In which I do not have a home

Last week, when I started packing boxes for the move, it was tiring but it was also exciting. Because the boxes needed labelling as to which room they were destined for in my house, and so I had that image in my head of the unpacking and the sorting and the arranging. After months of waiting, my own place was finally in reach.

Now, I’m finishing the packing and I don’t know where the boxes will go. On Monday, the chain collapsed. One of the vendors further down the line doesn’t even have their mortgage approved; my vendors decided not to go ahead with the sale. While this saved me a decision, it also crash landed my hopes and wrecked the day dreams that have basically gotten me through the last few months. I had a lot riding on that house, and I am bereft of that vision of my future, of my own home.

On Tuesday, I had a conversation with my manager in which I negotiated my exit from my job. (I’ve just realised that was yesterday, but time seems particularly fluid at the moment.) I’ll take a few days to wrap things up, some paid vacation time and then three months’ paid gardening leave. It will see me through to October, and in the moments when I’m not panicking I think it must be perfectly possible to find a job, any job within that timescale.

Also on Tuesday, I took a lunch hour and spent it sitting in my car, phoning letting agents and trying to book appointments to see rentals at the weekend. The usual conversations ensued: ‘No, the landlord won’t accept pets’, ‘Oh, I’m really sorry we’ve just had references back on that one’, ‘Well, we’ve got four viewings on that today so I think it’ll be gone by the weekend’. And so the whole, tedious process began.

Then I came home to a half empty house because A had moved out. Odd how a half empty house can seem emptier than one that is fully vacant. I suppose because what is missing is emphasised.

Today I tricked the cats into their carriers and took them to the cattery. We all cried, until I realised that I would absolutely never forgive myself if I had an accident and they got hurt, and so pulled myself together. I don’t know when they’ll be coming home or where home will be.

If I could pack myself away in one of the boxes, I would. It would be dark, and cosy and safe. It would be time stolen from time, and I would just sleep, dreamlessly.

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In which I’m not being performance managed

I now have a counsellor, as my anxiety achieved a sudden spike one day and I thought ‘I’m not sure I can do this any more’. She immediately made me feel better by listening to all the shit that is happening at the moment and saying ‘Well, of course you feel like it’s too much, it is too much.’ So, not just me being a whiny ass, then. We agreed that the anxiety was situational and that as soon as I moved house, I’d feel a lot better. Hurrah!

But, that was at the point when I still thought I’d be moving house next week and I would take a week off to move and get myself settled. Now there’s a problem with the chain, and someone is going on holiday and maybe I’ll be moving end of July. Maybe. This gives me pause for reflection, given that the removal company is coming on Thursday and the new owners are moving into my current house about four days later. Short term lets are crazy expensive and you can’t have pets. The cats are facing six weeks in a cattery. I was freaking out about one week. This is not good.

A day after all this landed, I had another one of those ‘Is this the right role for you?’ chats with my manager. Parsing this out of corporate speak, what it means is ‘I have decided that this is not the right role for you and I would really prefer it if you could hurry up and arrive at the same conclusion and hand in your notice. Please jump so I don’t have to push you.’

Well, he is right. I hate my job, I would never have applied for it, I would never have been recruited for it, and I have never claimed to have the requisite skills and experience. It’s just where I’ve ended up after unofficial departmental re-shufflings.  Since January I have been calling out that I don’t have the experience and could I have some help or training please, so I’m finding it a bit ironic to be informed of the gaps as though it’s a surprise to anyone. My manager did say ‘I think you’re good at thinking and strategy’, to which I managed not to reply ‘No shit, Sherlock, that’s what I was hired for.’ Unfortunately, that thinking role never existed as other than an outgoing hiring manager’s dream.

Of course, this isn’t an unusual situation in a large company, and the official line is coaching, training and finally, performance management, all of which is supposedly intended to upskill the relevant person so they can stay in role, or in the business. I’ve done that with someone who reported to me and it takes time and effort and determination on both sides.

But performance management is also a very easy process to exploit. It’s subjective and there’s no oversight and by the time you body slam an employee with what is seen as a threat, they’re scared. They don’t know the process, they don’t know their rights, there is little HR support. Consequently, performance management has a bad rap in the business because it’s usually done to make someone’s life so uncomfortable that they leave, and that is exactly what happens. I’ve been told just this week that managers should have 10% of their reports on performance management all the time, because that way you ensure that a proportion of people will always be leaving. So it’s a way of managing headcount and staying lean.

In my case, my manager can use all of this to circumvent going through the hassle of doing the right thing. He’s told me that he already knows what the outcome would be (very capable, but in the wrong role), so he wants to avoid going down that route. He’s also done some not-so-subtle cuing up by telling me that he thinks I’m stubborn and I don’t like to give in. Right again, but surely being pretty focused on trying to do a good job is a positive trait…? Yes, except when it isn’t.

