I had just received a big promotion. My new job, which was to manage a new business line for my company, was a highly visible position and a huge step up. I was a bit nervous about taking on the new role, yet extremely excited about the challenge and opportunity. But then I got sick. Lyme disease knocked me down. I was exhausted and had to take a potentially indefinite sick leave. Though I ended up being out of work for a few months, I left not knowing if or when I'd be able to return. The company replaced me almost immediately with the promise that if I did return, there would be a job for me.
Yes, there was a job when I returned to work, but it was a demotion. I went from running a new business to being a regional sales manager, the lowest level sales person in the company. I had to literally start my career over again.
My first challenge was to let go of my anger. It seemed so unfair. After all, I didn’t ask to be sick and this wasn't a voluntary demotion. The pay cut, new job title and demotion at work were completely beyond my control. I had to overcome the hurt I felt when they replaced me so quickly. I had to confront my anger about how I was treated unfairly and not given a chance to remain in the position. It wasn’t easy. I was only able to let go of these feelings by focusing on my gratitude for what I had and releasing my attachment to the past and to what I thought was my future.
I needed to push my ego aside as well. I was a rising star in the company before my illness. But now I was a salesperson without the glamour and visibility. I knew I had to build my reputation over and prove myself in this role if I had a future with the company.
None of this was easy and it took time to release the negativity, but I knew that the best decision at that point in time was to throw myself into the new position and do my best work. Fortunately, I had the employee skill and years of strong employee performance behind me. I hit the pavement! I worked hard to build sales in my territory to exceed the revenue goals. I did it!
I also needed to build and nurture relationships in the company and create new visibility for myself in the sales role. It took extra time and effort, but I considered it part of my new "position" to prove that I was more than "the woman who got demoted;" I wasn't just my employee classification as determined by human resources. Soon, my reputation and performance earned me another promotion in sales, and eventually I returned to an operational position as an AVP.
Demotions can be demoralizing. It shatters our ego and vision of how we see our career progressing. But life will often throw us a curveball and our reaction to that curveball will determine our future success. If we remain the victim, we will remain stuck. If we rise above it, learn from it and charge forward, we can get back on track and rewrite our career trajectory. It takes self-reflection, resilience and above all, courage.
I think that my motivation was to prove to everyone I didn’t deserve that demotion. I was a better employee than that and in the end, I did make my case that I had what it takes to be successful despite obstacles.
Bonnie Marcus, M.Ed, is an executive coach, author and keynote speaker focused on women's advancement in the workplace. A former corporate executive and CEO, Bonnie is the author of The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead, and co-author of Lost Leaders in the Pipeline: Capitalizing on Women's Ambition to Offset the Future Leadership Shortage.