3 Lessons Learned From My Philippine Failure
What happens when you bet your career on an illusion, and lose.
In December 2016, my family and I packed away our Washington, DC lives, sold everything, said goodbye to everyone, and embarked on a grand adventure: moving to the Philippines for a dream ICT4D job.
Less than 4 months later, we were back in the USA, our dreams and aspirations dashed, our lives upended, and our careers in shambles.
I’m not the first person to have a job go horribly wrong, but I am a Fail Festival co-founder, so unlike others who might tend to their gaping emotional wounds in private, I cannot hide my failure. I owe it to myself, and to you, to be honest about where I failed.
What follows is my best analysis of what went wrong – how I failed – and most importantly, what I learned from my bad bet on a big career change.
A Dream Job
When the recruiter called to entice me to join a major agricultural research institute as their first ICT4D lead, I was excited about the role. It sounded like a dream job.
I would work on the cutting edge of ICT for agriculture and change the lives of millions of rice farmers and the communities they support. I would work with an innovative team that were upending traditional agricultural extension services. Oh, and live in Los Banõs, Philippines, on an idyllic college campus, where my children could run free and attend the best schools in Asia, and my wife could enjoy her first career break.
After much discussion with my family, I accepted the offer, and we began the massive life change of moving our family overseas.
A Failure to Manage Up
Right from the start, I overlooked little tell-tale signs that should’ve warned me that my dream job wasn’t so dreamy. Like the fact that no one really knew who I would report to, and once they figured out it would be the Deputy Director General, she didn’t seem to prioritize my onboarding.
She wasn’t part of my interview process, and she was so busy that I only had one meeting with her – a 45 minute Skype call – before I started my first day at work. But I didn’t see that as an issue at the time. I was busy too, trying to respectfully wind down my DC life and prepare for this new one.
Once I started, that pattern didn’t change much.
I only had one meeting with her in 3 months, a 2-hour session about a week in that I had to push for, where I asked for direction and was told to figure out what was needed and get on with it. When I asked for a check-in meeting every two weeks, to make sure she knew what I was doing, and that I was on the right track, she said, “Oh, you’re one of those,” in a tone that implied she didn’t find check-in meetings with me to be useful.
So while she apparently relished micromanaging others, I was left adrift, without direction or guidance, clueless of senior management proclivities or preferences.
Now I should’ve taken that as a challenge instead of a directive. I should’ve found ways to communicate my progress to her, that she would’ve appreciated. Maybe bi-weekly emails of my progress? Or asking others to highlight my activities with them, with her? Or even talked with her other direct reports to see how they managed up?
Instead, I just focused on my work, and sent monthly email updates on my progress, trusting that a lower level of communication would be sufficient. As a result, I really didn’t know my boss’s needs and aspirations, or how I could help her succeed, and she didn’t know me at all. Not my work, nor my work style, much less my growing impact and future potential.
A Failure to Understand Culture
In doing my due diligence before I started, I spoke with others who had worked at the agricultural research institute and in the overall system to which it belonged. I had heard that the institutes were generally conservative, and this one doubly so, but I wasn’t too concerned.
I was brought in to shake things up. It was expressly mentioned to me in my interviews with my future peers that I was expected to bring in new ideas, challenge the status quo, and push the institute outside of its comfort zone. This has been my role in multiple organizations over the last decade, and it was clear that I should do the same at this institute too.
The hiring committee loved my can-do attitude and many of my peers celebrated my early innovations as a change agent, like introducing its first organization-wide ICT4D strategy, user-centred design principles, Software as a Service concepts, and even an ICT4Drinks happy hour.
Unfortunately, not everyone wanted a change agent. Unbeknownst to me, several senior management staff were not excited by my innovations, preferring to see them as disruptions, and felt I was threat to the institute’s cultural norms.
In fact, the head of Human Resources proudly said, “This is a staid organization,” as she admonished me for being a change agent.
Now I’m not sure about you, but I never thought the word, “staid” was a positive descriptor. I had only heard it used in to evoke a negative connotation. So when the HR director repeated the phrase, “This is a staid organization” with great emphasis, I vowed to look up the definition of “staid” to see if I had been mistaken in my usage of the term for the last 40 years.
Here is Google’ definition of staid:
Staid /stād/ adjective: sedate, respectable, and unadventurous.Synonyms: quiet, serious, serious-minded, steady, conventional, traditional, unenterprising, set in one’s ways, sober, proper, decorous, formal, stuffy, stiff, priggish.
I have never been called “staid,” not even in jest. And I’ve never worked for an organization that was described as staid. Maybe dysfunctional or bureaucratic, but never staid, and certainly not proudly so.
I obviously failed to appreciate the organization’s conservative culture, and the HR director’s staidness, before I started. Which put me in a very vulnerable position. I was a change agent in an organization whose management didn’t want change, and I had a boss who didn’t seem to care.
A Failure in Political Capital
I quickly realized I would be in for a bumpy ride, especially if I wanted the institute to achieve its potential in ICTforAg. But I am not a quitter. I made a commitment, my whole family made a commitment, and I was going to make it work for the full 3 years promised. Until I couldn’t
In late March, the highest ranking Filipino staff pulled me aside and said that the Philippine secret police told him that I was an agent of George Soros, here to overthrow the Philippine government. I kid you not. Though I reacted the same way you just did – I laughed at the foolishness of such a claim.
