The Day My Supervisor Called Me Incompetent

A Bain study attempted to pinpoint the stage where women decided to disengage from an executive career path. Although the same study found that women disengage in the first two years of their career, the middle is where women have increased negative experiences, such as: 

·      The stereotype of not being an “ideal worker”

·      Lack of supervisory support

·      Too few role models in senior-level positions.

I love to talk about winning and getting to the next level. Having a strategy, 13 mentors, playing psychological mind games and navigating the minefield of office politics made me successful. I spent over 16 years in a male-dominated career field where my demographic was .1%. 

However, my success was not without a countless number of challenges where I could have easily given up or continued to fight and strive for excellence. It was a daily decision.

My coach recently said there is power in my story, and frankly, there are stories I’d love to bury and never see again, but there are lessons in them too. Countless women and minorities are falling through the cracks and not getting to the next level for a lack of information and insight from those who’ve been there and done that. 

My goal is to share some lessons with you to be used as building blocks to give you the strength to GET UP and go towards your goal one more day. Here we go… 😊

Nearly 10 years into my career, I experienced all three bullet points noted above. Having responded to the needs of the citizens of New Orleans 2 days after Hurricane Katrina, deploying teams for Hurricane Rita and being a high achieving workaholic, within a short period of time, I was awarded 2 prestigious medals, given a national award for being a top performer in the organization, featured in a magazine, was on the 6 o’clock news and on and on…. 

Despite the national recognition I received, my supervisor gave me a marginal performance review. He didn’t have the courage to counsel me and I got it in the mail two weeks after he departed for a new job. I was devastated. 

A new supervisor arrived and I decided to brush it off and start new. I went to his office to introduce myself. Shaking his hand and saying it was great to meet him, I sat down in front of him to discuss my responsibilities and welcome him to Texas.

Never smiling and with a nonchalant expression, he looked at me and said, “You’re incompetent.” 

Taken aback, I leaned closer because SURELY I didn’t hear him correctly. I said, “Excuse me?” 

He said, “You’re incompetent and from what I was told, you need to be taken down a notch.” 

In a moment of disbelief and EGO, I stood up and busted out laughing in his face. I walked out his office laughing hysterically and didn’t stop until I was 20 feet away. If this was a power play, I showed him what I thought of his statement. RIDICULOUS. 

Although I laughed, I thought to myself, “OMG, I’m in trouble.” 

“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” Albert Einstein

The following day, I wore the uniform that displayed my medals. I went into his office and asked if he had a minute. His eyes got big and his mouth fell open. Looking at my medals, he said, “You have eight personal awards!!” 

I noticed that he only had one, similar to the two I recently received. Having only one personal award in a 12-year career, spoke volumes about who he was as a leader and his performance – or lack thereof.

At that moment, I knew was in trouble because immature leaders don’t mark people higher than them for similar periods in their careers. With only one award compared to my eight, I was concerned about remaining competitive for promotion. 

Over the year, he harassed and taunted other young women leaders and on several occasions, I witnessed them leaving his office in tears. I wasn’t the only woman being harassed, and although his aggression escalated to screaming in my face in front of my personnel, I didn’t blink or shrink, which enraged him even more.

This was clear, textbook harassment that EVERYONE knew was happening and no one addressed. Climate surveys were just a check in the box and no one REALLY cared about the results, so I didn’t fill them out. I was caught between a rock and a hard place. 

Knowing I wouldn’t stay promotable if I worked for him longer than a year, my mentors devised a strategy for me to leave a year early by competing for a highly coveted Congressional Fellowship, which I successfully obtained. 

I left that office so stressed out that I stuttered for nearly 3 months. I took 30 days off before starting my Fellowship on Capitol Hill and slept 16 hours daily for 3 weeks.

I learned later that the senior leaders continued to allow him to harass other women, he eventually resigned and although I was given another performance review that didn’t reflect my performance, I was still promoted the following year. STILL I RISE

Lessons Learned

  • Invest in Personal Development. Laughing in his face was CLEARLY not the right thing to do, but I needed to stick up for myself in that moment. Personal development and growth would have given me a different posture, so it wouldn’t have been a big ego – versus – a bigger ego. 😊 *Invest in yourself.
  • Report Harassment To Senior Leaders. I had a great relationship with the top two leaders in the office. I should have immediately scheduled a meeting with the #2 to share my concern and ask for feedback on how to move forward. This would have alerted them to the countless issues that followed this exchange. *Have the courage to stand up for yourself EARLY.
  • Mentors and Sponsors. At the time, I had 8 mentors outside of my office and a sponsor/mentor that advocated for me at the office. It was EXHAUSTING dealing with this cray cray insecure man. Although I had to do additional work to close the gap from the marginal performance reviews, he didn’t stop me completely because I had other people guiding me during this challenging time. *Get yourself several mentors.
  • Always Have a Plan B. The stress from working in a hostile work environment created a host of health issues and strained relationships. If I had an opportunity to do it all again, I would have saved a year’s equivalent income, built more external relationships and taken one of the jobs I was offered (on a monthly basis) with other organizations. Since I was devalued by my supervisors, I didn’t see my value in the market. 

Although I don’t have any regrets for remaining in my career, I stayed too long and the effects on my health were detrimental. Having 30+ job offers after resigning 6 years later, I had greater value in the job market than I thought.

So do you. Don’t be afraid to JUMP! 

**What advice do you have for women who are confronted with tyrant bosses? 

Women’s Leadership Development Expert, Christy Rutherford assists organizations with retaining and increasing the promotability of women and minorities. A Harvard Business School Alumna, Christy published five #1 best selling books on Amazon in eight months.

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