What the hell were you thinking?

You did what?

I had a full time job that paid a decent salary. It wasn’t on par with the market value of the title and defined role, and certainly wasn’t close to what was in line with the responsibilities of what I actually did (which was deliberately made clear by my boss), but it was a decent salary.

What it wasn’t was a decent job.

Wait, let me backtrack. The job was good. I loved what I did. I was passionate about it, as I have been throughout my career. I love what I do. I’m good at it, which is always helpful. Of course there are other things in life I love but am not very good at, and while I still enjoy them and am passionate about them, I don’t make people pay me for doing them. Call me crazy, that’s just how I operate.

The job allowed me the opportunity to test, learn, grow, deliver, and collaborate well across the company, and deep into the planning stages, managing budgets, planning the department, and leading the charge for growth, as the first-line department in a business, which marketing is. And I willingly did it, even if I didn’t get paid properly to do it.

Neat fact, every other department can point fingers at the one in line before them. Marketing doesn’t have that “luxury”, but then, marketing is always focused on results, knowing not only what, but who relies on us to do our job. The pressure is enormous, but also addicting, and when it works right with collaboration and seamless overlap of department contributions, it’s as beautiful as a ballet or orchestra.

It doesn’t usually happen that way though.

I led and contributed to great successes for this company, yet the personalities did not mesh, as least not in the long term. It was certainly a powerful collaboration (or so I was led to believe) in the beginning, and I was able to effect a huge, measurable, successful impact in a very short amount of time. It became clear that I knew what I was doing, and was good at it. The funnel was being fed with better quality leads, and more of them, and they were converting faster, to larger sales.

The honeymoon ended quickly.

Over the 3+ years there I spent most days on edge and confused. Not by what I was doing, but how it would be perceived by the boss. The boss had established early on that he would be the interim VP of my department, as I built up the non-existent department into a thriving one, and then perhaps I would move into the VP spot.

He didn’t do that.

He served as the owner of the company, and only that. He served as an adversary, one who seemed to take offense at every success and gain as a reflection on his previous inability to accomplish what he believed were easy wins, and not based in ability or talent or expertise. I served as the VP of the department, the CMO of the company, defining and managing the strategy, planning, budgets, forecasts, tracking, reporting, and doing much of the work myself, while building and training a team.

Simultaneously I instituted new technologies, and wound my way around the delicate paths filled with toes stuck out for me to step on and trip over from other departments, each antagonistic, and with passing comments, confirmed the inherent competitiveness of the individuals and leaders of the company, and not the collaborative environment required to accelerate the growth as we had planned.

The change was swift and very confusing.

Was it this particular place? Was it the culmination of exhaustion of remaining quiet, being antagonized and attacked for not being a yes-man, every day? Was it the constant uncertainty of the effects of the moodswings from the self-admitted bi-polar boss? What is the physical toll of the ongoing attacks and stress? What made me eventually walk out?

The question I struggle with is why didn’t I walk out sooner.

My boss’ attacks were calculated, personal, brutal, and unfounded. I remember a discussion with a therapist who just kept wondering why it mattered, since clearly his opinion didn’t (she missed the entire concept of working for someone), her answer was dismissive and the standard bullying answer,

“Just ignore it.”

No shit, she really said that.

Her other option was to quit, which confused me, because I was good, getting success, and liked what I was doing, why should I be the one penalized for his bad behavior. That was the heart of why I was sitting across from her, but she couldn’t understand that. I could only offer her an example of being shot by an unskilled gun handler. They may suck, but it doesn’t mean you haven’t been wounded, over and over again. It hurts. You have to heal from it.

I walked out of her office, and didn’t return.

The culture and environment at work was designed and cultivated by the owner, as was the opposite presentation to the external world of it. He led by fear and control, without actually contributing or being accountable. The outward presentation was, by stark contrast to the reality, exactly what a healthy working environment is supposed to be. Clearly he knew what it should be like, but refused to actually allow that culture.

The lack of basic business skills was astonishing.

In my decades of experience I had never EVER worked for a company that didn’t have a business plan or strategy articulated, even the smallest, newest ones did. This company demonstrated that the only plan was “growth”. Even the sales VP presented his annual strategy as more of the same, delivering his entire strategy for the year in a single sentence:

“Our sales reps are a year older and more experienced.”

