I sensed movement out of the corner of my eye.
Was it real? Had I imagined it?
Something small. Darting forward. Pausing, still like a statue. Darting again.
I crept closer.
Movement again. Something dark. Hiding in the cracked cement of the driveway.
It stared at me. I stared at it.
Suddenly it burst from cover. Dashed across the baking hot concrete towards the apartment building wall.
It was a gecko.
To the five-year-old me it was irresistible.
I gave chase.
My full attention focussed on the speeding reptile.
It sprinted fast.
I sprinted faster. My 1000x height advantage giving me an edge.
Distance closing. Almost within reach.
We reached the wall at great speed at exactly the same time.
The gecko safely shooting into a crack between bricks.
Me running full tilt into a brick wall. Face first. Leading with my head.
I saw stars. My vision dimmed. The world lurched alarmingly.
Finding myself unexpectedly seated on the hot cement, I shook my head to clear the cobwebs.
On the ground a few inches from the wall lay a long brown twitching wormlike shape. Except it wasn’t a worm. It seemed to be bleeding.
A few moments later the gecko’s head hesitantly emerged. It stared at me once more. One of us blinked, it could have been me. Then the little lizard ran vertically up the brickwork and disappeared into the eaves.
I was shocked to see the gecko was now only half the length it had been just moments before. It’s body now truncated at its back legs. A small bloody stump where the long brown tail had been.
The gecko had shed its tail. A high price to pay to win a running race. Pretty sure that is cheating.
I scooped up the tail and sprinted back around the outside of the apartment building, screaming for my grandmother.
She emerged from her tiny laundry room. Curiosity instantly turning to alarm when she saw the state of me. Scraped cheek. Eye nearly swollen shut. Shirt covered in blood from a split lower lip that I had punctured with my teeth, one of which was now missing.
I didn’t care about any of that. Grabbing her hand with the kind of urgency that can only be radiated by young children or panicking project managers, I dragged her back to the driveway.
As we hurried along the footpath, I held up the gecko’s tail and told my grandmother we needed to help the gecko because it had lost its tail. I had a vague ill-defined plan that we could somehow reattach it with a band-aid. Band-aid’s were “magic” sticking plasters, capable of fixing any injury. My grandmother had told me that the previous day, while patching up the results of another childhood misadventure.
She sat me down, wiped the blood dripping from my chin, and explained that when geckos are desperately afraid and feel the urge to escape, they can shed their tails. For a short time, the tail will continue to writhe and wriggle, distracting the predator and giving the gecko a chance to seek safety.
It was a trick they could only perform occasionally, just a handful of times throughout their lives. There was a high personal cost, as growing a new tail took a huge toll in terms of energy and resource. The gecko was particularly vulnerable during this period. Uncertain. Exposed. Afraid.
She explained that these types of changes were a natural part of life.
Crabs moult their shells. Snakes shed their skins. Casting off the confines of the old, that would otherwise stunt their growth. Making room for expansion, growth, and new development.
These were examples of evolutionary tactics. Short term pain, adjustment, or dislocation incurred for long term benefit. Sometimes deployed out of necessity to survive. Other times to go one better, seeking to thrive.
I have often thought back to that conversation over the years.
The “magic” in my grandmother’s band-aids may have gradually faded as my own understanding eroded my belief. However, the framing of major life changes as being like a snake shedding its skin to make room for further growth has proved to be a useful lens through which to view the world.
Sometimes those changes were minor adjustments, like the crab moulting its shell. Successfully concluding a project at one client site before rolling on to a new one elsewhere. Moving house within the same city. Going back to school part-time to maximise the marketable value of my time.
Other times they were major dislocations, more like the gecko losing its tail. Changing professions. Getting dumped by someone with whom I had imagined sharing a future. Taking a leap into the unknown by migrating countries.
Always an adventure. Rarely a smooth ride. Challenging. Mostly positive. Often working out in the end.
Fear of the unknown
I was reminded of that conversation this week, when a colleague was paralysed by indecision over an employment opportunity.
She had worked for her current employer for many years. A safe comfortable rut. Family-friendly. Flexible working conditions. Colleagues who were mostly nice.
There was just one problem. She was being chronically underpaid for the work she was doing.
Her entry point to the organisation had been a lowly paid, relatively unskilled, administrative position.
The salary for the role was probably on the low side of reasonable even then.
Every bonus and pay rise she had subsequently earned had been anchored by that original starting point. 5% bonus here. 3% pay bump there. A promotion might bring a couple of thousand euros extra. Always upwards, but indelibly linked to that original low base.
