My Journey…

… from overachiever to disbeliever (Part 1)

„You’ll never please everyone. Find those who like the real you and invite them closer.“

Mo Gawdat, Solve for Happy

I spent more than 13 years trying to fit into a system that I now decided to leave. I was good at it, just like you probably are. I was successful. This change of direction did not happen from one day to the next, I grew into it over the course of 6-7 years.

Please don’t think I am trying to get you to quit your well-paid job. I would much rather see you change the system from within. Let me share my story and my journey with you so that you can maybe draw your own conclusions from that, find parallels, or indeed decide to stay at arm’s length of the 10 steps that got me from being an overachiever to someone who has lost belief in the promises of corporate life as we know it. Ready? Buckles on, here we go. This is part one (steps 1-5); link to part two down below.

1. Find what feels good

In 2012 I started practicing yoga regularly. I would never have thought that this would be for me. As buzzing with energy and impatient as I had always been, yoga sounded a bit boring. Doing slow, controlled movements for more than 40 minutes at a time did not seem to be what I needed at first sight. I was working in London at the time. I was on an assignment as a hospital sales representative and I had to deal with all sorts of challenges and frustrations. For instance, customers who did not want to see me and had a very low baseline perception of sales people – and who would blame them for that? I was feeling the effect of the behavior of a type of sales person I disliked myself and I never ever wanted to resemble. I was trying to navigate a public healthcare system that was unfamiliar to me and that I did not fully buy into and it dawned on me that this would be the first time in my career where I had a job at which I could not be the best and it was not about being the best, either. I was out of my depth. It was about experiencing what it’s like to be a sales person. And it taught me a lot. I got it, I understood why so many companies are adamant that you have to have worked in a customer-facing role at least once in your life. So this was when I encountered Yoga. I lived in an affluent neighborhood in the southwest of the capital and there were weekly classes offered at a low price nearby. A friend nudged me and convinced me to go and at least give it a try. It was not a fancy studio, they used the room of a Montessori kindergarten. Sometimes there were staples or confetti dots left on the dark and worn wooden floor. There were usually no more than three or five of us at any one time, it was drop-in and it was easy-going and it turned out to be a game-changer for me. Yoga has taught me to pay attention to my body, listen to what feels good, on the mat and off the mat as well. If you practice yoga regularly, you transform. You become more awake, calmer, more resilient and confident. And you start to question things that don’t feel right.

2. Be the leader you wish you had

When I got my first leadership job, taking on responsibility for a small marketing team in Germany, I just tried to be the manager that I myself would have wanted. For some of my team members, that was brilliant – I am actually friends with one of them today. I went “all in” from the first day. I was myself, did not try to play the role of a boss, gave them freedom and rolled up my sleeves to help. I considered us to be equals, I never pulled ranks, I did not give orders and tried to lead with questions instead. That raised a couple of eyebrows. Some probably found me a bit naive. The unwritten expectations towards a manager were different from how I was behaving. I am pretty sure that if you asked the people I worked with in the past, not all would say I was a good manager but I got by fairly well.

3. Finding your “why” – what gets you out of bed in the morning?

After a while in the corporate world, I became really good at fitting into the molds that the system had created. I was fulfilling and exceeding expectations most of the time. Eager to please. Good at connecting with and reading others. Climbing the career ladder, all geared for becoming General Manager soon. If you look at the steps of my career between 2008 and 2016 that was what you could call a nice trajectory.

This career was costing me, but it also gave me something, apart from a good salary: Recognition, the feeling of being special, being important, making a difference, the learning experience of growing with your challenges. At times it felt like levels in a computer game. There were days when I would have paid money to do the job I had, I found it so cool. When I reflected about what got me into this “flow state”, I saw a pattern: It was always similar things that gave me energy. They all had to do with solving problems together with others, helping people to come up with solutions, being creative, trying something new. Public speaking, presenting and facilitating workshops where high up among my favorites, too. Funnily enough, considering that I was responsible for millions of revenues and a hefty marketing budget, the things that fulfilled me had nothing to do with revenues and business performance at all. They all had to do with humans. I began to realize the plain and simple truth: I am happy when I can inspire others. Sometimes, I was put under pressure because our sales were lagging behind forecast. I did not really care about that. Something in me screamed “this is wrong!” and revolted against breathing down people’s necks over figures. I felt a discomfort that was hard to ignore but still, I stayed on because my gain was bigger than my pain.

4. Write your “why” down to create clarity for yourself

One day, a senior leader who had left the company to join another one, approached me and said he was keen to get me on board. He promised he could fast-forward my career and help me get higher up than I thought possible. When I wrote the reply to his message, I was sitting in our open-plan office in Switzerland, close to my team and colleagues. I thanked him for the fluttering words and said that I wasn’t sure if “faster” and “higher” was what I was after. I continued by explaining that I am all about people and about innovation. About enabling others instead of putting them under pressure. While I was writing these lines, I suddenly felt tears running down my cheeks. Many. And while I was rushing to the restrooms, hoping nobody saw me, I thought “wow, this is big.” That was when I began to realize that I needed to get a new job. A job in which I can be myself more.
The cleansing power of writing helped me again a while later when I wrote my manifesto.

5. Say it out loud and share it with the world – amazing things can start to happen

It did not take long after that turned-down job offer for me to have a word with my boss. At the time, I was heading up a Business Unit, she was GM and chances were I would be on that succession list that I had worked to get onto for two years. We were at a leadership meeting abroad when I shared my thoughts and doubts with her. I disclosed that I did not check the sales figures daily. Not even weekly sometimes, because this is not what I naturally care about. Boom! Other leaders in other circumstances would have thrown me out there and then for this confession. I was pretty sure she wouldn’t do that, but still, I sat opposite her in this dimly lit hotel bar with sweaty palms. If she was disappointed, it did not really show. Her brain clicked into solution mode really fast and she said “right, let’s get you a job in HR”. She wanted to keep me in the company because she saw what I had to offer as an asset – although I had just voided the development plans that had been laid out for me.

To be continued… part two lives here.

5 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing Sonja. What really resonates with me is your words “I was out of my depth” I so remember that feeling – feels like you are suffocating. I admire your brave spirit to explore your “why.”

    Like

  2. Thank you for sharing Sonja. What really resonates with me are your words “I was out of my depth” I so remember that feeling – feels like you are suffocating. I admire your brave spirit to explore your “why.”with such vigor.

    Like

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