Courage in the Corporate World
The corporate world was a foreign place to me at 23 years old. I think back to that first year working for a global Fortune 500 financial company and wonder how I managed to survive — and thankful that I did. There are social norms and expectations, bureaucratic battles, massive complex organizational structures to navigate, and many more nuances that vary by department and trade. I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when I was scheduled for my first interview and was hungry for the opportunity to learn new business skills. After several rounds of questioning by people that would eventually become my colleagues, my soon-to-be boss was ready to find out if I had the chops to handle the challenges of working in a fast-paced IT environment nested within a massive financial institution. I did some research prior (thanks to Google) and brushed up on the bank’s history, but I was nowhere near prepared to handle the technical questions. Luckily, my responses to his character-based and scenario questions were enough to give him confidence in taking a risk on little-ol-me.
I spent the previous few years playing video games. Yes — video games. I know what you’re thinking, but there was work involved, too, for my sponsors and eventually employer. Nevertheless, training and competing in professional tournaments taught me a skill that would be valuable throughout my corporate career: How to be competitive with myself. In order to improve and beat the competition, I learned ways to discover untapped potential.
You can’t have growth without some growing pains. This is what allowed me to push limits that were sometimes uncomfortable and discouraging, during those years and now.
My experience in e-sports is one that I am continuously thankful for.
With this competitive drive, I tried fervently to learn how to be a valuable asset to my team, my department, my organization and my employer. I learned a lot of interesting things along the way about how to gain peer respect, influence others without authority, solicit buy-in, work with others to accomplish goals, and inspire change. At the same time, I discovered that there were some aspects of corporate life that were dim and daunting. Unless you are a manager, and pretty high up in the ranks at that, opinions are discouraged, ideas are scoffed at and work-life balance was not even up for discussion. Worried that being a woman with opinions and ideas would foster misguided perceptions of my intentions, I generally kept my thoughts to myself and worked 50–60 hours a week. But then something amazing happened: I started working for someone who regularly asked us for our opinions and ideas and welcomed them unsolicited as well. This same someone also said that
“it’s not the number of hours you log in your time sheet that count, but the results you produce every week.”
We work to live, and I think that is often forgotten. So for the next year, I got pretty accustomed to sharing my opinions and ideas and using them to create positive changes. It was probably the most enriching learning experience of my early career. My next manager, while not the most socially pleasant person in the firm, was of a similar mindset and accepted my input. We tended to butt heads, but it usually resulted in very productive dialogue and amazing results. This is when I started to realize that I had newfound courage that I lacked in my first year.
Fast forward a few years, and a few promotions later, I am approaching seven years at the company. In those years, there were massive organizational changes, lay offs, budget cuts, and bureaucratic bullshit, the same old tune for most major corporations after tough economic times. We’ve made good progress toward re-aligning our IT organization to meet business needs, but my recent industry studies have highlighted some glaringly obvious issues that remain unaddressed. However, my proposal for the solution would either fall on deaf ears or send seniors into a tizzy.
But I figured, if the idea is enough to scare people, then maybe it’s big enough to create the change we want to see.
I decided to speak up to the man in charge — the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) is the only person who might be able to address my concern, as it spanned multiple organizations. I needed to understand if this issue was a simple misinterpretation on my end or if there was truly a gap in our processes. This guy is 5 layers up the chain, so there was certainly hesitation there. Would he scoff? Would be tell me to talk to my manager to push the message up? Would my reporting line view me as unorthodox, thus possibly affecting my career trajectory? Luckily, the CTO promotes an open door policy at every town hall, so I decided to weigh my decision on his offer. I arduously spent over an hour writing my 3 paragraph email, proofread it 20 times, and sent it on its way. Much to my surprise, he responded within minutes and requested a phone meeting. A week later, we talked. The dialogue lasted just over 18 minutes. He was elated by the fact that someone took advantage of his long-toted open-door policy and explained that it is a very rare occurrence. His joy echoed over the phone. I explained my concern and, much to my surprise, he gave me a canned response. He consciously stopped to allow me to comment and re-direct if needed. After rephrasing my concern, I could practically feel the tension rising. He asked about my role in the organization, I obliged, and he refocused for round two. About 10 minutes in, the conversation started to be productive and promising. He agreed that my solution would be ideal and maybe even achievable. By the end, he asked me to meet with the head of his strategy department to review my concern in detail. I was so excited at the results of our meeting that I could have stopped right there on cloud 9 for the rest of the year.
Look at what I did! I ignored the political games and social expectations defined by middle management and was driven by the urge to get shit done.
And when you need to get shit done, there is no time for made-up formalities.
After hopping off my cloud, I scheduled a meeting with his direct and went about the next week handling my BAU responsibilities like nothing happened. Before I knew it, the meeting was just days away and I needed to prepare. “Visual aides and short messages — if I am going to present her with an idea as big as this, I need to formulate the message clearly enough that it is understood,” I thought. “I need to keep the wind in the sails.” Many revisions later, I had a title slide, table of contents, slide 1 (problem), slide 2 (diagram as supporting evidence), slide 3 (proposed solution).
The day had arrived and it was time to see if the head of IT strategy agreed with my assessment. We started with introductions, mixed with a dose of comedy, and I began my presentation. She understood the concern, was hopeful about the solution, and asked for one additional piece of information to help her push the plan into motion. This. This right here is why courage is so important in the corporate world — especially for those who aren’t in decision-making positions. I’m not saying you should constantly go in guns blazing on every issue you have.
I’m saying that you should evaluate what goes on around you, do research and ask questions (at all levels), find a solution, and find a way to execute it.
Be competitive with yourself and have the courage to speak up.