No shit, he really said that.

This from a man who had lead the sales team for 8 years, and never hit a sales goal before I started and revamped the marketing and processes. He touted in corporate videos how HE paid for the new machine, how HE was the reason for the success, and demanded to know what other departments would do to support HIM to be successful.

The owner’s approach was brutal. He said an enormous number of personally attacking statements, and also divulged an unhealthy amount of personal information about himself that I honestly would rather not be aware of. Really personal stuff in excruciating detail, about his dating history, experiences, co-workers, … it wasn’t an practice of being vulnerable, as is in vogue these days for leaders, it was bragging, and it was disgusting the things he said.

While I kept his secrets, and those of the others, they all made up things about me. That’s just the nature of a text book culture led by a narcissist, complete with scapegoating, triangulation, gas-lighting, flying monkeys, and smear campaigns.

I know narcissists, but still I tried to deny it.

After all, how could I have fallen into the trap of yet another one. I chose to ignore my gut, brush it aside, and try to make it work. It is that very denial that cost me years and health issues, and self respect. I trusted people, I dove right in and did what was needed and what was asked, achieving beyond expectations. And that made it worse.

Still I denied the signs that I recognized.

At one point the owner brought in a leadership coach to work with us. He told us he brought him in because the leadership team was not emotionally intelligent enough to address him directly and read through his eyes when he was not on his medication, and he needed us to take more responsibility for our actions in addressing the owner properly.

No shit, he really said that.

Some folks started with the coach earlier than others, and by the time it was my turn to be brought in to the group meetings, and start my one-on-ones, the stories had been told. But my resistance was down, I was well broken and and exhausted, leading a CRM integration gone bad with the third vendor hand picked by the owner, after the IT lead quit, and I was told by the owner that heck,

“it wasn’t an IT project and it doesn’t involve data, so marketing can handle it.”

No shit, he really said that.

It was a controversial project, one I had not been part of the decision to undertake, and in fact had been sent down a different rabbit hole repair of the current system, only to find out “by accident” that the decision had been made to make the change, as the owner yelled at me in a meeting for wasting resources on a project that didn’t matter any more.

After going through one incompetent vendor (the owner’s personal friend who had initiated this project), the owner picked another vendor, who vetted the project carefully. During one internal team meeting on the project status I was yelled at, as the project manager, because I clearly did not understand the internal perception among the (uninvolved) leadership team.

One kind soul took it upon himself to speak for the group, glaring at me and explained it, slowly and deliberately as if talking to a challenged 8 year old. As the others nodded their heads in knowing agreement, he described what I clearly was too intellectually challenged to grasp, in full somber seriousness:

“We expected them to give 110% on this integration, and they’re only giving us 100%.”

No shit, he really said that.

So by the time the leadership coach meeting came up I was pretty worn, raw, and had no expectations whatsoever as my grasp of reality was slipping. I knew he’d been given a backstory, one I knew the general theme of, but not the details. I wasn’t about to challenge it, but I wasn’t about to accept it, either. I was just going to be honest, and be me.

Within a few minutes he was laughing, and the discussion took a different tone. I told him what I had been told about him being brought in, and the nervous chuckle couldn’t even be hidden by the consummate professional on the other end of the phone.

Over the next year, we had monthly calls and in person meetings. Very quickly the calls were cell-to-cell, as he became aware of the tapping of the phone calls by the owner. He soon suggested I leave the building for the calls, reinforcing an unconfirmed suspicion of bugged offices (something that is HIGHLY ILLEGAL in our state).

Each of my calls ended with him pleading and asking me to

“be patient and to just hold on, we’re approaching a breakthrough with the owner, it will get better.”

It didn’t.

There were some weeks that seemed to be uneventful, but when your business culture is measured by whether the owner goes off the deep end or not on any given day or week, there are larger issues at play.

My calls with the coach included him telling me what was expected of me, but never directly expressed TO me, reinforcing the expectation that I take on the role of the VP and CMO, without any clue as to what parts of those roles I wasn’t already doing.

The owner’s perception. That was the only answer that he could muster, and was surprised when I recounted all I had been doing. When I asked what more was expected, all he could say was

“wow, I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

No shit, he really said that.

He quickly began to recognize the futility of the calls and meetings, and of the effort.

