May 10 2018

Priorities Change

HR, People + Culture, #OctagonFamily

Brian Smith, Senior Vice President, People + Culture

As an HR professional, I see people with varied priorities.  For some it’s salary, or job title, the address of their office, even the company name on their business card. When I started out, money was my priority. Salary determined how I perceived my own success.

My father was a successful businessperson and my family was fortunate to have a comfortable lifestyle. While my father had always told me not to compare myself to him, and encouraged me to focus on what made me happy, financial success remained my key motivator.

Focusing on money influenced my career decisions, and that came with consequences. The first significant instance was in my late twenties. I had been married for two years and my wife and I wanted to start a family. I had recently received my annual review and my raise was short of the number I had hoped for, not by much, but short. The reward I sought for my work, was not there.  So, I reacted.

I quickly interviewed at other companies and accepted a new role that paid me just slightly more than my target salary. For two years, I suffered through a job that I didn’t like. Every morning was a struggle to get out of bed, as I dreaded the environment I worked in. I told myself the money made up for it all. I was blind to the impact my unhappiness was having on my personal life. I would come home frustrated and irritated, which prohibited me from being in the moment with my family.

I went to the office one day to learn that my company was being bought out (an event I now see as a stroke of luck). Panicked at the thought of not being able to pay the mortgage or provide for my family, I immediately started looking for something new.

At one of my interviews, I was surprised. My impression was that the people were genuine, and that they enjoyed their jobs and actually liked the people they worked with. For the next eight years, my experience at Octagon lived up to that initial impression.  Sure, there were challenging days along the way, but the support I had from my boss, the senior leadership team and my coworkers was exactly what I had always wanted.

Octagon allowed me to deliver HR my way, not a stuffy, policy-only style, but a person-first, meaningful approach to building culture, nurturing talent and supporting the agency. Throughout those eight years, Octagon paid me fairly and treated me better than I had ever been treated at previous jobs.

But money still ranked primary in how I looked at my own success. I was always comparing myself to friends who worked in other industries, and I was still longing for the bigger house, shiny car or top-of-the-line snowmobile.

I was approached by a hedge fund company, interviewed and accepted a role that paid me more. I should have been ecstatic. But the night I accepted the job, there was a pit in my stomach. I should have paid closer attention to it.

I made history at Octagon by being the quickest employee to leave and come back. I lasted eight days at that new job. The job itself was fine. The money was good, but I truly missed the people at Octagon. They were my friends. More accurately, they were my family. Tail between my legs, I called and said I wanted to come back.  Fortunately for me, senior leadership wanted me back too.

I spoke to my dad that day and told him Octagon was letting me come back, he urged me to remember that day because, he said “it’s a special company that does that.”

That was the moment I realized salary is not the most important thing. It took me almost 40 years to get it.  (Yes, I’m a slow learner.)

This year, I was reminded of that day. For two months, my father was in and out of the hospital after suffering several strokes, and eventually passed away.

During that trying time, Octagon supported me. My boss Cindy Paul and our President John Shea pleaded with me to stop worrying about work.  I have saved countless emails and texts from them and many others encouraging me to focus on what was important: my family.

My team covered the meetings I couldn’t attend and the emails I couldn’t answer. The days following my dad’s passing were filled with outreach and sympathies. Flowers, cards and food flooded our home. Hugs, handshakes and encouraging words overwhelmed me. In my darkest hour, my company supported me in a way that I could have never imagined.

I didn’t write this column to tell you money, and title, and the brands you work for aren’t important. My purpose for sharing this is to let you know that sometimes in life – and especially as you get older – things will happen that money can’t solve. 

At those times, your ability to deal with those situations will be effected by the company you work for, and by the people you work with.  Losing my father will always leave a hole that can’t be filled, but as each day passes, things get a little better.  A big part of that is because of the supportive environment I work in, and colleagues who always have my back.