It’s up or out. Promote or make remote. Keep running to stand still. The corporate world is full of phrases or cliches which sum up their real culture in a few words. These are not of course the phrases that organisations use to describe themselves. They talk about being family-friendly; person-centred; having a number of different careers paths and support structures; and, about being respecters of people’s own ambitions and agendas.
India Knight, in her excellent Sunday Times Magazine column, alighted upon a huge issue yesterday when she wrote about the choice that woman often face in the workplace – a choice between professional ambition and personal fulfilment. She spoke about the pressure that is applied to keep trying to climb the career ladder; that middling is not good enough; that to be seen to succeed you have to keep climbing. She wrote specifically about women in the workplace but her conclusions could just as easily be drawn for men.
Too many organisations base their whole reward and performance regimes around the premise that to keep succeeding you have to keep rising through the ranks – that being happy to stay at the same level, in the same role, is seen as settling for second best – being a plodder or an underachiever. Even organisations I have seen up close who have alternative career structures – those who break with the expectation that employees will always take on more roles, additional duties and responsibilities and constantly seek the next promotion available to them – find it hard to avoid talking about this colleague without making them sound like a disappointment. He isn’t going to make Partner or become a Director but he’s a real technical specialist. He doesn’t like managing people but he is good at what he does. He doesn’t have the drive to be more senior but he can produce really good work. Whatever is said, it always feels like it’s a consolation prize – a Bullseye tankard and darts.
Of course the reason many folk – men and women – don’t want to keep pushing themselves through the corporate promotion sausage machine – apart from the need to keep compromising on their values and integrity which often comes with signing up to corporate culture – is because they value other things outside work more. As India Knight highlights, many women chose to say no to trying for a promotion not through lack of ambition or ability but because they know they if they go down that path they will lose some of the work-life balance they really value – longer hours, more stress and less time with partners, friends and family.
I have written previously about the need to define your own success; about being clear with yourself and your employer about what good looks like from where you sit. Not everyone needs a partnership and a corner office to prove that they are a winner. Some do. Sadly, many, many do even though it costs them their marriages, relationships with their children and their long term health and wellbeing. Success is not about the need to keep climbing but about finding the right altitude for you, enjoying the view and enjoying life more.