The most challenging moment in my career happened when my manager told me I didn’t have my role anymore. I wasn’t fired, exactly. I felt exactly like I’d been fired.
I had the generous option to find a different role at the company. I asked to go on a three-month sabbatical first; it was generously granted. I didn’t come back.
I started an interesting new job at a promising startup shortly after the sabbatical ended. From an outside perspective, I was doing great. What was happening on the inside was anything but. Throughout the year that followed that conversation, I was pretty sure that I was a failure. The flashbacks and thought spirals happened multiple times a day at first, giving ground very slowly.
It’s been four years. I’ve come to believe that failing at something doesn’t mean I am a failure. Throughout this experience, I learned the hard way what people talk about when they talk about the growth mindset.
I’m sharing this story in the hopes that it helps a reader or two who are currently struggling through their own “failure.”
Wait, what happened?
I started at Dropbox, my first startup, as a BizOps individual contributor when the company was just 200 employees. Shortly thereafter, I was asked to help the User Operations (a.k.a. Support) team. We had 10,000 tickets in backlog. That’s ten thousand people who’d written in and hadn’t received a response, sometimes in months. As happens about every 4-6 months in hyper-growth companies, processes that had been successful to that point weren’t working anymore; new processes needed to be put in place.
We solved it through a combination of instituting ticket solving quotas for the team (40% throughput improvement), doing a few ticket-slaying sessions (killed the backlog), starting outsourcing efforts (grew capacity beyond growing the team) and opening an office in Austin (widened our access to talent). It was pretty epic.
I loved a lot of things about Dropbox: the white space to be filled with good work; the high-caliber, motivated, humble and nice people; the large amount of faith put in these people solving these types of problems for the first time in their careers; and the thing that brought me there in the first place, a product that was clearly better than those of Apple, Google and Microsoft who were all also trying.
I especially loved my team and the work we were doing: helping users on the daily and striving to do it better and better. We helped graduate students reunite with their nearly-complete theses after they’d accidentally deleted them from their Dropbox and forgot the password. We helped make the product better for hundreds of millions of users by relating bugs to Engineering. We figured out ways to grow the team sublinearly to the growth of our ticket queues. I loved it enough to find myself enjoying checking in on the ticket queues and working on capacity models. On Saturday. In the office.
Things were going well at work. That meant I was doing well as a person. At the time, the quality of my work was synonymous in my eyes with my value as a human being. What could possibly go wrong?..
Three promotions and 1.5 years later, I was running a 100-person UserOps and Revenue Retention team across San Francisco, Austin and Dublin. Based on how well UserOps was doing, more responsibility had been added to my plate: the idea was to rotate UserOps away from solely supporting customers to also being responsible for their retention. And people pay a lot more attention to dollar retention than support quality.
We were learning how to do lifecycle marketing for our prosumer and smaller B2B cohorts and account management where customer size allowed reasonable economics. We were also transforming the team from a support mentality to a more proactive and revenue-generating stance while trying to gel the constituent parts of this large org across functions and geographies.
About six months into this phase, it started looking like we were missing some of the retention goals we’d set for ourselves. Inexperienced with owning a number, I had signed up for improvement targets before we knew how well we could move the underlying metrics. My leadership team wasn’t coming together super well either: there was friction between my reports and between some of them and me. For the first time in my career, I was managing sizeable teams whose subject matter I wasn’t at all an expert in. I was also managing managers, some of whom had more experience than I did.
My relationship with work during this phase became more strained: I was stressed more than usual, and not the good kind of stressed. I went from feeling like I could meet my challenges head on to not really knowing how to approach them. I defaulted to what I knew how to do: working hard. This meant long hours, probably looking frantic to my team, and back pain. I enlisted the help of chiropractors, ice packs, and a bunch of wincing.
Then came the conversation with my manager. Three things precipitated his decision: I hadn’t delivered on the numbers I’d signed up for, I hadn’t developed strong enough relationships with cross-functional partners (that was a complete blind spot for me when I heard about it), and a few of my direct reports didn’t want to work for me. Not what one wants to hear on an average Thursday. I mean, were there even other parts to the job?
