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WHY I’M CLIMBING DOWN THE CORPORATE LADDER

climbing down the corporate ladder

“Man, what can we do? Think about it…we’re stuck!” 
 
M’s words hit me hard, like a figurative punch to the gut.  I shook my head slightly, lowering it into my chest.  But this time, something had changed. Instead of the frustration that had become all too familiar,  I felt a new emotion rise up. 
 
“No, no…NO!  I won’t accept that, I refuse to be stuck.  I am going create another path, and it begins now!”  The words resounded so fully within me, it felt as though I’d spoken them aloud.  
 
My audible response betrayed this new resolve.  
 
“I don’t know”, I replied, almost under my breath, and gradually moved the conversation. But inside I knew; my mindset had shifted, there was no going back. – 


December 2014 was a watershed moment for me, career-wise.  I had just received the top leadership award within my business division, recognized for combining strong business results with leadership both inside the organization as well as the outside community.

A healthy promotion followed, and soon afterwards I was overseeing a larger team, as well as a book of business just shy of a billion dollars.  Yes, that’s billion – with a ‘b’.  Suddenly, so called ‘important’ people seemed interested in what I had to say.

I was invited to join the executive team as they built out the business plan for the upcoming fiscal year, and was appointed to the board of a national charitable organization, which required me to fly to meetings around the country every couple of months.

DECISIONS

My direct manager, along with her boss, a high ranking executive, reached out on a fairly regular basis to discuss my career development.  They encouraged me to consider becoming mobile, a prerequisite to ‘climb the corporate ladder’, and join them in the executive ranks.

I have to admit, it all sounded pretty good, and for a little while I actually considered taking the plunge.  I remember my wife and I having a number of conversations about the possibility of packing up our family, and going wherever the company decided to send us next.

But no matter how much we tossed the idea around, neither of us felt at peace about it.  I think deep down we both knew that the desire for change we were feeling had little to do with a new city, or a few thousand extra dollars in our bank account.  As such, we decided to push the idea of being promoted aside.

Fast forward one year.

My manager had moved on, and along came her replacement.  It didn’t take long to realize that my world, and that of my colleagues, was about to shift, and not in a good way.

In our first meeting, the new boss declared himself a micro-manager.  He wore it like a badge of honour.  Less than a week into the job, he began sending threatening emails to myself and others, making unrealistic demands to be met within even more unrealistic time frames.  The fact that business results had trended downwards in recent months didn’t make it any easier.  There was little attempt to build relationship or rapport, let alone understand the business, of which he lacked experience.

He spoke poorly of certain employees to others, stooping to bullying tactics and harassment to achieve his objectives.  Several staff, myself included, would receive demanding texts and emails at all hours, often at 3 or 4 in the morning.  It got to the point where I removed my work email from my phone. And the lies, they became commonplace.  The guy could spout untruths with nary a blink.

LOOKING FOR A LEADER

In less than a year, the once thriving employee-centred culture within our business area (500 employees), had completely eroded.  This occurred within an organization renowned for how well it treats its people. Proof that it can happen anywhere. The amount of influence one individual can exercise across a huge employee network, negative or positive, never ceases to amaze me.

The best leaders seem to inspire teams to greatness with ease, while the poor ones suck the life right out.

Throughout the year, as much as I was aware of what was happening, I struggled to prevent this person from affecting my well being. It was so frustrating.  I lost confidence, often came home mentally exhausted, which made it more difficult to stay active.  I put on weight and battled feelings of anger.  I even shared some of my frustrations in this post, at the time.

How could I allow anyone like this to influence me so negatively?  It was a question I kept asking myself.  Ultimately, I got my fight back, but thankfully the battle didn’t drag on too long.

SOUL SEARCHING

Earlier this year the manager left, ushered from his role prematurely amidst a barrage of HR complaints and negative employee feedback.  I survived.  Not everyone did.  Under his watch, a number of good employees were let go, and others lost their resolve and jumped ship.  One thing I’ve learned is to never leave a job due to a bad boss, so jumping ship was never an option.

Thankfully, things improved dramatically after his departure, and I’m enjoying my job as much as I ever have.  But this experience was a game changer for me.  Out of it came a lot of self-reflection and soul searching, all of which reinforced my decision to climb DOWN the corporate ladder.

climbing down the corporate ladderCLIMBING DOWN

What does ‘climbing down’ look like?

Put simply, my wife and I will replace the income from my corporate career, “the 9-5”, within 3 years, by being aggressive with our personal finances and converting location independent side hustles into a full time career.

We’re a single income family.  We have a mortgage and three teen/pre-teen kids.  It won’t be an easy feat, but nothing worth doing ever is.

