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Work & Money

From Burnout to Breakthrough

A setback on the job can be the springboard to greater success

Alisha Tillery

“I want to be clear, this is about your performance,” my supervisor said.

I was in his office for what I thought would be our usual weekly work meeting, but had just been told that I was being demoted from my role as the marketing firm’s director to my previous role as senior account executive. Apparently one of my clients was considering not renewing their contract, which would be detrimental to the company’s reputation and to its bottom line. Shocked and embarrassed that I’d heard none of this from the client first, tears welled in my eyes. After so many professional wins, I never imagined we’d be having this conversation.

I’d joined the company several years before and had established myself as a dependable team member, rising from a midlevel account executive to the number two slot. I handled the most important accounts and supervised teams of people. And now my performance was being questioned.

But the truth was that lately I’d been feeling overwhelmed. There had been conflict with the client and, unable to find a way to turn it around, eventually I’d stopped trying. Still, even if I wasn’t exceeding their expectations, I thought I was at least meeting them.

Despite my shame and shock, I soon realized that losing my title didn’t matter that much to me, but the substantial pay cut that accompanied my demotion did. Gone were the lavish dinners with friends and my carefree attitude toward money. Projects and people were transitioned from my supervision. But what hurt most was the realization that I’d screwed up enough to be removed from my position. Had I overestimated my ability? Was my performance a reflection of my feelings about the job? These were issues I was forced to explore in the following weeks.

I was conflicted. Some days I wanted to blast out my resume because there was no way I could stay where I wasn’t appreciated. On others I thought I’d be better off working on my weaknesses instead of taking them to another job. My workload was lighter and I no longer had to deal with tedious client requests, but I missed managing a team. Although I tried to be professional and act as if nothing had happened, inside I was angry and finding it difficult to approach my work with any enthusiasm. I became less vocal in meetings and resolved to just put my head down and work.

Then one day soon after, as I sat in a meeting, fully committed to my indifference, I had, as Oprah would say, my ‘aha moment.’ Reading a paragraph in a document about client care, I suddenly realized how clearly I’d missed the mark working with my clients. Yes, I’d been great with relationship-building and follow-through, but my inflexibility and reluctance to help them solve problems were huge flaws. At that moment I finally held myself fully accountable and prayed for guidance in my professional life.

I asked God to strip me of my hurt and insecurities and help me see the situation as a bump in the road instead of an unbridgeable impasse. I needed to understand the lesson my demotion was supposed to teach me because I knew that those unaddressed issues would follow me to my next job.

I committed to doing whatever was required to turn my career around: reading industry publications, listening to my small team and taking professional development courses. Creative thinking and candid conversations with clients helped me to turn projects around quickly and boosted my confidence. Client feedback had grown positive, and along the way I scored points for fixing some glitches in our processes. Things were better, and my manager was happy. But I realized I wasn’t.

My demotion had been a catalyst for change, forcing me to address professional weaknesses (such as not being aggressive enough and avoiding confrontation) that I’d been avoiding for years. It also made me acknowledge that I’d become bored with my work and should have been looking for other opportunities. I’d lost my passion for the job and not even my recent successes could reignite it.

A few months later I ended up leaving the company to pursue freelance projects that aligned more closely with my passions. During that time I got great feedback from clients, who praised me for my responsiveness and efficiency. Then, out of the blue at beginning of this year, my old boss asked me to return to the company, this time as a senior executive with more opportunities to advance. Although he didn’t say it in so many words, his job offer told me everything I wanted to hear — during my absence the company had finally realized the value of my expertise. It felt as if an ex-boyfriend who’d dumped me had just turned up, asking me to take him back.

And I did. I finally realized that getting over my work hurt was about more than getting my boss’s approval; it was about earning my own and realizing my worth. Sure, I could have let my ego take over and told them where to shove their job. But I missed working with a team and the relative stability of being a full-time employee. My biggest lesson over the last year had been that employers always make the decisions that are in their own best interests. And I now I had the courage to do the same for myself.

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