Monday, June 7, 2004

My Biggest Mistake

Robbie (Robbie's Ruminations...sorry I couldn't do a link, but AOL was freaking out again...) chose a question from her book on life and love last week...I wish I could go to Robbie's journal to get the exact wording, but AOL keeps closing down every time I go there (ok, Robbie, who did you piss off?) Anyway, it was something like, "What was the worst mistake you've ever made in your life?" Robbie wrote a serious answer about her involvement with a religious cult...something I understood and related to on a very deep level. It got me to thinking about the worst mistake I had ever made. Most people really have to do some thinking to answer this question. I had no problem at all coming up with my answer.

A little background is in order… I have spent more than half my life working in restaurants. It started when I was 18. I got my first real job working in a local pizza joint, and it just evolved from there. Sort of an odd occupational choice for a girl who was a National Merit Scholar in high school. But, obviously, there has been something about the work that has appealed to me...I've been doing it for thirty years, give or take.

Life in the food service industry, especially the level I was at, was not easy. The work was hard, the pay was poor. Back in the late seventies and early eighties, there was still plenty of gender bias in the industry, so I was not exactly encouraged to advance into management. But, being the person I am, management was really the only option for me. Believe me, it wasn't an easy road. I kept ending up in "middle management..." Shift supervisor, Kitchen Manager, Assistant Manager. The guy who had all the responsibility, but none of the authority. The one who inspired suspicion among the ordinary clock-punchers, but didn't get any of the management perks. Neither fish nor fowl.

In 1988, I somehow landed a job as a unit manager for a small chain of shopping mall store-front bakeries. I had already put 15 years of blood, sweat and tears into the food service industry...I had paid my dues. And I knew what a thankless, ungrateful, "sweat hog" industry I was working in. At the ripe old age of 33, my back was wrecked, my feet were toast (from working 10-hour-plus shifts on concrete floors.) My journals were full of diatribes abouthow hard I worked, how little I was appreciated, and how much I wanted my own business. Somehow, by the grace of God/dess (to borrow Cynthia's term), I fell into this bakery management position. And it became my dream job.

I was "Manager" for the first time in my life. In charge. The Big Cheese. The Buck Stops Here. And, wonder of wonders, I was good at it. I thrived in the position. Met the challenge, and grew a tremendous amount---not only as a manager, but as a person. I felt like I had finally arrived. Like all my years of sweating and grunting in the trenches had finally earned me something. AND, though I won’t go into the boring details, by some fluke of Ownership Whim, I was actually being well-compensated for it. To the tune of $35,000 per year. Which in that day and age, was nearly a fortune for restaurant management, at least at the level I had attained.

The problem with working in the food service industry is, it’s never a sure thing. Concepts come and go…chains are bought and sold. New blood is courted with new money and new ideas. I had experienced this before. So it was no surprise to me when, in 1992, our little bakery chain brought in a new president who had sunk a bunch of money into the business…basically bought himself the position. Little did I know, however, what an upheaval this was going to bring into my life.

Somehow or another, through attrition and my hard work, I had become the highest-paid manager in the chain. The word came down from Mr. New President that I was being asked to transfer to our Portland store…a store that did three times the volume of the one I was currently managing. I was told that I, and all the other "old" managers, were being groomed to be district managers or other high-ranking management in the new, improved and expanded company that was on the horizon. All I had to do was leave behind my family, my friends, the store I had worked so hard to turn into a money-maker, uproot my poor husband, and move 100 miles north to Portland. At that point in time, I was earning almost twice what my husband was…it made sense for us to move if it was to mean an advancement in my career. We agonized over the decision, but finally decided it was an offer I could not refuse.

Little did I know what the actual agenda was. Mr. New President had earmarked all of us old, "over-paid" managers for termination. In my case, they were presenting me with a challenge to which they were sure I was not equal. When it became apparent that I had the ability, and the WILL, to succeed at the Portland store, they put themselves to the task of setting me up to fail. I got absolutely no support from the main office. They vexed me and undermined me at every turn. Worked behind the scenes to set my employees against me. Any dirty, underhanded, dishonest tactic they could use to get rid of me…they used. Finally, within a little more than a year, I had had enough. After negotiating with my supervisor that the company would not stand in the way of my claiming unemployment, I gave my notice. (As a final act of hatefulness, they later contested my unemployment claim. Just a little reminder that they had the ability to make my life miserable far beyond the walls of the business itself…)

