Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Working Through the Storm

A month ago, I quit my job. It was a long time coming.

When I was first hired at the place I will call Housen, I was ambivalent. It was a job, and after a year of unemployment, any job was going to be the right job, because it was going to pay my rent and let me have some of that so-called financial freedom that work is supposed to allow. Right away, things went weird: my hiring manager, the only other person on the Housen staff, went on a personal leave to take care of her sick mother. At the end of her allotted six weeks, her mother was neither better nor worse, so she asked for an extension, which the board she answered to denied. So she quit.

I was then left alone for the next six months. Housen's board president came in once or twice a week—he and I split her workload between us, and I took the communications and office administration side, while he navigated the financials. Things got done. The fall fundraising campaign fell to me, and I knocked it out of the park. In fundraising, a campaign that returns more gifts and money than the previous year's is a success, and my campaign did both those things. Other projects were less glorious: the annual gala  needed an in-house staffer who could lead the way, and there was no one on staff to do that. It ended up being split between a part-time event planner, a volunteer committee chair, and about seventeen different women who made calls, picked up silent auction items, bullied the venue staff, and more. It was a patchwork quilt time at Housen, and sometimes things didn't get sewn all the way to the end. But, for the most part, it was manageable. Not fun, but manageable.

Things changed once the new Executive Director was hired. Whoever was going to step into that role was going to be seen as the saviour of the organization, a person who would lead Housen into United Way-level fundraising on a shoestring budget. Laurence came with great bona fides: nine years tenure at a charity, deep involvement in the community that donated to Housen, and the ability to talk and talk and talk.

We was doomed from the beginning.

Laurence and I never connected very well. He saw me as a glorified handmaiden, someone who should drop everything if he let out a peep of confusion or distress. I, on the other hand, had had to work out any issues that had come up in the previous half-year on my own, with only the barest of support. I expected him to be an professional adult; he expected me to be a gum-snapping, nail-filing, cartoon-secretary ditz who would be at his beck and call.

He was flummoxed and irritated by his email. He swore constantly. He interrupted me, the office volunteers, the president of the board, tech support, donors. He called our accountant multiple times a day, looking for guidance on things like what a P&L statement is. He used words like "rationalize," a business-ese expression that means organize but sounds fancier and more cutting-edge. He took the limitations of Housen's donor database system personally. He spent so long working on a mailing list that we nearly missed the holiday it was supposed to be honouring. His gift of gab transformed 15-minute check-in conversations into meandering anecdotes and opportunities to name drop. He had a habit of sticking his hand into the waistband of his pants when we spoke, a personal tic that bordered on the inappropriate.

Having to spend my days locked in an office with this man took an emotional toll. I would come home and cry. Sometimes, I would come home and vomit out of sheer anxiety. My parents encouraged me to speak up for myself. After all, I wasn't doing anything wrong. What were they going to do—fire me? After many weeks of screwing up my courage, I sent an email and asked Laurence for a meeting to discuss the tension in the office.

The gods have a funny way of dealing with personal strife. Sometimes, merely setting some corrective motion in action is enough to make them smile down on you. Two days after I sent the email, I got a call from an agency I had applied to two years before. They wanted to interview me.

It took two weeks for Laurence and I to sit down and discuss the issues I had brought up. Two weeks of him telling me he was too busy, that he didn't believe in meetings, that more important conversations with other people would need to come first. By the time we sat down together, I had already talked to the other agency. I was waiting for my references to be called. It would be the very next day when I would get the official job offer.

I quit my job on a Monday. Laurence barely reacted. In the ensuing two weeks, he made no concessions to the fact that half his office staff was leaving. I prepared a manual—how to enter donations, how to pay an invoice—and left that for him. I offered more than once to sit down with him and go over any questions he might have, knowing full well that I would be inundated once I left the office. (I wasn't wrong: it was less than three hours after my final day at Housen when he texted me, asking if I would call their email service provider for him. I reminded him that I had left all that contact information for him, and that I didn't work there any more.)

Those last two weeks felt heavy. I hope Housen does well, because they have a well-meaning mission and a dedicated donor base. Under the right direction, they should grow.

But leaving was still the right choice. I moved into a job where I can work from home, and where I have enough time to write, and get paid to write. This is great. This is literally the thing that I've wanted for years. And it feels good. Housen was always going to be a stepping stone: having two people in an office means that someone is always the boss, and that someone was never going to be me. There was no role I could move into if I did well, no promotion that would come my way. I learned a lot while I was at that job: how to run a project, how to work alone, how to manage volunteers. I learned how to speak up when someone in power is using that power to make me feel lousy. I learned how hard it is to do that, and how worthwhile it can be. But mostly, I learned the value of moving on when it's time to move on.

Image via Mike Hollingshead via This Is Colossal