I created Corporate Game Changers for people who want to turn around their bullsh*t job into a positive force for change. Together we can use human-centered leadership and business-for-good practices to pave the way for a better future.
Welcome to the Real Humans series, the place to read authentic, uncensored stories about career lessons and life choices. We provide full anonymity to our guests to make sure you get the most unfiltered story possible... Politically incorrect guaranteed!
This episode features Kate, a successful Director of Research & Development who decided to shatter her corporate career to leave for another country, without any really concrete plan. The multinational where she was working was perpetuating the stereotypical culture of short-term profits above everything. For many years, Kate did what she thought she needed to do to fit in and please management, but she was losing contact with her true self with each step upward on the career ladder. Till the point of no-return...
In this interview, we talk about being a career woman in an old-men’s club, about force-fitting yourself into management expectations, about staying in the rat race when you know it no longer makes sense. We discover the power and shine of a successful career and explore the less glorious behind-the-curtain sacrifices it entails.
This conversation should remind you of the importance of choosing a career path which is in line with what YOU truly want in life. Kate’s testimony is likely to give you something to think about whichever your occupation. So, here it is - enjoy!
Part 1: A brilliant corporate career
You are now an entrepreneur in France but you used to be a corporate executive in the UK. How would you summarise your first professional career?
First I spent 6 years with a packaging development company where I worked my way up through various positions. That was until I came against a sort of glass ceiling and was told it was because of what university you studied at - which was crazy because they sponsored me to get my degree there!
In those days in the 80s they were just very backwards, it did not matter how well you did your job, it was about where you got your qualification from. It was the old boy’s network and me a woman in a technical job.
They basically told me, “you are not going to go any further”. And made me understand I should go somewhere else if I wanted to progress and grow.
So I did. I did not want to be around people who were in this mentality.
I was in this other company for 16 years. I worked my way up from project chemist to Research & Development director, across 2 different locations.
The only way I stayed in one job for 16 years is because I changed my role quite regularly. They knew that in order to keep me they had to give me something new. I was accelerated up, I would get different responsibilities.
Having got there, I realised I loved the control, the power I had in my job. And I loved research and development, trying new things, creating new stuff.
I had been promoted beyond the stuff I loved doing. And I was trading life for money.
My last role had grown again and i made me spend a lot of time in China and Korea, with the mission to build new partnerships by auditing factories and presenting our technology. It wasn’t the job I loved. I had been promoted beyond the stuff I loved doing.
And I didn’t enjoy the travelling, it’s not glamorous - it’s tiring. You would come back very late in the evening and be expected to be at work the next morning. Fly to New York one day for a meeting and you fly back the next day. You don’t get to see the place and you are away from your home and the things that help you de-stress at the end of the day.
I wasn’t getting much time to take my head away from work. I was getting good money and we could buy all the things we wanted, but I realised I didn’t want stuff - I wanted a life. I was trading life for money and it didn’t do anything for me anymore.
So that’s when you realised something had to change.
I was offered promotions and I took them because I loved change. I liked the status of having more power and more money. Even though I didn’t need the money.
I was being promoted away from stuff I really loved. I ended up with an office in a box in another box in another box. In my last office I literally didn’t even have a window... I need to be able to see nature, I need that connection - I know that now. I was spending my time sat in a car or a plane or in a box. It did not do me any good.
Because of the move of so much business to China, we often had rounds of redundancies. Everyone was scared of losing their job all the time. You are just focusing on keeping your job while you are making your own staff redundant. Everybody was in this mindset of, “is my job next?”.
You are having meetings about your staff, and you wonder if there is a meeting at your manager’s level about your position. I had a big mortgage so I just smiled and took on more and more responsibilities to cover for redundant colleagues and held on as best I could.
I always said that I couldn’t be ME in my job. I felt I had to leave to become myself. I needed a different viewpoint. I needed a new challenge, a new chapter. In retrospect, I should have tried to do that from within my job. But at the time I had no idea how.
Part 2: the nerve-wracking corporate game
It sounds like there was a lot of corporate game going on.
My experience was, because it was very male dominated in both companies, the boards and upper management generally, and I found it almost immature the way they would behave at times.
The backstabbing, the subterfuges, the little secret meetings - all the political play about who was in and who was out. These were men in their 50s and 60s. I just wanted to say “grow up”. They seemed so out of touch with how we were struggling to do what we did with less and less resources. I found that quite frustrating.