How does one recover from that kind of disaster? How do you go from being on top of the world, thinking you’ve finally made it, to being unemployed, broke, and completely disillusioned in a matter of months? I could never understand how a person who had absolutely no knowledge of me, either personally or professionally (Mr. New President) could arbitrarily hand down the decisions to so completely destroy my life. The whole affair was so malicious in its intent…it was beyond me how somebody I didn’t even know could HATE me enough to do that to me. Or be so careless as to be completely unconcerned about ruining my life. I lost not only my job, but whatever faith I had in human nature. I went from being basically convinced of the innate goodness of people, to understanding that the true nature of humanity is…well, it’s not very pretty. They say you can’t take this kind of thing personally. Well, I did. How else was I supposed to take it…not only did they contest my unemployment, but they took it upon themselves to give me a bad reference, so that I had a terrible time, for literally years, getting another job. My career with this company had gone from being my greatest success to my most magnificent crash and burn. It was too hard to take.

So, my biggest mistake? I left my family, friends, and everything I loved, dragging my husband with me, to follow a lie. But, do you know what’s the strangest thing about this? When we moved to Portland in 1993, I said (not really thinking this would happen), "Even if this doesn’t work out for ME, Portland is a better market for Matt to find a good job." And, damned if this didn’t happen. Over the last ten years, while I have been struggling with career changes, part-time jobs, and management positions that paid me half what I’m worth, my DH has found a place to work that, at the very least, compensates him for what he’s worth. He’s been there for ten years, and is making about three times his starting salary. (Which is a good thing, because his loony wife has finally resorted to owning a part-time business that doesn’t make any money, because she can’t find any success working for other people.) So, you could say that, in the long run, our original move to Portland was a blessing. Why is it that, sometimes, I don’t feel very blessed?

8 comments:

  1. I have a very similar tale to share with you sometime, down to the mixed blessing of it all.  (Corporate games are one of the reasons for my liberal politics.)

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  2. What a sad experience!  Unfortunately, this same kind of scenerio is still being played out all over the country.  Something akin to this happened to my husband several years ago and very recently, an excellent nurse at my work was essentially bullied into quitting.  It might help a little to realize that Mr. New President most likely had someone in rank above him telling him what to do.

    The older I get, the more I believe things happen for a reason.  Sometimes it takes a long time to understand the whys and wherefores.  Keep hanging in there, Lisa.  We're rooting for you!



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  3. Because you resent the fact that it was your misfortune that opened the door for hubby.  Just my perspective.... and I would feel the same way without a doubt.

    As far as what happened to you, the same exact thing, almost word for word, happened to my father during my teenage years.  He too was enjoying by and large his greatest success work wise only to have new, underhanded management force him out.  They felt threatened by his success and confidence in what he was doing.  And like you, because of their treachery, our family moved to where I live today, I met my husband and have lived here ever since.  I gained tons through my dad's misfortune.  
    And just a side note, the company my dad worked for nearly buckled and hasn't enjoyed the success it had prior to new management coming on board.  How has your former company faired?  I would guess probably not good.  Kristi

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  4. Oh, (((Lisa))).  Honestly, sometimes regrets aren't logical, because it's not always clear whether you made the wrong decision, because you never saw the results of the choice you didn't make, you know?  I think it's good that you're so detached and able to understand how this happened, but that's really the best thing you can do with regrets.  I'm sorry that you've been so disappointed with your career since then, though. :(  Believe me, I can totally understand.

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  5. hestiahomeschoolJune 8, 2004 at 9:15 PM

    I am so sorry you got screwed over like this. What a violation of trust!

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  6. I know only too well the corporate crap you talk about, not only in the restaurant industry but elsewhere. During the time that the crap is occurring it never feels like much of a blessing, but I believe everything happens for a reason. If you stay true to yourself, you'll come out smelling like roses. Heck, would you be doing all that you do had you stayed with that company? Thanks for sharing this.
    :-) ---Robbie

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  7. I can imagine your frustration and disillusionment as you felt your career crumbling.  Unfortunately, too many businesses fail to realize the value of a loyal and competent employee.  I'm glad that there was a silver lining to this "mistake".

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  8. Lisa, I always love your stories.  So sorry for this experience that you have described here.  You know, my husband went through a similar experience where he was promoted to a job they thought he would fail at, but he succeeded and because they did not like him personally, they looked for ANYTHING to bring him down.  They did not care how hard he worked, how much time he sacrificed away from his family, how much pride he took in doing what he did.  They ended up firing him one morning--just told him to go.  They gave him severance, but when you put your heart and soul into something and the reward is betrayal and severance--there's no happiness to come from that.  On the plus side, it did end up being a good thing for him and for all of us, but it took a while to recover.  I wish the same for you.

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