I was 8 months into my new job as a Technical Copywriter when it happened. After spending more than 4 years as a Managing Editor and almost a decade in marketing to HR professionals prior, I felt like I had a Ph.D. in recruiting. All I did was talk to smart people and learn how they did their jobs. Now I was going to put all those ideas to use for some of the biggest brands in the world.
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Most people were surprised I took such a junior title, but I didn’t care. Job titles are all made up, for one thing, and I was about to create employer value propositions for brands I admired. More than the brands, I idolized and admired my manager. He was smart and had all the career benchmarks I didn’t have yet – a VP before 40. Leading global teams. Traveling the world as a speaker. Everything I thought I wanted. But most of all, I wanted to learn from him. If he did all of that, he could teach me, too. I could be great working for him. After spending time working my way up in the marketing department just to figure out I hated the C-suite, I finally had a career path I was excited about.
The job started great. He set me up for opportunities. Let me present ideas to global executives. Consulted with me to write his presentations. I made the guy look really good. Then one night halfway around the world everything changed.
I was chosen to travel to Asia to present a global brand strategy. The trip of a lifetime. To say I was excited is such an understatement. I mean, I didn’t even get a passport until I was 24. Look at me now!
On that trip, I presented our research and the local Managing Partner pulled me aside. “I am impressed by you. You have to come here and work for me,” she said with a smile. I was over the moon. My dreams were coming true. I was about to have the title, the job, and I would get to travel Asia while I did it.
That night at dinner, I excitedly recapped the offer to my manager. I expected him to be proud of me. Instead, I watched the ego wash over his face. The energy changed completely. He hid his frustration in front of the other dinner attendees, but on the walk back to our hotel he started to verbally attack me. “How dare you speak to them without me in the room. What makes you think you could ever do that job?”
Instead of celebrating my big win that night, I cried. I emailed the Managing Partner to tell her I didn’t want to waste her time. I wouldn’t take the job.
Upon arrival back to the US and regular team meetings, there was a noticeable shift. Suddenly, I was an under-performer. I wasn’t creative. I wasn’t smart enough. “You have no talent as a writer,” he said over and over again in a million different ways by dissecting my mistakes and creative concepts. It went on for months. I wasn’t ready to quit, but these attacks happened so many times that after one particularly harsh meeting, I quit and started Three Ears Media.
I spent this past Sunday working on my book, specifically a chapter about toxic managers and bad bosses. Diving deep into the misery of these memories, I remembered the feelings so deeply it left me with a hangover on Monday I couldn’t quite shake. The familiar exhaustion of expecting the worst, all while wondering what bad thing would happen next. As I wrote, I kept getting stuck on the part about why I didn’t quit sooner. Why I couldn’t just take the leap, get a job, and say fuck off before that moment.
The truth is, when we’re so buried in chaos, it’s hard to imagine something better. To be kind to ourselves by imagining something new. It’s hard to summon the energy to change anything because, let’s face it: There’s only one thing every change has in common – discomfort – and that’s the last thing you want when you’re exhausted from surviving 40 hours a week and bad bosses.
Yet somewhere deep in our exhausted psyche, there’s still that whisper. When will it get better?
In my experience, when it comes to bad managers, bad bosses, and workplace trauma, better is often only found behind the door you walk out of. It’s rare to work in a place that holds abusive managers and bad bosses accountable. Most executives value achievements over empathy. No one says “you really cared for your people” at the end of the quarter. Instead, it’s a PnL and a bottom line. A bar that is set so low by society that it leaves people expecting nothing from work and their managers.
A bar so low and heavy it’s easy to sink our self worth into. Especially when our pay, lifestyle, and so much more may be on the line.
I don’t quite know how to change all of that in this world or how to shift the balance to insist on bad bosses and managers doing better. But I do know this: on the other side of the enormous leaps we take in our career and life – the ones that make us questions everything, especially ourselves – is a beautiful day. A day where you look around and say, “I’m so glad everything changed.”
That? So worth it.
Katrina Kibben is the Founder and Principal Consultant of Three Ears Media. For most of Katrina’s career, she has been a marketer living in a recruiter’s world – listening to both sides of the talent equation to understand the real issues and find solutions for engaging and hiring better people. Today, she uses her technical marketing know-how and way with words to help both established and emerging brands develop and deliver content that fuels smart recruitment marketing that makes the right people apply.
Katrina has written for Monster.com, HR.com, RecruitingDaily and many other digital publications. She is a recognized leader in recruiting and employer branding who speaks regularly at conferences around the world.