Does this remind you of someone?

Each day your confidence continues to drain away and you feel that it is at its lowest point ever. You do not feel that your work is appreciated and you’ve reached the point where your passion for your work is gone. You’re tired of thinking about the things that make you look either ‘good’ or ‘bad and you just want to do the right thing: the thing that matters. Your private life is suffering and yet you can’t find the courage to change things in your life. Any decision to be taken is a huge one because you have lost your confidence  You don’t trust in your ability to survive in a new environment because this one has sucked up all of your energy and confidence. You have no hope for the future and continue through the days by running on autopilot. You think, ‘I have been here so long already how could I adapt to something new’.

Through my private and professional career, I have heard at least 100 shitty reasons why it doesn’t make sense to make a positive change in your life, but rarely have I heard a good one: one that makes sense! Most of the times people make excuses why not change things for better, just because they don’t dare to escape the comfort-zone and take it to the next level.

Here are some classic examples, ‘you’re about to get married’ or ‘you just got married’. Then there’s ‘you’re about to become a mom for the first time’ and ‘it’s the second time you’re becoming a father’. What about, ‘there is a new project coming up’ or ‘you’re finishing a project’. Then there’s the sensible view, ‘you’re about the take a loan’, ‘you just took a loan’, ‘you want to buy an apartment’, ‘you already bought an apartment’ or the today view ‘it’s almost the holidays’, ‘you just finished your holidays’.

Whatever, if you look for one there is always a reason why not to try change.

I’ve been through all of it myself so I know how trapped you can feel. Yet close by, on the other side of the door, a new world is waiting for you. All you have to do is find the courage to take the first step.

When I look back at my own experience, I see every reason not to wait for a disaster to happen. If I recall the worst period of my professional life, that was in 2011-2013, I remember being surrounded by a whole host of challenges, self-doubt and questions. My self-esteem and self-confidence were at its lowest ebb. My answer was to stick to very concrete and operational things and to avoid any form of confrontation, because confronting the right things meant that I would have to do things in another way. I was not sure if I was capable or even able to do things differently. My lack of experience didn’t help. For example, I would engage very operationally in a customer project and allow myself to become overinvolved in technological discussions, attempt to handle customer communication, make project decisions and pre-sales decisions, but I was not truly competent to handle any of these topics. The reality was that I really didn’t have the confidence to tackle the most important problem in the business.

If I had focused my energy on the business’s main problem then I would have helped that organization so much more. By focusing on my strengths, I would have helped build a much stronger and better organization. Instead, I acted like an individual contributor to a project. This was the same for sales, operations, whatever I did!

At that time, a lot of our colleagues were unsatisfied with the way in which the company handled and did things. Yet it was very difficult for me to understand where this was coming from and why people were leaving the company. I would try to understand the reasons behind their wanting to leave but at the same time I didn’t have my ears open and was not actually listening. It was not because I was not willing to listen and try to change things for the better but because I was preoccupied with other operational aspects.

This in effect made me tone deaf to the major problem in the company. Yet this is a part of our natural self-defense mechanism and a reflection of a buildup of stress and a sense of being overwhelmed. We still have that primitive fight-or-flight response inbuilt into our psyche, which helps protect us from predators, even if they appear slightly different to the ones with large teeth and bad breath that were chasing us for millions of years.

At some point, when we had lost thirty percent of our colleagues, I started to listen more carefully. I know it seems pretty stupid now, but now I can look at the problem dispassionately.

It is clear that I should have listened more actively much earlier, but then again we are human and thus have the essential capacity to learn.

The one main problem that people kept repeating was ‘The projects we do!’ I was aware of this ‘hypothetical’ problem, but somehow there was nothing I could do about it. I tried several times to talk to our sales team and asked them to find us more interesting, different and better projects; the problem was that I didn’t even know what I was looking for. Every time I would end up in a long discussion with the sales team that resulted in them convincing me that dollars are more important than projects. The philosophy was that ‘business is business’ and that I should approach it in that way.

The problem was that I had a tough time motivating our engineers to work on yet another CMS implementation. Engineers look for something more complicated or at least just a bit more interesting than “yet another CMS/ERP implementation!” A real product for instance!

