You may have seen it happen.  You may have been a victim of it.  Or you may even have been a part of it.  It goes beyond office politics.  My intention is to warn you, to share an ugly truth and what I learned about climbing the corporate ladder.  It is my hope that you can prepare yourselves (and I hope you won’t have to) as I’ll show you telltale signs of spotting this ugly little secret. 

This will be a special post. In order to reveal this dirty little secret that you will only learn when it hits you, I’m gonna bare all, and tell it through my story. It covers the last 18 months of my career, being high up in the corporate ladder. But I’ll keep it to 4 key turning points during that period—then reveal the secret. The warning is that everyone will be confronted with this reality at some point, if not several times as they try to climb the corporate ladder. It’s neither right nor wrong; it’s just the way it is and you have to deal with it when the time comes. The secret rears its ugly head the higher up you go. For below middle management level employees, you might be able to breathe a sigh of relief…for now.

Prior to 2012, I had spent 15 loyal years at the company which took me around the world, and experiencing the priviledged international expat life. I was living life large, working on intense, high profile projects, and travelled the world with my family. So everything pointed to the fact that I was on a great performance track, and believed my career was set for life…or so I thought. It’s early 2012, and my roller coaster ride year begins with a huge cliff dive…

Corporate Ladder - CliffDiveJANUARY 2012: Emergency trip to Brasil to be with my wife who was diagnosed with breast cancer a month prior. We had a horrible Christmas apart as she flew home with our daughter, and I was to join them for the New Year. We were living and working in Europe at the time. Took a short trip with my wife prior to major surgery the following week. Boss and company supported my planned 1 month away, and agreed I could occasionally work out from the Sao Paulo office. My wife would spend the next 10 months home in Brasil in the best medical care. Got a message from the office indicating to expect a bad performance review, and some other ‘issues’ that came up about me. It was on a ‘Friday the 13th’. My wife was due for a major 8-hour surgery on the 20th. Daughter transferred to local school; we flipped 2 apartments to find a new home in the city centre close to where my wife would be getting medical care and attention. My family and I were to be apart for a likely 1 year time period.   She was entering a battle to save her own life; while I had to head back to work in February to potentially salvage my corporate life, and visit her every 2 months. We were both in battle, alone, but joined in spirit. She was the more couragious one, the rawest deal dealt to human life, knowing your time may be coming up. I arrived back to work with my head spinning. I made a decision to give th best darn value I could muster. I was prepared to fight hard; as my wife would be with her life challenge. I decided to put in 200% effort and results…and achieved them all over the next 12 months.

SEPTEMBER 2012: Performance mid-term review. I found out 7 months earlier that the regional president and his ‘inner circle’ were questioning my future in the company. Sat down with boss who asked: ‘How are things with your family?’. Strange question I thought. Then revealed that there was indeed an issue brewing up. Boss was great and supportive, and said: ‘That’s ok—stuff happens. It’s all just about perception. We’ll have to work together to change this perception’. I’ll get back to this quote later. Several weeks on, I knew deep inside the reason for the question about ‘my family’. The company was already considering letting me go at a time when my wife was barely out of radiology treatment and into chemo therapy. Timing was off…how ‘nice’ of the company.

Corporate Ladder - Ugly SecretJANUARY 2013: Annual performance review results. Good, but the bonus reflected an issue. Got my boss on the phone and flat out confronted him:

Me: ‘Do I need to start looking for a job?’.

Boss replies: ‘No…not just yet.’

Me: ‘At least give me the respect of some advanced warning…Tell me by April if I’m staying, or not…Need to have a Plan B’

Boss: ‘Ok. Fair enough’

MAY 2013: The message was finally relayed to me, after some digging. Regional president wants me gone. Next assignments blocked. Lobbying starts to find me something back home in Asia. I’ve become a ‘hot potato’. I’m on someone’s ‘black list’; and decisions about opportunities in Asia can’t be made on me…unless I take a demotion and work my way back up again. One outside opportunity may have existed. Talked over with wife who was by now, back home in Europe from medical treatment. After all the trauma and heartache, what we went through the past year, and giving it my all, I had had enough. I knew something bigger for me was waiting…and it would be back home in Hong Kong.  My decision lifted a huge weight off my shoulders that I’d been carrying for so long– confirmation from every nerve and bone in your body telling you ‘you made the right decision’.

Next day, I called Asia to stop all further discussions about my next step. ‘It’s a damn shame’, crackled over the phone line from Hong Kong. Gave the ‘green light’ for head of HR to proceed. I’m out. But at least, I left on MY terms, integrity and character intact.

We left end July, head held high, looking forward to a break, some soul searching, but excited yet overwhelmed thinking what my next chapter would bring in the corporate world…unless I re-wrote a completely new chapter. I gave 200% of my soul to the company, and achieved great results over the final 12 months. But in the end, it just wasn’t enough to ‘change the perception’. The agenda was already set in motion long ago.  Made a few calls around the world to say ‘goodbye’ to the people I respected most.  I remember one particular remark that I’ll never forget: ‘I admire you, Ian.  You are doing what we all want to do, but can’t.

You see, the thing is this. It’s just the way it is in corporate. You trade your time, life, to the company in exchange for a salary, and bonus for a job well done– if you’re lucky. Gone are the old days of loyalty. It is not returned. Nor should the company owe you anything. It’s just the way it is. Your life trade to the company is unfortunately, getting more and more unbalanced in the Information Age. I had a great 17-year ride with this company, saw the world, met amazing people, did some outstanding things, met my wife, created a family, and deeply grateful for the resources to cover my wife’s medical treatment. But to think that you are entitled to a lifetime of gratitude in return by the company, is just simply not good investing. Times are changing…no…have already changed.

secretRemember my ex-boss’s earlier quote in September 2012?: ‘…it’s all just about perception….work together on changing this’. You’ve heard it as corporate politics, ‘brown-nosing’, etc. It’s neither. Your future is not even fully dependent on your immediate boss. It’s about a savviness of being and saying the right things at the right time…or saying the right things at the wrong time. Perceptions and opinions are created in an instant…and very, very difficult to change once you’ve been targeted, and a possy of ‘yes-men’ joins the band-wagon. Perception becomes the norm, the reality. It’s just the way it is. It’s just life—nothing personal, no hard feelings (at least months after the realisation!). It took me close to a year to extract the deep seated learning which I now share, and hopefully provide some wisdom in the corporate careers of those now reading.

Here’s that ‘secret’…In order to climb the corporate ladder, ‘You may have to become someone you’re not, to be allowed to climb’. Moving up the corporate ladder is NOT an entitlement (no matter how good you are). It is a permission granted to you by the opinions of others. You can agree or disagree with this—it doesn’t matter. It’s just the way it is. For me, it went against my own integrity and values. I am thankful for the last 17 years; and thankful for the learning. Tough, but better it happened then than much later in life. My future couldn’t wait; the corporate job kept me back for so long. I just had to break free and get on with life.

You have to become someone you’re not, to be allowed to climb the ladder

My concluding advice is this. If you accept this as part of a career in corporate, the way you climb up the corporate ladder, then you’ll find your way of internalizing this insight. If you can become the character necessary to climb the ladder, then more power to you. But you’re still not in control. If this sounds ridiculous, then good luck…but have and work on your ‘Plan B’. But for many, day after day, bit by bit, this ugly little secret robs you of your spirit, mind, hope, character and integrity—if that’s important to you. I needed to get out. And I did. My way.

Oh, and just one other thing…my wife, Susy…is doing terrifically well!

‘Climb your mountain..and see what’s on the other side’!

Ian Billingham - Life Leadership Entrepreneur




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