This is chapter 23 in a series entitled Telling My Story. Please note that all names (both people and companies) have been changed.
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She was thirty one years old, beautiful, blond, and wore a size 4 suit; her taste tended toward Donna Karan. She had become a vice president at thirty: smart, good-looking and driven. She was my new boss and she was ten years younger than I.
After leaving the health department, we had moved to a large city and I went to work in a huge health care corporation. It was, in fact, the largest managed care company in the United States at that time. There were nearly fifteen thousand employees then; which later grew to about twenty-two thousand.
I was from a small farm town with a population about one-third the size of the number of people working for my new employer; and I had no idea what I was getting into when I walked through those elevator doors on that first day.
Office politics at this level made what I had previously encountered look like a kindergarten squabble over the play-dough.
I do recall that I was wearing my favorite red suit with black trim (power colors :) and I thought the interview had gone well. Indeed, I received a phone call with a job offer within two hours of the close of the interview and the next day I began what would become a whirlwind career ride.
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Within the first two years of my time with BHC, I had been promoted twice and my salary had nearly doubled. The pressure had increased along with my responsibilities. Fortunately I had experienced a couple of key "wins" early on, and it had given me a certain cache' as a problem-solver with Kay, my new boss.
First there was the matter of the missing directories. These were annual publications of doctors, hospitals, and ancillary providers who had contracted with the BHC network. They were not cheap. Whoever had been in charge of the most recent publication project, several months prior to my joining the firm, had not maintained good inventory control.
Now, with six months left before the next publication, we were getting daily calls requesting directories; but our supply was nearly exhausted. Some felt that there had been an error and that we had actually only received a partial delivery. Some speculated that someone (no longer with the company) had place bogus orders and siphoned off the money. No one knew for sure. But we did know that we were running critically low on our supply, which could negatively impact the flow of business.
I made some inquiries, reconstructed the history of the project as best I could after the fact, and came to an odd suspicion.
Fridays were casual dress day, and while I did not usually dress down, I chose that day in order to be as inconspicuous as possible. I went to work wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and left the office in a company car, headed for a warehouse on the edge of town. I had obtained keys from the facilities manager, who looked at me oddly when I asked for them. Managers did not generally visit the warehouses. But I did, and there in a dusty place no one had visited in a long while, I discovered a $100,000 in missing directories, still shrink-wrapped and loaded on pallets. They had been sent to that location in error, and then following staff turnover, forgotten. I was the hero of the hour for that little deal.
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After four years with BHC I had moved on from $100,000 dollar issues to multi-million dollars problems. But I was still asking questions, figuring out where the bodies were buried, and still handling the tough stuff. But the VP, Kay, who had been my early champion and loved the kudos that came her way from headquarters whenever my team scored a victory, had decided that some changes needed to be made.
First she began a campaign to reduce my influence in the region, reassigning my staff with no advance notice, asking my key subordinates to report directly to her on major projects, even though she knew little of the actual work involved. Then she hired a new guy from the outside, and soon began an affair with him (during working hours and on company property). They took long smoking breaks, lasting an hour or more in the basement parking garage, and became an office joke. Given that he was her subordinate, it was not surprising when he later sued the company for sexual harassment, naming Kay as the offender.
I did my best to stay clear of her and just do my own job; but she was my boss and it was difficult. Finally, she called me to her office and instructed me to give a poor performance rating to a director, whom I knew had performed well for the entire year. My boss disliked Leann for personal reasons, but tried to convince me that the low evaluation was justified. I pointed out that Leann had met all her deadlines, delivered two critical projects under budget, and enjoyed the loyalty of her entire team. A poor eval would cost her her annual bonus and become part of her permanent record. Kay did not care; she was on a vendetta.
She told me to recheck Leann's file and find something, anything, that would justify her directive; and said we would talk again the next day. We did and the conversation came to the same point, with Kay ordering me to do something that I knew was unethical and further emphasizing to me that she was giving me a direct order. Failure to do as she demanded would be considered insubordination, which was a terminable offense. (Talk about two birds with one stone.)
I went home to contemplate my resignation as it seemed she was leaving me no decent alternative. The next day she repeated her directive, and I respectfully told her I could not do that and that she would have my resignation on her desk first thing the next morning. She looked completely non-plussed and began to backpedal.
Once back in my office I phoned a senior vice president at headquarters twenty-five hundred miles away, with whom I had a matrix reporting relationship, which was less direct than the one to Kay, but still valid. I explained the situation, and told him that I wanted to let him know why he would also be receiving my resignation. He asked me to delay doing anything while he looked into the issue.
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After several more agonizing weeks (during which the daily tension in the office was so thick you could cut it with a knife) relief arrived. Anne, a senior emissary from national headquarters, flew into town and asked to meet with me privately in a nearby hotel. Good grief, who knew business could be so cloak and dagger-ish.
Anne asked about the numerous issues related to Kay's management decisions over the past year. I learned headquarters had received multiple written complaints about her in the past, and they were aware of the potential legal action regarding her behavior. I could not understand why they continued to delay taking remedial action, but again there were politics involved.
However, by this time I was once again in the midst of a more important issue in my own life. My oldest son, who had been a paraplegic for about ten years at this time, was scheduled to have both legs amputated in a few weeks. I was struggling with the emotional impact of this, even though I knew it was medically warranted. I kept remembering the little red-haired boy who loved to run and ride his bike. Even though he was now an adult, and had made a decent adjustment to his disability, it was so hard to accept yet more loss for him.
Anne asked if I would stay and guide the team through the "fall out" that was bound to occur, once headquarters made a move to replace Kay. She said they were planning to send in a new VP out of San Francisco, to whom I would soon report.
I was reluctant to bring up my personal issues, as I never liked to mix business and personal life; but since she was making her case for my continued involvement with some fervor, I finally told her that I did not feel I could agree to her request. When she asked why, I told her about my son's scheduled amputations.
Her eyes were kind as she said with some astonishment, "You have been dealing with this total disaster at the office at the same time you are facing this surgery for your son? I do not know how you have maintained your composure through all this, but from today forward, the company will handle this. You just take care of yourself and your family. I'll be praying for you and your son.
We don't want your resignation. We are going to need your to help restore some order after the company takes action." But she could not say exactly when this "action" would take place.
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As it happened, on a sunny day shortly thereafter, I was sitting in a hospital waiting room, awaiting news of how my son's surgery had gone.
A hundred miles away, two vice presidents flew in from headquarters, walked into the regional office unannounced and straight into Kay's office. They gave her less than an hour to clean out her desk and escorted her out. She was done. After ten years, her career there ending in ignominy.
Nevertheless, I was a mother bowed with grief, struggling to once again put broken dreams behind us; and on that day I could not have cared less whether Kay still ruled the western region. However, I later learned the details from staff who were present. It was a sad, but necessary, ending and after months of doing battle with her professionally, God allowed me to be absent on the day of her professional demise. I was grateful.
Epilogue: Kay was also fired from her next two jobs in less than three years. Yes, she was physically beautiful as well as smart and talented. But she was spiritually bankrupt and broken. She descended her career ladder sliding from VP to director, from director to manager and .... downward.
Meanwhile, God continued to give me strength. I continued to go to college at night, was promoted again, and eventually had an office on the 32nd floor of a building on California St. in the financial district of San Francisco. I could see the Golden Gate Bridge from my office windows.
As Thomas a Kempis wrote, "Man proposes, but God disposes."
It was such a draining experience, the business of "firing my own boss" that if anyone had told me that it would not be the only time I would have to endure it, I might have retired right then and there. Fortunately, we cannot see the future.