JAMES BRIAN KERR
The Long Walk Home:
How I Lost My Job as a Corporate Remora Fish and Rediscovered My Life's Purpose
The Great Letting Go
When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. —Lao Tzu
A few weeks before my fifty-sixth birthday, I was sitting in my office at the headquarters of the technology company where I had worked for twenty-eight years when I received the call that no one, especially at that age, wants to get.
It was the chief marketing officer, calling on his cell from wherever he was traveling that week.
“Bad news,” he said. “Paul’s restructuring.”
Paul was the new CEO who had joined the company earlier in the year. Everyone in the firm had been on pins and needles for news of a downsizing, since that’s what usually happened whenever a new CEO came onboard. As the company’s head of communications, I was normally among the first to know about these things because my team would have to put together the plan for communicating the news to employees and spinning it to the media and investors.
“All right,” I sighed, already searching through my computer files for the playbook we used for communicating corporate restructurings. “What do we need to do?”
“No, Jim,” he replied. “This is about you.”
I went quiet as he gave me the news. The new CEO was shaking up his management team and wanted to bring on a new head of communications. The good news, the chief marketing officer went on to say, was that the change wasn’t happening right away. A search was underway for my replacement, which would probably take a couple of months. In the meantime, I was still in the job, but I would be advised to start looking around for something else, because my long run with this company was coming to an end.
“Wait,” I said when I was able to find my voice. “I’m being let go? Why?”
“It’s nothing personal. He’s just looking for a different style of leader.”
Nothing personal? What could be more personal than being let go from your job? I found myself protesting uselessly. This made no sense. I had a stellar reputation in the company. I had been getting excellent performance reviews for as long as I had been there and had just gotten another good one in the spring.
“Yeah, well,” he replied, “there’s a new sheriff in town and everything’s different now.”
After hanging up, I sat for a while in my office sorting through a churning blender of emotions. The month before, I had celebrated my one-year mark of completing chemotherapy for colon cancer. My scans were clean, and though I still had miles to go on my cancer journey, I was feeling like I had dodged a bullet with my name written on it.
And now this.
I had kids in college. A mortgage, medical bills, aging parents. Would I be able to find another job with a salary anywhere near what I was being paid? Would another company even be interested in me, considering my age and the fact that I had worked so long at one place? Would this precipitate another plunge into the hell of clinical depression? I had a long history of brushes with the black beast, but he and I had come to a détente and it had been more than a decade since we had wrestled in the pit together. The last thing I wanted to do was poke his sorry hide and get him riled up again.
So many questions, so many emotions. Fear. Anger. Disgust. Disbelief. I had given so much of my life to this company. I had always been a star performer and had a shelf full of awards to show for it. Now, suddenly, I was expendable? How could they be doing this to me?
At a certain level, having worked as long as I had in communications and investor relations, I knew the answer to my own question: This was about cutting costs. The company had been restructuring and downsizing from the day I first got there nearly twenty-eight years ago. What was then an IT giant with a hundred thousand employees and ten billion dollars in annual revenue was now down to less than a quarter of that size. In my time with the firm, I had seen literally tens of thousands of people—entire cities—ushered out the door. But those reductions had always happened to other people.
Now my time had come. The restructurer’s scythe had come for me.