The year came to a close, we continued our leadership exercises, went on a retreat together, completed the roll out of the new CRM, and still managed to exceed the goals for the year by over 20%.

But something had gone wrong.

I don’t know what it was. By the end of the year the owner was mad at me again. For what, I didn’t know, or at least I refused to acknowledge at that point in time. I know that he rescheduled my year end review, the time I was supposed to get my documented bonus based on the previously agreed upon metrics. He rescheduled twice, sending me emails and texts over the new year holiday. The next week he rescheduled again, this time saying he

“simply did not have the energy to talk to me.”

No shit, he really said that.

We finally met. I remained calm as I listened to him and received my bonus. Despite it being in writing, with this guy there was never any guarantee, and showing him something in writing was asking to be sued, so I didn’t know for sure how it would go. In fact, even in the lead up to it he said that no definition of the bonus has ever been made, despite the printed document sitting in front of me that I had brought, as a prop. He referenced one from the year before, and chose to go with the numbers defined in that one (which were lower than the ones from the year in question). But in the end, he honored at least one agreement. Knowing his fractured state, I did not press the issue, and instead thanked him.

After a dramatic, theatrical pause, he resumed. He went on to rip into me, describing events that never happened, stories I didn’t understand, and conversations that I was never a part of. I was prepared, I knew he was looking for a fight, and I did not give him one. I stayed quiet, calm, and not reacting. When asked to agree with him, I remained silent and allowed him to manage both sides of the conversation, because I will not compromise my integrity, and he continued his off-the-rails verbal assault.

He was having an episode, and I knew not to get into the middle of it with him. It had become routine. Sickeningly so. He would have to tire himself out.

And that he did.

He took a deep breath and let out a disgusted sigh while shaking his head at me. He said so next year, we can’t do this any more. What “this” referred to, I don’t know. I assumed it was the yelling, which only he was doing, and I didn’t disagree.

He then noticed my silence and said he was annoyed I was calm and could switch over to business after this experience. I hadn’t been the one yelling, and, well, inside I was in shock at what had gone on, paralyzed into silence. He said he didn’t know if he could just focus again. I said

“Well, if you want to reschedule again, we can.”

I realized it as soon as it came out of my mouth, I handed him the opening he needed.

The use of the word AGAIN.

A spark in his eye led to the tell tale one eyed squint signaling he found the focus of dissension he had been searching for, and now could settle down. That’s what he needed, disagreement. And in his world, suggesting a break for him to regroup was enough to resettle his sense of authority and superiority over me through directed anger, at what appeared to be a direct insult. It was the crack in my composure he needed, as he saw my quick flinch when I let it slip out.

He settled

He then laid out the requirements for the next year, what I would be measured on. Despite doing the job of director, VP, and CMO, filling in for the never filled IT director in the management of the enterprise-wide roll out of the new CRM, providing all the reporting work for sales, filling in for finance for several bi-weekly reports, and working across departments to develop all their internal special projects (beyond what normally would be part of any marketing communications role), being the only department to develop a full strategy to meet the objectives, and developing the video work for the upcoming company wide event, the metrics he came up with to measure whether I would be viewed as successful or not were blatantly punitive.

I would be required to work harder, with a smaller overall departmental budget than was previously agreed to (mind you notified AFTER the year started), having to absorb more enterprise overhead and depreciation of software and systems (which we were the only department required to cover the costs of our own hardware and software), to deliver unprecedented results, for a smaller payout even if that was able to be accomplished.

It was a few hours before I understood what had turned his ravenous temper on me. I had ignored my gut about it, but deep down I knew.

The distractions and loads that were dumped on me were designed to keep me from achieving the goals.

The previous year the data I had been provided with was transposed, so planning was done with inaccurate information. Still, the goals were just met. Knowing that, the challenge they had was larger, and the obstacles they threw in front of me larger. Still, I had exceeded them. Not disdainfully, but rather because that was the job. That’s what I was hired to do, and I happen to be good at what I do.

My gut finally got my ear.

That achievement, in and of itself, was the problem. Being successful, it seemed, made them feel like I was deliberately making them look bad. And they had been telling me that all along, saying I made them feel stupid, telling me I’m smart while sneering, as if this was a character defect. The other members of the leadership team also always taunted me over the group meetings with the coach, saying I made them look bad because I was the only one who did the “homework”.