I didn’t get involved in a lot of this stuff. I understood the game. But I always felt a fraud playing it because it wasn’t me. That’s why I wouldn’t have gone much further than I did because, deep down, I really didn’t believe in that way of working with other people.
The other side of the game is the part when you have to pretend to be a super person. Especially if you’re a woman in a man’s world. I was a woman in a technical area. To show any weakness would have been professional suicide, even to other women. Because they were all playing the same game.
One slip up and that’s it - career over. If you showed any weakness, then that was pretty much it. I wasn’t like that with my people, I did my best to protect them from all that, but upwards that’s the way it was. You had to make sure you put the right face out there.
You have to pretend to be a super person. To show any weakness would be professional suicide.
Especially as a woman.
People make a lot of assumptions about you. And I would play into it as well. I wanted promotions and new roles so I would play along with these assumptions of what I wanted to do. I wouldn’t correct them.
Knowing what I know now, I would have been more open about my own needs and my values in my role, what I enjoy and what I don’t enjoy and actually craft a role that was right for me. I wasn’t helping myself and I wasn't helping the business as much as I could have.
I was doing things I didn’t enjoy doing. I was good at what I did, I could have been stellar at something that would have been right for me. I probably owed it to them to do that, but I just went for the money.
I would have loved for one of my team members to tell me:"This is what I enjoy, can I craft a role around this?" and yet I didn't do it with my own manager.
If we could do that for people, create positions in which they can excel, we would have a world-beating business. But we try to take people and force them into boxes.
It sounds like you drew a number of lessons from this experience.
In hindsight, I now realise that I would've been more successful and happy in my career if I'd been more honest with myself and my manager and just said what I wanted to do.
You’ll be more successful if instead of saying what you don’t want, you say what you do want. Most people just go around about what they don’t want and how they are not happy. It does not help your boss. No matter how radical it is, a solution will get you respected and noticed.
Another thing I would do differently is I would make more allies of people. I would've made more allies by being more open about my worries and stressful thoughts. To allow myself to be vulnerable; I used to think that was weak, but now I know better.
And I believe it is important to understand that everyone around us is playing the same game. If you find people that you can open up to, it’s probably good to do that, if you can do it in a trusting way. And if they open up to you then be open with them.
The reason why I’m saying that is, there was a colleague who came to me once and she was talking about imposter syndrome: “Do you ever worry that you’re not good enough?” And I said “no, not at all, I think I’m really good at what I do.“
And instead of actually opening up to her and allowing her to feel heard, I just basically said what I said to everybody. I regret doing that and not being more honest - I totally understood what she was saying. She was opening up to me and I closed it down completely. There was a crack in the door that I could have gone through and we could've learned from each other and become even stronger allies.
But I didn’t do it. I think I did that because of my fear to be seen as weak at a time of redundancies. But I guess also because I wasn’t ready to admit to myself that I was not that strong, invincible person I was pretending to be.
Having allies and strong social bonds in any work situation will help you. As you get promoted, you get further away from other people and you get more alone in your role and you need strong allies. Because it can be very lonely. And the only people to understand what’s going on are allies at work - you can talk to your partner but it’s not the same. They don’t understand what you do day-to-day and what you go through.
Finally, the hardest thing to do is doing the right thing. When I was promoted, I was told I would report to the Group Managing Director and not to my old boss. They side-lined my old boss and put me above him. I felt it was wrong but I liked the prospect of reporting to the Group MD. What I should have done and wish I had done, was say: " I’m not taking the job unless I keep reporting to him". I was good with the customers and he was the technical mastermind - we made a great team.
I regret that I did not stand up for that - it hurt him badly and I should not have been a part of it. If they were doing that to him, then I should expect that they would likely do that to me later on down the line. I did not listen to the part of me who knew it was wrong. If you are going to compromise your values, it has to be really worth it because you can expect regrets at some time in the future.
Is there an element of competition in this, proving to yourself that you can do the next level?
There is a part of that. I always needed the challenge. If you don’t challenge yourself, everyday is the same, so what’s the point of that? Challenging yourself to get outside of your comfort zone is the only place where you really live. I always looked over the ledge and scared myself a little. I am that sort of person that needs a certain level of stress to feel alive.
But I went too far. I didn’t tell the truth about what my needs were. I played the game. I told people what they wanted to hear. If you do it long enough, you start to believe it yourself.
Part 3: The point of no return... and a whole new path
I am realising the amount of negative, background stress - the fear of redundancy, the invincibility, being on the look-out for conspiracy, and knowing that one mistake could mean the end of your career.
