Don't be afraid to jump off the corporate ladder

January 18, 2021
12 min read
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Step. I've made it into this amazing company! Step. I've learnt so much and continue to learn more, I'm having a great time. Step. Others now look to me for guidance, and my ego is happy. Step. Sleep is getting harder. Step. I'm anxious all the time. Step. Step. Step.

It took a rare moment of level headed thinking to realise that I wasn't enjoying that climb up the career ladder. It seemed like I could see everyone else around me climbing their own ladders, with their heads turned up towards the sky, and determination etched onto their faces. I supposed they were all enjoying it, but I wasn't. The thought of continuing that climb sent shockwaves of anxiety through me. The thought of climbing down seemed impossible. The only way out was to jump, but jump for what? Another ladder? That couldn't be all there was.

This was me, some years back, as I started to realise that I wasn't enjoying the team lead position I had worked so hard to get. I was headed for burnout and didn't know what to do. An unhealthy amount of time passed while I kept this all bottled up, before finally on one random day, I blurted out to my boss: "I don't want to do this anymore". In the moment I thought saying that out loud meant I was now going to have to quit, or worse, "jointly agree to part ways". Instead, my boss nodded slowly with a knowing and compassionate look. He'd been waiting for me to tell him that. And no, I wasn't about to be run out the door, I was about to find out that there are more directions than up.

There is no ladder

Do not try and bend the spoon. That's impossible. Instead, only realize the truth... there is no spoon. Then you will see that it not the spoon that bends, it is yourself.

-- The Matrix

This memorable movie quote really strikes a chord with me around this topic. I interpret this line as a way of pointing out that many of the limitations we experience are not external, but rather are based around the stories we tell ourselves. So now it's time to realize another truth... the corporate ladder isn't real either! It's just an idea, a concept, that can help some people move through their careers, and hinder the rest of us.

There's this funny thing in social settings, we often get so caught up trying to follow what everybody else is doing, that we rarely stop to question it all. Why is climbing the corporate ladder the thing we're supposed to do? Why should we be stuck in a position we don't like for the rest of our days? These can be scary questions to consider if all you've ever known is this path, especially since it seems everyone else follows it too. Scary questions perhaps, but ones well worth taking the time to consider.

So, if this is true, what can we do about it?

Reflect on where you are

I sat down one night and started reading back over my journal. It became increasingly obvious that I had been unhappy in my job for some time. I relived every anxiety-riddled day and was feeling worse and worse through every page turn. I knew that I'd had some rough days, but wow, I didn't realise just how many there were. Then as I finished reading, I remember feeling a wave of relief wash over me. Once I knew that this was an ongoing problem with no end in sight, the way forward became simpler. It was time for a change.

Having a journal practice already in place allowed me to look back and get a clearer picture of how I'd been going. You might think that your own brain is surely powerful enough to do this same thing for you, but nay! Your brain is a bit of a trickster when it comes to memories. They're not some static resource that lives untouched forever, they change, deteriorate, become false accounts (no really, it's kind of scary). But the written word on paper doesn't tend to change on its own, it is static. If you've never tried a journaling practice before, I'd encourage you to look into it and give it a red hot go!

Now, don't fret if you don't have a journal filled with lots of helpful information just yet. Your memory, while not perfect, can still help you here. Sit down and reflect on how your days go. Get a pen and paper out and write down what an average day looks like, what a terrible day looks like, and what a great day looks like. Then cast your mind back over the last month, and try to categorise your days into those average, terrible and good definitions. This isn't perfect, but it will help give you an idea as to whether the bad day you're having is just an outlier, or if something more long term is at play.

So once you've either read over your journal or done the memory montage of your last month, you will have a better idea of how you're going and can start to think about what comes next. Is this just a bad day or two and generally you're enjoying yourself? Great! This too shall pass, and you now have the comfort in knowing things will likely get easier in the near future. Or has this been an ongoing problem that's got no obvious end in sight? Well, it's time to start exploring some other options.

Define the path that brings you joy

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

-- The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost

So there I was, I'd just told my boss that I was having a horrible time at work and wasn't enjoying my position. I truly expected that I'd be out looking for another job that same afternoon, but lucky for me I had a great boss. We looked at what it was I wasn't enjoying about the role and what I'd love to be doing instead. I was then given a task; go out and talk to other teams at the company and see if there's something else internally that I'd like to do.

