What do you do when you have climbed to the top of the corporate ladder but don’t like the view?
As I am looking to the future and the second half of my career life, I can’t help but look back at the first twenty years of jobs & career plans. Things have changed so much. When I was 19 years old, I got a temp job at a collections agency in Atlanta. I had only been married for a few months when we moved from Birmingham to Atlanta for my husband’s career, and to me, a temp agency was the perfect way to get a job fast in an area I didn’t know. Yes, we had some online job sites twenty years ago, but “online” was not how you got any jobs.
This job very quickly shifted into many different roles and ultimately led me to marketing.
If I remember the career progression with this company correctly, I very quickly went through the following positions/promotions:
- Temporary Receptionist
- Full-time Receptionist
- File Clerk
- Customer Representative
- IT Assistant (yeah, I am shocked about that one, too)
- Marketing Coordinator
- Marketing Department Manager
Hello, I am Allison, and I Have a Marketing Problem
The strange thing is that I had never thought about being in Marketing. That IT position listed above was actually working with my husband as my manager. One of us would probably have killed the other if I had stayed in that role. We were very “early married,” and those first few years of marriage were challenging enough!
The Director of Sales at this company was a total “trip.” I had worked with him throughout many of my positions in the company, and we got along very well. Apparently, getting along with him was quite an accomplishment because when they created the “Marketing Coordinator” role to report to him, they had THREE young ladies start and quit the position within one week. I am actually kind of impressed… I have no idea how that is even possible!
After watching the revolving door of Marketing Coordinators and silently plotting my husband’s disappearance (okay, I am SERIOUSLY JOKING there, simply a dramatic effect to show how unhappy I was working with him as my manager), but I digress. So, I suppose a glutton for punishment, I picked the lesser of two evils and asked if they would give me a shot at the marketing role. AND BAM! just like that, the start of a 20-year marketing career.
Figuring out What You Want to Be When You “Grow Up”
I could sit here now and list 50 jobs that I think would be cool and that I think I could actually be good at. For anyone that doesn’t know this, I dropped out of high school in my Junior year and got my GED. That is a WHOLE other story for another blog (ah, the high school dropout with three college degrees)! The point, though, is that I had never planned on dropping out. I planned on attending technical theatre college and being a costume designer. I had actually been drawn to theatre because I wanted to be an actress, but apparently, crippling stage fright, being tone deaf, and knocking people over when you try to dance isn’t the “triple threat” that everyone wants in an actress!
So, when I was in 11th grade, I secretly moved from my mom’s house to my dad’s and then took the GED. As I said, though, that is a story all on its own!
I took a semester of classes at a community college in Alabama when I should have been a senior in high school. I took Creative Writing, Theatre, and Psychology. I excelled at all of these, but even with outstanding grades, I had a random and crazy couple of weeks with vertigo, and I missed so many days that I failed all of the classes based on attendance.
I have a lot of interests, though. While in college, I considered careers ranging from teaching to being a profiler for the FBI. My kids are now all older than I was when I got that first temp job, and I have watched them go through this “what do I want to be when I grow up” thing a lot over the past few years. It seems like an impossible thing to pick. You are barely an adult and are meant to decide what you will spend THE REST OF YOUR LIFE doing!
Life picked this for me. I went on to study psychology, but marketing has always been my strength. When marketing went digital, it was a no-brainer with my technical skills and marketing skills.
The Climb to the Top of the Corporate Ladder
Today, people think about work-life balance and corporate culture. Twenty years ago, this was not a big topic of discussion. You got a job and worked on a series of promotions as you climbed the corporate ladder. In every interview, people would ask, “where do you see yourself in five years” and I am just making an educated guess, but most people said something about being in management. This was the way a career worked. You do your job until you get promoted to a higher position or find another job that will pay you more.
So, following this logic, I have spent the last twenty years climbing that ladder. I have tried not to stab other women in the back as I progressed in my career. As women, we complain about glass ceilings and lower pay, but many are willing to dig a stiletto heel in your back as they climb over you up that ladder. I was never going to be that person. I may have progressed faster in my career if I had checked the moral high ground at the door and dove right in with the office politics, but once again, I WAS NEVER going to be that person.
The View from the Top of the Corporate Ladder
Over the past two years, I finally broke through that glass ceiling and reached the top of the ladder… and it was magical. Oh, wait, no, it was AWFUL! I am always getting those two words mixed up!
I do not think this is the case for every executive position, but my experience has not been positive. This is where those things like “corporate culture” and “work-life balance” come into play. If you reach the top of that ladder only to find yourself hanging on with one pinky while being weighed down with baggage that isn’t even yours, you may question your career goals. When you look down and see that no matter what you do to create a positive corporate culture for your team… leadership, competition, gossip, and disconnection are making everyone else miserable, the view is just not what you expected.
