Think back to a time when you realized that the project your boss asked you to do was flawed. Maybe it included trying a new software application, or implementing a new process, or chasing the latest buzzword in your industry. You know it won’t work. However, because it’s the shiniest new trend, your manager thinks it is a brilliant idea.

What did you do? Did you push back, or did you go along with the request? If you pushed back successfully, great job! If you went ahead with the faulty plan, you’re not alone. It is a common scenario in the workplace.

I, too, have been that employee who went along with a manager’s bad plan more than a few times. In fact, it once got me fired. It’s a story I tell in “Mean People Suck” to explain what I call “the Illusion Point” and how you can avoid it in your career.

53 Jobs And Only Fired Once

Three months into my first VP of marketing role, the head of HR came and escorted me into my boss’s office on a Friday afternoon.

“It just isn’t working out,” he said. I tried to get him to give me more of an explanation, but he just kept repeating the same line over and over again. It was like how people report being in some kind of accident and time slows down. I kind of realized what was going on as soon as HR showed up to my office. But the realization hit me in waves of horror and shame and dread.

My wife and I had a little baby at home. We were living with my in-laws while building our dream home. We wanted to have a whole bunch of more kids. I can not be the person who gets fired!!!

When I joined this company, I was asked to come up with a solid marketing strategy to help us win in a competitive market. This included increasing brand awareness, lead generation for the sales time, and developing new messaging. I was thrilled.

I started by talking to our sales team. After all, who spent more time with our customers than they did? It went well, largely because I got the sense no one ever asked their opinion on how to market the company. And they had lots os great ideas. They even put me in touch with some customers so I could pick their brains.

After meeting with other departments to get their perspective, I saw the gaps that needed to be filled. I devised a plan to revamp our strategy, specifically to help our sales team better connect with the market.

My confidence was short-lived once I presented my plan to my boss. Even during my proposal pitch, I could tell he wasn’t listening at all. I pushed on anyway.

“With your approval, I can get started right away, and with a small investment, I believe we can start seeing revenue increases within a few months,” I said to conclude my presentation. (I had practiced that line over and over in the mirror of my in-laws bathroom.) He slid the proposal back to me and delivered the bad news.

He told me that 10 years earlier, he had become company president because he had cold-called “the phone book.” And that had led to lots of sales for the company. He had been given huge sales commissions, and, he explained, he didn’t need any of this “marketing.”

He said my time would be better-spent cold-calling potential customers along with the sales team. He stood up, grabbed his pack of cigarettes, and left the room. I was crushed. But refused to quit.

I spent the next few months making 20-30 calls a day, week after week. My efforts resulted in a grand total of one $12,000 sale before my impromptu Friday afternoon meeting.

The Illusion Point

What happened to me isn’t uncommon. It’s part of what I call the “Illusion Point.” Executives ask us to do “stuff” (the tip of the iceberg). But as we know all the weight of the iceberg is below the surface:

  1. We sacrifice time, money, and hard work on stuff we know won’t work
  2. That leads to failure and lost opportunity
  3. And that makes us angry, frustrated and we disengage from our company and our work

This is how we become mindless zombies just showing up to work, doing what we’re told, and collecting paychecks

It starts with managers who assume they know what will have the most impact and what’s the most important without consulting other team members. Instead of giving us the objective and letting us figure it out, they insist we accomplish their goals their way.We, the employees, suffer as a result.

Sometimes, we even suggest a new idea. And sometimes we sneak those ideas into projects and they actually produce good results. But in the wrong culture, this produces what I call the “Great Idea Cycle of Death.”

We know we have done great work and ideas that produced results. Yet, we fail to gain more autonomy and don’t get promoted because of this phenomenon. This is what happens in the Great Idea Cycle of Death:

  • Our great ideas produce some success.
  • That success creates more bureaucracy, and our bad managers take all the credit.
  • That increased level of bureaucracy kills great ideas.
  • We get assigned to more projects where other people tell us what to do.
  • The business results are not great, and we are miserable.

My experience getting fired from my first VP of marketing job is a perfect example of this cycle. I was excited to make an impact and shared the great ideas of others. I then shared them with sales and other departments, and they loved it. However, I needed the company president’s approval and didn’t get it. He then told me how to achieve my objectives by cold-calling, and it didn’t work. That “illusion point” led to my being fired.

How to stop wasting your efforts

Seeing your good work and ideas be ignored is frustrating. For managers and CEOs determined that they know the best way, it is a costly problem.

In marketing alone, 60-70% of content that companies create is ineffective. While it may be content that never gets published due to cumbersome review processes or it gets buried, these scenarios happen every day inside companies. Research indicates that this problem costs close to $100 billion just for business-to-business organizations.

Thanks to my own experiences and the research I did for this book, I realized that behind every bad idea is an executive who asked for it. Here is a three-step process to stop wasted efforts and start adding more value:

Step 1: Say no to requests that we know don’t work. I’m aware this is much easier said than done. Some will argue that their organization is too antiquated to be able to push back, others may fear for their jobs if they do. This is where I tell people to consider their boss’s role.

Step 2: Put yourself in your manager’s shoes. One important thing to keep in mind is projects we know won’t work are not always your immediate boss’s fault. They are getting the same pressure you are from their managers. Additionally, we all have our own experiences and issues that shape our decision-making process.

Step 3: What flavor cake do you want? Finding common ground is what helped improve my relationship with an old boss. Long story short, he was grumpy all the time. Meetings with him felt like we had to beg for mercy constantly. When I learned that he was actually a nice guy, a loving dad, and a good person, I knew he was putting on a facade.

As the newest member of the team, he would continually ask me to do stuff I didn’t think would work. I finally hit my breaking point one day, and instead of saying yes, I asked what he wanted and needed. I told him he could tell me what type of cake he wanted, but he couldn’t tell me what ingredients to use. He resisted at first, but then I heard him use the same analogy in a meeting with stakeholders. Our relationship was different from that day on because I took the time to understand how I can best help him.

But wait, there’s more!

Several weeks after that fateful Friday afternoon in my boss’s office, I got a phone call from the CEO of the company. He explained that multiple people from sales and other departments had approached him, upset that they let me go. As it turns out, he agreed with them that my manager was wrong. He fired my boss and asked me to return. My ideas were resurrected from the cycle of death, after all.

What I have learned is that the key to a happy life and career is to understand what other people want and need. It is not fail-proof, but we always learn something and can do better next time.

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