No shit, they actually said that.

Over and over again they were disgusted by my ability.They were annoyed by my being competent, consistent, and accountable, all the things we were being told were required for effective leadership. These very traits and abilities in me resulted in the owner having to pay out a bonus. And that required steps to make sure it never ever happened again.

It almost did.

The year continued, the weather killed us, but we were close, and then we weren’t.

All of a sudden the sales slugged to a near halt, despite improvements in weather. Still consumed with collaboration on the new CRM and implementing the strategies laid out to hit an excessive goal, with attentions refocused, I undertook some deep data analysis to uncover issues. Previously, each time the answers had been in there, and allowed for fixes to get things unstuck.

I didn’t look deep enough due to time constraints.

The data showed everything was working, even better than expected, everything but the closings. But the numbers didn’t match. I did the biweekly sales reports and noticed that the total sales weren’t matching the individual totals. That couldn’t be right, even I told myself, but could not find the issues. I reran the data, pulling different segments, groupings, somehow this must be wrong. According to the data, we should be far closer than finance was telling us we were. I asked the question, and the reporting needs stopped, which meant I was no longer provided access to specific financial data, the very data that highlighted the discrepancies

The mood was somber and brutal, the attacks intensified, and the collaboration broke down. I buried the conflict I felt, and forced a level of cognitive dissonance in myself that I am utterly stunned by today. The answer was right there, but I chose to pretend it wasn’t real. I chose to believe in the integrity of others.

By April I was meeting with my boss, and had developed a survival coping approach of blocking for self-preservation. I scheduled my calls with the coach around my meetings with my boss to offset the brutality I knew I would experience.

Despite the sales lead falling on his sword in public, and with me, in private a different story was crafted and spread. But the message of the questioning clearly went up stream, and unbeknownst to me, that made me a threat in discovering the plan. At least looking back, that’s the only explanation for what was about to take place.

In this particular meeting I was eviscerated to such an extent I could not respond. I just sat there, staring. Never before had I seen him this unhinged, unbalanced, and out of control. This was not reality. I kept telling myself this. Any semblance of appearance of reality were gone, and this off-the-rails attack was something out of a horrific nightmarish ordeal, and utterly out of control, worse than I’d ever seen or heard of in the company folklore.

The meeting went on for more than 2 hours.

It was a complete roller coaster. In one of the few calmer moments he told me that every 18 months to 2 years he switches up marketing and takes it from in house to an agency or vice versa. I did the math, I’d been there 2 and a half years now. He had no recognition of this, and showed no signs of understanding what he just told me.

He then chewed me out for not stepping up and being a VP and speaking to him like a marketer and not a department head, and making him feel stupid. I didn’t answer. This time that angered him. I was jolted back to life when he demanded I answer. For over an hour I just sat there stoically, immobile, and I was required to thaw out instantly and respond to his hysteria.

By that time I was dizzy, and not prepared to respond. So it just flowed out, despite my saying I’d rather not answer 6 or 7 times.

“You specifically told me I was not the VP of Marketing. You said you were.

Despite managing this department entirely on my own and developing a team, reporting, budgets, and everything involved in the leading of a department, I still deferred to you as the Acting VP of Marketing.

I spoke to you in our meetings as the Acting VP of Marketing. Now you’re telling me you only listened, for over 2 years, as the owner of the company looking for problems, and not as the VP? 

What do you want? You have made it abundantly clear you do not want me as the VP, but you want me to do the job of one.

You do not PAY me as a VP, but you want me to the job of one.

And you have refused to act as the leader of this this department, as the interim VP that you said you were.

You have consistently refused to elaborate on what you expect of me, and what you want me to do that I am not doing.”

No shit, I really said that.

I was exhausted and not even a little frightened by my outburst. It simply didn’t matter at this point, it was clear I wasn’t going to have a job after the meeting, at least to any logical human being with more than 7 brain cells that were active.

His response was slow to come, but it did come, and it was eerily calm.

“You’re right.” he said. “You’re right.”

No shit, he really said that.

At that moment we both new he was going to try to find an agency or hire a VP of Marketing. The thing is, it turned dawned on him that it was obvious to me, too.

