I work at a large global company. I was recruited right out of college.
I was homeschooled, went to college early, and completed my undergrad and masters in four years. I only mention this to explain how I am a senior manager at 30. The only people who know my age are in HR. I keep it quiet.
It was incredible at first. Just telling people where I worked got that raised-eyebrow “I’m impressed” look. I was totally bought in and I took full advantage of all the training programs. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I have become a very good manager. I know this because the company regularly provides us with 360 feedback and it appears that my team thinks I can do no wrong.
So what is the problem, you might be wondering. Weirdly, I seem to be the only one who tries to practice what we learn in our leadership training. The higher I go in the company, the clearer it is that the leaders have zero interest in anything but stock price.
Leadership at the level I have reached is all about squeezing the most out of the lowest headcount. That’s how people are referred to: headcount. The level of burnout and mental health issues is staggering. The values are all for show, and the only thing that matters is profitability.
It took me a while to see it, but at this point I am thoroughly disillusioned. I tried to get a reality check during a conversation with my mentor of several years—a seasoned senior person in the company. He all but laughed in my face and told me to grow up. He was surprised at my idealism. He wasn’t trying to be mean, but it kind of crushed me.
I have devoted the last eight years of my life to this company. Most of the time I’ve felt the sacrifices were worth it. I don’t have any close friends who don’t work here. I have missed countless family events, to the point that my parents and sister have kind of accepted that they will never see me. I have nieces and nephews I have never met. I don’t feel like I can talk to my family because they will only tell me “I told you so.” I have never even had a serious romantic relationship.
I literally have no life other than this company—and in a very short stretch of time, I have realized that I have been hoodwinked into giving everything to the equivalent of the death star. I have stashed away quite a tidy nest egg, but a lot of money is tied up in stock options which won’t vest for several more years. I feel like an idiot.
What do I do?
I am sorry. Disappointment on this scale is terrible—just the neurochemistry of unmet expectations is debilitating. And you are also probably dealing with grief: the loss of a dream is, to use your word, crushing.
I don’t want to insult you, but there is some very good news here. You are thirty. There is a good chance you will live to be a hundred. You have decades, not to mention a nest egg, to reinvent your life. I personally made a complete pivot at your age, and my first professional chapter provided invaluable life experience for me to build on. Many of the people I’ve worked with who reached the top of the ladder only to find that it was leaning against the wrong wall were in their fifties, with big fat mortgages and private school tuitions they were on the hook for. You are young and you are free. It is hard to see that at the bottom of the pit of despair you have landed in, but it is true.
I can’t tell you what to do, but you are obviously super smart and you know that already. What I can do is propose some options for you to think about. Your first move might be to hire a good therapist or coach to help you through this crossroads, because finding your way out of this dark moment of the soul will be a journey.
It will serve you to do some deep thinking about what changed in you that caused you to now see things so differently. What is it about you that kept you from seeing it sooner? What is it that made you so enthusiastic about your job? What can you jettison and what can you keep as you move forward?
In the end you always have a choice.
- You can stay in the situation and suffer. You can’t unsee what you have seen, so staying in the situation will almost certainly lead to severe depression.
- You can try to change your situation. Is it too crazy to think you might be able to stay and change the system from the inside? Keep rising in the company and change the culture to be more aligned with the stated values? That sounds like a long shot, but certainly is a worthy goal. If you go that route, you will need to make a plan for how you might do it and then find ways to stay strong as you execute on the plan.
- You can leave the situation and seek to create a new one. You could easily pull a full Jerry McGuire—and if you don’t know what I am talking about, watch the movie and you’ll see. Essentially, you will want to get some solid support to catalogue what you have learned from all of this and plot a course of action that makes sense. Make no sudden moves that you might regret.
The choice ahead of you deserves some real thought. You might want to take a long sabbatical—it sounds as if you haven’t stopped to take a breath and look around at the world outside of your bubble in a very long time or even, well, ever. Maybe go spend some time with your family. Go meet your nieces and nephews. Maybe travel a little bit, see the world—it is big and beautiful. Go meet some people and find some new friends who aren’t prisoners of the death star and don’t have Stockholm Syndrome. Take some time to ponder what your purpose is and what you might be able to accomplish with that big heart and extraordinary intellect. Now that you have seen what you don’t want, maybe it will be easier to see what you do want. Maybe you could take a leave of absence—take a break and then gut it out to the next vesting period. Or just walk away. With your experience, you know you will be able to get a job anywhere you want when you decide to go back to work.
With the right kind of help, you can consider all of these options and many more I haven’t thought of. I look forward to hearing what you decide to do.
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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