Talking to a Board Member of a Global Corporate

Career is a dangerous thing: Easy to get caught and difficult to escape. (Spider net seen during a misty morning)

Career is a dangerous thing: Easy to get caught and difficult to escape. (Spider net seen during a misty morning)

When Woodpecker was younger (around 20), I had the fantastic chance to speak to a board member of an internationally operating and  well-known German DAX company (DAX is the stock index of top 30 corporates in Germany). A company who’s name most of you would know, with +100.000 employees and stuff.

My parents were quite normal people, so we rarely had any board-members at out home, but this one they knew from their university time and he showed up on a birthday party of my mother.

He was (and probably still is) a very amiable person and a self-made man with a middle class background. And naturally at that age I was quite curious to learn anything I could about the glamorous world of international companies.

So we started to have a little chat about life, work, career, and what path to choose.
A chat that was more helpful to me than any business book or career development crap I ever encountered later.

It’s been more than 15 years since then, but I very clearly remember four core statements.
All of the absolutely worthwhile to follow, even though I am far from aspiring a CEO job or anything like that.

1) First statement:
When asked by my mother how he had managed to get so high up (from being a middle class student earlier himself), he answered absolutely frankly, without any smile or irony: “That’s because I am such an amiable person”.

And indeed he was!
Obviously he probably had other qualities as well, like being intelligent, a good observer and what not. But this statement showed me that all the tips in the books like “be always competitive”, “behave strategically”, “beware of others” etc. are total nonsense.

Take-away for us Downshifters?
Be kind to people at your workplace and you are likely to advance without any stress. Make friends wherever you can and your position will be rock-solid and your job a much more fun place to work at (although not too much I hope 😉 ).

2) The second remark was:
“When you do a really good job, you get away with almost everything”.
I think is a very valuable advise.
For us downshifter that means: You will want to get away with a lot. You will want limited hours, no over-time, a home-office, sabbaticals, parental leaves, a fair pay, no stress. No need to talk around that this is a bunch of demands that are unfortunately considered fairly non-standard in todays stressful and “high performance driven” work environment.

How do you get away with it anyway? Do a good job!
And how can you do a good job?
Do a job that is slightly below your maximum capability. This way you will always perform great without any real effort.
Needless to say that most people sadly do the opposite: They crave for promotions until they end up with a position they can barely fill and thus will have a shaky stand and a lot of stress. (This is called the “Peter-Principle”)

In Woodpeckers case, I was never seeking to advance upward on the career ladder, but I was asking for a raise quite frequently instead. “Keep your promotion, but give me a raise!” :). And it worked, I often got the raise while the title went to someone else. Fine with me and much better than the other way round!
I changed positions sideways when it got boring or annoying and now I am in a position where I can safely say I am very good and very efficient at what I do. I don’t have a leadership or management role although it was once offered to me, and that is good! So I don’t have to deal with annoying employees or boring company politics, I am not afraid of restructurings and changes and I am generally much more independent. I always deliver in time and in return my boss leaves me to have as many coffee breaks as I want – yeah, there are quite a few, but who cares as long as things run smooth?! 🙂

3) “Bit by bit you have to sell out your character while climbing up the career ladder”
Wow!
You will not often get such an open statement from a board member of a huge company! Deep respect!
And there you go: Another reason not to aim for a career. At least for me, because I like my character.
The guy was quite specific on how he had to give up on political and other opinions, had to adapt to corporate consensus, was gently pushed to streamline his out-of-work social activities to match with peers etc. So additional to character he had to pay with freedom, too!
Nothing that I would strive for.

4) “For a long time I did not have so much fun as at this party tonight”
Boom! Another surprising buster!
I mean, this guy had it all and was involved in all sorts of fancy social events! And the party at my mom’s was not special at all. No villa, no fancy views, no spectacular evening dresses. But a lot of people who knew each other for a long time and had a lot of laughing, open talks, fun and relaxation.
And particularly relaxation and open talk was apparently the thing he missed in 95% of his typical social events. Not surprisingly, he said people there are extremely political, always double-thinking what to say and whom to please, and merely pretending to have fun than really having it. He said most of this social events were more like work than like free time. I can imagine very well!

And then there was another observation a few years later:

After being a board member for 10 years or so, he finally was fired during a reorganisation. He was 55 or so and had probably made a double-digit million Euros, big villa with a nice pool, private guard, huge car with driver and stuff. I mean, in conventional terms he had it all.
Yet he fell into a desperate depression for years, had to do extensive therapy etc. until he finally recovered and is running his own consultancy service now.
What does it tell you? Money and power do not make you less vulnerable to the blows live can deliver – maybe even on the contrary, because you are too little diversified.

