In Times of Adversity We All Have A Choice
By Carey Jenkins, CEO, Substantial a Seattle-based digital product studio. In 2012, Carey joined the client services team, and six years later became CEO. As the sixth female employee and first mother hired at Substantial, she is proud that Substantial has grown the female employee base to 37% overall and 40% on the leadership team, and is committed to empowering other women to seize more leadership opportunities. Carey brings 17+ years of experience in client relationship management, delivery management, and business development.
An interesting thing happens when you find yourself, somewhat unexpectedly, at a peak in your career. In that moment, that clear clean moment when you exhale and allow yourself space to appreciate achieving something that seemed inconceivable, you inevitably reflect on the moments that led you down this path.
Like many people throughout their careers, I’ve had some rough years, that in hindsight and with generosity I will call rebuilding years. The thing about a rebuilding year, is that when in the throes of it, you rarely have the insight to understand that the world is tearing you apart so it can put you back together stronger and with more resilience.
After returning to the corporate world following years of self-employment, I found myself struggling to come up for air. My personal life was falling apart. The company I was working for was facing the dramatic effects of the financial crisis and was rolling out pay cuts. I was leading the launch of a high-profile project with our largest growing client — a client with a brutal culture that was infecting my team and our interactions. The hours were long, meetings were tense, emotions were hot, and my support system — managers, peers, friends — were watching me fall apart, but unsure how to help.
Find The Signal
It’s during a time of adversity that we have a choice — focus on the negative, or search for the deeper message. For me, it began with facing some painful realizations about my job. I discovered I was one of the lowest paid people in my role. I had almost no relationship with my manager at that point. And I had to rely on an anonymous peer 360 review system to provide feedback. The feedback: I was volatile and stressing out the team. I was too pointed, too direct, I was distrustful. I was hearing the truth and it stung.
This was my first evaluation that felt deeply personal, and I hadn’t yet learned how to find the signal in the noise. But I understood that if my role was to coalesce a team around a common objective, I wouldn’t be successful if this was how I was perceived. It can hurt, but it’s crucial for the sake of growth to request, listen and process feedback. There are valuable insights in most feedback. It is data to balance with other data, not something to fear. We are not defined by the perceptions of other people, but without understanding them, we miss out on an opportunity to grow.
With my already low morale plummeted, I immersed myself in my work. I barely spent time with friends and when I did, I certainly wasn’t fun. The project grew in scope, and as other managers started to jump ship their work was handed to me. I stepped up and quickly realized that when things feel chaotic, nothing is more valued than the person who provides clarity.
I was becoming indispensable to the client, but I was depleting myself in the trade. I could barely acknowledge anything else in my life. After an excruciating summer spent chained to my phone and computer and watching my beloved cat waste away from cancer, the bottom dropped out. My father died unexpectedly. I hadn’t seen him in two years and hadn’t spoken to him in months. I flew home and tried to be there for my family, but in truth I was a shell of a person — I was thinking about the launch the entire time. My focus was so rooted in the source of my misery, I struggled to be truly present when it mattered the most.
I returned to work after three days — to the soul-sucking project, to the terrible feedback, to the friends who weren’t friends, and the job that didn’t value me. On that plane back, I realized how much I was failing myself. I had no boundaries between my personal life and my work life. While I was killing myself to prove my worth at work, I was no longer showing up for the things that mattered the most — family, friends, myself. It was clear I needed to create definitive boundaries.
Sometimes it takes a nudge; other times it takes falling apart. But ultimately, we realize we’ve been allowing others to treat us with disrespect. Without boundaries, others will push and push until we either break or finally push back.
Own Your Worth
For some, women especially, waiting to be recognized is a losing game. No one will fight for you if you don’t fight for yourself. Not long after my return, I found out the pay cut “that everyone took” was not everyone after all. I was managing more revenue than anyone at the company and was owed a considerable bonus that was continuously delayed. I politely, but firmly, requested my next review be with the VP of my division and asked for more feedback. And believe me, that was tough. But asking for feedback, if you can truly listen, is a powerful signal that you are committed to your development. I heard that I don’t ask for help enough and shut people out. I don’t take my one-on-ones seriously, and as a result miss out on the support a manager can provide. No one knows my point of view — so people assume I’m a lightweight.
After listening, I asked specifically for what I deserved based on my value. My bonus, a raise, and a manager with whom I could have more than a transactional relationship. In return, I took the feedback seriously, and it was a turning point in how I present my point of view and foster advocates.
Invest In Relationships
Any relationship — personal or professional — requires mutual investment, commitment, and boundaries. We need to dig deep and ask, if this is the life and career I want, how do I set boundaries to support that? I stopped answering my phone between 6pm and 8am. I started exercising again and sleeping more. I nurtured friendships. I vowed to not give toxicity my attention. And I started meeting with my new manager with an open and hopeful hunger. That manager, by the way, fought to increase my pay again, promoted me, and became a mentor in the truest sense. I ended that year understanding for the first time that I control how I am treated, and that I have a responsibility to myself to invest in how I’m perceived and build advocate relationships.
It’s helpful, if not cathartic, to acknowledge what we gain from our rebuilding years, as this affords us the grace to appreciate them. And more importantly, it affords us bravery during those times in our lives when all hell is breaking loose. A few years later I left that job, on my own terms, and sought a company that better reflected what I had come to value — the company that I now lead. I know that had I not gone through that painful time, and several since then, I wouldn’t have come out the other side with the courage to envision myself as a CEO. It’s through our rebuilding years that we discover who we are and what we are fully capable of accomplishing.