A few career and life lessons from my last job in Italy

A few career and life lessons from my last job in Italy

5 years ago I was in Italy for my third job in that country in less than 10 years. I love Italy, and really enjoyed Turin. It’s a great city with beautiful architecture, nice, contrasted weather with cold winters (after all they held Winter Olympics there in 2006) and hot summers. The food is great, there are a lot of art galleries and museums, and the people are friendly.

Yet in February 2007, I was six months into the job, and utterly miserable.

You see, when I accepted the role, I thought it would be easy. After all I was ready for a Director job, I was an expert in Compensation & Benefits in the EMEA region, and I had alreay worked twice in Italy. So I looked forward to the “International” aspect of my new job, being exposed to countries like India and China, and having a chance to make a difference into my new organisation.

Well, it turned out that I was wrong. It was not easy. My previous experiences were in multinationals, and there, I was working for an italian company. The culture was very different, much slower in decision-making, with lots of bureaucracy, a heavily hierarchical (and male-dominated) structure, and a lot of resistance to any form of change in HR.

For example, the company’s vision of Compensation & Benefits was focused on 2 aspects : international mobility for executives, and “costo del lavoro”, which is the italian word for calculating labour costs. We had to endlessly compute these costs, on an hourly, daily, weekly, monthly and annual basis – and to be honest, it was a nightmare. We would spend hours producing these labour costs, only to be – each time – told that our numbers did not match those produced by Finance, and we had to find a way to make our numbers match.

I did consistently suggest that, if Finance numbers were the “right” ones, why did we waste our time duplicating the effort and then manipulate our data in order to come to the same result ? We could simply use the Finance results and free a lot of HR time to focus on more value-adding activities. Not that we were lacking in challenges ! But every time, I was told that we couldn’t change anything, because “things have always been done that way here”.

The workload was ridiculously high, with no recognition. Every day, my values were challenged. I was asked to do things I fundamentally disagreed with. The Group CEO is someone quite famous for getting results and engineering a true turnaround in the company. Internally, he was mostly (in)famous for leading by fear, shouting at people, and had a reputation of letting go one top executive at every quarterly meeting – a reputation that was only slightly overstated.

Then one day a few months later, my boss’ boss did the same to me. He litterally shouted at me : “I have a sh#@ life, and so you must have a sh#@ life too ! Who is the boss here ? I am giving you an order, and you have to execute it !”  and so on.

To me, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I was overworked, tired, conflicted about my values, and not enjoying the work I was doing. And I will NEVER accept someone – anyone – treating me with disrespect in the workplace. I decided enough was enough, and the next day, I handed over my resignation.

It was the most liberating feeling ever. When I left his room, it felt like this massive weight had been taken off my shoulders. I had no other job lined up, didn’t know what or where I would go next. But I felt at peace because I had decided to go with what was deep within me. Better the uncertainty than the misery !

(By the way, a few weeks later, I had 3 confirmed, interesting leadership roles in C&B and had to make a choice which one I would pick –  not too bad an outcome for something totally unplanned).

Five years on, what remains from this experience ?

I learned that you have to listen to your heart and your guts. I was not the right fit for that company and its culture. I was not happy. My values were being challenged all the time. Yet, even though I was miserable, I was not thinking of leaving. There were all sorts of “good reasons”, from “I need to try a bit harder”, to “It’s not even one year, what will people think and what kind of message will that give to potential employers?”. But in the end I was simply letting fear of the unknown take over my life.

I learned as well that this turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. I eventually took on a global leadership role for a company in Dubai, and had a blast. Knowing that I had the strength to follow my convictions and live up to my values gave me a great foundation, a level of confidence that I think anyone who meets me can identify. It is also a great support in any negotiation with senior management on Compensation & Benefits projects, because they know I will only go for something I am fully comfortable with.

I learned that, just because you’ve already lived in a country, you won’t necessarily blend in into another job in that same country again – company culture is very important. Actually, I believe that the more senior you get, the more important the company culture is – because if you are not aligned, but your role entails making decisions that impact the lives of others, then you will feel at odds all the time and won’t be able to produce your best work.

Finally, I learned that there is truth in the old saying that when one door closes, another one opens. You never know where you will be in 5 years, and whatever your plans were, life will most likely force you to modify them. As long as you keep your sense of direction, you will be fine. And that applies not just to your career (in Compensation & Benefits or any field), but also to your personal life. Remain true to yourself, and the rest will take care of itself.


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  1. Philip Mathew says

    Great note Sandrine. Could relate to some aspects you went through.
    I had the experience of knowing on the first day in one of my former work place that I made a mistake. Culture is absolutely important for any organization. If values are strong then its a facilitator to build up on practices. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Very true Sandrine…One has to be true to oneself..

  3. I just loved your testimony, thank you so much for sharing this experience with us!


    End of the day , what matters is , have you enjoyed what you have done today …good to read this inspring Sandrine…

  5. Thank you Sandrine for sharing you life experiences. It is an eye opener

  6. Nathalie says

    Thank you Sandrine, it takes courage to share it, and many of us could probably relate very much to it, actually I do. And one question comes to my mind : dis you feel confortable sharing this with potential recruiters you dealt with, as you had many other proposals ? How did you explain the issue? What was your winning posture?
    Thanks so much for all your sharings.

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