There is a saying among sociologists, “so you might not have a job, but at least you’ll know why.”
Well last week, a little over 8 months since I started my position at EnCompass, I lost my job. My first ever lay off.
Losing a job can be a taboo subject. But I think there are few things we can learn from my current predicament, so here goes.
- Do I think they should have kept me on? Yes.
- Am I a little biased? You bet.
- Do I understand why I lost my job? Yes.
A little backstory.
In September of last year I found myself in an enviable position.
I had two offers, each one for a very tempting job. On one side, a creative data visualization management position at a fortune 500 company. On the other side, a unique position in a small business in the middle of a growth spurt.
Both offered a fine salary, benefits, and interesting work. Both offered unique challenges and definite upsides. The fortune 500 offered more money and a bigger budget. The small business offered an intriguing pitch on culture and work/life balance. I wouldn’t have to change my flexible family routine or even my co-working space. It was also in the field of evaluation, where I had already established a large amount of social capital.
After a lot of consideration, we decided to move forward with the small business. So I took a senior visual design position on the communications team.
I was a strategic hire.
In a consultancy that makes the vast majority of its money through federal contracts, there are a few ways that a position can become available.
Winning a federal contract can spark the need for additional staff. Positions exist to fill roles planned into existence through proposals, and depending on the contract, these positions could be fairly long term. Having one of these positions means you have a client paying your salary, as long as you do your work and remain in the labor category as bid, you have pretty good job security.
There are also certain positions required to administratively run an organization. This includes areas like Accounting, Business Development, HR, and IT. The bigger a company gets the more of these positions it tends to have. These positions get funded by the overhead built into contracts.
Then there are in-between positions. People who have specialized roles that tend to support many different projects, along with some internal priorities. The amount of work funded by overhead and funded by clients can vary widely and depend on the specialty and demand.
As a part of the communications team, I was in one of those in-between positions. As a senior member on the team, I was also setup to mentor colleagues and expand our capabilities. There was so much I could offer the organization, and I had the trust of internal leadership to let me thrive.
Things were going pretty well. That is until December when our fearless leader needlessly led the country into the longest U.S. government shutdown in history.
At first things were okay, but after a few weeks it started to get a little more tense. 35 days is a pretty long period of time to have your biggest client not paying, with some work delayed and some projects cancelled altogether. Eventually hours had to be cut, and the first hours to get cut belonged to the people who don’t have their positions fully backed by obligated funding.
This is just the business of research and evaluation. Job security is having a client paying your salary. I didn’t have that.
Back in Business…Sorta
It’s amazing what a little adversity can do to a company.
All of a sudden, priorities started to shift. The idea that we could expand our communications offerings and improve our product became a non-starter. After looking closely at expenditures, leadership decided the company was overdoing it on the communications work and needed to scale back a bit.
Project managers started watching every dollar and making sure their team members were as committed (a.k.a. funded) as possible. This reduces the amount of work for the in-between teams like my own. And when work did come our way, it was cheaper to use someone not so senior to do the work.
Maybe this is an opportunity?
Before I took the job I had a few freelance gigs helping organizations develop digital revenue strategies. There is huge potential for the right organization willing to make an investment.
So why not make that happen here?
I was given the green light to develop a plan. One that would generate revenue and eventually help to diversify cash flow.
As quickly as it turned green it switched to yellow. Approvals to move forward slowed and I was encouraged to find more internal work…(see last section).
Eventually, the red light came. They just “could not afford” to invest at the moment in something that did not pay off in the short term.
The writing was on the wall
After being given the red light on the revenue strategy, I knew my days were numbered. I told my wife that I needed to start polishing my resume, just in case.
I was given no direction really at that stage. Just told to make myself committable to 70%. It felt like a kind of purgatory. I wasn’t given permission to make a serious attempt to grow revenue externally and the projects we had internally didn’t have the budget for someone at my level of seniority.