In remembrance of an evening that changed my life,

Cheers,

Woodpecker

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7 comments on “Talking to a Board Member of a Global Corporate

  1. Anonymous says:

    I guess you mean it that way, that this is only one example of achieving something great. If you ever study personas like Steve Jobs you will find about the complete opposite, which I do not think is the perfect way (not at all), but suites me better than what you got told by this guy. It is more about finding your real passion and dedicate your heart to it, because the only way to do great work is to believe you are doing something right. He was not making friends with everybody (1) and he was pushing people to their limits to perform slightly better than before (2). Also I guess he still was being more of a pirate rather than being in the navy (3), like he used to be when he was young. And his fun, his passion was his work, which probably did not feel as work at all, because he loved it (4). (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF8uR6Z6KLc)

    So I kind of guess there are different ways to perform great and every way has its downsides, it just is a matter of choice. The same way I do not fully understand blogs (http://www.mrmoneymustache.com/) that talk about early retirement, which I enjoy reading by the way. Why do those people have to retire from something at a certain age? This only tells me they did something, which they were not truly passionate about, before. If they were, they would not “retire”, right? I would not. So they only found stuff they really love at age 30, which is a little sad. Adding, that not even half of the people love their profession, whether it is they 9-to-5 office or the waitress, just trying to get by, those bloggers can consider themselves as lucky ;).

    • mrwoodpecker says:

      Sure – however, this blog is not about “achieving great things” but about downshifting / happiness. If both can be combined, perfect! If not, I don’t care at all if I achieve something “great” or not as long as I(+family +friends +as many people around as possible) are happy.

      Steve Jobs is a complicated case. I personnaly don’t like him as a role model.
      Reason is that he is just too much of an icon and focussing on him creates a perception bias.
      Yes, he was not a nice guy (of what you hear), and yes, he was a crazy maniac after all.
      But does that say that being unfriendly, crazy and a maniac will lead you to happiness (or to do “great things”)?
      No! Because you don’t see the thousands that started like Steve Jobs and failed miserably and are now only fat and lonely nerds nobody wants to deal with.
      (Btw I am not even sure, if he was a happy person – he never looked like one to me)

      Early Retirement:
      I love the blogs, but I absolutely agree with you, I don’t fully follow the concept. And I also have the doubt that most “early retires” simply hate their jobs and see no other way out than retiring early.

      I am more a friend of a middle way, i.e. a mixture of seeking a job that suits you, do it properly but without entering the rat-race. And additionally downshift step by step, such that you can enjoy the best of both worlds.
      I am perfectly fine with sacrificing significant income, career and consumption for the sake of more free time (and I continue to do so) – but on the other side a job can absolutely add to a happy life if it’s the right one and if you are no slave to it and have ample free time to avoid stress and to pursue hobbies, family and other nice things.
      Early retirement is falling from one extreme to the other, whereas the secret is all about the right balance in my humble opinion. A good mix in my view would be 50/50 – 182 days of work and 182 days off.

  2. hi woodpecker,

    fantastic post. I know quite a lot of people like that. Most of them will not admit, but the truth is that i guess most of the DAX board members are not really happy despite the money they make.

    (side remark: people directly working for them are even less happy,,,,)

    My personal strategy is to become a kind of corporate “guru”. or “super expert”.

    My role model is a guy I know who runs around in jeans and a heavy metal t-shirt which, for a big financial institution is quite an achievement. Usually, people think he is fixing the pcs but he is the best matematician in the whole group and when he makes a statement, even the CEO is listening.

    To become a “super expert”, you should as well really love what you are doing but you stay out of the management “line of fire”. Managers will not consider you a thread and over time your salary will reach quite interesting levels (at least in finance) because sooner or later management will depend on you.

    mmi

    • mrwoodpecker says:

      Hi mmi,

      funny, as becoming a “super expert” while avoiding to get a manager is exactly my goal too.
      This is the practical implementation of statement two above, and probably the best way to go as an employee if you want to combine freedom/downshifting with a decent income.

      I think your point that managers should not consider you a threat is very important as well.
      I see that with my team leader: a very nice chap and I come along perfectly with him, but currently he is about to screw his position up by offending too many other managers (partly of higher rank). I’m trying to stop him as I would feel sorry if he’d get under serious fire. However my own position will probably be totally immune against any attacks on him – simply because I learned to keep out of the politics game and just do my job and accumulate know-how. Saves loads of time as well as stress and personal risk. Very comfortable feeling.

      ps. not yet there to wear a heavy-metal shirt though 😉

      Woodpecker

  3. well, at least I started not wearing ties a couple of years ago. Interestingly all my colleagues (including my boss) followed….

  4. […] So I either would make a poor manager or I’d have to sell out part of my identity to become a good one (see my interview with a board member). […]

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