Thursday, August 4, 2011

My Career (Chutes &) Ladder

Sometimes your life leads you down a path that you didn't entirely plan, but that, in retrospect, was leading you to the place you wanted to be all along. This is a story about a career path not towards more money and more prestige, but toward more freedom.

When I graduated from college, like many young bucks I wanted to climb some corporate ladder and make a name for myself in the business world.  Work downtown in a skyscraper. Carry a briefcase. Make a lot of money. Own a cabin and a boat. Because that's what the generations before us wanted, right? That's what we were brought up to believe was "success".

Times were tough after college so I was happy to get a job at Lutheran Brotherhood, due, in part, to a friendly family connection with the Chairman of the Board. I made $18,000 and immediately bought a new car for $12,000 because that's what rising young businessmen did. The new car is often the first big status symbol Americans purchase to let their friends and family know that they're making it. I worked my tail off those first 3 years, getting promoted up 3 more rungs and displaying my talents for all to see.

But then something changed. I was 26.

Truthfully, what I remember most about the shift in my focus are two things. The first is this John Denver lyric from "Rocky Mountain High":
He was born in the summer of his 27th year
coming home to a place he'd never been before

I used to come home from work and play that record on the turntable with my roommate Steve and we'd talk about how we should just up and move to the mountains and ski. The foundation had been set by my mom and aunt & uncle who all nourished the skier in me, and it would soon be the summer of my 27th year. Yet here I was, sitting in tan-colored cubicles in some office building downtown Minneapolis.

The second thing I vividly recall is the picture of the obese women in the Claims Department who did the same job day after day, year after year, sitting in their lifeless cubicles and never experiencing the full wonders of the world. The vision still makes me shiver.

So I moved to Utah with buddy Steve and skied my heart out for two years. And when I had had enough, I found myself back in Minneapolis working for the same company, which was terrific. I got a nice signing bonus because it was 1998 and I had a math degree.  Remember 1998 and Y2K hysteria? It paid to be thought of as someone who might be able to learn how to program computers to try to fend off the pending doom.

I spent 5 or 6 years programming computers and then was struck by the realization that the daily tasks of all the IT leadership I saw really turned me off. If I was going to keep climbing the corporate ladder I'd need to do it in a different part of the organization. So for the first time in my career I made a thoughtful and strategic lateral move to a job that would let me work with management from all over the company. This would give me a better chance to really understand the organization and find a place where I felt I would fit.

After 2 years in the audit shop I'd worked with enough V.P.s to know that I did not want to become one of them. We were simply cut from a different cloth and though I respect them I knew I had no interest in doing their job.

Strategic move #2: An opportunity opened up in a cool new department that was on the cutting edge, trying to develop new social businesses to make life better financially for the mass market of average Americans out there. I took a pay grade cut for this move, but it was getting closer to the sort of job that I now knew was best for me. The V.P. of this area was really open-minded and much more flexible on corporate structure than other places I'd worked.

I've been working in that area for that V.P. for about 5 years now and the tone that he sets in the workplace helped me be able to move to Bozeman and continue my same job.

My career path has not been one of moving up, but of moving out. I don't make as much money or wield as much power as I could if I had kept moving up, but I'm in a position of relatively low stress and I'm experiencing a new part of the world at the same time.

It's a different way to think of a career ladder. What's at the top of yours?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good read, Kirk.

The "You know he'd be a poorer man if he never saw an eagle fly," line is one of my favorites. -Dan