No female career is linear.
In the last six months, I’ve talked to countless female executive leaders about their career journeys. I’ve learned that, like mine, their career took a winding and imperfect road. The paths that led us to where we are today were filled with hard decisions, big risks, struggle, perseverance, tears, and lots of detours.
Two years ago, I made a choice to leave a job I loved, at a company I helped build, with people who were like family, in an industry that I was passionate about, doing the work that felt like my destiny. It was the hardest decision I ever made – and the easiest one – at the same time.
At the time, I was at what I thought was the pinnacle of my career. I had worked hard most of my professional life to build a personal brand for excellence, innovation, authenticity, honesty, and a willingness to say the things that needed to be said – even when it was scary and even when it was hard to hear. Alongside that personal brand, I helped to build a company with a strong reputation for being a industry leader, a partner, an innovator, and an organization dedicated to improving the lives of our clients.
I ran full speed at my goals, often without coming up for air. I was dedicated, passionate, and driven. By my 34th birthday, I had achieved 95% of everything I had imagined for my career. Then I looked up and there was nowhere left to go. I had climbed every mountain, circumvented every obstacle, achieved pretty much every success I had imagined for myself – now all I had to do was not. screw. it. up.
In that same year, we adopted our daughter. I worked every day during her 13-day stay at the hospital after she was born and when she finally came home, I took less than a month of maternity leave. As she was turning 10 weeks old, I left for a 22-day work trip.
I hated myself.
I’m not proud of those decisions, but at the time, my judgement was so clouded, I couldn’t see how damaging those choices – and the path that I was on – were to me as a person, as well as all the women who were watching me, looking up to me, mirroring me.
My decisions became driven by fear: fear of failing as a CEO, fear of disappointing the owners, fear of judgement as an industry leader, fear of disappointing people who looked up to me. Combine that fear with boredom, loneliness, a lack of challenge, and an overwhelming feeling that my life was meant for more than what I was currently doing – I found myself listless, dissatisfied, and anxious.
By the time our son was born, three years later, I didn’t recognize myself. While I thought I had everything I wanted, I felt surprisingly empty inside. While I was busy building my career – I had forgotten to build a life. I had no hobbies. I had no connection to my local community. I had barely a handful of friends that weren’t also clients or coworkers, and I could count on two hands the number of times I had actually put my suitcase away in the last couple of years. I was rarely physically present for my partner, my children, my family or friends – and when I was physically there – I was rarely there mentally.
I felt exhausted and empty.
I knew things had to change, so I blew the whistle. I told the owners, “it’s time to talk exit strategy.” I was afraid to leave, but also knew things would never be different in my life unless I did. While I envisioned a 12-18 month transition, the owners envisioned 90-days. With the words, “We think your last day should be October 5th,” I felt like the bottom had fallen out of my life and everything I had worked so hard for was leaking out all over the floor with no chance of stopping it. I was devastated, afraid, angry.
I didn’t think I was ready. At the time, I didn’t know that I was.
That seems to be the theme. In so many of my conversations with executive women, I hear a similar story – a common comment of “I feel like everything in my career has led me up to this point.”
I was ready. Everything in my life and in my career had led me up to this point – and prepared me for what was next.
It prepared me to understand that work-life balance was paramount for me. It helped me realize that I wanted hobbies, a connection to my local community, and to be home and present for my family, my children, my friends. It taught me how to say, “no,” and set better boundaries around the things that were most important to me. Now every morning I get to walk my daughter to school, make dinner at night, and have wine with my girlfriends on the weekend. I get to volunteer, serve on committees in the business community, and be connected in ways I never dreamed I could be. I’ve never had any of that – at any time – in my adult life – until now.
My winding road led me to and prepared me for what was next for me in my career, too. It helped me realize that I care about advancing women and minority populations in the workplace. It helped me see corporate problems with a higher ed lens – and solve those problems differently. Now I get to do the work that really matters to me – on my terms.
My career path prepared me to be a business owner – a role I never knew I really wanted – until I had the opportunity to buy the company I work for this year. Amid a global pandemic and an economic crisis, I bought a 57-year old business. So much of what I learned in my CEO role at my last company and what I’ve learned from the owners of each, have prepared me to build a business – my way. While the over-achiever in me is ready to launch a new plan, vision, and do a bunch of marketing – my experiences have taught me to slow down, be thoughtful, and understand that things take time.
This winding road led me here – to a place I didn’t know existed. To a place where I feel more myself than I ever have – a version of me I didn’t know I was missing. This level-5 Type A control freak tried to have a plan – and it didn’t work. As it turns out, there was a better plan for me along the crazy journey called my career – and my life.
So for all my gal pals out there reading this – don’t get discouraged by the bumps in the road – or even the detours. These things take time. The path you are on – and will be on – always leads you to exactly where you need to be.
My fellow Type A control freaks might be thinking, “That’s some fluffy ass bullcocky. Tell me what I can actually DO to be successful.” Well, here’s my advice:
Work hard. Take chances. Seek out opportunities. Advocate for what you want. Learn. Grow. Reflect. Ask yourself the hard questions and don’t be afraid of the answers – even when you don’t like them. Stop doing it, if it doesn’t serve you. Don’t get discouraged when life or your career takes you off your intended plan – just make a new plan. Keep. Going. You’ll get there as long as you don’t quit. Everything else will work itself out.