The Gift of “You’re Fired!”

New City YMCA at Cabrini

“YOU’RE FIRED!”

These were the words I heard from across a table on a Monday morning over 20 years ago. I was stunned. I had two hours to pack my office and leave. It was the first big failure in my life. But as I look back now, it was also a time when God decided to teach me about integrity.

When I interviewed for the job, one of the questions I’d asked was whether they functioned well as a team. The answer had been a resounding YES, accompanied by stories of their support of each other. The reality, however, was something very different. Brittle laughter could be heard in staff meetings when a joke was cracked—usually at the expense of another staff person. They didn’t know how to function as a team, and I didn’t know how to build a team. Between backbiting, sarcasm, and a general lack of respect, I was miserable. I can look back now and know that I lacked the integrity to build trust and to lead. While I said that I was there to serve them, in reality this job was just another rung on a ladder to my dream job. Because my faith didn’t match my words, which didn’t match my actions, my pride was all they could see.

In the middle of my misery, I got a call to interview for a position in Chicago’s inner city, at a YMCA in one of the worst housing projects in the United States, Cabrini Green. Weeks before a little 6-year-old boy named Dantrell Davis had been gunned down in gang crossfire while he walked to school with his mom.

Surely God didn’t want me to go there?

I decided to go to the interview, but only for the experience. The Friday interview was a one-day process and as fast and tough as I’ve ever experienced; half-hour slots with various leaders and board members; little time with the people I would lead; and an offer of employment at 3:30 that same afternoon. I told them I would let them know my decision by the end of the weekend. I prayed, I wrestled—and I decided God surely could not intend for a young, white woman from a farm in Indiana to go serve in Cabrini Green. And so I turned down the position on Sunday evening.

On Monday morning when I arrived at work, I heard the words, “You’re fired!” They said, “Nancy, you can really run a YMCA, but we’re not sure anyone would climb the mountain with you to plant the flag”.   I could picture the image of Iwo Jima in my mind, but I didn’t know why anyone wouldn’t climb with me!  With my stomach tied in knots and my body shaking, I called my husband. He came over with some boxes and we packed up my office. In the middle of packing, the phone rang—it was the leadership in Chicago, wondering why I had said no and what it would take for me to reconsider. My heart pounded so hard I was sure they could hear it over the phone.

How do I sound nonchalant and calm, considering what I’m going through, and tell them I would like to reconsider?

My fear and pride kicked in. I was afraid if I said yes, they’d think something was wrong or know I had been fired. So I explained how hurried I had felt through the interview process and requested permission to come up and spend time individually with each person I would be supervising.

That same week, while driving to Chicago for the second interview, the story of Jonah came on a radio program I was listening to in my car. Jonah—you know, the guy God told to go to Nineveh. Instead Jonah said no way and headed for Tarshish. God let him spend some think time in the belly of a fish in order for him to see the light. I realized God was speaking to me as directly as He ever had in my life—Cabrini Green was my Nineveh.

God took me to Cabrini Green to learn about integrity and leadership, His way.  The words I heard when I was fired set me a course to learn about this “leadership thing”.

Today, while painful, I know that experience was one of the best character and leadership development experiences of my career.  I learned how to choose well, lead well, and how to finish well.  In upcoming musings, I’ll share the lessons learned and encourage you to choose well, lead well, and finish well.

What Do Joe Paterno and Juan Williams Have in Common?

Both Joe Paterno and Juan Williams were fired by telephone.  Both had served their organizations and brought name recognition and success to the brands of Penn State and NPR.  Both deserved more respect than they received from their leadership. 

Whether you agree with their being fired, no one who has spent much of their career building the reputation of an organization deserves to be fired by telephone.  Leaders with integrity have the courage to go face to face to the people they’ve decided to release.  It demonstrates dignity and respect – and it keeps those who are still employed from wondering when they’ll be the next to receive “the call”.  Steven Sample, in his great book, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, called it “shooting your own horse”.  A horse owner never asks someone else to put down his horse, and a CEO should never ask someone else to do the firing.   Leadership is about holding people accountable – even when you’ll take heat in doing so.  It’s also about having the ethics and  integrity to make that hard call in person.

Integrity and the NPR ‘gotcha’ video

 

Two people have lost their jobs over the latest dust up at NPR – the executive in charge of fund development and the CEO.  In an age of cell phone camera videos and increasingly hidden technology, it becomes even more important for a company or organization to have core values that start at the top and are communicated to the entire workforce.  Had NPR sent a clear message about what they stood for and what their core values looked like in action, they probably would not have had a leader  caught in hidden video bashing one group of people to another group. 

 I’ve been blogging for the last two weeks about the importance of knowing what your top core values are.  That’s how you know what to do when the hard calls come.  It’s just as important for companies to have those values defined, communicated, and to hold employees accountable.  Jet Blue had a trainee and trainer lie about damage caused during the training.  The trainer said he was driving, when the trainee actually was.  Jet Blue made it clear that both violated their policy of honesty – and both lost their jobs.  Neither one would have had they simply admitted the mistake. 

 The executive at NPR faced a hard call – chase the money or have respect for all – no matter what.  In the end, we don’t really know what NPR’s core values are.  I don’t think he did either. 

The Upside of Being Fired

I was miserable in my job. When I interviewed for the position, one of the questions I’d asked was whether they functioned well as a team. The answer had been a resounding YES. The reality, however, was something very different. Brittle laughter could be heard in staff meetings when a joke was cracked—usually at the expense of another staff person. They didn’t know how to function as a team, and I didn’t know what to do about it. I had been hired to bring change into this organization, but at that point in my career I didn’t know anything about leading change. And I was the first outside person they’d hired in twenty-three years. To top it all off, I was busy climbing my own career ladder and much of my life was all about me.

Eventually, I was told the position would be eliminated and I’d be given time to find another job. I had negotiated an agreement for sufficient time to look for a position that would fit my needs, and within a couple of weeks I got a call to interview for a position in Chicago’s inner city. This not-for-profit organization was in turn-around mode, and the leadership had a reputation for making tough, business-minded decisions that were often perceived as ruthless.

Surely God didn’t want me to go there?

I decided to go to the interview, if only for the experience, but I also was hoping to discover some redeeming qualities about the organization that might give me the courage to accept the position if it was offered to me.

The all day Friday interview was as fast and tough as I’ve ever experienced; half-hour slots with various leaders and board members; little time with the people I would lead; and an offer of employment at 3:30 that same afternoon. I told them I would let them know my decision by the end of the weekend. I prayed, I wrestled—and I decided God surely could not intend for a young, white woman from a farm in Indiana to go serve in an inner city housing project. And so out of fear, I turned down the position on Sunday evening.

On Monday morning I heard the words, “You’re fired!” Stunned, I called my husband, who came over with some boxes and we started packing up my office. Just then, the phone rang—it was the leadership in from the organization in Chicago, wondering why I had said no and what it would take for me to reconsider.

I accepted the position and my time there became one of the best experiences of my career. It was a delightful place with plenty of diversity and people who really cared about each other. We learned how to function as a team and I learned how to serve others. God used this experience as a wakeup call and taught me some very valuable lessons about integrity and service. Have you experienced an upside to being fired?