Looking back on my “career years”, I now realize what a difference it would have made if I’d only known the rules of the game. Here is what I believed. Just like in school, if you work hard at your assignments, get A’s, and be nice to everyone, you will be fairly ranked at the top of the class and be appreciated. Not exactly. This behavior will allow you to feel good about yourself and have warm feelings and high marks at performance reviews, but you are likely to be mystified by the rewards system.
In reality, I developed a reputation with corporate management as a great team player who could be counted on to stay quietly in her corner, keep her customers happy, improve on everything she touched, and not make waves. Who wouldn’t want to hold onto that kind of worker? Meanwhile, I watched as coworkers I couldn’t stand moved up the ranks regardless of their shoddy work and rude behavior. I felt pity for the embittered older workers who chuckled knowingly at every new management initiative. I was not yet jaded, just holding on to my idealism.
One of my managers went as far as to casually state that I was passive-aggressive. I was too hurt and cowed to ask her for further explanation. Looking back, my tendency to find my way around obstacles to and avoid unpleasant confrontation was to me, a good quality. It helped in my marriage, in raising my children, so why not at work? The rules were different. What was valued was different.
In the ’80s, a new management training program came around and we laughed at the ambitious climbers who showed off their status by walking around clutching their leather bound “bibles”. This was the beginning of the day-planner movement, prior to any electronic gadgets. When it became my turn to be indoctrinated, I was surprised to learn the value of dreaming about the life you want, writing it down, drawing images of it, and allowing your subconscious mind to begin making it happen. The organizing on the calendar in the book was just a subtext – this write it down, make it happen concept was a life changer.
I look back now on some of the pictures I drew and wishes I put down on paper. I was embarrassed to show them to anyone but my husband for fear I’d look silly. He and I sat down together and drew on paper placemats and cocktail napkins over the years and as if by magic, the things we really wanted began taking shape in little increments. Inklings of the farm where we live today show up in an early drawing. Our overseas assignment to Ireland filled one of our visions, and the financial windfall that allowed us to retire to our farm had its seeds in those breakfast sessions in a little diner.
In my years as a manager, senior manager, and then an IT director, I learned how the money really worked in a big corporation. I made a point to pay attention to those good-girl workers who had no idea of their worth and encouraged them to take on more responsibility and faster than they expected. Once I had the authority, I did some of the unpleasant work of dealing with the arrogant workers who bullied their way into power. I learned the hard way why so many managers took the easier route of letting them have their way. I felt the anguish of unfairness that I could not change and the guilt of being rewarded beyond what I thought was fair to others.
By the end of my assignment in the corporate world, I had worked myself into such a case of perpetual stress and disillusionment that I’d developed lymphoma and had to endure five months of chemotherapy and forced seclusion. It was a gift. It grabbed me by the collar and shook me until my real priorities rattled out of my brain and onto paper. Suddenly, for the first time, I had the courage to tell my boss what I was and was not willing to do. It resulted in a one year winding down in temporary assignments ended in a severance buyout and peace.
Part 3 of this story is being lived today. I periodically write down my wishes for the future, but to tell the truth, I am pretty much living it already. Happily ever after? Well, life doesn’t often happen that way so I’ll have to be ready to shift with the winds of fortune and see what comes along next.