UNDERSTANDING THE WHY

Climbing down the corporate ladder is not my response to a bad experience with an abysmal boss.

That was simply the last straw.  My turning point.

The place I found my resolve.

As I mentioned earlier, I love my job, but I’m driven to create the ability to leave it.  Here a few reasons why, in no particular order:

1. The industry I work in is being disrupted. Digital technologies, such as mobile and AI, are causing rapid change in my business.  Will my current job be there in five years? Yes. Ten? Maybe. Fifteen or twenty? Doubtful.  I can stand still and become a lame duck, or I can forge a different path.

2. Large corporations are becoming increasingly disloyal to their employees.  Mine is no different.  I witnessed this in real time over the past two years.  I provide enormous value to my employer.  But I’ve watched as equally valuable people are let go with little more than a handshake, the mandatory severance package, and a few drinks at the nearest watering hole.  If you work for a large organization, and you think for a second that the number one priority is anything other than pleasing shareholders, you’re living in a dreamworld.

3. Increasingly, I feel like a creative trapped in a 9-5.  I’m far from the only one.  There are plenty of creative people who work regular jobs, and I possess several attributes that align with how I make a living.  I’m a people person in a people business.  I tend to be a very good decision maker, and can operate in high pressure situations.

But my greatest passion is to create.   I’m a songwriter, and a music producer.  I’m an idea person. When I’m not at work, I live within the creative process.  Since I began blogging and side hustling in the past year, that inspiration has gone to the next level.  Not only am I brainstorming my own side hustle ideas, I find myself contemplating ideas for other bloggers/side hustlers.  The bottom line: My 9-5 is very uncreative, and the two forces are beginning to clash with one another.

4. Most importantly, our ideal life is shifting.  In the future, my wife and I want to spend more time travelling.  My side of the family live in another part of the country, and I want to see them more often. Not being tied to an office will be key to making that a reality.  Moreover, our kids are growing up.  For years, our family’s daily routine varied little, so the 9-5 worked very well, but that’s gradually changing.  In short, work-wise, schedule flexibility is quickly becoming my top priority.

climbing down the corporate ladderHow will I climb down?

There is no roadmap for climbing down the corporate ladder, but if you ask me, I’m better off taking action and starting something, rather than waiting until I’ve  “connected all of the dots” looking forward.  If I take that approach, it’ll never happen.  That said, here are a few things I’ll need to prioritize, in order to be successful:

1. Remain engaged in my current job.  While I’ve shifted my career focus away from advancement beyond my current role, it’s important that I still put my full energy into the work I do.  After all, my career continues to be an important asset, something I don’t take for granted.

2. Live frugally.  By aggressively reducing our expenses and growing our savings levels, my wife and I have and will continue to decrease the income we require to live.  Our frugal lifestyle will allow me to make the leap to self employment that much sooner.

3. Relentlessly challenge my fears.  Fear is a powerful emotion that prevents so many people from moving forward in life.  Often, we don’t even realize that it’s fear holding us back, because we build such a web of excuses to convince ourselves NOT to chase our dreams.  Be honest with yourself.  Figure out what makes you afraid, and what needs to be done to push past it.

4. Prioritizing family.  No pursuit of a dream or career can come at the expense of my family.  They are my number one priority, as well as my primary motivation.

5. Create additional income streams through side hustles. I’ve already begun to lay a foundation by building scalable and location independent businesses/side hustles. My regular reader’s will know that at present those include this blog, a logo-design start up, a freelance music production venture as well as a developing digital marketing business.

6. Collaborate often.  We can accomplish so much more when we draw on the strengths of others.   This is something I’ve experienced first hand.  I know that in my own ability, I am very limited. When I need to tackle something beyond of my area of gifting, I can’t be afraid to reach out, and leverage other people’s talent.


In order to make it through almost two years of authoritarian hell in our workplace, my colleagues and I relied on each other for support.  One of those people is also a close friend.  Throughout the tyranny, we would meet for coffee on a regular basis.  We talked about life, our families, and our favourite sports teams, and we allowed each other the chance to vent about our challenges at work.
 
M shared the same need for change that I did, and he felt just as ‘stuck’.  But, like me, he also found his resolve, his own turning point.
 
The interesting thing is, he decided to take the opposite path.  As the skies cleared, rather than climb down the corporate ladder, he decided to go up.  A few months later, he took a promotion and moved his family 2000 miles away, and began his ascent.  Perhaps he feels he can reach high enough to escape the madness.  I know that he doesn’t share the same creative urge as I, and so the corporate structure is more palatable.  He’ll do well.  He’s gifted, and possesses unshakable integrity.  A bright light.
 
