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I Stopped Climbing the Corporate Ladder When I Realized Everyone at the Top Was Deeply Unhappy

by | Oct 10, 2022 | Success

Once you become institutionalized, the corporate ladder is all you know.

You get trapped in a bubble. Some extremists call it living inside the corporate Matrix. I’m not as harsh as that as I got brainwashed by the corporate world, too.

This led me to climb fast up the corporate ladder.

Until I fell all the way back down to reality.

Now, 15 months on, I see my former corporate life differently. Maybe you want to climb the corporate ladder. Read this before you do.

Happiness in the corporate world can mislead you

I’ve been lucky to spend plenty of time with people who’ve got all the way to the top of the corporate ladder.

Some of these experiences I got by working for 2.5 years in the social media world of banking. Other insights came to me by doing recorded interviews with corporate leaders earlier in my career.

Some interviews got shared, others never saw the light of day.

These individuals made it to the top of the corporate ladder with titles like “Chief” “General Manager” and “Head Of.” With every new title came life-changing salaries.

On the surface they looked happy to me.

I’d pass them in the hallway and they’d smile or shake my hand. I dreamt of having their life.

The dark pattern

As I got to know some of them personally, I realized a different reality through unfiltered conversations.

They were great at acting. They’d got good at smiling for the cameras and saying all the right things. Deep down, though, they all had the same dark pattern.

They felt as if something was missing.

Over time I learned my conversations with them were often for their secret benefit. They were hoping I might shine the light on whatever problem they all seemed to have because of my online antics as a writer/coach.

They’d tell me they were not quite happy or wanted more. But when you’re one job away from becoming a CEO, it’s hard not to think “is this next move really going to make a difference?”

What makes corporate ladder chasers deeply unhappy

Consider each of these carefully before climbing the ladder further.

No autonomy

The higher you get up the corporate food chain the more you’re days become full.

There are so many people and projects to oversee. Everyone expects you to know some level of detail about everything happening in the business. When you don’t you look weak. And a weak leader gets shot down at the next restructure & left on the street to contemplate their corporate dream.

When a calendar is full there’s no time to think. You can’t indulge in a cheeky coffee with a friend or goof off and do no work for a day.

You’re always on call. It’s a roll call kinda life.

Not able to speak freely

One reason these leaders opened up to me is because of my 8 years of writing on LinkedIn.

I didn’t think it’d be that interesting to them. I was wrong.

Leaders at the top of the corporate ladder envied what I did because they wanted to speak freely again — without corporate comms or a PR firm telling them what they can and can’t say.

They often couldn’t share their deepest vulnerabilities or stories from their life that could inspire others.

Yet they desperately wanted to.

Every day that went by, where they had a muzzle on their mouth, slowly ate away at their corporate dream.

Little time with family

Most of the leaders at the top had families.

They’d been climbing the corporate ladder for a while. It didn’t happen overnight for them, because nothing good ever does.

To work their corporate dream they often never saw their families.

Late meetings, customer functions, expos, training, leadership days, team days, town halls, product demos — often all happened outside of work hours.

Or they had to travel interstate or to other countries to be present at whatever the company told them was important. They lived out of suitcases and showered in hotels.

At the start they’d tell me the fancy business class flights and hotels were nice. But they’d get sick of it. 5-star hotels all feel the same after a while.

And no hotel ever feels better than home.

One leader told me he hadn’t spent much time with his daughter. They had Facetime calls every so often, but now, with him gone so long, she’d often not want to chat with him or want to get off the phone quickly.

So their kids got iPad parenting instead.

Not seeing your family makes you deeply unhappy.

Held captive by other job titles

The higher up the corporate ladder you go the more it feels like war.

Leaders fight with each other to get business wins and climb up to the next step of the corporate ladder.

Some of the dirty tricks I saw would shock you. Leaders would happily twist stories in their favor if it made them look good.

High-up leaders were held captive.

Every week it would be a new department. If they ran technology then the Head of Sales would attack them, saying their CRM was costing them millions. Or an Operations leader would fight with a product team over all the support requests.

When one war ended, another one started.

The top of the corporate ladder is such a hostile environment. There are huge salaries and bonuses at stake, so bad behavior is guaranteed.

Overly revenue focused

The higher you go up the ladder the more the word “revenue” gets thrown around. You’d think revenue equaled the meaning of life most days. Here’s the problem…

Numbers suck the life out of us.

When you spend so much time thinking and talking about numbers your creativity is drained — unless you’re a closet freak mathematician.

The idea of revenue will never replace making a difference.

Not able to take risks

Getting to the top of the corporate ladder means taking fewer risks.

Risks can get you fired. Risks can disrupt business-as-usual. The goal is to keep things plodding along so you can get paid your huge salary and bonus for as long as possible.

Ultimately, the day comes when a restructure or redundancy occurs. It happens to all who climb the corporate ladder.

On this fateful day, a small few realize the game they’ve been trapped in and escape. But most go back and play the game for a new company, although it takes a long time to make it happen.

The reason they can’t escape is it’s addictive. It becomes the only life you know. Everything else feels foreign.

You start to think “I’m getting old” or “it’s nearly retirement.” So you settle yet again for the trappings of the corporate ladder game to nowhere.

Should you climb the corporate ladder?

Let me end on a surprising note.

I think it’s good to climb the corporate ladder for a bit — especially when you’re young. It helps you get a few business skills and make some cash to fund your side hustle and (possible) future online business.

The key is not to get trapped, shackled, and muzzled.

Once you play the game for too long, your imagination and creativity become so incapacitated it’s hard to reignite them again.

The corporate ladder won’t make you happy.

Find work that makes you come alive and helps make a difference. That’s the holy grail.

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