Apparently Dick and I are very fortunate. In a brutal economic climate, we have managed – miraculously – to remain employed and yet I, for one, feel no sense of good fortune and little of anything resembling genuine gratitude – only the begrudging gratitude of a prisoner apportioned his daily ration of bread & water by the guards.
I certainly don’t mean to come off as unaware of my good fortune. I do recognize how lucky we are and how bad things could have gotten. But even before the economy started heading south I felt a sense of gloom about my long-term prospects in the corporate world. Perhaps it was the lack of options for us working parents with small children that got me started on the slippery slide into full-blown disillusionment. Or maybe it was hearing senior leadership refer to co-workers with the same smug disdain they usually reserved for our clients. Whatever it was that finally pushed me over the edge, there’s no doubt that I’m only one of many facing a state of jobful despair. There are scores of people like me simply collecting a paycheck and lacking passion for their job despite the fact that they love their work. What’s worse: I’ve realized that my disillusionment isn’t because I don’t feel hope or see potential for companies and their workers to succeed together, but rather, I’m disillusioned because I do. Call it my Jerry Maguire moment if you’d like but I can’t stop asking myself, “Isn’t there more to life than this?”
It was in May, amidst this tough operating environment where workers give more and get less and with a larger climate of uncertainty looming over the American consumer, that my company’s new management team made an “important” announcement.
“Clearly, we can’t go into 2010 doing the same things in the same way,” they said. ”It’s time we leverage our ingenuity, initiative and drive to achieve our goals. In short, it’s time for some change.”
We all leaned forward, hands cupped to our ears in anticipation.
Saying that you want to change things always has the effect of generating excitement, unless it’s abused, in which case it’s just another in a series of empty promises, full of sound & fury but little meaning.
Largely, we all remained optimistic. New leadership and new vision at the top might actually bring about the change we knew we needed. Months went by…
And then, one sticky September day change arrived in the form of an email announcement with the subject reading:
“Let’s ‘Dress for Success’: A Corporate Pride Initiative”
(That thudding sound you just heard was the sound of a 400+ foreheads simultaneously banging their desks in frustration)
The email announcement went on to describe the importance of “wearing our corporate pride” and then laid out the plan (with full-color flyers and examples of well-dressed vs. inappropriately dressed workers) for shifting from a semi-casual dress code to a business casual dress code. Sadly, all of this was positioned as a visionary concept sure to pull us out of our dire economic straights and back into the black.
Oh wise corporate dynamos, what were you thinking? You went off into your plush corner office for several months while we all plowed ahead under what could best be described as minimal guidance and this is what you came back with? A new dress code? That is your big idea for fostering change, ingenuity, and drive? You want us to change our company culture starting with our pants? With the odds stacked against us and the going getting tougher and tougher, the tough – according to your logic – put on a sharper outfit?
And then came the realization: we are so, totally, SCREWED.
I know I’m not alone in my feelings of worker disillusionment. Everywhere I go I talk to men and women who are working the jobs of 3 or more people and haven’t seen a raise or even a cost of living increase in more than 2 years. When I talk to these friends about what keeps them afloat, it’s always the same: a steady wage and their dreams. And those dreams are coming true for some of us – women in particular – who are smarter than Corporate America seems to think we are. Smart enough to know when to get out, at least.
According to US News & World Report between 1997 and 2004, the number of businesses owned by women grew by almost 20 percent, compared with only a 9 percent increase overall. While I’m sure our current economy has stifled this growth, I find this to be an astounding figure – a clear message in the form of a single-fingered salute; a message which says: “We will do better than this”.
Unfortunately, it’s a message many companies seem to be ignoring in the face of more recent economic turmoil. But economic conditions are cyclical and, indeed companies do need to change to retain their relevancy to both workers and consumers alike. But it’s women who are showing they have the will and the smarts necessary to realize potential. So if economies are cyclical and change is a constant in the universe, and the pillars of the modern American workforce are burnt out, pissed off and planning their escape, then aren’t we about due for a perfect storm?
I think there’s a chance – albeit a slim one – that we can avoid a messy break-up with Corporate America by exercising better communication skills. After all, most of Corporate America is still run by men and we all know that men don’t understand 90% of what we’re saying. Perhaps we’ve been talking them to death (like we do…)? Maybe it’s time we lay it out in a way that even they can understand.
That got me thinking. What if I could write a “Dear John” letter to Corporate America and tell this thug of a mate, clearly and unambiguously what I want out of a relationship and why our current one just isn’t working for me? What if we all did? Would we really make the change we want to see in the world?
Dear Corporate America -
You may not know me very well, but I’ve been working for you for the better part of 20 years now. It’s because of our long-term relationship that I am compelled to write this letter and let you know about the serious mistakes you’re making. These mistakes are so unforgivable that I may soon be forced to leave you and join the ranks of my bolder, more entrepreneurial sisters. But before I allow my emotions to carry me away, I’d like to point out your mistakes to you in a way that’s constructive so that, hopefully, you’ll do your part to turn this relationship around, or at least prevent your behavior from destroying all of your future relationships.
Following are the keys to making our relationship work. They’re pretty easy and there’s only four of them (to keep you from feeling too overwhelmed).
to be inspired – just a little bit – so that I don’t feel like I’m wasting my life on a venture that’s destined to fail while working for people whose cluelessness would engender my pity if I weren’t so damn angry. I want to be made to see the potential in what I’m doing – and as a leader it’s your job to show it to me. Make it clear and make it matter.
the right amount (and type) of challenges to stay intellectually engaged and empowered. I don’t want to do work that I suck at just to collect a paycheck. If I wanted to do that, I’d go back to working in food service. I want to be skilled and I want to learn new things so I can become a better me. You can and should want that for me as well.
to be treated like an adult. I “get” that not all of us act like adults all of the time (myself included), but I think I deserve the benefit of the doubt. Didn’t your mother ever tell you that it’s always better to treat people the way you want them to behave? Besides, when you invite me to be part of the solution instead of treating me as though I’m part of the problem, I’m far more interested in furthering our relationship.
to be compensated fairly for my achievements. We all sell-out, that’s the nature of working for someone else. Consider compensating me fairly as a form of business insurance so that the next time I get restless about my decision to be a whore – the money doesn’t become the focus of my angst.
As a working mom, I’ve already got a leg up on you in terms of mental agility and a general willingness to embrace risk. Voluntarily turning one’s life upside down to raise children – now that’s some risk-taking! The ability to maintain one’s sanity while juggling a job, a marriage, and a 4 year old and a 5 year old who are all simultaneously screaming for your full-attention requires, shall we say a “generous” amount of talent, time & resource management. These things come easily to me, but I’ve seen how you operate and it’s not pretty. That means I’ve realized that I don’t need you to be successful. If I can spend my days solving your problems, my problems and my family’s problems then I can certainly succeed in business on my own terms.
The ideas I’ve shared here are nothing new or terribly revolutionary. You may be apt to dismiss me or label me as naive, but I know from my highlighted hair to my peep-toe pumps that good business is all about people - and if there’s one thing we women are keenly aware of it’s people. It is our sociability that feeds us and provides us with our amazing ability to relate to one another. That power coupled with our desire to do things right and make things better in this world is the reason more and more of us are leaving you and not looking back.
So unless you can turn this relationship around in short order, I see no choice but to move on before you leave me or force me out. Either way, you should know that I’ll be walking away with more than a severance check and a reference. I’ll be taking my amazing intellect, my innate understanding of people, and my mad PowerPoint skills with me. I may not be the last woman you’ll ever have, but I’m certainly going to be one of the best.