“Nations, like stars, are entitled to eclipse. All is well, provided the light returns and the eclipse does not become endless night. Dawn and resurrection are synonymous. The reappearance of the light is the same as the survival of the soul.” – Victor Hugo
I feared this day. It was a day that changed everything for me. After working for a company ten years, I was now at the top.
When I started, I was making $6.50 an hour. They had actually offered me $6.25, but my “stellar” negotiation skills kicked in and I was able to get a quarter more.
It was a surreal day in that downtown office as I was summonsed there with my good friend, who was also running the company at that time. I had no idea what was to happen next as we made our way into the lobby.
We were greeted by the CFO, but he asked me to stay back, because they wanted to speak with my friend first. About a minute later, he was on his way out the door after being let go.
It was now my turn.
I hated seeing my friend go like that. He had been with the company for a few years at that point and had made a tremendous impact on the culture as well as the infrastructure.
What was next, was time for me to step in that role. Ready or not, here I come.
The news of this dismissal sent a shock wave through out the company as well as the industry. While sitting there in the office of the CFO discussing what just happened, the CEO and HR director were in the next office sending the email informing everyone of the news.
What I didn’t know was that they were also announcing that I had accepted the position of running the company. This was news to me as they hadn’t even asked me yet.
To my friend, the word of this email got back to him quickly. Sadly, he thought I had something to do with his dismissal. We were very close, but after that… we were never close again.
By the time we were all gathered together in one office, I knew that as much as I was in shock of what just happened and how it just happened to my close friend, there was only one choice to make.
I had a family to support and I knew there was going to be a whole host of employees needing a leader to step up and see them through this.
Perhaps it was my time? However, you would have never known it by how I looked or acted. Quite frankly, I was scared to death as I immediately found myself in survival mode.
Over the following weeks, it was also confirmed that I would be taking over the helm of two other businesses as well. All together, there were three businesses that were completely different from each other. And, they were three business that were in pretty bad shape financially.
Honestly, those should have been the most exciting times of my life professionally. However, they were the darkest times as I was thrusted into a position I was scared to death of, but quite frankly, was probably made for. I just didn’t see it, yet.
About a month after the transition had happened, my friend, who had been let go, landed on his feet with another chain of retailers, what happened next was the bottom dropping out beneath my already fragile pysche. Within a matter of three days, it was announced that my top two employees would be leaving to follow suit with him to this other chain.
Did I have what it would take to hold this ship together and weather this storm or was I just too young and inexperienced for this?
Unfortunately, my confidence still had the best of me. I didn’t know who to trust. No matter how hard I tried, I could not mask the fear that raged inside. I could feel it every time I found myself in a group of people at the office. I felt like they were waging bets on how long I would last.
They all knew it was a terrible way to transition leadership, but to also throw me into a situation where I am running all these companies with virtually no support, no way. This was going to kill him, they must have thought.
When one finds themselves in survival mode, something happens. Either you find your footing, or you don’t. It is as simple as that.
My strategy was to deliver clear messages to the employees through out our company, which was spread over three states. I had learned a line that previous year from one of my favorite authors, Marcus Buckingham. The line is “Clarity is the antidote to anxiety.” If there was ever a time of anxiety in this company, this was it.
So, I sought to be constant, consistent, and clear with my messages. I also sought to define a future for our company that we could all hang our hats on and begin to believe again, that reaching that future was entirely possible. It became my mantra during that season. It is said that we need to major in the majors, in that season, this was just that. What our company needed was confidence, vision, leadership, and clarity. The importance of these qualities were that they impacted morale, which impacts productivity. You lose this and it is a long hard road back.
Sure, there might have been a million other things I could have focused on during that time, but honestly, this is all I knew how to do.
Meanwhile, what I also learned during that time of survival is that I was trying way too hard to carry the entire company on my shoulders.
To build a sustainable future, one cannot lead with such an approach. What I needed was to surround myself with people who were better than me at the jobs we needed to fill to keep this ship afloat. Thankfully, we found them.
Two years later, we experienced the best year in the history of the company by successfully turning a major loss into a significant profit.
I learned a lot during those few years. But from those darkest moments, I saw the reappearance of the light in a place that needed it most and this led, quite frankly… to the survival of my soul.