What you describe there is what I felt in my head. Now how much of that was really true?
If I had spoken up and been more open about the stress I was feeling, about how I didn't feel the job was getting the best out of me anymore, I may have had help, it may not have been the end of my career. But I strongly suspect it would have been... (giggles)
But would you stick your head out and be the first one to try?
I came home that day and I said to my husband: "we need to go, now. It's time to go."
I had a big mortgage to pay and that was stressful too. So I just … kept going. Until I decided I couldn’t anymore. I needed a change. And I decided to leave and recreate my life in some way. To break everything and start again.
I knew I had to break something to get out of it. I had just gotten responsibility for another site that day and I came home and I said “we need to go, now. It’s time to go”.
My mother had died the year before. And she had a life where she was full of regrets, not doing the things she wanted to do.
We had been talking about moving to another country. We had postponed it because it was too big a risk not to have enough money behind us to leave.
But it was time. In a matter of weeks, we had sold the house and moved countries. Without a real plan.
That's a bold move.
Bold or desperate, I am not sure which. It’s courageous for sure, when I look back on it.
But I trusted myself and my husband to make it work. I knew we could work something out. For me it just seemed the right thing to do.
Without that safety net, we just took a leap - it was about taking the leap. A leap of faith in ourselves.
Life is too short. You’ve got to do it, otherwise you’ll always regret not doing it. I was more scared of regret than failure.
We spent the last 10 years or so creating an income in real estate so we would not need a job to sustain ourselves. This was the dream I shared with my husband. It was always the plan that we would first get our financial situation stable and we could do something else, like travel.
But in the back of my mind there was still this burning ambition. I really wanted to work on something more deeply.
So now you are pursuing another professional project?
Yes. Understanding the reasons why we do what we do has always been my real passion. In my late 20's, I suffered some severe physical health challenges which turned out to be side-effects of stress. At that point I started researching how stress in the mind affects the body. I wanted to work out how to change my mindset to minimize stress.
I have been offering free coaching for the last couple of years while I have been doing some certification training in NLP and hypnotherapy. I have now taken all I've learned and turned it into a mind coaching business to help others live happier, healthier, more successful, fulfilling lives.
Most coaches will look at the goals and the strategies, I work a step before that, I work on the mindset, on what’s stopping you from doing it anyway.
Because once you clear the mindset, then the goal setting and strategy just becomes clear. You can do that bit almost automatically once you cleared the way, removed the things that hold you back.
And the amazing thing is, when you start tapping into that place of unlimited possibilities, when you get out of that box, anything is possible. And then you know, you just know the right place to go, you just feel the right way to go, it pulls you towards it, whatever it is.
I now know that you can release anything that is holding you back in your mindset. You can do anything you put your mind to. And that’s my goal for anyone - I work with people to let them see that in themselves. It’s there, they just need to be put in touch with it.
I am now moving along the right path for me. I feel this is my purpose. I am just happy that I found it. It’s my place to be right now. I strongly believe in following the feeling of fulfillment because that’s the easiest way to know you’re on the right road for you.
For my final question, is there one piece of advise you'd like to share?
The key is to find out who you really are. And BE that person.
The more you are this person, the happier you’ll be.
We talked about masks before - just take the mask off and be yourself and be happy with who you are.
Dare to live your life the way you are meant to be, a life well-lived without regrets.
That’s what I needed to hear back then in my corporate role. If only I had been more myself, and more in connection with the true me inside and not stuck in my head overthinking everything ...
Tuning into yourself is not easy - this is why I started mindset coaching, to reflect people back to themselves, and to remove any blocks that might be stopping them seeing and accepting themselves as you are.
The first step is to see it, the second is to accept it and the third is to live in alignment with it - that’s where the courage comes in. It gets easier as you get older because you stop caring what other people think of you (giggles)...
Key insights of Kate's story
- Promotions will come if you work hard and play the corporate game. The question is - is it really what you want? Will power and money make you happy? At what cost will it come?
- You can be successful by being the person that people want you to be. You’ll have power and money. Yet you might be trading your life and identity for it.
- There is an expectation set on you by management - you can play along and perpetuate the corporate game’s old-fashioned rules. OR you could shape your job in a way that serves you - and the business you work for.
- Personal motto: “Find out who you really are and dare to live your life the way you were meant to be.”
I know how fast-paced life is, so thank you for dedicating some of your precious time to read this.
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Until next time, take care and be the best human you can be!