MIA FREEDMAN: 'The biggest career mistake I ever made. And 4 lessons I took from it'.

The following is an edited excerpt from Mia Freedman’s memoir Work, Strife, Balance. Which is the inspiration behind the new TV series Strife.

Here's a thing I've learned: the worst job you ever have will teach you important things. You will not know it at the time, though. At the time, you'll be convinced that you’ve indelibly stained your CV and ruined your life. You will feel ashamed and devastated and possibly humiliated. You will probably be angry and resentful and bitter. 


It gets better. The sting of it fades. The heat comes out. And you will learn a lot from it in hindsight. Just like having an abysmal relationship helps you to recognise a good one when it comes along, so too a disastrous job will teach you what you do and don’t want in your next job. And the one after that. 

It's taken me years to realise this. But the biggest fuck up of my career turned out to be a pivotal moment in my life. Without it, I would have never done what I was forced to do next.

After working happily in the magazine industry since I did work experience at 19 which turned into an editorship at 24 and ended 10 years later as Editor-In-Chief of Cosmo, Cleo and Dolly, I knew it was time for a new chapter.
In 2005, I left the building I'd walked into every working day for 15 years, ostensibly to go on maternity leave with my second child. But I knew I was done with mags.
A few months later, delirious with sleep-deprivation and naivity, I sleep-walked into the jaws of a career nightmare to take an ambiguous executive role at a big commercial TV network. Over the next seven months, that job would devour my confidence, my reputation and my identity. It sparked a prolonged period of intense anxiety and was the closest I’ve ever come to depression.


Within weeks, I was bringing my work-based anxiety home and infecting my family with it like a toxin as I slunk in the front door on the verge of tears and rattled to my core.

My work life had become a poisonous soup of bad decisions (mine for taking a job that didn't really exist), bad blood (many of the blokes at the network who thought I should go back to magazines, home to my kids or anywhere far away from them) and bad press (humiliating articles about me sourced from people in my new workplace who hated me and general media Schadenfreude that I was plainly falling on my face in a spectacular way).

The worst part was the constant fear. Fear that everyone I worked with detested me. Fear of yet another gossipy media report that made me look stupid and incompetent. Fear that I’d made the worst mistake of my life. Fear that I was trapped because leaving this job would create even more coverage of my disastrous tenure in TV. Fear that my son and my new baby were being impacted by my distress. 

Every one of those fears was well-founded. It was the darkest time of my professional life. And I don't think it was an accident or a co-incidence that it was directly after this awful period that I started Mamamia. 

Many years later, I can now identify some invaluable lessons that sprang from the ashes of those seven months. It took a combination of time, self-reflection and hindsight but here's where I landed.


4 Essential lessons from the worst jobs for career recovery.

1. Don’t Take A Job That Doesn't Really Exist

After 15 years nestled in the warm bosom of women’s magazines, I’d moved to a new workplace for the first time in my adult life. The TV network was owned by the same media company that had employed me since I was 19. And yet even though my overlords were the same, the role I’d been offered was a new one that had never existed before. A different culture. Different colleagues. The same industry – media – but a different medium. 

The new CEO had brought me in to bolster the female representation in the leadership team from zero to one. "I’m sick of sitting around a boardroom table with 20 men trying to work out what women want to watch on television," he told me before I accepted the job. 

His philosophy was sound and I admired him for trying but even though neither of us realised it at the time, I was walking into a career black hole: a role that didn’t exist.

This isn’t a problem if you’re taking a job at a start-up because, by definition, no pre-determined roles exist. In the first few years of Mamamia when we were in start-up mode, we constantly created new roles in real-time. That's how you grow.

I love start-up culture because it’s all-consuming and you move fast and break things. I have a propensity for doing both. Sometimes I break things and then I move fast, away from the things I just broke, hoping that nobody realises I broke them. But start-up culture is fluid and intense and that suits me. 

It's not that new roles can’t be created in established companies. Businesses do evolve, driven in large part by technology or the changing needs of the company. ‘Social media manager’ is a relatively new job in big companies, for example. 


But be aware that when you walk into a newly created role, you need to carve out a you-shaped hole from the jobs currently being done by other people. The politics of this can be exceptionally tricky to navigate and I will admit that I did it woefully. 

Another red flag: as we worked on my contract, we could not agree on a title. Nothing seemed to fit. I wasn’t a consultant. I didn’t have any direct reports, and I reported directly to the CEO. I should have asked to see an organisational chart. I should have asked for a more detailed job description. I should have asked about KPIs (key performance indicators) and targets. I should have asked what success in this role would look like.

The fact I did none of these things came back to bite me hard because my lack of understanding of what I was being tasked with meant I was blind to all the warning signs that it would be a disaster. 

They were right in front of me. 

Virtually all the other men (it was only men) in the executive team didn’t want me there and I can understand why. I had no TV experience. What could I offer them? As a change agent (always a fraught position to be in), I’d been tasked with improving the network’s positioning with women externally, internally and on air. It soon became apparent to me that many of my colleagues didn't care about any of those things. 