As for me, I couldn’t be happier.  I’m ready to fly, with feet planted firmly in the ground.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this post, as well as your personal career experiences.  Please don’t hesitate to reach out by commenting below, or by sending me an email anytime! 

Cheers, 

-MMM

Comments 30

  1. This is an awesome post MMM. You have all my respect for staying strong and survive the tyranny, and also for keeping your values more important than that promotion. I had similar thoughts lately, just on much much lower level. In my work-life fortunately I had only good and ok bosses, but a company vision and nature of the work can be both destructive to motivation. In my job there is a structure changing, which I don’t know what will bring. I had some plans myself, but for now I am in the “wait and see” mode. Just afraid of wasting the time, but as they say “Time will tell”. Thank you for this great kickstart for a murky Monday morning!

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      Thanks for the kind words, HCF, they mean a lot! I think that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being in a ‘wait and see’ mode. In my mind, it’s an integral part of the process, whenever you’re contemplating a major life change. I probably spent 3 years deciding whether or not to chase career success, but I realized that it would mean giving up things that were far more precious to me. I’d love to hear more about your experiences as they unfold!

  2. Wow, this is amazing! I have seen some good progress in my career, but I also have been mentored and managed by incredible people who do not micro-manage. I think a micro-managing manager would drive me insane. Regardless of the current career interest, my husband and I work hard to save and live below our means. I never want to wake up and realize I am tied to my job without the ability to move away. Excellent post and excellent tips 🙂

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      Thanks for reading, AR! Thankfully, I have had a similar experience to you for the majority of my career, but this was pretty tough to endure. I could tell you stories that would make you cringe. You make such a great point about living below your means, I think it’s something everyone should be mindful of, regardless of their income level or job satisfaction.

  3. I love this. It takes a lot of courage to step down the ladder, especially since we’re told that we should constantly be moving up. But up isn’t the only direction. Thanks for sharing your plan to live more freely!

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  4. I feel positively energized after reading this. There is so much delicious food for thought in this post and much to inspire. “Climbing down the ladder” – what a gorgeous concept. And starting before you “connect all the dots” – there is so much wisdom packed into that one small sentence. I think that philosophy can be applied to so many people grappling with so many different issues and it is something I am trying to do more of, especially as a person trapped in the prison of a brain that seeks to understand everything, even when that is simply not possible, or to see every piece fit together perfectly, also a rare possibility. Our analytical brains can so often stifle us. Just letting go and jumping is the only way to break free sometimes. Even if you find yourself faced with a difficulty or unexpected issues along the way – you can deal with them once they are real. It is dealing with all our imagined difficulties that ties us up in knots and leads us exactly nowhere.

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      Thank you!! I stumbled upon a podcast a couple of weeks ago, and the interviewee was a digital marketer from Kansas City. He was being asked about his journey, and he brought up the concept of not trying to “connect the dots” looking forward, (I hadn’t heard the Steve Jobs Stanford commencement address before that). What he said really affirmed what I’ve been feeling for some time. In the past, I’ve been that person who wants to figure it all out in advance, and it’s held me back at times. I’ve had a shift of mindset over the past couple of years, but it’s a gradual process which continues.

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  5. Where’s the button on your comment form to attach a GIF of a standing ovation?

    I love your resolve here and can relate to do much of your experience at the workplace and what you are looking for in the future. I’ve got so much faith that you’re going to bail this, MMM.

    God bless!

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  6. Sounds like you are making the right call. I just think that the staying engaged is important with your current job. Go fully after the transition away from it but in the mean time make sure you are engaged in your work. When people decide they don’t like their job and disengage I think it snowballs into I HATE MY JOB. Very worthy cause!

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      Agree 100% with this. Regardless of some of the stuff I went through, I didn’t lose my gratitude for the job itself, or the other people I work with. That’s really what kept me going, in a sense. I’m going to dedicate a follow up post shortly to the importance of not undervaluing the 9-5, whether or not you plan to stay with it.

  7. Love this, MMM! 🙂 Thank you for writing it. We can relate to this on many levels and it’s nice to see how you and your family are handling it (look forward to following along). My husband has experienced a very similar work situation and is taking a wait and see approach. While we wait, we are preparing for him to step down as well. Our biggest obstacle is getting over the fear of letting go of the “security” of the regular paycheck, particularly the benefits (health care is the biggest issue here). Like you, we are experimenting with some side hustles and working on trimming expenses even further. I think another no spend January is in order to get the year started off right! 😉

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      Thanks so much for stopping by Amanda!! I was actually thinking about our January no-spend last year as I was driving home this evening, and wondering if I had it me to do another one, I’ve got three weeks to decide. 🙂 That fear of letting go was and is a big one with me, but I think I’m realizing that job security is more tenuous that I realized, and it could change without much notice. Nothing in life is guaranteed, to be sure, but I think we’re becoming more proactive in creating our ideal life.