I asked if I should worry about it, or change my behavior in any way because of it. I was assured that this claim was baseless, and that I should carry on blogging my awesome lunches and pushing for change. So I did. I didn’t worry about it, and honestly, promptly forgot about it. Well my boss and the HR director didn’t find it funny, and surely didn’t forget about it.
I was called in, told of the accusation, and asked to resign.
In the meeting they acted as if, in its 50-year history, I was the first staff to be noticed by the Philippine government and bring negative attention to the institute. As if this claim could lead to the end of the institute’s presence in the Philippines.
Curiously, for such a grave threat, they never mentioned a risk to myself or my family, never asked us to curtail our wide-ranging Philippine travel, and never suggested that we meet with their security team to think through a response if we were approached by the secret police. Nope. All they talked about was a perceived reputation risk to the institute.
In addition to the secret agent claim, they brought up little transgressions that would’ve been laughably insignificant in another organization, or could’ve been corrected with a simple admonishment in this one. Collectively, they presented all this as fait accompli.
They were clear that I didn’t have any political capital with them, nor any obvious bases of support with their peers in senior management. That I was painlessly expendable, and sending me away was an easy remedy for them to invoke.
My commitment to the institute, my family’s commitment to the Philippines, our cumulative sacrifices to move to the far side of the earth, were capriciously tossed aside at the first bump – 3 months into our 3-year ride.
I am still at a loss as to how I failed in this one.
In many conversations since, none of my peers and mentors believe I was asked to resign because of these minor issues. They are unanimous in their conclusion that the accusation and transgressions were just a convenient excuse. That somehow I had offended someone in power, and my boss sacrificed me like a nameless pawn to protect her political capital.
After countless sleepless nights going over my every word, action, and thought, I can only wonder if my offense was to call out staff for publishing into PDF graveyards, or incite jealousy by enjoying running too much, or simply being myself on social media. I still don’t know what caused my downfall, and I know that I’ll never know.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter. What’s done is done, and I’ve learned from it.
3 Lessons Learned
I don’t write this post to prejudice you towards the institute. It is an awesome organization, with a mission I fully support. Had I understood better my manager’s style, and the staid culture of the institute, I might have weathered the accusation, and still be there today, working hard and happily to improve rice farming communities.
But I’m not.
In my failure, I’ve learned three lessons that I’ll certainly carry forward in my career:
1. Look before you leap
I fully admit I didn’t do my usual deep due diligence before I took the job. Before the headhunter called, I’d never even heard of the institute, and I accepted the position after two days of on-site interviews and a handful of conversations with ex-staffers.
I should’ve talked with more ex-staffers, and learned more from partner organizations about the true nature of the institute’s staid culture and risk-averse mindset. I certainly should have made a stronger point of talking with my future boss before I started.
Worst of all, I knew this lesson. I’d made this mistake before – joining a company that wasn’t a good cultural fit for me – and here I am re-learning it. I have no one but myself to blame for thinking I’d succeed in a proudly staid organization.
2. Not all that glitters is gold
To be honest, I was blinded by the bling. All I saw was a full expat ride in a beautiful country with amazingly happy people. I focused on all the non-work benefits, and didn’t really look at who I would be working for and how they worked.
I assumed (and that always makes an ass out of u and me) that everyone at the institute was open to change and wanted someone like me to push for it. I trusted what they told me in my interviews, and didn’t dig deeper. Maybe I even lied to myself about what I did see, because the lure of living in Los Banõs was so strong.
3. Every cloud has a silver lining
Moving to the Philippines was a major trauma to my family and my career. We lost much in moving across the earth twice in four months, and it will take us at least a year to recover financially and emotionally. But we also gained an invaluable experience.
Before this, I was jaded on working in Washington, DC. I felt that I’d done everything I ever wanted from headquarters, and it was time for a field job. Worse, I failed to realize how vibrant and supportive USAID implementer culture is.
With the strong support of staff, from CEOs on down, I was able to do things at US-based international NGOs like April Fools pranks, Fail Festival events and JadedAid card games, and not only not get fired, but be celebrated for my risk taking. I took that support for granted, thinking that organizations outside of the USAID orbit would have the same go-for-it attitude that keeps US-based iNGOs nimble and innovative.
I will never make that mistake again!
We also were worn down from the struggles of living in DC, worrying about schools, crime, and the daily grind of living in the nation’s capital. Yet, you couldn’t beat me to get me to move out of DC. Amy and I loved the fast pace, loved being in the center of national discourse, and loved our roots in Petworth. We were never fleeing to the suburbs.
Then we lived for four months in paradise.
When your kids can run through your neighbourhood at whim, popping in and out of friends houses, when the neighbourhood pool is everyone’s weekend hangout, when you can leave your doors unlocked day and night, you start to question why you put up with the grit and expense of the big city. You realize that maybe, just maybe, all those people in the suburbs are smart after all.
And that realization would’ve never happened had we stayed in DC. Moving to the Philippines was the change we needed to open our minds to living a new American experience. We are now living in Durham, NC, I’m back at an innovative organization, and together Amy and I are building a new life we can love.
Would I Do It Again?
In the end, you might ask, “Would you do it again?” and to that I would answer, “YES!!” without hesitation. Yes to working overseas. Yes to taking a huge professional risk. Yes to living life without regrets, learning from my failures, and growing wiser (I hope!) as I grow older.