I was impotent – or whatever the female equivalent is. My ovaries were tied. In actual fact, it was my breasts, not my ovaries which were giving me grief. My daughter was still only six months old and breastfeeding her had been a disaster from the start. She thrashed around every time I tried to feed and it wasn’t until years later I realised she had silent reflux. Trying to stop her screams by flipping her from breast to breast every 30 seconds meant they were never emptied, which in turn led to crippling mastitis, an agonising infection inside the breast which also causes debilitating flu-like symptoms. I would collapse with high fevers, chills and uncontrollable shaking within hours of noticing a hot spot or pain in my breast and each time I had to take a 10-day course of antibiotics. It was a rolling chaos inside my body, day after day for months.


By the time I started in my new job, I was up to my 70th day of antibiotics in eight months but I refused to wean my daughter because I’d internalised the zealotry that formula is poison (it's not, stop making women feel like shit)  and that I had to keep breastfeeding my baby at any cost. 

Eventually, that cost became too high and to this day I’m furious with myself for persisting so long. It was a terrible situation for us both. 

Where was I? Oh, this is a chapter about career and I’m telling you about breastfeeding. Welcome to the life of a working mother. It’s all here.

2. Make Sure The Culture Fit Is Right

As a magazine boss myself for the previous decade, I’d been able to determine my own working environment for my team, so I’d never thought much about culture.

Culture is, in fact, everything. If you are fundamentally unaligned with the culture of the company you work for, you can’t succeed. By this I mean you will not be happy. You won’t fit in. You’ll never be able to exhale. Every day will feel like you’re pushing sh*t uphill because you will be. Even if you’re really good at your job. 


We’ve had some terrific people come through the door at Mamamia who we couldn’t hire or who didn't stay long because the culture fit wasn’t right. Let me be very clear: I’m not talking about culture in a literal sense. It’s not about your cultural or socio-economic background; it's not about being an extrovert or an introvert or what you wear or who you know. Culture in a workplace is about your attitude and how you work and interact with others. If you don't fit with the culture at a particular job, it doesn't necessarily mean you're not good at what you do or that the workplace is 'toxic'. I've noticed that word become really over-used when someone has a bad experience in a job. I've used it myself and I think it's incorrect. It just means you're not the right fit. 

If you like a formal work environment, heavy on process and infrastructure, and feel most comfortable with predictable tasks and working hours, for example, you’re going to struggle at a start-up.

If you like wearing sequins, consider leopard print a neutral and have strong opinions about women, you’re going to struggle as an executive in commercial TV. 

And I did. 

I once had a sub-editor resign from Cosmo because her priest told her working at a magazine that published sex information was inappropriate. "Wait, your priest said you have to quit your job?" I repeated incredulously. "Well, yes, and my bible group agrees," she said, nodding. "I’m sorry, I know it’s awkward, but it’s become a real problem for me at church."


"What if you didn’t work on any of the sex stories?" I offered, trying to salvage the situation because replacing good staff is a punish and I was disturbed by the prospect of a priest controlling the career path of a young woman. 

She shook her head. "I have to choose between my church and working here. I’m sorry."

Similarly, at Mamamia, we once had a staff member resign because her religious family did not approve of her working for a company that published stories about abortion - even though she never had to write these stories herself.

That, friends, is called a culture clash.

It's interesting that religion is the common thread in those two examples but there are dozens more I can think of where it's been far harder to pinpoint a single factor, it's more amorphous than that. Having experienced it both as an employee and as a manager can feel it pretty quickly.

Recognising this before you accept a job is obviously preferable for everyone but it's not always possible. The best thing to do when you realise the fit isn't right is to exit as gracefully as you can before things become too difficult because what I've learned over the years is that you can't expect an organisation to change their culture to accommodate you. 

If a company is large enough, there can be different cultures in different parts of the business. When I was an editor, the company I worked for had dozens of magazines and each one had its own culture which was determined by the editor. The Women’s Weekly was different from Dolly, which was different from Wheels.


When I first became a boss at 24, I was clueless about all of this although I'd worked under both good and bad bosses which had informed the kind of boss I aspired to be. At the time, I hadn't consciously realised I was creating a culture but of course, that’s what you do as a manager; you set the tone as well as the rules.

Parachuting into a culture that jars with your sensibilities is confronting. My experience of commercial TV culture in the early 2000s was that it was a hyper-masculine one; the polar opposite of my experience working with women. I’ve since learned that workplaces with an extreme gender imbalance are never as happy as workplaces with a more equal mix. Which is why we are always looking to hire more men at Mamamia.

I don’t find working with women to be bitchy – I never have – but it can be intense. Since women bear the brunt of domestic life, it often bleeds into our work. We’re the ones fielding the calls at 11am from the school, the daycare centre or the nursing home, and we’re the ones whose heart sinks when we see that number flash up on our phone because we know it means disruption. There’s rarely any choice but to leave and immediately attend to whoever needs us. Cancel the meeting. Fail to meet the deadline. Inconvenience our colleagues. Are we pushing our luck with the boss? Is everyone exasperated with us? How much grace do we have? We dash out the door hurling earnest apologies, trailing anxiety and guilt. It's like having a constant emotional hangover.


