A Personal Confession

When I started in my first job I was, in all honesty, an ambitious go getter. I thought of success as a suit, a company car and a very large pay check. And that is exactly what I got. I guess you can say that I visualized my goal, and then I achieved it. Only six months after taking the bus to start my first day at work, I landed my first management position – suit and all. Two years later, I got the keys to my first company car. And one year after that, I received a 15 % raise placing me at the top of the leadership salary band.

As I climbed the ladder, I imagined that if only I could get to the top management level and become part of the leadership I would have the influence to make a difference. What I learned was that if you make it to the top by making it about you, you stay at the top by making it about you. First of all because changing your agenda mid-race makes people suspicious, and most importantly, because YOU made it to the top, not any of the groups that you represent. Let me give you a couple of (real life) examples:

Management: “We really were planning to hire a male candidate, because we wanted a candidate with better business acumen. However, we decided to hire you – you seem to get our business model”. Me: “Okay”.

Management: “We believe women are soft and don’t know how to make tough business decisions, but you are tough and can make difficult decisions, so you can join our team.” Me: “Okay”

Management: “We don’t think HR should be part of top management, because it is not a part of the real business. It is a support function. But we want you to be part of the management team, because we believe you add value to the business.” Me: “Okay”

With every “Okay” came a fancier title, a bigger paycheck and a bigger company car. I sincerely believed as a ‘foot soldier in the system’ I had to play by the rules of the game. I thought that I would only be able to challenge the system, when I became part of the top management level. I was naïve enough to think that once I had gained the influence necessary, I could change the broken paradigm about women, about HR and about people.

Sadly, when I finally made it to the C-level, no one was interested in hearing my thoughts on how we should change the system, HR or our paradigm around how we do business altogether. I wasn’t there because of my idealistic ideas – I was there despite of them.

It has been 13 years since I started my career and during that time I have worked for six different companies. Three of those companies decided to fire me. All of them because they did not share my views (or I didn’t share theirs).

The lessons I have learned from this:

  1. How we view success defines how we act, and the results we get. If we think of success as a suit, a car and a paycheck, we will act accordingly, and the result will be a suit, a car and/or a paycheck. If you do not check your paradigm on success, you risk having a very superficial perspective, which does not lead you to the result you want.
  2. The only way to change anything is to change yourself. Of course I stood up for women, HR and people throughout my journey, but I should and could have done it much more. Especially when it really mattered and I had something to loose. If I was not willing to stand up, stand out, and be who I truly was ALL THE TIME, how could I be so arrogant to think they had chosen me for who I truly am and what I really believe?
  3. Failure is a great learning opportunity. I know, you’ve heard this before – but it really is true. If you fail and don’t seize the opportunity to think about why you failed, what you could have done differently, you are wasting a great life lesson. People made assumptions about me, because I failed to be loud and clear about how I really felt. I could have proactively influenced their assumptions and sought to make myself understood. Instead I let them believe whatever they believed about me, because I knew that correcting that assumption might lead them to not hire me in the first place.

Today, I view success as the freedom to choose how I spend my time. Time is my most valuable resource and being able to invest my time in the people and the things that I enjoy and value, is the highest form of success. I choose to spend my time with people who are passionate, who believe that people are more important than systems and even products some times. I choose to spend time with people who believe that it is brave to admit when you are wrong, and are not afraid to ask others for help. People who believe diversity is a strength, which is why you should thank someone who dares to disagree with you or question your argument.

How do you define success? How are you spending your precious time?