  8. I climbed down the corporate (aka law firm) ladder a long time ago and haven’t looked back. I had a boss once that carried around pens in 4 different colors, so his effusive hand-written edits were all color-coded. Not abusive, just insufferable. Good riddance to bad bosses, and godspeed MMM!

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      Wow, seems like quite the character, lol. Thanks for your comment CFK, I’d be interested in hearing your story. It can’t be easy to walk away from the legal profession, lucrative as it can be.

      1. TBH it actually took me about 10 years (filled with stops and starts) to finally give up on practicing law. I had a lot of guilt about walking away from the earning potential, and I suppose even the “prestige factor.” And I admit, I was able to quit and return a few times by using a few excuses more readily accepted from a woman (having kids and a husband with job transfers). SO I would blame quitting on those things, instead of saying I would rather stab myself with a fork than keep show up at the firm for the rest of my working life, ha!

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          Wow, thank you for sharing! I’m always impressed with anyone who takes a contrarian approach to life, and can buck conventional wisdom. Obviously, our society needs people who stay in the corporate, 9-5 life, but it’s not for everyone, for their entire career.

  9. The older I get (HA! I’m not even 30 yet!), the more I look around and see that integrity is EVERYTHING. Good for you and your friend for maintaining your integrity and sticking it out!

    Sidenote: isn’t it fascinating how companies will happily hire people like your terrible boss because they have “experience,” but they shy away from hiring idealistic young college graduates who lack experience?…

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      Depending on the organization, I believe that in time, good talent is rewarded, although it’s certainly not always the case. (not always). Too many times, politics/bad policy play a role, and bad leaders somehow sneak through the cracks. One problem is that it can be very difficult to let them go, and so the problem just gets passed around. Not all managers have the greatest judgement when it comes to evaluating talent / understanding value etc.

  10. You and I will eventually have to connect, been there and made that decision. Interestingly it was the BEST leader I ever worked for that made me decide to stop going up the ladder! I watched the 12-16 hour days he put in combined with all the social, business development, and team development work and said “I respect him more than any leader, but I can’t be him. Furthermore,
    if I get to that level and don’t work like him, I will be disappointed in myself because I know I can be that good, but I can’t give that level of effort”

    I’ve also worked for some shitty leaders, but learned early in my career to follow a leader over a position.

    100% right about loyalty to companies too, I mull on the idea that large scale passive investing is creating insulated boards that protect underperforming leaders. Hey, they get to mount a proxy fight with OPM (other people’s money) while an activist uses his own.

    Best of luck with your remaining time, I’ve got 15 months to go myself

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      I think that’s very interesting, that the BEST leader made you take pause about moving up the ladder. I’ve sometimes had a similar thought. I’ve observed a really strong leader, and admired them, but thought “I couldn’t give that much of myself for a career”. I definitely have the same level of dedication/passion that they do, but for other things, outside of work. I guess it comes down to me deciding to pursue those passions in a greater capacity. Thanks for reading, and I’d love to connect, anytime!

  11. Haha I have to say, the title of this blog really struct me. I’ve never been in corporate. Since university, I’ve been working on my own business, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. In terms of my personality, I just can’t stand being told what to do by a boss.

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      Ha, thanks for reading Troy. It’s definitely not for everyone. I think there are some ‘pure entrepreneurs’, perhaps yourself, who simply cannot stomach the idea of being an employee.

  12. This is a really inspirational, crystal clear take on what it’s like to reach a critical decision point. Your thoughts about how we build a web of excuses to mask the fact that we’re just scared to do something are spot on. I suppose having someone you trust in your life who can cut through the BS and call you out on that would be a good way to short-circuit it. You’ve got a ton of ambition to take on so many side projects at once!

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      You make a great point about the importance of having people in our lives who will hold us accountable, most of us could use more of that. I think people find it hard to be honest, and by the same token many struggle to receive honest feedback. Such a valuable thing. As far as ambition goes, I certainly have my fair share, but I know that I will need to reassess what I’m committing myself to on a regular basis. For example, the music side of things will soon take a back seat to my other activities. Thanks for reading! : )

  13. Dear MMM, great article and congrats on your decision to move forward! Warren Buffett already said we should never depend on a single income, so building a location independent income stream is paramount in the face of upcoming changes from AI, automation and eventually lower value of human work. Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do, so throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails.

    Explore, dream, discover. Mark Twain

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