But I don’t give up and came up with a new strategy to find work internally by showcasing my abilities with Tableau and data automation. A handful of conversations and I felt confident that I was on my way to 70%.
Shortly after the red light conversation (like two weeks) my boss called me for our weekly one on one video chat. I had made some serious progress towards an increased commitment rate so I hoped we would talk about that.
But then the video came on. And there was my boss, sitting next to our HR person. The company had decided it didn’t have the funds to invest in me anymore. Effective the next day, I was no longer an employee.
I regret to inform you that your position at EnCompass is being eliminated. Please be assured that this decision is not related to your performance. It is based on financial considerations; we can no longer support your position on administrative funds, and do not have the necessary contracts that can cover your time. After reviewing our options, we have concluded that we must eliminate your position effective June 13, 2019.First paragraph of my separation letter, signed by the company president, received on June 12.
Maybe you weren’t that good.
I’m not so self-centered to believe that I don’t have flaws. And there is a tendency for companies to use lay offs to cut dead weight. But I don’t think that’s the case here.
Here are some of the recommendations I received immediately after losing my position.
Chris is a pleasure to work with. His creativity and commitment to human-centered design make him a wonderful partner in innovating solutions and identifying possibilities. He is a natural mentor who inspires the people around him to stretch into new areas of growth; acting as a sounding board and coaching as needed to help them achieve success.
In terms of his own work, Chris is unafraid of challenges, and able to contribute to a wide range of projects. In his time with us he supported the design and development of our new company website, the development of a suite of learning videos focused on evaluation capacity building, and strategic planning for a new line of business! Chris is multi-talented and an inspiration to those around him. I dearly hope to have the opportunity to work with him again, and recommend him to others without reservation.My immediate supervisor
Chris and I worked together on the communications team. He has deep Tableau experience and understands how to effectively communicate complex technical concepts to a variety of audiences. I appreciate his “big picture” perspective and strategic mindset, which helps to connect the dots between needs, resources, and opportunities.
In addition to his technical expertise, he is also an excellent team builder. Mentoring seems to come naturally to him, and I have so appreciated having him as a sounding board, as a motivator to push myself outside my comfort zone, and as an encourager for my creative confidence.
In terms of both “hard” and “soft” skills, he has helped me to push my data visualization expertise to a new level. He is a friend and mentor who I am going to miss tremendously.
It is my pleasure to recommend Chris, and I believe he will be an asset to any future employer.A fellow comms team member
In addition to being a skilled analyst and evaluator, Chris has a wealth of knowledge about user experience, web design, graphic design, and data visualization. His innovative ideas and strategic support were invaluable, and I consider him a creative mentor. I truly enjoy working with Chris; even in the most challenging of circumstances he has always managed to make me smile!A fellow comms team member
Chris provided senior visual design leadership on a project I lead. We had a data visualization challenge and wanted to take the design of a series of regular executive briefs to a new level. Chris was able to communicate with and learn from our project teams and client and develop a series of unique visualizations through Tableau.
He just has a natural talent for taking technical data and making it compelling for an audience that is not always data savvy. I really enjoy working with Chris as he develops a visual design he is a great collaborator and team player. I am really going to miss his insight andOne of our project leads
expertise as a designer but also a process and team manager.
A strategic, whole-systems, human-centered design thinker, Chris brought to us expertise in data science, technology and learning systems. Chris listened deeply internally and externally, asking questions that created new insight for our teams. Clients frequently expressed their appreciation for Chris’s collaborative and creative approach, while colleagues consistently valued his mentorship. Chris brought to us expertise in areas as diverse as building online learning platforms, cybersecurity, human-centered design, and R&D strategy. I highly recommend Chris as an architect and facilitator of online training, strategist in learning and technology, and valued strategic business advisor.The company CEO
Let’s take a second here, I’m not telling you this as some kind of sad story. I’m a strategist who chose to spend most of his career in research and evaluation. Due to the way contracts tend to be structured, it’s a hard industry for long term employment. It only gets tougher as you grow in seniority.
