It was always expected that after college, I’d start the long, difficult climb up the corporate ladder, prepared with a childhood of advice, a degree in supply chain management, and an overachiever mentality. What I didn’t expect is that right when I’d worked my way to the top, I’d want and need to jump off, and quickly.
The ladder was a perfect path, a guideline, to my future. It showed me exactly where to go next, and that the only acceptable direction in life to go was up. My grandfather, an accomplished partner at a “Big 4” accounting firm, always talked with affection (and disdain) about “busy season,” and how he and his wife would be so busy they’d be just sitting down to dinner at 11 pm. But they’d meet for mussels at their favorite French restaurant for dinner on your average weeknight because they’d “made it” in their careers. The corporate ladder had served him well, so I had no hesitations stepping onto the first rung. These stories, plus memories of my dad working long days as an ironworker, gave me diversity and consistency on the importance of a hard work ethic. Surely success, importance, status, and respect awaited me at the top. It was also my duty to carry on my family’s legacy.
I quickly found myself as the only female (and millennial) in my first job. I had taken the stance that I’d climb the ladder and succeed best by presenting myself in a humble, ready-to-learn posture in my workplace of older, more experienced men. So, I made it a habit of asking my coworkers “You know I don’t know everything, so I welcome your feedback and I’d love to learn from you.” It wasn’t long before a coworker told me to stop saying that because it made me appear “uncertain and immature.” I learned a quick and harsh lesson about the ladder: there was no space for vulnerability of any kind. I tucked away my inquisitive personality and learned to fake confidence. I moved to the next rung.
After receiving positive exposure as a part of a leadership program, I was the first and only candidate to be asked to stay on full time early on in the program. The position was in Georgia, and I was so honored and proud that I began to uproot myself and my fiance to move, and started to adopt the Southern lifestyle. I got a serious high from a company wanting me. But it didn’t end there. It put me in a perpetual state of wanting more. It fueled my ego, and fulfilled the expectations I had of myself. I never stopped to ask where those expectations came from, and if they were even really aligned with what I truly wanted for myself.
The benefits of climbing the ladder only made me hungry for more. The benefits of constantly making more money, stock options worth five figures, the status of being affiliated with big-name companies. I enjoyed the house, the cars, the travel, the fashion. All externally fulfilling things. I craved them more each step up the ladder because I didn’t have an intrinsic sense of purpose, so I was willing to continue striving for the title.
At some point during the climb you pay attention to the nagging feeling you’ve had along the way that there was never going to be enough. I had visions of being a CEO. Would I be enough then? Would the money, the status, and the benefits be enough too? What happened when I got to the top rung and still wasn’t fulfilled? My fate was in other people’s hands. I grew tired of seeing companies use political committees to make decisions, and sometimes, in my opinion, decisions that didn’t focus enough on doing the right thing for the community and its employees.
I decided I would change the course of my climb, still within my then corporate position, to explore a passion project focused on sustainability. I initiated the largest program to date to help prevent ocean plastic in an artistic and collaborative way with the mission to change consumer behavior in a way that will be good for the planet. Getting the marketing and senior leadership on board was a slow and arduous process, but it allowed me to be creative again, and it showed me how purpose and business can unite to create something exciting and new. It took over a year to complete, and it was hard work, but it helped me realize my career in procurement, as it was traditionally defined, needed to end. I had to get away from the bureaucracy to identify and fulfill my purpose for existing on the planet where I wanted to make a real difference. I jumped off the ladder.
Now I’m the CEO of Itivate, living out my dream of demanding a culture shift in the corporate workplace for the ladder climbers in this generation and in the future ones. Some people think that recovering from burnout means you have to quit your job, and shouldn’t want to progress in your career. I too feared at first that my decision to leave was career suicide. That’s absolutely not true. For some, forming boundaries personally and in the workplace can be enough. For me, it wasn’t. I changed my career and life when I left the ladder and allowed my creativity, personal values, and my still strong work ethic to guide my career. If you are wondering if the corporate ladder is contributing to your burnout experience, I can’t wait to meet with you to help with next steps.
Written by Jessica Walther, CEO of Itivate