Thinking back to the start of 2020, it held so much promise. Not just a new year, but a whole new decade. A chance to reflect on where I’d come in my life thus far, and what new accomplishments I wanted to set out to achieve. And I had big plans.
I had just signed on for a new gig as the chief marketing officer at a high-growth startup whose founders, stage, and credibility were everything I’d been looking for. I’ve worked in marketing for over 15 years, but this was to be my first turn as CMO, and it held special importance for me. Becoming CMO of a company I was proud to work for was a goal I had set for myself back in college. There I was, finally Jackie in the C-suite; everything I’d worked so hard for. When suddenly, I was Jackie without a job.
My new employer had to lay off roughly half its workforce, including the entire marketing department, because of the economic crisis caused by COVID-19. In all honesty, I was gobsmacked. I recognized that the pandemic would have major implications. But until it happens to you, those hypothetical impacts almost feel surreal. Now we were in the middle of a global pandemic with layoffs happening everywhere, and I found myself agonizing. Is anyone out there hiring? How long will I be unemployed? How long can I afford my rent? Will I have to move back in with my parents at the embarrassing age of 36? Am I even allowed to feel grief about this when so many others are physically contracting and dying from this virus?
Estimates vary, but somewhere around 40 million Americans have been affected by layoffs or reduced employment so far this year as a result of COVID-19, so chances are good it’s you or someone you know. So here’s my story and some advice on powering through. With some tears, grace, and grit, I’m here to tell you that you just might come out stronger on the other side.
Accept that your layoff was beyond your control
It’s difficult to describe the weight of the shame I felt about losing my job. My career is an enormous part of my self-identity and the way I value myself. I grew up in Michigan with hard-working parents and learned in my youth that work is a virtue and I should always strive for financial security and independence. Next to death and public speaking, being jobless is my deepest fear.
Beyond my own self-criticism and after analyzing every side of whether there was some way I could have prevented this outcome—the stigma of being laid off simply sucks. By definition, the company is saying they can go on without you—and that knife cuts deep. I felt those early stages of grief including disbelief and bargaining. Was there any chance I could propose staying on at half my salary? I had to keep telling myself, this layoff wasn’t about me, it wasn’t something I could change. The faster I accepted the outcome was final, the faster I could move forward.
Grieve, but tune into your inner strength
No matter how you slice it, enduring a layoff is an enormous loss and a major life event. We spend more waking hours working each week than doing anything else, and the sudden absence of routine, purpose, place, and colleague relationships is traumatic. Give yourself permission to grieve, and listen to what your body needs emotionally and physically. Cry, be angry, feel betrayed—without rationalizing. Have a pint of Ben & Jerry’s (or three). Stay in bed for a day (or three) if your body needs it.
Then, remember what else you’ve survived and find strength in knowing this moment is just a blip on your radar for the future. For me, the clouds parted when I stopped to consider what else I’d been through and that this in hindsight would pale in comparison. I’ve been through a divorce, I’ve been through many forms of sexual harassment, and I’ve personally failed at many things over my life. Each of these experiences individually was brutal but collectively built my armor for moments like this. Failure has always made me turn inward, separate what I could control from what I could have done differently, and set my sights higher and double down for the next phase.
Start networking, even while you’re in pain
Hours after I got the bad news, I was in such shock that I wasn’t ready to talk out loud. The first person I texted called me immediately, and I just started breaking down in tears. It was devastating, and I thank that person to this day for holding a safe space for me to vent. Others began calling, but I couldn’t pick up, not wanting to show my wounds or cry through another phone call.
But I knew I had to be quick to catch CMO leads if there were any out there at all. I began texting my inner circle of professional contacts best connected in the startup world. As luck would have it, one of the friends I texted that day connected me with Alyson Friedensohn, CEO and founder of the mental health benefits startup Modern Health—where I would (spoiler alert) land the CMO role the following month. The hard fact is that most jobs aren’t posted online, especially in the C-suite. So rely on your networks, swallow your pride, ask for help, and don’t waste time.
Reevaluate your values, and be open to taking a new path
The strange part about losing your job at a time when you can’t travel, your normal routines are disrupted, and you’re effectively bound to your apartment in a state of stillness is that you are offered a window of opportunity (if not forced against your will) to reevaluate your life priorities.
Now that you’re unemployed, how do you want to spend the next year of your life? What gives you energy, and what sucks energy from you? Have you always taken jobs because of title or money or some sort of self-aggrandized progression marker? Being a Michigander at heart, I have loved living in San Francisco because of its entrepreneurial spirit and optimistic outlook on how to make progress for the world. But I’ve also struggled with reconciling my personal values in wanting to do the right thing, always being truthful and keeping my word, and helping others expecting nothing in return—not always a belief upheld in this town.
When a dear friend and mentor suggested I consider Modern Health, I had never heard of the company. The startup was at an earlier fundraising stage than I would have preferred, and although I majored in human biology as an undergrad and believed strongly in mental wellness, I’d never worked in the healthcare space before.
I took a risk and met with the CEO within a few days over Zoom. Alyson inspired me so much in that first meeting that I decided I would put my full force into this opportunity. I met with a slew of exceptional leaders and quickly realized that this company could have their pick of the litter for a CMO. I knew I had to stand out and go above and beyond, so I spent an entire weekend preparing a 45-page marketing plan to pitch myself and demonstrate how motivated I was to join this company.
I started as the chief marketing officer in late April, and after only two months I can confidently say it’s the best career move I’ve ever made. Actually, I told a friend the other day that it feels like I was born for this job. Through some of the hardest events of this roller coaster of a year, I log on each day with a sense of purpose, knowing if I help connect even one more person to the support they needed, I’ve succeeded. I feel truly grateful.
Make your layoff part of your growth story
There are so many things that could have prevented me from ever being connected with the team at Modern Health that led me down this journey of both personal and professional fulfillment. We’ve all heard about post-traumatic stress, but there’s another possible outcome too. Post-traumatic growth is where people report their lives changing for the better following a period of trauma.
If you let it, hardship can be a source of strength to catapult you into even better opportunities than you ever thought possible. Depending on what we make of it, 2020 just might be the year of pain and growth we didn’t know we needed. I for one believe that 2020 is not the year that was canceled. It is the year we renewed our faith in humanity.