He asked me what I was looking for in my career, and I told him how honestly, I love being a marketer, I love doing the work, and while I have no problem doing the work of the CMO and VP, I didn’t want the title, and I certainly wasn’t willing to do the work without the compensation. And honestly, I prefer doing the work, being hands on.

“But that’s not what you’re looking for in a CMO or VP.” I told him. “It’s not a position that is open to me here, and honestly, at this point in my tenure here, not one I want.”

No shit, I really said that.

It seemed to end well, strangely enough, and I walked out apparently still employed. The owner was smiling, friendly, and even happy.

Seeing him invigorated after a brutal multi-hour take down like that was like seeing a vampire right after feeding. He was giddy. At that moment, I heard my gut break through. It didn’t scream. It just was an almost pleading voice inside me.

“Do you see it now?”

This was another narcissist.

There was no denying it.

I went outside and drove to a quiet street and cried. Something usually reserved for the drive home from work, and occasionally on the way in. The release of emotion was visceral.

Then I had the call with my coach. I told him about it and he showed the requisite amount of astonishment, obviously only half listening, and tried to tell me to hold on we were having a break through. I said no. I can’t. I can’t do this. You can’t do this, and that’s not a testament to your abilities.

This. Can’t. Work.

This was personal. Once I knew this was a narcissist, I knew the process.Still my response to it internally was slow, it took further denials, but the awareness and signals continued to reveal themselves, and I was able to see more of what was going on. 

He tried out an agency, one we had high hopes for but were incomprehensibly incompetent.

He yelled at me for calling them out on their work, saying it was rude, because they had complained to him. They had been told that they were brought on to kick me out, so they had no need to play nice, and were put into the tattletale mode. Their work was sub par, and they did not like following direction from me, no matter how delicately or clearly delivered. So they complained.

Oh well. Their work, frankly, sucked. He didn’t like that I was rude to them. And told me so. Then said I had no people skills,

“and you know, other people said so, too” he added.

No shit, he really said that.

Wait, what? I know my face showed exactly what I was thinking when he said that. Seriously, I went to junior high school in jersey. If he thought he was better at “other people said so, too” than a bunch of 14 year old jersey girls, he clearly lived a sheltered life.

Even those nasty bitches had more going for them than he did.

Strangely at one point in the middle of this, just after the contract with the corporate coach expired and was not renewed, the owner, the VP of Sales and I were in a meeting discussing the future of the company. It was apparently a medicated day, as the owner was in a good mood. We were talking about how we saw the future of the company. He asked, saying not specifically, but in general, at a high level, based on our niche market if we thought there was a $20M business in it. We all answered at the same time.

I answered yes, they both answered no. I was horrified.

Despite the aggressive growth objectives, the owner nor the VP of Sales just stated that they did not believe in the market place for the business.

No shit, they really said that.

I didn’t have time to absorb that, because the focus was on my answer. It was different. It was not in line with theirs. It was therefore deliberately contentious. The discussion quickly turned to how I was then obviously holding back on marketing efforts to get them to their goals and how I was

“deliberately causing the business to go in the wrong direction.”

No shit, they really said that.

What the hell just happened here? There were no levers I wasn’t pulling with the current resources, and the ideas I had been providing on a weekly basis for short and long term strategies were in line with what I had been saying all along. Nope. The conversation turned to how I was obviously not turning the levers to keep them from getting sales, and they were concerned that I was sabotaging the business and objectives.

No shit, they really said that.

There was no discussion about how the top two in the company did not believe in the future of it. None, zip, zero. I had no idea what just happened, other than

the entire meeting was clearly a set up.

Collaboration ended. Communication ended. Interaction was only as absolutely required. But now I had time to help find answers and fixes to the lagging success in the company.

I reviewed the reporting, and each time, no matter which was I sliced and diced, the answers still did not align with what was happening, or what was being shown to be happening.I did find errors in processes that had “stopped working”, which I had no choice but to attribute to error or oversight. (At least until the time I saw them with my ID and a time-stamp of when I was in the hospital. Then I understood more clearly what was going on.) But the numbers simply didn’t match. I isolated the mismatches, went closer and closer on examples. And I saw it. No, that couldn’t be happening, mistakes happen, so let me look again.

Same thing. I pulled up the old system to check to see if it was a pattern. There it was, this was systemic. A manual update, time-stamped across days to show up when it needed to, and not when it wouldn’t be beneficial. It looked like a systematic manual approach, but in the new system had IDs attached to the time-stamps. I was shocked, even at that stage, by what I was seeing. I remembered what I had discovered before, and it matched.

