Career coach Shirley Triller changed my perspective on work forever. I wish I’d known her before my layoff. May her wisdom—and my story—help keep you and your career happy and healthy.
I met Shirley Triller, a career coach and so much more, in 2014. I’d just been laid off from a job I loved, and I felt like I’d been plunged into the sea. A lifelong workaholic, I suddenly had hours alone in the middle of the day, no team to manage, no deadlines to meet. Aside from close family members and friends, only one thing kept me going: my coaching sessions with Shirley.
When I arrived at Shirley’s office looking slightly disheveled in a black-macramé sundress, she smiled and shared tips on the magic of black slacks.
When I beat myself up for trying and failing to be superwoman, she said, “That’s what moms do.”
When I reeled in the aftermath of office politics I’d handled poorly, she said, “It happens.” She knew how it worked.
I felt like she could see how hard I’d tried. I really needed someone to see that.
Shirley’s as polished and poised as they come, but there’s nothing cool about her. She radiates warmth. She’s a storyteller, too. During our coaching sessions, she told me how she’d been laid off herself when she was six months pregnant, how she’d managed sexual harassment way before #MeToo, how she’d calmly and skillfully shut down a hothead’s rudeness at the office. It’s fair to say that this one strong woman, so passionate about her own work, got me through one of the darkest times of my life.
I didn’t know who I was without my job. Shirley taught me that vulnerability was OK. Uncertainty was OK. Values like loyalty and trust were OK, even if some people didn’t share them. I also learned about a lot of things that were not OK—overwork, ignoring my own health and well-being, not setting boundaries. What I learned after that layoff changed my thoughts and feelings about work forever.
After my layoff, I felt like I was living underwater—the world seemed that different—but I also felt free. Shirley taught me how to swim. She believed in me when it seemed like no one else did—least of all myself. She set me on a journey to figure out who I was and what I had to offer the world. When I decided to start my own writing business, Shirley became one of my first clients. It’s been more than six years since those coaching sessions, and Shirley’s kindness and wisdom still guide and inspire me. I share some of her guidance here in hopes it will do the same for you.
Why layoffs happen
I got to know the term “career transition” while writing web copy for Shirley’s HR consulting firm. A “transition” is a career change and the period surrounding it. It’s also a polite way to refer to outsourcing, layoffs, terminations, restructuring, house cleaning—whatever they’d like to call it. The company often knows it’s coming, but for the employee, it’s frequently involuntary.
Shirley explained that back in the 1980s, when corporations started restructuring, those protocols didn’t exist as they do today. “Back then, people were used to getting a watch and a golden parachute,” Shirley said. But the economy was changing, layoffs were happening, and companies realized they needed to do something for the employees they were letting go.
After my layoff, I felt like I was living underwater—the world seemed that different—but I also felt free. Shirley taught me how to swim.
Why do transitions happen? Business forces, Shirley said. Technology, for instance. “If a new technology comes in and changes the products or services a company provides, they may no longer need to provide that product or service, and the people who were doing that may no longer be needed. So, the organization will restructure its talent to align with the business priorities.” We also hear about downsizing, such as reducing headcount by a certain percentage. “That can be economic. A company may need to cut headcount to survive.”
Sometimes a new leader’s vision just doesn’t fit with the existing team. Restructuring can cause that. It takes a patient and wise leader to retain—and retrain—a legacy team. It takes a desire to honor people and see the long view. I remember a time when a tenured leader was asked to report to me—a woman 15 years his junior. Once, he slammed a door in my face. But I stuck with the relationship and tried to put my own feelings aside until he got past the hurt. I knew things would likely change again, and they did: He got his old job back. Some people just aren’t that tolerant of others’ emotions, and occasionally even the most gallant efforts don’t work.
And sometimes transitions happen for other reasons. “There are times when companies know they have employees who aren’t performing as they need to. They don’t coach the person. They don’t want to deal with it. So they do a reduction in force,” Shirley said. “That approach shouldn’t be used, but it is.” Some people call it lazy leadership—simply removing people who really should have been managed. “It’s a shame,” Shirley said. “Because a lot of harm is done when someone is terminated.”
Anyone who’s been transitioned out of a job—whatever the reason—can vouch for that.
What you can do
Many people put so much of themselves into their jobs. I did, too. You can convince yourself that you need to be consumed by your work—that it’s expected. Of course, that’s how some managers and employers would like you to feel. They’re focused on the organization, or their goals. They’re not necessarily thinking about you. As Shirley says, that’s not their job.
The irony is this: When you let your job take over, you can’t do it well. You lose your perspective. Your health can suffer and your performance along with it. If you keep your nose to the grindstone, you may miss clues that could reveal that you’re in trouble—that things are changing around you and your position is at risk.
I used to work long hours. I missed family dinners, ballgames and a big chunk of my kids’ childhood. I had strong performance reviews and good relationships at my job. I bent over backwards to help my team and colleagues. I even encouraged the woman who would become my boss to take the position. As it turned out, she’s the one who walked me out the door. It has taken me years to get over the shock of that moment, and in many ways I’m still not over it. The dark side of layoffs is that they carry shame, they end relationships, they hurt your reputation and your self-esteem. To me, no severance package is worth all that pain.
I wish I’d asked myself Shirley’s questions instead of getting lost in my deadlines. I wish I hadn’t spent so much time with colleagues at work who really weren’t my friends. I wish I’d talked to my boss when things were tense, asked questions and really listened. I might have found out what she thought, and maybe I would have mustered up the courage to make my own move.
But back then, I didn’t know Shirley. I’m a different person now.
I hope Shirley’s perspective and my own experience will inspire you to take charge of your own career. You owe it to a very important person: yourself.