But here is the thing: she was no longer an inexperienced graduate with stars in her eyes. Armed with lots of theory and a desire to change the world, yet possessing no tangible practical skills.
Today she is a seasoned professional. Possessing strong industry and domain experience. Amazing at what she does. Capable of doing great things, were her advancement path not blocked by geography, institutional politics, and a lack of opportunity.
A job offer had unexpectedly fallen in her lap. Similar duties and working conditions as her current role. Offering a clear advancement pathway. Paying three times her current salary.
The decision should have been a no brainer. Fresh start. More money. Reset the salary baseline. Grow.
And yet she hesitated.
What if it didn’t work out?
What if the people weren’t nice?
What if they realised she wasn’t as good as they thought she was?
All the fear of the unknown questions generated by our inner saboteur.
Should she stay, or should she go?
My colleague had naïvely hoped that her current employer would match the offer, now that she could prove the market value of her skills. It wasn’t a ridiculous notion. Did she not possess a decade of institutional memory? A vast network of contacts throughout the sprawling global organisation? Invaluable, yet intangible, assets that were essential for finding things out and getting things done.
A good employer would understand the value of the contribution made by the employee in question. They would also try to understand their motivations for seeking work elsewhere.
Consider their future within the organisation. Weigh that against the disruptive impact of their departure.
Then make a well-informed decision about what, if any, counteroffer they make to retain the employee.
However, playing the salary match card is not a risk-free endeavour for the employee. She may be viewed as disloyal. Perceived to be threatening the employer. Attempting to hold them to ransom.
She did not realise it at the time, but once such a request has been made it is impossible to put the genie back into the bottle. The employee must be willing to walk if their demands are not met.
In the short term, the employer may go some way towards accommodating the employee’s wishes.
However, rarely will an employee’s motivation for seeking external opportunities be solely financially driven. A pay rise may be a temporary salve, but it won’t address cultural issues, frustration with management, or gridlocked advancement pathways.
Employers know the employee will likely move on before long regardless. Now they had tipped their hand.
Many employers will shift into damage limitation mode.
It has been fascinating to watch how things have played out in her case.
Plans were immediately implemented to mitigate the risks that would be triggered by her departure. The employer stalled. Played for time.
Meanwhile, the employee found herself being marginalised. Bonus reduced. Missed out on new projects and training. Passed over for advancement. Shadowed and monitored more closely, to reduce the institutional loss posed by her anticipated departure.
What she hadn’t understood was that beneath all the platitudes and empty talk about people being an organisation’s most valuable asset, employees are interchangeable cogs in a corporate machine.
Much as we would love to believe otherwise, none of us is irreplaceable.
The first couple of months after a departure may be bumpy, but the organisation will adapt. Compromises made. Duties reallocated. Replacements hired. Workarounds found.
Six months after the employee’s departure, people may remember their personality but rarely their work. All those “important” documents written, “life of death” deadlines met, and “urgent” meetings attended will all have faded into the mists of time. Their illusion of importance dissipated. Most of that busy-ness seen for the busywork that it really was.
Two years after their exit, few will remember them at all. A ghost appearing only in document control logs and source code repositories.
The alternative employer was more patient than most. They had witnessed my colleague speak at a local “Women in Technology” conference and liked what they saw.
Instead of pressuring for a decision, they instead gave her some time to be sure that changing jobs would be the right move for her and her young family.
She had spoken to some headhunters and tested her market value more broadly, to validate the offer from the alternative employer. This revealed the offer to be slightly above market rates, but not outrageously so.
Finally, after many delays, my colleague had two offers on the table and a decision to make.
Her current employer offered her a token pay rise, nowhere near the salary packages on offer elsewhere.
They also dropped some vague hints of better advancement prospects were she to relocate to the United Kingdom. There was no suggestion of a further pay rise were she to do so, creating an unsustainable scenario of attempting to meet eye-wateringly high London living costs on her low local wages.
It turned out my colleague’s future does involve international relocation plans. In less than five years time, she planned to move her family to the sunnier climes of Croatia. Property prices and the cost of living are higher than her current home, but the lure of life by the ocean is strong indeed.
When viewed through that lens, the prospect of shedding her skin and maximising her earnings power now will afford her many more options when she sheds her skin again to immigrate in a few years time.
She has to provide an answer to both offers by the end of this week. I would be sad to see her leave, but I hope that she embraces change and takes the leap into the unknown.
What would you do in her shoes?