This is a series about getting your life back on track and achieving your goals.
I was sitting at the breakfast table waiting for Tony, my boss, to arrive. Two weeks prior, we had dinner in New York City. Over dinner, he asked me to take a 10% cut in pay. The company was weathering a recession, and he and the rest of the board of directors decided it would be a show of unanimity with the shareholders for all the executives to take a cut in pay.
From the moment Tony made this request, the dinner did not go well. In fact, I remember him telling me, “You drank all my champagne.” As was his custom at dinner, he ordered a vintage bottle of champagne.
Asking me to take the cut in pay resulted in my irrational response which prompted me to amp up my emotions, speed up the argument, and increase my consumption, all at the same time.
Tony was stunned.
My reaction to his request was belligerent. But he didn’t participate in the irrational response. He remained measured and calm. At the dinner’s conclusion, he simply said, “Think about it. I’ll be in Atlanta in a couple of weeks, and we can talk.”
I got to the breakfast early because I needed to get my thoughts together. He was a great boss, and I had a great job. I was president of the Americas for a London-based public company. The pay was excellent, and so were the perks.
But I was NOT content.
Not wanting to risk anything, I had doubled down and worked even harder. I wanted to make it work. I wanted to be content. I told myself I didn’t have the right to think this way. I was 38 with a wife and three kids. “These positions and opportunities don’t grow on trees,” I told myself.
Tony showed up and was gracious as usual. He always seemed happy to see me. And because he was so kind and supportive, I was always happy to see him, too. We were friends.
Once we got past the niceties, we got down to the business of the pay cut. He told me again, “Everyone on the senior management team is taking the cut, and we want you to join us.”
I said, “All the other senior managers are significant shareholders. I understand why they are taking the cut. I am simply a hired hand here.”
He said, “I’ve been thinking about the conversation we had in New York City. I know the 10% cut doesn’t really mean much to you and your family. I’m thinking maybe you aren’t happy here. Am I right?”
He nailed it.
“I’m really not happy,” I confessed. “It is a great job, and you are a great boss. I don’t know what’s going on with me. I want to be happy, but I just can’t get there. I am blaming my unhappiness on everybody and everything. This pay cut is just the latest target.”
He said, “You know, you don’t have to stay in this job. You don’t have to be unhappy. If this isn’t the place for you, if this isn’t the business you want to be in, you can always leave. I’ll be OK with that, and the business will be fine.”
There it was. The exit door was now visible.
I was scared.
One of my core values is loyalty. If I am anything, I am loyal. I was not going to leave if it would hurt Tony or my organization. But Tony was telling me, “It’s OK. We’ll be OK. You need to do what is best for you and your family.”
I still remember that moment in time. Where I was sitting. How the table was set for two and was inched up against a short wall in the lobby. The white tablecloth and the silverware. The beautiful buffet. The open lobby with its towering ten-story ceiling and open-air elevators.
I was thinking, “I’ll be leaving this life. It’s all first class. I’m president of the biggest company I’ll ever be responsible for. I like it all, but I’m not happy.”
Like a seasoned executive, he shut up and waited for my response to his offer. We stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity but was only a second or two. With the offer to leave hanging in the air, I said, “I think I should leave.”
After I said it, I was hoping he would try to talk me out of it. He didn’t. He said, “Ok. I respect that. Let me have a couple of days to put together your separation papers and your exit package. We’ll be very fair to you. You did a great job for us.”
He stood. I stood.
He shook my hand, and I walked out of the restaurant. I walked through the lobby and then out the front door of the hotel. It was a beautiful June day. I took a deep breath. I felt free for the first time in years. Then I said, “What did I just do?”
To this day, I’m not sure if I quit or he fired me.