This creates a clever trap, in that even if I force the issue (stubborn!), the outcome is pre-determined. He’s also using the perception of performance management as a lever: ‘You’re well respected in the business, I’d hate to tarnish your reputation’ style messaging. That’s a threat neatly wrapped up as concern, all dressed up in the wide-eyed guise of ‘I’d much prefer to have an honest conversation.’ Really, you’ve got to admire the tactic, even if not endorsing the ethical standards it evidences. This is how managers get to say ‘I’ve never performance managed someone out of the business.’ The system is weighted so that they don’t have to.

So, next steps? Jump or be pushed. Or more likely, ‘reach mutual agreement that I will leave the business’. Either way, it’s a three month notice period so the only conversation is around whether I work those three months or not. I’m thinking not, as I can’t afford to be unemployed so I’ll need that time to get something else.

I have to think seriously about whether proceeding with buying a house at this point is the right thing to do, or whether it’s too risky. I could still get my deposit back and that would buy me a few more months’ survival without a job. I will need to move fast because if I have to rent again, it will be impossible without a job so I need to still be technically employed.

I don’t think 2018 is going down as one of my favourite years.

I’m starting to hate LinkedIn

I know I’m not the first person to realise this, but LinkedIn is the Facebook of work, and I gave up on FB over a year ago. It’s bad enough that at work I can’t just do my job and we all have to play the game of cheerleading about ourselves to as many senior people as possible, while ostentatiously collecting ‘Recognition events’ for ‘Living the company values’. I realise it’s difficult to tell, but those things in quotation marks are real; I am actually not making this ridiculous shit up for effect. A great deal of money, time and effort goes into creating corporate values. Loads of companies have them and without fail they can be summed up as ‘Don’t be a dick’. Recognition platforms are becomingly increasingly gamified, too, with managers now having points they can allocate to their reports as reward for scoring highly on the values. And what do points mean? Prizes!

Admittedly, I am a miserable, cynical old cow, but I started work in the era before objectives, 121s, recognition and managers who were supposed to talk to their direct reports. You were just left to get on with your job, and if you did it, great and you probably got a bit of a payrise and eventually a promotion, and if you didn’t, you got shunted off to another department or life was made a bit miserable until you left.

So, as far as I can see, nothing has changed in terms of end results, there’s just a load more hoop jumping and specialised vocabulary along the way.  Oh, and more people being signed off with stress.

Anyway, so where Facebook was the platform on which people carefully curated their lives, LinkedIn is the professional equivalent. Even more than Twitter, it’s the place where personal and professional boundaries blur, to create an environment where curated professional personalities perform their jobs. At one extreme, people just whore out their accounts to their employer’s social media agency.  Those accounts then become simply a stream of airbrushed marketing fluff, patently superficial. Disconcertingly, the odd real post can still sneak in, which only goes to underline the falsity of the majority of the content.

At the other end of the scale, you can continue to manage your own account, but following all the best practice tips to maximise views and interactions. This is the slightly sneakier way, a more personally crafted version of authenticity, which still manages to showcase either your own awesomeness, or ideally, lavishes awesome sauce on your company as well. Sometimes, it’s an inverted way of showcasing awesomeness, when you write a ‘triumph over adversity’ post that starts off by outlining the problem/thing you didn’t realise, and ends up with the solution/lightbulb moment. It’s best if you can ensure that the realisation is either due to teamwork or your own moment of humbleness and genuine learning.

No one ever just posts the reality that they’ve had a great day because they had one good conversation that unblocked a difficult situation, or someone fixed the vending machine; or a shit day, because your budget just got wiped and now you have to deliver all the same stuff but with no money and fewer people.

Because we must all be our best professional selves all the time on LinkedIn. It’s like doing your job twice over, once during the working day (assuming you’re a hold out who has a working day and doesn’t live in the interstices between emails), and then again, by booming out the edited highlights into the echo chamber.

I’d like to propose an alternative site, LinkedIntrovert. We can all just post our CVs or any jobs we’re recruiting for, and then shut the fuck up.

Interview don’ts for women

I’ve been reading/seeing/hearing a lot of information about how women unconsciously undermine themselves at work recently, and I see some of it in practice too. Partly because I’m job hunting and partly because I’ve reviewed a couple of CVs for friends lately, I started thinking back to the last interview I had. It was for an internal role that I did not get, and at the time I was fine with that. I knew I didn’t have much experience, the role would have been a step up for me, and I was looking forward to working with someone new that I could learn from.