In startup speak, I hadn’t scaled. In plain English, I’d risen to my level of incompetence.
What I thought I learned (fixed mindset perspective)
Here is roughly what I thought I learned from the situation:
- I am not good at leading teams
- I am a bad manager
- None of the good work I’d done in this company prior to this matters
- I am a failure
I wasn’t able to see reality as it is or access self-compassion at the time, things, I later learned, critical in overcoming adverse situations. If I were counseling a friend about the same situation, I’d point out that while they may have been a bit out of their depth, they’d in fact accomplished a ton, they probably were in a situation they shouldn’t have been put into, and they could pick up where they left off and develop the skills they wanted further. It’s precisely the line of reasoning my family and friends deployed with me. I heard them say the words, I nodded my head, but I just didn’t believe that any of it applied to me. I was exhibiting a textbook case of a fixed mindset.
(Luckily, even I couldn’t deny that I’d been successful in a number of efforts prior to this fail. So I constrained the “failure” argument to leading teams and managing people and didn’t go so far as to think I was stupid or a bad person. Win!)
Carol Dweck, who came up with the growth mindset theory, writes:
[I]t’s […] not easy to attain a growth mindset. One reason why is we all have our own fixed-mindset triggers. When we face challenges, receive criticism, or fare poorly compared with others, we can easily fall into insecurity or defensiveness, a response that inhibits growth.
To remain in a growth zone, we must identify and work with these triggers. Many managers and executives have benefited from learning to recognize when their fixed-mindset “persona” shows up and what it says to make them feel threatened or defensive. Most importantly, over time they have learned to talk back to it, persuading it to collaborate with them as they pursue challenging goals.
I’m far from declaring victory here, but two jobs and one awesome team built later, I feel like I’m in the growth mindset territory more often than not and can at the very least catch myself sliding into the fixed mindset.
What I actually learned (growth mindset perspective)
I learned that I had in fact risen to my incompetence level and that this level was a transient state, not a final destination. I was out of my depth, so I needed more time and attempts to learn the requisite skills if I wanted to continue on that path.
I learned to dissociate my value as a human being from how good of a job I’m doing or how good of a job other people think I’m doing.
I learned that crisis is well-positioned to beget growth:
- My existing coping mechanisms weren’t good enough to help me deal with the depths of self-doubt my mind was taking me into, so I had to acquire new ways to get out of it in one piece. I discovered mindfulness and meditation, Stephen Covey and adult development theory.
- I invested heavily in building approaches and structures to team and people management in my next two jobs. My posts on this site walk through a bunch of them.
What happened since
Even though it seemed like a minor miracle, I was able to function through the funk, and grow. Massive thanks go to my family and friends who spent countless hours listening and talking to me and my supportive work families in two companies.
I did become a relatively good manager. I measure this in a few ways: 1) applying my own quality bar, 2) listening to feedback from my reports (“best manager I’ve ever had” from a few folks, no joke), 3) comparing my upward feedback ratings to the company average/distribution, 4) looking at my evaluations, and 5) seeing how helpful other managers seem to find the approaches I’ve developed.
I still meet with a subgroup of my Dropbox org quarterly; we really like each other.
Most surprisingly for me, I’ve enjoyed consistent access to professional opportunities from ex-colleagues who were my contemporaries at Dropbox. These have included consulting gigs, job offers, and one actual job.
There’s even been an impact on a longer-term scale. When I thought I maybe couldn’t cut it on the management ladder, I had to seriously ask myself what else and different I wanted to do when I grew up. The answer that came back was “my own small business.” I’ve been a bit slow on the uptake, but I’m now working on one.
These learnings are trite; open a self-help book, and there they are. Yet I couldn’t access them when I was the one in need of help. I had to work through the stories I was telling myself to be able to claim these learnings. It took longer than a year.
Given what I know now, here’s the condensed encouragement I’d give myself after the “your services are no longer needed in this role” conversation: You’ll do so much better on your next try!