he also came from a profession that made him evidence-based in his approach to decision making. So, you could reason with him. He also involved the whole Executive team in big decisions. He wasn’t afraid to make tough calls, but if you believed something needed to be said, he would listen.”
Preparing for the next phase
During his neutral zone time, he began to ponder the next step in his life. “I wanted to see if I could step up to the next level and be a CEO. I wanted to put in practice what I believed; that you could prioritise your clients and your staff as well as maintain a viable organisation.” As it turned out, the perfect opportunity arose. After he completed his consultancy with his former workplace, he was successful in landing the role of CEO for a mid-sized community-based organisation and was there for more than five years.
Learning from his experience
Asked what he thinks he learned about himself when going through the restructure and eventually leaving his job, the words simply pour out.
“I learned that your job is not who you are, or at least it shouldn’t be. I realised that too much of my identity was caught up with my job. But I’m also a brother, a friend, a cousin, a Christian, a father…all so much more than just one role. This was really hard for me when I first left. It took me a little while to find some balance.”
My faith proved to be really important too. I did pray and I’ve become thankful for what I have. Even this year, when I’ve found myself out of work again, I’m not worried. I know work will come around again. The one blessing that Covid has brought is that I’m not spending as much money as I once did. I’m also asking myself, do I really need this or that. It makes you realise that the things in this world are temporary. I have better things to look forward to.”
“One thing I realise is that the most difficult thing about leaving my workplace of so many years was that I would miss the people. I still keep in touch with a few and catch up for lunches when I can.”
Looking at Joseph, he strikes me as the sort of person perfect for the community sector. He loves people and he was committed to his work. Naturally, his memories of that separation, more than six years on, would still be painful.
Joseph’s name changed to protect identity