The terrible shame about this whole thing is that I actually really loved what I was doing. I love working towards a better corporate culture. I love living in spreadsheets one minute and learning new technology the next. Building teams and nurturing young talent is fantastic. I am motivated by the occasional 70-hour work week WHEN I create positive change for the company and the people I work with.
Work-Life Balance is Different for Everyone
The idea of a 70-hour work week is also a little easier to swallow when you are being compensated for what you are worth. This is because work stress and money stress add up to too much stress to have at the same time. It may be okay if you have a super chill job but have to clip coupons and live off Ramen. It may be okay if you are working 70-90 hours a week but have the money to go on a vacation, buy the car you want, or just spend it frivolously sometimes.
High stress and low pay REALLY are a terrible combination! These priorities of time and salary are also different for everyone, and they change over the years. I could not work over 40 hours a week when my kids were little. There wasn’t an option to work from home, and I had to be running out of the door from work right as the clock hit 5:00 pm just to barely make it through traffic to get to the daycare in time every day.
When Hiring Turns You Into a Liar
My breaking point was when I realized that I was lying to people when interviewing them to join the company. I felt weighed down by a terrible corporate culture and must have been poisoned by the toxicity because I never lie. Seriously, I am a huge advocate for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
I would wake up and work for about four hours before anyone else started their day and then start the day full of meetings. Many of these meetings were interviews. Ah, the “great resignation” and the hiring struggles that came with it! When I started hiring, I was optimistic about the company and believed everything I told the applicants. There was one moment in my last month when I repeated the same song and dance I did in every interview, and it hit me “you don’t believe a word you are saying.” That was my final straw.
When Taking Risks Lands You Flat on Your Face
So, in September of 2022, I left a very comfy salary at the top of this corporate ladder that I had spent 20+ years climbing for a job that paid HALF of what I was earning. Remember, this is all due to the fact that my husband is borderline genius and manages to pay for most of our expenses with his salary.
I left the comfy salary and impressive title for what I thought was an opportunity that would bring in my passions for mental health, servant leadership, and process development together. I took a significant leap of faith, and I am pretty sure the pavement still has an indention where I fell flat on my face. I can actually picture it in a very Roadrunner-type scenario where the Roadrunner makes the Coyote think you can run across the bridge… only for the Coyote to fall off of the cliff and leave the shape of his body in the ground where he landed.
When you take a risk and fail, keeping yourself from blaming the risk is hard. I could crawl back into my comfort zone and just keep trucking on. I could take a step back and decide that I am too nice for corporate leadership and there isn’t a place for someone with so much empathy at the top of that ladder. There are so many ways I could take the last two years of terrible corporate experiences, but the only way I truly know how to move on is to simply move forward.
If you have ever talked to me in-depth, you know I am not a huge fan of the comment, “everything happens for a reason.” Now, I can look back at the butterfly effect of my life and see how every tiny thing has led me to the life I have, but that was not fate; it was the result of every decision I made and all of the decisions other people made that affected me. So, if you are an “everything happens for a reason” person, you could say that the reason I went through these things was to give me the opportunity to take a couple of months off and focus on my Podcast and writing my memoir. It could also be said that at this point of my career, it was a good way to show me that it is time to shift my career plans.
Grieving the Loss of Your Career Plan
I have made my way through this 20-year marketing career and found that I wasn’t happy with the view from the top of that ladder that I have been working so hard to get to the top of. What do you do after TWENTY years of working towards something just to find that it wasn’t what you expected?
Well, for me, initially, I cried. I get so mad when I cry. I don’t think crying is a weakness, but crying gives me a migraine, so I hate it when I cry. After grieving for this plan I had spent my life working at, I picked myself up and decided not to hop on another ladder. I want to stop climbing. I don’t want anyone to be climbing with the weight of things out of their control, trying to pull them back down.
I don’t even want there to be a ladder to climb! So, I adjusted my career path expectations, and I will see where it leads me. I will continue to nurture young talent and help support the idea of a truly amazing corporate culture wherever I go. I could own my own business tomorrow, but I would never put a ladder up for people to climb. The idea of being “at the top” is completely removed from my career plans.
Keeping in mind that this is a journal entry, I will not force a perfectly-structured closing and sit here and optimize this for SEO. I have been grieving about my plan, but I also feel so much hope and excitement for what happens next. It is going to be a wild ride from now on, and I am so happy to be able to share the journey with all of you!!