Throughout my life October has always been the cosmic shake-up month when I’m propelled to lean in and learn in some way. As a young girl I had my first piano recital in October; my husband proposed marriage in October when I was 30; and I found out I had an ovarian tumor while pregnant in October at age 36. This trend continued into October 2011 when I was named chief operating officer of a $20+ million public relations agency with offices in the U.S. and Canada. It was also the month I tried to resign.
It was a hard year for our award-winning public relations agency. We were being integrated more fully into the parent company, complete with new reporting relationships and financial processes, and we were racing to increase our global footprint while maintaining the business culture at home. Our CEO came to me and asked that I take on the chief operating officer (COO) role, as we needed full-time focus on infrastructure, financial management and culture.
I outwardly said yes, but I wouldn't use the COO title in conversation and resisted putting it on my email signature line. The truth is, to be brave enough to say it would mean that I'd have to step into it and own it, and it was a daunting task, especially being a wife and mother of two daughters. After a period of time fraught with frustration, I naturally did what I thought anyone in my situation would do: I wrote my resignation letter. With no intention of mailing it in to my CEO, I did, however, want to be clear on my talking points when that "I can't do it anymore" moment presented itself.
Five days later I had dinner with my girlfriend of more than 20 years, Vicky. As friends do, we caught up about life and family and how things were going with my new job. I told her about my frustrations, how I felt overwhelmed, wasn't sure I wanted the COO job, and like I wasn't doing anything well at home or at work.
All at once she looked me in the eyes and asked me "What is this really about?" I didn't know how to answer, so she just continued to talk, telling me “It's typically not about the obstacles, but more about the emotions underneath." With my head spinning, we finished dinner and she had one final piece of advice for me: As we were leaving, she said, "Don't let any of this ride you out on the rails. You do this job and you do it better than anyone else and then YOU decide what you're going to do next."
I went home that night and cried to my husband until midnight, finally articulating what was at the core of my angst and why, on paper at least, I had to quit. I bravely said out loud that I was scared I didn’t have what it would take to run the agency I'd loved for 18 years and that under my watch it might become a place where profit was put before people, a place where a parent company dictated more about our culture than we did and a place where we had no substance or heart.
After a fitful night of sleep, I literally bolted awake the next morning with the clearest sense of direction (finally!). At the center of this awakening, I knew two things for sure: First, I’d built a career on assessing the needs of clients, and second, I knew what motivated people as human beings. This mind shift was massively important because I could put our parent company in the "client" category, choosing to boldly influence them so that their needs were met and ours as well.
On the human front, I could use our humanistic corporate history and my personal study to redefine who we are as an agency at the core. By leaning in, my attitude shifted from doubt to knowing that I was the best employee for the job. I also realized that when my ride here is over, for the right reasons, I wouldn’t look back with any sense of regret and, more importantly, because I had always made my family a priority, they would continue to thrive and share in my professional success.
As we move into 2013, my legacy as COO is clear. I want "best place to work" to be intrinsically valued, not just as an external reward. With that, I particularly look at the struggles women face each day as we launch new workplace policies such as "work from anywhere," which allows all employees to self-manage when they need flexibility in their days or to attend important family functions. When we pay attention as women, and as human beings in general, we can live our corporate values in a more authentic way, be the strategic vessel in which to serve our clients and design operating methods that fit our lifestyles while prospering financially.