It’s one of the reasons so many senior researchers and evaluators launch independent agencies. They get tired of the contract shuffle, and anytime you lose a position the thought of starting your own comes to the forefront of your mind.
Here are some of my personal lessons. If you’ve been through this kind of thing, I’d love to hear yours below in the comments.
Lesson 1: There are many things I can do, but only so many that would justify my paycheck.
In the course of my career I have professionally functioned as a research analyst, evaluator, data scientist, web developer, UX designer, UX researcher, eLearning designer, social media communications expert, web analytics expert, coach, mentor, video producer, animator, illustrator, fractional CMO, fractional CIO, and business strategist.
I would almost always bounce between these roles in the same position within the same organization. My basic strategy has been…find a need, fill the need.
The problem is that many of the needs I could fill, even immediate emergency needs, don’t carry a high enough market value.
My instincts lead me to lots of things. But the market leads to just a few. So in my next role, I’ll be seeking a position as either a Senior UX designer, Senior UX researcher, data scientist, chief marketing officer, or chief information officer.
Lesson 2: I wasn’t technically a manager. And that was a problem.
I thought coming in that I had the potential to be named manager of the team. And that maybe, they just had to see what I could do before officially giving me the title. I was being paid like a manager.
So I mentored, strengthened processes, advocated for my colleagues, and pushed back against senior management when I felt a change in strategy was necessary for the health of the organization. Often times this meant prioritizing my team’s development over getting work that fit only my niche. It was a manager’s strategy.
But I wasn’t a manager.
And that became even more clear when the organization hit its struggles. They didn’t need another manager, they needed consistent money. They needed everyone to be as fully time committed as possible.
And after the sudden switch, well I had been helping my colleagues to grow to the point where they could replace me in some common core activities. And then when ultimately comms was de-prioritized, I became redundant, because they didn’t care enough about growing data science, new tech, interactive visualization, or automation capabilities.
Back to status quo.
You could read this and think that my mistake was acting like a manager and training my replacements. But that wouldn’t be it.
My mistake was taking a job where I wasn’t a manager. Because all that mentoring, process development, advocating, and pushing back stuff, that’s the stuff I truly loved about my job.
I get more joy out of helping a colleague grow than I ever would out of any singular creative activity.
Lesson 3: If it’s not in the proposal budget, it’s unlikely to happen.
I am a person who believes we are doing the world a disservice by not focusing too much on evaluation methods and not nearly enough on disseminating findings and lessons from our work.
And if I say that out loud in a room of evaluators, I’m likely to get a lot of shaking heads.
But here’s the reality. RFPs and their resulting proposals are front-loaded with methods and planning activities. And dissemination, which is often viewed as an end-of-the-project kind of task, isn’t given the percentages necessary to put in a serious effort.
So paragraphs and super basic activities are put into proposals that get vigorous head nods. And these activities are backed by only small bits of dedicated funding. Enough for a few hours by junior staff.
And then, when the project goes live, the front-end is overspent. By the time dissemination comes around, the project is out of the little money it committed to spending in the first place.
This is changing…a little. But not enough.
And it makes research and evaluation an unstable field for data creatives like me. Because if I could get 50% more money by calling myself a Senior UX Designer or Data Scientist, why shouldn’t I?
Lesson 4: My biggest priority in life is my family.
So I know what you’re thinking. If I’m so smart, why don’t I just go into business for myself again.
The truth is, my firm was heading in the right direction. But the feast or famine part of the business was putting a serious strain on my family. One that we haven’t fully recovered from.
And in the 8 months of full-time employment, our life was getting better. As much as I love to throw myself into chaos and find clarity, it can’t come at the cost of my family’s well-being.
I need a steady paycheck.
So if you know anyone looking for a Senior UX designer, Senior UX researcher, Chief Information Officer, or Chief Marketing Officer, please let me know.