I wonder how many men know much about the families of their colleagues. As women, we are often heavily invested in the lives of each other’s children, partners and pets because we talk about them a lot at work. It's one of my favourite aspects of being in a female-dominated workplace and at Mamamia, it sparks a constant stream of content.

3. Don’t Be Afraid To Rip Off The Band-Aid.

On my second day as a TV executive, I knew I’d made an epic mistake. My boss had asked me for feedback about something and when a colleague found out; he went ballistic. It dawned on me that being the messenger was going to get me repeatedly shot.
I didn't feel like I had a place or a purpose and I had no idea how to start carving one out.
But how could I bail after just a few weeks?
With industry attention on my high-profile appointment, however, I was paralysed by the thought of the media drama if I left this job so fast. And I also suspected maybe I was just out of my comfort zone. That was true. It was also true that I’d made a drastic error of judgement by taking the job in the first place. And that was totally on me.

Most people have a job disaster buried in their CV. It happens. As an employer, this doesn’t faze me. I know from my own painful experience that some jobs don’t work out and ‘the fit just wasn’t right’ is usually an honest enough answer to explain why you were only in a certain role for a year or less. 

At all costs, avoid the temptation to unload all the reasons why the fit wasn’t right. Note that I’ve told you some things about my failed experiment in TV but I haven’t dumped anyone in it by name, I’ve left the worst bits out and trust me, I’ve been enormously discreet. This is not an accident. With time, I’ve learned to see the contribution I made to this unfortunate blip on my CV and to willingly take responsibility for my part in it. Sometimes things just don't work out. So be tactful if someone probes you about why you left your last job. As satisfying as it might feel in that moment to let loose, your potential new employer won’t be listening to your words as much as noting the fact you’re dissing your former workplace and imagining you doing the same to them. 


After about six months, when it was clear I was failing and miserable in my role and that it was way beyond a comfort zone issue, I decided to leave despite having been there for less than a year. I probably could have called it earlier but to be honest, I didn't trust my judgement. My self-esteem was in the toilet, I was chronically sleep-deprived and my baby was struggling to feed which was compromising her health and mine.
On paper, from a CV point of view, I knew I should stay for at least a year, preferably two but I had come to accept this wasn't going to be possible and I made peace with that. Time to push the eject button. The fact that the thought of this made me feel so relieved was the sign I needed that it was the right decision. And it was.

4. Have A Plan For What You Want To Do Next
I planned my exit carefully because I wanted to make sure I had something to do on the other side. I knew it would be a rocky period and I needed something to throw myself into. But what?

Apart from my desperation to sprint as far and fast as possible from this nadir in my career, I’d realised something else: I no longer wanted to be a senior manager or a media executive. 


Management was well paid and had some nice perks like being able to drive to work but it wasn’t creative and I was spent. This was confusing to me at the time because I’d always been highly ambitious and competitive. I’d always strived to climb higher, go faster, push harder, and lean in further. 

It wasn’t that I felt burnt out so much as bummed out. 

The politics of senior management in any organisation are inevitably the same: endless meetings, strategy sessions, KPIs, petty dramas about who wasn’t cc’d on an email, implementing processes, putting out fires, more fires, more processes, more and more and more meetings, brainstorming sessions, more fires, writing reports, doing budgets, adhering to budgets, fires, fires, fires, meetings about fires, spreadsheets, off-site meetings about strategy, writing reports about fires, meetings about processes, writing memos about people not following processes, recruitment, P&Ls, salary negotiations, learning what EBITDA means, performance reviews, having to be reminded what EBITDA means and forgetting again almost immediately, meetings about someone not being cc’d on a memo about a process and repeat until you want to staple your face to your swivel chair and file yourself in the bin under FOI for F**king Over It. 

As much as I was exhausted by the excruciating repetition and endless politics required to be a senior executive, it had always seemed counterintuitive to do anything but keep striving for promotions. The only way is up, right? A higher salary. More responsibility. Increased power and influence. A bigger team. New challenges. 


Upwards is not always the right decision, though, and neither is more of everything, even if it’s money. I didn’t want to work less, and I certainly didn’t want to stop working. I love work. It feeds me. The treadmill of working inside a big company, however, was something I wanted to jump off: it was time to try being my own boss.

Within a few weeks, we had negotiated a redundancy package, and even though I was firebombed with humiliating press when my departure was announced, just as I'd feared, I now had the ability to launch my own business, Mamamia which I did on that same day in 2007.

Although calling it a business is kind of hilarious because that makes it sound like it which it very much wasn't.  For the first 18 months it was just me and my laptop, working 18 hours a day, six and sometimes seven days a week without earning a single cent.
It would not become a business until my husband came on board as co-founder in 2008. He was the one who had the vision for the business side. And he was right. 

Listen to Lady Startup Stories where Mia Freedman shares more on how she started Mamamia. Post continues below.

Feature Image: Supplied.

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