I’m never going to ride this train again.
That’s what I was thinking as I rode from Chicago to my home in Cary, Ill., around 3:30 on Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2004. I’d just lost my job, and I was dizzy. I sat brooding by the window. I barely noticed anyone getting on and off as the train made its stops. No one sat next to me. I wouldn’t have sat next to me.
I’d been blindsided. I had had one of my regular meetings with the global CIO of Publicis, Bill Jenks, to whom I reported, scheduled for three that afternoon. [Leo Burnett is a division of Publicis.] We were going to discuss IT strategy. When Bill swung by my office and said, Let’s talk with Linda [Wolf, CEO of Leo Burnett], I wasn’t suspicious.
But when I walked into Linda’s office and saw the corporate attorney, John Spitzig, sitting on Linda’s red upholstered couch, I knew I was going to be released. John was always there when people lost their jobs. At that point, all I could focus on was a painting Linda had on her wall: a circus showgirl getting knives thrown at her. I felt as if the daggers that had missed her were hitting me.
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On the train, I tried to make sense of things. Bill and Linda had explained hastily that the management team at Publicis was restructuring, and I was the first of several CIOs in the company who would lose their jobs. The plan might have made sense to the executives who conceived it. But all I could think was that I had worked hard to build a high-quality, top performing team, and now I was getting laid off for it.
Resentment gave way to self-pity. As I looked out the train’s window, I saw my reflection and wondered who I was. We shouldn’t define ourselves by what we do, but we can’t help it. I had been CIO of Leo Burnett; now that was gone.
When I got off the train, my thoughts moved to my wife, my 9-year-old and 12-year-old daughters, and my 7-year-old son. I wasn’t too worried about their immediate welfare because I got a fair severance package, but I didn’t want them to worry. I was suddenly nostalgic for the four years we had spent working for Publicis in Germany, before I was transferred to Leo Burnett. My wife and I had made an effort then to spend time together as a family. It made us strong. And I took comfort in thinking about that strength, which I owed in part to the time I spent in Europe on behalf of the company that had just fired me, as I found my way home.
—As told to Meridith Levinson