At first, this seemed like a very daunting task, but I was delighted to find that there were so many interesting opportunities about, and none of them would require me to quit my job. I even got taken out for coffee by one person who thought I'd be a great fit for their team and wanted to sell me on it. It didn't take me long to find something that sparked some joy and to begin planning the leap from my wobbly ladder and onto a new and exciting path.

The goal here is to identify what sort of work you want to be involved in. I was fortunate enough to be able to explore a wide range of opportunities across many different teams within my own company, which helped me distil what I actually wanted to do. You may not have the same opportunities at your place of business, but even just talking to people in other teams or other companies can help you discover what it is you would like to be doing.

You may find that it's not so much the level of the position you're in, but rather the business domain, team or company you work within is what you want to change. If that's the case, don't be afraid to move from a more senior position, like a management role, and into a less senior one if everything else aligns with your interests. If you have the desire to get back into a similar position of seniority, it's likely you'll come across something similar in the future, and if you feel you're ready for it, you can jump at it head first.

Engage with everyone who your job change affects

I'd figured out where I wanted to go, and a spot in my new team was ready and waiting. There was just one big problem, once I stepped away from my current team, they'd be without a team lead. I didn't want to make anyone else's lives more difficult, so I had to figure out who I needed to involve to make this transition as painless as possible.

If you're planning a move within your own company, you'll want to find some kind of internal sponsor to help. This could be your current team lead, the lead of the team you want to move into, or maybe just someone at the company whos word holds some weight. Having a sponsor will help give your plan more power, which will increase the likely hood of everything moving ahead smoothly. You could get by without one, but it'll likely be a bit more of an uphill march to get places. You may find that you need to get a bit more hands-on by dealing with people you may have overlooked, like an HR representative to update your employment paperwork.

It's also in your best interest to involve people that your job change will be directly affecting. This will help ensure that you minimise any suffering caused by your change of position. For me, that was the team I had been leading. I broke the news to them all and sought feedback from each person about how they'd like to see the transition happen. This helped give everyone some comfort that the team wasn't about to just fall apart and confidence that we were going to find a replacement for me that they all liked to work with.

Once you've identified and engaged with everyone who will be affected by your change, it's time to start executing.

Time to execute and be patient

I made the decision to move from my team lead position over to a technical position in a different team at the same company. I was ecstatic and would have loved to just pack up my things then and there and skip merrily towards my new life. Boy was I surprised when it wasn't until one whole month later that I was finally seated at my new desk.

Often when you're a more senior person within a team you will have built up a number of things that the team is dependent on you for. When that's the case, it's a slower process to extradite yourself, and you should expect this. There are lots of things within your power to help speed this along, but it's very unlikely it'll just happen overnight.

If you're a team lead, you'll likely want to get involved in either finding a replacement for yourself or bringing your replacement up to speed. Put in a good amount of effort here, as you don't want to rush this and leave your team in limbo. Helping out here will often reduce the burden on your current boss as well, as they're likely juggling many other unrelated things on their day-to-day, and their backlog of work might not have a lot of capacity for finding and training your replacement.

Don't forget to do a bit of a knowledge dump before you depart as well. All that knowledge that lives purely in your head is useful while you're in the team, but it becomes a bit tricky to access once you've moved on. Take the time to document as much as you can, and provide training for the rest. This helps give everyone more confidence that your team can continue on as normal once you leave, which helps speed the process along.

Once you're near burnout, a month could feel like a very long time. But if you devote your energy to helping make the transition a smooth one, you will likely find that you will be kept happily occupied and time will fly by. If you find that you simply cannot continue on, and burnout is imminent, discuss this with your boss early on and figure out a way to exit sooner.

Reflect often and adjust your course

As we move through life, we change. What worked for us yesterday may no longer work for us today. As long as we regularly take the time to reflect on how we're going, we'll be able to see when something isn't working and make adjustments to our careers before it gets painful. This is important, because without it you may easily find yourself back in a bad situation where burnout is fast approaching.

So go on, take charge of your career and get back to the joy of your 9 to 5!