Never Settle & Learn to Walk Away
About 4 years ago, I decided to take a year off from school to explore the business world. I was studying in Sciences Po and things seemed a bit too theoretical, and I was offered an amazing opportunity to intern for a big luxury company, so I decided to go for it!
Looking back, I realize this year of my life was actually one of the most challenging one I experienced in my short career, but it’s also the year I learnt some of the best management lessons that defined who I am today. What happened? I actually got to learn what dealing with human resources mean. Not only because I worked in the HR department of two major French companies, but also because I had the chance to experience two kinds of management. While one kind was uplifting and rewarding, the other was particularly destructive and harmful. And at 22, I learnt that there is a time to walk away, that some situations are not worth it. I learnt that my time should never be taken as granted by anyone. I learnt that you have to look at your own situation with as much perspective as possible, as often as possible.
During the first part of my gap year, I joined the HR team of a luxury company to assist with recruitment for retail operations. This first long term internship was one of the greatest opportunity I ever had in my life. Don’t get me wrong, the company was far from perfect, but I had the chance to learn from an incredible manager.
I’ve never felt more grateful to a manager, because she challenged me on a daily basis.
She taught me essential business skills — with a great focus on professionalism — and shared all her insights on the importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace. After seeing how I responded to responsibilities, she assessed that I thrived in challenging environments and gave me bigger challenges. Nevertheless, not one day passed without her checking on me to make sure that I was not feeling overwhelmed. When it eventually happened and I got exhausted, she helped me and took some responsibilities off my plate. I remember telling her one day that I woke up in the middle of the night because I was so anxious thinking I forgot to have a new employee sign their contract. I was just telling her casually, because we shared so much. She took it extremely seriously and although I was not happy about it, she asked me to take it slow for a couple of weeks. And actually, she didn’t just ask me, she made sure I did.
She was 26, and not one second did she decide to consider me as a threat. She decided that I was a great asset to her team and just took advantage of my strengths without burning me out. I thrived during these 6 months because she believed in me.
After these 6 fascinating months, I found an internship in another major French company, this time in the agri-food business. I was feeling extremely self-confident, like I could take on the world. I remember sharing my ambition during the interview, asking for responsibilities. It worked, they called me back after a couple hours to tell me that I got the job. And I took it, although a friend of mine who knew the factory had already warned me about the difficult social conditions happening there. But as I said, I was feeling very empowered and couldn’t care less.
And then I discovered how miserable a job could make you.
The first few days were hard. Already. But they always are — and I was moving from the luxury industry in Paris to an agri-food factory in the Northern France countryside, talk about big adjustments — so I knew I had to make efforts and really tried to lean into the discomfort. But something was extremely wrong. First of all, the situation was not easy: the governance was changing, as the factory was about to be enrolled in the European operations a lot more (which meant a lot of reorganization). What’s not easy here you might wonder? Well, just remember that for any big project, if you want it to be successful and to go smoothly, you need to embark the people that work with you in the organization. In my story, we’re talking about hundreds of people that had worked in this factory for decades. Change is hard for anyone, imagine what it means when you’re a 50-year-old factory worker that has worked for the same company for over 3 decades. Well, guess what? If management only has short term productivity goals, chances are they won’t give a sh*t. I believe it was the case there: some managers knew they were in the factory temporarily, it was just a stepping stone before they could get a bigger position elsewhere. And that’s one of my big takeaway lesson:
If management is not committed to the long term vision and success of the organization, they won’t see the bigger picture.
They won’t have the same objectives. In this case, the human factor obviously was not a priority. People cry every week when they get to work (yes, that did happen), why should that matter to me, we’re still delivering the product to our clients, right?
When objectives between stakeholders are not aligned, it just doesn’t work. And employees are major stakeholders.
On top of it, the HR manager was on maternity leave, so the management team had hired a replacement. I eventually discovered that my manager had been asking for this position for a while and felt betrayed by the management team for this replacement. How can the social aspect of this project be dealt with smoothly if the human resources department is such a mess? Turns out, they got rid of the HR manager while on maternity leave (through a very subtle transfer offer), my manager left the HR department after feeling fooled(/being?) (I still wonder why she didn’t leave the company) and the replacement burnt out after 2 years.
After 3 months through the internship, I made my decision. I made multiple attempts to bring up the problems with my manager, and even the director himself (that’s another long — and pathetic — story), but eventually felt like it was too much energy going to waste. Our team was fighting against a windmill, we received no support whatsoever. I was exhausted and discouraged. So I decided to leave. It was not worth it. I would do my best work and complete my main task but I would not stay any longer.
At the time, I am 22 and I’m about to have one of the most challenging conversation of my life. My manager is a good person, and I am not blaming her for how terrible the situation was, but I know my leaving was going to reflect badly on her management skills and was not good news for her career (at least in the short term). As I told her that this was not working for me, I saw how devastated she was. She immediately asked me: “Is this how you’re going to face every challenge in your life? As soon as it will get hard, you’ll leave? This is not how life works.” As I said, it was a very tough situation, I was very ashamed of leaving the company and I did feel like I was being weak. Her saying that just made me feel even worse and even weaker. For a very long time.
To her reaction, the only thing I could answer was that no, this was not the way I wanted to live. I had been challenged before, but going to work in a toxic environment every day was not the kind of challenge I was willing to take on. It is not the kind of challenge anyone can thrive on. And I could not see myself burn out at 22.
Now that I look back, I am so grateful that I had this conversation. I am so grateful I had the strength to confront my manager. The ability to get some perspective, to look at an experience with a little distance and to evaluate what you get out of it is a true skill. The ability to walk away is another one.
I don’t think anyone should settle for a job that makes them miserable.
I believe this has a lot to do with management. I wish all managers would push their employees to the best of their abilities because they want to help them grow. I wish all managers would realize that human resources are crucial to the success of their organization and that they need to take care of them.
I believe being a good manager is not a gift. I believe it takes a lot of emotional intelligence but also a lot of learning. Not everyone deserves to be a manager. I just want to remember it, for I never want to work for a manager that will break me, and for I never want to be or to hire a manager that will break his coworkers.