Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Climbing The Corporate Ladder

I had an interesting experience last week. I was walking to a meeting at work when I thought I saw a woman that my wife and I knew at university. She was two years behind us, living in the same dorm as my wife; a math major specializing in actuarial science. She and her husband came to our wedding. We visited back and forth after marriage, but we lost track after both having children. She visited on her own after her first daughter was born, just before her maternity leave ended. We've exchanged Christmas cards every year since, keeping track of the passage of years and the progress of our children via picture greeting cards.

I recognized her right away, even though she was out of context and the glimpse was fleeting. My memory for names and such is not what it used to be, but I've always been pretty good about remembering faces. I had the advantage over her in this case. She still looked terrific, very much like her younger self. The last time she saw me I had lots more hair that was dark instead of white, didn't wear glasses, and my face was covered with a full beard.

I went back to my desk and looked her up in the corporate directory. Sure enough, my memory was spot on. I didn't realize that ten months ago I'd landed at the same company where she's spent most of her career. She's in a different line of business, which is one reason why we never crossed paths. Another is that she's on the executive staff, just three steps below the CEO of a $30B company. I'm a lowly IT guy, a lifelong cubicle denizen. We move in different circles.

I sent an e-mail, wondering if I'd get a response back. There was a delay, which made me think that perhaps I'd overstepped my bounds. I was delighted to find out that she'd been out of town and would like very much to get together. She asked her admin to put a lunch date on our calendars.

When the day came, something came up that forced her to cancel. I replied back saying that was fine with me, but I didn't need an elaborate lunch meeting. How about a cup of coffee? She agreed, and we sat down fifteen minutes later over tea.

I always thought very highly of our friend, and time hasn't diminished that opinion. It was a fun conversation, filled mostly with our respective pairs of daughters. Hers are both still in high school, so she was pumping me for information about the college experience and life after children.

We talked for about half an hour - quite a gift from a person so highly placed in a large organization. We agreed not to wait so long before getting together again. Our spouses will make the trek downtown for a dinner foursome sooner rather than later. It was a terrific meeting.

I can't think of another person that I know who's done as well in corporate America. The ladder is narrow and shaky. Everyone who joins a big company imagines themselves being quickly identified as superior and swept along to the upper rungs. But we all learn that the ladder is wobbly and narrow, and the gifts that we do possess aren't always the best fit for climbing.

What are the qualities that cause one person to stand out and rise up? These would be true both for entrepreneurs and executives.

I think one of the first qualities is the self-awareness that makes you raise your eyes up from a narrow specialty and take a broader view. You've got to wake up one day and start thinking in terms of steps to take towards a different goal.

Another is a belief that you can and should be in charge. The confidence that's necessary to direct the efforts of others is essential.

Education is necessary but not sufficient. If it was I'd be in great shape. I went to school either as a student or a professor every semester except two from the time I was five years old until I hit forty-three. That's a lot of classes, a lot of grades, a lot of material. Most of it was quite challenging, in areas that I hear our country is falling short in. I wasn't the best student, but I certainly can claim to be dogged.

There are many ways to be smart. Someone who is good at taking that wider view, spotting risks, articulating a path to take or avoid, and anticipating consequences is going to be more valuable than a person who has mastered the latest computer language du jour.

It's a fascinating question. Why didn't it work for me?

Lots of possible reasons. I could have been limited by my working class, union upbringing: "Don't think too much of yourself. Don't get a big head!"

It might be a generational thing, because when I started my working life the idea was to stick with one large, well connected, reliable firm all your life and go as far as you could. I started with that mindset but started hopping around mid-way through.

I don't think I had that self-awareness that told me to aspire to that kind of thing. No matter how many crazy people I met in middle and upper management, it never occurred to me that I could do at least as well or better.

I love technical work. That's what I like to do. Tearing myself away from it and supervising others was losing twice: I'd have to do something I didn't enjoy and give up something I did. When I was asked to do such a thing during my engineering career, I turned it down.

It could be that I'm not nearly as smart as I think I am. There are many ways to be smart: emotional intelligence, reading people, persuading others to take your point of view, etc. It could be that a deficiency in one of those kept me in a cubicle.

Another, more comforting, reason is that there is a price to pay for everything. When you're an executive, you're expected to get into the limo when they send it to your house. Your life isn't entirely your own anymore. Cubicle dwellers generally get to leave it behind when they go home at night. I chose balance.

I hope that my children think seriously about what they want and where they see themselves when they're my age. What do you really value? Satisfying work? Money? Status? Being your own boss? Owning a company? Meeting a payroll? Balancing family and work? Raising children? Having a tribe of friends? Being involved in lots of activities? Being artistic?

I'd love to hear my friend talk at length about her journey. If I get the chance, perhaps I'll write about it.


eloigeorge said...

I think I understand what you mean. I changed my undergrad major from CompSci to Business because I didn't want to end up being some lowly IT guy.

In the decades since then I've been in some impressive executive & entrepreneurial positions in the Real Estate & Financial fields, but the one thing I always came home to was coding.

It was a hobby, something I did in my spare time. Beyond making apps for personal use & contributing to open-source projects, I had no interest in making a career out of it.

However, last year this ad for a programming position just kept popping up. I'd been thinking about making a change "just for the hell of it," so after seeing this ad for about 6 months I made a call.

In the interview, I was asked if I had any interest in moving to an executive position later on. Suprised, I replied that "I hadn't really though about that. All I really want to do is code!" I still feel that way now. My wife made fun of me for the first couple weeks on the job because I came home every night with a big grin on my face!

I'm glad that you concluded that enjoying what you do is what makes your journey unique and worthwhile. I wish I'd realized that before -- although I did pick up some interesting stories along the way!

Michael Duffy said...

Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment, eloigeorge. I greatly appreciate it.

It sounds to me like you've done very well and ended up arriving by a different route. Anyone that can make it as an executive or entrepreneur has my admiration, because both are rare and difficult.

It would take a lot of courage (and the support of a fine wife) to step away from a career path like that. Kudos and continued success to both you and your wife.