I convinced myself, at least partially, that it was a record keeping issue, not intentional, and was resolved within the checks and balances of the financial audits and reviews performed daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually.

It wasn’t my place to call it out.

We didn’t hit the yearly goal, at least according to the financials revealed.

But the discrepancies were there. I didn’t get my bonus, which was the true end goal, but we tied for the second best year in the history of the business. If we truly didn’t hit the intended goal, it was a slight miss, despite what was reported.

The others in the company were far too happy to have not gotten their bonuses. And the sales guys are not ones known for voicing their opinions about their compensation. The mood was too light and did not match the enormity of the miss revealed in the public rhetoric.

Even with the reported financials, one of the metrics defined for my success was close to the range of requiring even a minimal bonus. And that was the departmental budget number. It was on track. And then, out of no where,

My budget got bloated.

At the last minute.

While the agency approach hadn’t work out, the owner continued his search for change. He hired a new boss for me, and pushed her bloated salary into my marketing budget beginning in the middle of November. He gave me four hours notice of her starting, after chastising me previously for being worried about my position and job security within the company.

Despite all that, I actually looked forward to her being on board. I held on to the hope when she was hired that it would get better and she would take on the added responsibility I had been required to absorb, and I would not have to interact with him nearly as much.

That didn’t happen.

She did very little, and nothing on her own, but got paid significantly more. I know that because she was keen on letting that information “slip”. Still I continued to do the same job. I was open to the offloading of work, for someone to actually do the job of the VP of Marketing. But she never picked up that work.

Her comments to me articulated a previously only hushed smear campaign, and her reciting of the points despite no evidence set her status in my mind of the yes-man the owner wanted.

She was in over her head, and had no idea what she walked into. Still I tried to ease her transition and support her, but she was nothing but a derogatory power hungry witch determined to make her mark and use me as the sacrificial lamb that was handed to her. She was nasty to her team and contributed nothing. She had no self awareness, no control over facial expressions (and she suffered from a severe case of RBF). She had a truly disturbing habit of sitting on the edge of the desk while talking to you, very close, while wearing very short skirts, flashing you. It was extremely off-putting, unprofessional, and inappropriate. (And this was no spring chicken, either!)

It was clear she was just for show and annoyance. It would never get better. She was hired to be a barrier between me and the owner, and at least there was that.

But I realized she was also hired to be a lackey. The owner was in charge of a project for an upcoming trade show, and he had publicly taken ownership of it, and as expected, he had dropped the ball. He knew he couldn’t blame me for the failure, so he had to hire someone to blame. Sure enough, she was thrown into that, and arrogantly brushed aside any input or assistance.

So why was I still there? Why hadn’t I left yet?

I held out that I really did like what I was doing, and have a passion for marketing that continues. For so long I had taken the personal attacks that it became habit. It was honestly the lack of opportunity, and being asked to watch what I had built be dismantled. The data was already coming in that her new approaches were not working, and her thinking and explanations did not jive with the rational world.

I left because it was time.

I’m good at what I do and I love it. In the middle of all of this I questioned that, and that was an awakening. The cancer of the culture there had seeped into everything I held dear. It had to stop.

Again, the question I struggle with isn’t why I left, it’s why didn’t I walk out sooner.

I left without another job, but I had a plan. I now work for myself. It’s not easy, I know that, I never expected it to be. I’ve been a business owner before, so I knew it would be terrifying at times.

It was time to take control of my life, and regain my self-respect and dignity, and to heal.

Better late than never.

  • I will not apologize for being smart.
  • I will not apologize for being successful.
  • I will not apologize for being competent.
  • I will not apologize for being me. 

About Laurissa Doonan

I'm a marketer. I've been a professional marketer for over 25 years, but in reality, I have always been one. Marketing to me is about communicating effectively, regardless of platform, regardless of channel. Marketing is understanding both your objectives and your audience, and finding the right method and message for your customers to reach them where they are. Now I dedicate my efforts to helping very small and small companies pursue their passions and grow their businesses through marketing; providing agency trained expertise without the overhead. www.Charter-Marketing.com www.CharterMarketing.wordpress.com
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