Scroll forward a few month and now I’m witnessing the entirely mediocre performance of the person who did get the job, and I’m feeling the burn. It goes along the lines of ‘How did I lose out to that?’ and all I can think is that they talked a great game and I did not. So I offer this up in case anyone can learn from my mistakes. I’m not saying that I’d have gotten the job if I’d take a different approach, but I do think I could have been a stronger contender. Instead, I downplayed my own abilities because I knew going in that I didn’t tick every box on the list.

  1. What I did: because it was an internal interview, I assumed an element of familiarity –  I figured that the interviewers would be aware of both my past career history and my history within the company. I thought that this conversation was part of an ongoing discussion about opportunities for development within the company. (I still think it should have been, but that’s a different story.) What I should have done: Put on my best game face and treated it as though it was an external interview.
  2. What I did:  downplayed my own management experience and talked about the fact that I still felt I needed to learn more formal managerial skills to help me have better conversations with a team. What I should have done: Talked up the fact that since joining the company, I had rounded out my considerable existing experience with the in house training available, although, of course, as a manager you never stop learning.
  3. What I did: let my awareness of what I didn’t know overwhelm what I did know. What I should have done: Focused on everything I did know about the business, my stakeholder reach, my industry knowledge. Unless a role demands a specific technical skill, then say ‘The rest is just common sense, isn’t it?’ Because mostly, that will be totally right. I have yet to have a job that at base, is any more complex than that.
  4. What I did: Fail to make the most of the interim role I was doing. In retrospect, I think I was almost apologetic about stepping up. What I should have done: Owned my own capability.
  5. What I did: Felt like I was getting a favour by even being at second interview and that maybe if I was lucky I’d be given the chance to develop into the role. What I should have done: Recognised that I had every right to be there, based on my existing professional competence and acted like it.

I did what I think a lot of women do – I focused on my weaknesses, and not my strengths. Because we don’t think we’re good enough, right? And that can become a self-fulfilling cycle because we’ve sabotaged ourselves.

So next time I interview, I have promised myself that I will go in saying ‘I am good enough.’ No apologies.

Let’s get this show on the road

First week back at work under my belt and I am not exaggerating to say that on the way home from my first day in the office, I stopped and bought half a case of wine. The next morning, the cats woke me up at 5am and I failed to get back to sleep for the next two hours because I was worrying about work. When I sat down to work at 8am, I immediately wanted to go back to sleep. There is a little knot of something hiding just behind my ribs, to which my response was not ‘Oh what’s that?’ but ‘Oh, it’s back.’

I thought that the way I felt at the end of last year was due to it being the end of a stressful year. I had a solid break at Christmas, I didn’t get ill, I barely left the house, I slept and read and relaxed and did a pretty good job of losing track of the days and living in the now. My main concern was ‘Is it too early to open Prosecco?’ (Of course not, it’s never too early to open Prosecco.)

So I just about have enough critical distance left to hold my symptoms up to the light and say ‘That’s work related anxiety, that is.’

And it can fuck off. I’m not having it. It infuriates me that my job, which is essentially a transactional relationship, can have such a negative effect on me. It feels very much like the oldest profession in the world: I get fucked over and then paid for it. You might say that I work in the corporate world so I asked for it. I couldn’t say you’d be wrong. The salary and the car allowance and the bonus package are what I get for continuing to participate in an abusive relationship.

But, the salary and the car allowance and the bonus package don’t cut it any more. Last year, alert to the fact that I’d be very lucky to match that deal even in London, I panicked and stayed put. This year? I’m older and less risk averse. So I’m thinking, suck up the pay cut.  Could I work part time? Could I get my own business of some kind off the ground? Can I build a portfolio career that keeps me afloat and lets me work from home most of the time? And if I try it, and fail…? Well, then, so be it.

So: I’m registered with recruitment agencies; I’m heading to a networking event in a couple of weeks; a friend has put me in touch with one of her friends about one of the ideas I had, and my sister has a contact for me too. It’s not coincidental that I’m tapping into a network of capable and competent women, because they are the people who immediately come up with the practical and actionable advice.

It could be a year of big change. It could be a year in which I fall hard, and retire to lick my wounds. But if I’m going to suffer anxiety anyway, then I’ll damn well inflict it on myself.

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Life lessons

So, Charlie-with-the-broken-leg is now out of his cage and under house arrest. It’s been a week so far and I can see him getting stronger every day: he’s gone from limping a little and being uncertain about some jumps, to bounding wherever he feels like. He got out one night by going through an open window and down a sheer, 8 foot wall. A couple of hours later, at the sound of the snack packet, he came racing across the lawn to me.

He’s got another 10 days in the house before he’ll be back at the vets to have the pin removed from his leg. Then normal life will resume. I’m looking forward to that, as he’ll be so much happier being allowed outside; but he’s taken to following me around and I’ll miss my little shadow.

