My plane had just touched down in Milan after a life-changing trip to South Africa. I was already cruising through the airport straight to the train station. Or I should say: my legs were cruising; I’m not sure how I got there. My body was exhausted but my mind had never been more awake. I was thinking about how grateful I was for the friends I made at the other side of the world. I brought home with me their infectious positive energy, their drive and crazy ideas. My head was still in the clouds, dreaming freely about one of these ideas: to head back to Africa for my second year graduate program assignment. I wanted to help build social distribution models in countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia. A few minutes later, I fell fast asleep in the train. I only woke up when the doors were shutting at Garibaldi train station, a five-minute walk from my door. I had missed my stop. A very tired and fed up version of me had to get off in the city centre and take another two metros back to my flat. It was 2 pm; I immediately fell into a deep sleep and slept all through the afternoon and night.
The next day was back-to-work day. Everything was back to normal. It felt as if time had just been switched back to fast-forward. I found myself back at my desk working on the project I had abandoned two weeks earlier. A team member had been assigned to the project while I was gone. She had pushed the project forward. I was so grateful. What a relief! On top of that, I now could share the workload with her. We worked long days and evenings during two weeks until we were finally able to present the final work to our local directors. In the midst of it all, my South African-born dreams and excitement had slid to the back of my mind. I was back to my usual “you’ve got to prove yourself” mode.
Luckily, an Outlook notification brought those dreams back to my attention. In between flights on my way back from South Africa, I had sent a meeting request to the ROSA (Rest Of South Africa) markets sales director. My intention was to create a good relationship with him, learn more about my target markets and share with him my interest in joining his team the following year. The call was getting closer (hence the reminder) and I wasn’t yet sure how to get my message across.
Greg, my now Ghanaian friend, helped me to prepare topics to discuss and questions to ask him. Topics like exchange rates and black market rates … I was way over my head. The call didn’t really lead to anything. The sales director wasn’t too interested in having a graduate in his team. I guess it also wasn’t the easiest assignment to organise. And just like that, without much notice, the spark that had woken me up from sleepwalking died.
I had other issues to focus on. My first half-year panel was coming up. Each year, as part of the graduate program, two evaluation panels were organised. A panel consisted of a 15 minutes presentation given by the graduate followed by a Q&A session. The first panel six months in the assignment, was a practice one. The idea was to test the waters. It was also a first opportunity to get feedback and course correct before the end-year panel. The end-year panel was decisive, the outcome determines if you pass on to the next year or leave the program. My first half-year panel was scheduled beginning of April. The panellists were my manager and two other members of the Italian leadership team.
A few weeks prior, I was juggling between preparing the half-year presentation, working on my main project as well as another organisational project I had taken on… again just to prove I could do it. I was juggling three balls without asking myself if I even liked juggling in the first place. It’s what I had always wanted right? So I owe it to myself to hustle to keep all the balls up in the air. The audience wasn’t paying much attention, until the big show, when panel day finally came.
I don’t remember ever feeling as stressed and laid back at the same time. I was stressed because I didn’t feel ready, I didn’t know what to expect and I felt self-conscious knowing that I would be judged. For some reason, I also felt laid back and confident. I reassured myself that I was over-reacting and it would all be just fine. There was nothing more I could do now anyway. Actually, I didn’t really care that much. I cared about what the panellists would think of my capabilities but I didn’t care personally about the cause or the project I was presenting. To me, the presentation was just a means to an end. I wanted to be seen as capable. “That’s what I am right? Or I wouldn’t be here…”
As you can imagine, it didn’t go well. I came out of the room feeling more like an impostor than I felt going in. I was relieved it was over; I didn’t want to think about it anymore. I shook the memory off and went straight back to my desk. I had tasks to deliver plus people were expecting me to work, they were watching.
I only got the feedback a month later. My manager called me into the meeting room. She looked preoccupied; you could see she was dreading the conversation. I felt out of place, smiling as if I was expecting it to all be ok. It wasn’t.
Her feedback wasn’t nuanced. She told me that if I were driving a car and the sign to continue this program was given by a traffic light, the traffic light would be red. I remember her exact worlds “The traffic light is not orange Caroline, it is red. I just want to make sure we are clear on this”. Can you imagine what it feels like to hear these words?
As soon as we finished the meeting, I picked up my things and rushed out. I had to get out of there as fast as possible, before I started to cry. I felt ashamed, angry and sad. I was disappointed in myself. The tears came rushing down my cheeks. I didn’t have the strength to fight this battle. I had based my whole self-worth on my job performance and I was now being told I am not good enough.
Reflecting back, I now see that I was missing the big picture. I was so focused on the red traffic light that I was forgetting everything around it. I forgot my South African dreams, the reason I was standing at this traffic light in the first place. I didn’t consider any alternative routes and I didn’t even realise that the essence of traffic lights is that they switch colour. Where I am from, they go from red straight to green.