Over time, I came to realize that our sales team didn’t care about the things we did they just cared about the dollars. This was understandable in a way, because that’s the focus of sales, right! Besides, our sales team was external and therefore didn’t have such a strong connection to the company. Understandably, in a way, their main objective was to strike the commission as soon as possible so that they could move on to the next commission as soon as possible.

The way the sales structure was organized meant that they didn’t care about the customer project, about the product we were building, about the company, about growth and consequently about the people. Yet I didn’t want to lose our sales teams confidence in our organization either. So, I accepted these projects and in so doing only added to the frustrations in the company. This meant that sales continued to overrule the concerns of the engineers and the company focus remained solely on whatever it takes to make a sale and of course allow the sales team to strike another commission!

My lack of experience combined with the wrong incentive scheme for the sales team was my main problem and I had to deal with that. Yet finding the right product-market fit is probably the most difficult part of business and so I had to reiterate our complete product-market fit from zero to one.

It’s logical that somehow, unconsciously, I was avoiding dealing with this problem. At the time, everything else appeared much easier and more tangible to me or at least it seemed easier. Yet the environment I was in was extremely toxic to my colleagues and of course to myself and consequently to my family, my friends and all of the people who love me. I partly created and sustained this toxic environment for years. I attribute a great part of this to our inherent primeval ‘fight-or-flight’ response to stress. I was unable to do anything constructive about it. All I could do then was to continue to try to deal with the problem but not initiate the necessary changes.

As time went on, we had more casualties in our team as more and more colleagues kept leaving the company. In the middle of all this, it wasn’t my logic that brought about the game-changing decision but rather the way people reacted to events. It was 2013 and I was still trying to figure out how to improve the business, but without focusing on the real problem. Over time, our team downsized by sixty percent and only a few people were left who still believed that we could make it as a company. Yet at that point, I found myself facing a private situation that required my full-time attention and that meant that I would not be available for a significant amount of time.

Yet it was during this period when I was less available to my team and more focused on handling my personal situation, that the breakthrough came. I was surprised at how flexible the people around me were and how everything I expected to go wrong didn’t. A lot of people stepped up, took ownership, filled the gaps and made improvements. It was then that I realized that it is not the individual that makes the difference but the team.

We did not need a rock star we needed a great team to build a great company!

Somehow and during the toughest period in my private life the team stepped up, people took ownership and gave me space and ability to deal with my personal problems. I was then that I realized that the sales team was the main problem within the company. While all other parts of the organization worked just fine in synchrony, I still had to deal with the sales team. This made it very difficult for me to focus on the most important things in my life at that moment.

Perhaps it was the change in focus or being forced to take a step back that made me realize that the sales team we had was not the sales team we needed. I began to see that I had the fundamentals wrong in terms of the incentives for the sales team: they only wanted to strike the next commission. It was not the sales team that was the problem but my approach! I had the wrong product-market fit for the company. I was focused on growth rather than finding the right product-market fit. I chose to stay in that toxic environment for years rather than deal with the most difficult problem the business faced: finding a new product-market fit.

My story is a mixture of experience and lack of experience, feelings and emotions, mistakes made and lesson learned in business and beyond. My point is that during the course of our life there are tough decisions that need to be made and times when we need to step back a little to be able to see more clearly how this can be done. For me, it was the point when I realized just how much that toxic environment was negatively impacting my quality of life. That was the point when I faced and began to deal with the most difficult problem affecting the business. I even succeeded to some extent.

In some ways, I feel bad that I didn’t have to power to deal with this problem when it first appeared but I guess that’s the reason why we made it as a race. We are built to protect ourselves and learn from our mistakes; our unconscious, in ways that perhaps we choose to ignore or fail to notice, helps us in this, hence that primitive instinct for fight-or-flight.

If you’re in a toxic environment, as I was, it’s really only a matter of time before you will leave that place. Either you will consciously choose to leave or you will reach a point where your quality of life is like hell and this will force you to leave. Remember there are 100 shitty reasons why not to do it but there are many more reasons why you should do it. One of them is that we can’t stop the time! Every day wasted is one that is not coming back. Yet each day well spent and with purpose is another great memory and part of your professional and private improvement!

Do yourself a favor right now and dump your toxic environment!

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