Meanwhile, my other cat barely comes in the house because she no longer recognises Charlie. When I do lure her in, usually with food, she’ll tolerate him for as long as it takes her to eat, then resume growling before making for the nearest exit. I’m hoping the trade off for seeing less of Charlie will be that Belle feels comfortable in the house again.

With all this cat care going on, I’ve been at home a lot more. I haven’t done any overnight stays away and I’ve been working from home as much as I can. I’m at my laptop by 8am latest, but as everyone who gets to skip their commute knows, you get to sleep in, do a fuller day’s work and still have more of an evening. So for me, despite working longer days, it’s felt like something of a holiday simply because I only recharge by being at home.

I hadn’t realised the extent to which I had gotten into the habit of looking at the various locations ahead of me during my week and thinking ‘Just got to get through it.’ Or the extent to which a constant low level of tiredness and stress was delimiting my ability to relax in what felt like very limited time in my house. The balance was off and although I knew some of the negative effects, I hadn’t appreciated all of them. There’s a pretty long list:

  1. Not getting time for lunch at work, so 3pm lunches of popcorn and granola bars, plus too tired to cook proper evening meals.
  2. Not drinking enough water
  3. Drinking too much tea, I think, and therefore over-caffeinated and twitchy
  4. Plus tired and unable to concentrate properly, so too much time on my phone
  5. Therefore internet shopping and then wondering where my money goes
  6. Not enough exercise
  7. A bit of not-exercising guilt
  8. General sense of should be doing something but failing to tackle any of the above because tired and lazy

And the big one, not feeling as though I had any time. Which is different to not actually having time: if I had any time at all to read Popsugar then I certainly had time to make decent food or practice yoga. It just didn’t feel that way because I had trapped myself in an apathetic circle of lethargy.

Now, I am definitely busier when I’m commuting, and I had been spending a couple of nights away a week. So it wasn’t all perception. But the situation wasn’t as bad as I thought it was, either. It’s just taken a bit of critical distance for me to be able to reassess the situation. I’ll have to get back to a more normal working pattern, but there are still steps I can take to keep some balance:

  1. More driving, fewer hotel stays. Not that more miles on the road is ideal, ideal but it’s the necessary swap for me to be at home where I can relax.
  2. Less time on my phone. I don’t think it’s a smartphone addiction, I think it’s a lazy habit (I can stop any time). Right now, I’m not sure where my phone is, but it’s definitely not within arm’s reach.
  3. Yoga. I’ve found a great yoga studio about half an hour away, and I’ve been trying to go to at least one class a week. I’m going to try to start a home practice, which is something I’ve never been successful with before.
  4. Water. I don’t understand why I struggle with this one so much. I spent Monday with a self-induced dehydration headache and it’s still hovering in the background, waiting to come back if I’m not careful. I can drink tea by the bucket but even with a water bottle on my desk, I can fail to take a single sip. I know all the benefits, I know from experience that I feel better if I’m hydrated (no shit, Sherlock) so why am I punishing myself? Argh.

So that’s kind of my promise to myself. Nothing huge there and yet, in small ways, life changing.

In which I have a new job

In fact, I’m four weeks in. It’s a new role within the same company, but for the first time in my entire career, my job has nothing to do with either content or digital. This job is a further big step on the trajectory away from publishing and towards who knows what?

So now I’m working in the team responsible for coming up with new products and propositions. There’s a commercial aspect that I’ve never had before, and since delivery of any new product depends on lining up the customer care and field ops support as well, there’s another whole different area of the business to get my head around. All this was part of the appeal. I work for a big company and there are vast swathes of it that I never got a look at in my old role.

Just to complicate matters slightly, the hiring manager left before I started, her boss leaves at the end of June and as far as any of us are aware, there aren’t any replacements lined up. Mine is a new role in the team. I have no direct reports but 10 people junior to me who need varying degrees of management. A new product launch is looking like it will be 3 weeks late – I swear this is coincidental.

In all this, I’d say my comfort zone is a short drive away. Right through interview, I still thought that my publishing career was the bedrock evidence of what I can do. But that’s no longer the case. I was hired on the basis of the last three years, not the however many before that. I feel as though I swapped firm foundations for a high wire. As I don’t actually know what my job is and there’s no one to tell me, I’m doing whatever the hell seems to need doing. Every day, I’m flying blind. I’ve put out a lot of fires over the last few weeks, I’ve U-turned on a couple of decisions when I got more knowledge and thanked people for telling me. I don’t know how I’m doing, so I come home some days thinking ‘I got this’ and others thinking ‘What the fuck happened today?’

In other words, it’s standard new job stuff. The fear, the learning curve, the anxiety, the successes, the gradual build back up to confidence, to that state when ‘I got this’ is normal. Currently I’m at a low to moderate anxiety level, which is not only not a bad thing (temporarily), it’s what I went looking for. It’ll either all work out, or I’ll crash and burn. So, ok then.