The Corporate Tight Rope
One of the greatest mistakes a person can make in their career is believing that there is a corporate ladder for them to climb. It is a harsh truth to realize that there is simply no vertical ascent to your dream title. There is no help from a universally-recognized tool with equally spaced footing, meant to get you from the bottom to the top. For a person to believe that there is a ladder available for her to navigate her career is a belief destined for disappointment. Often, the belief that there is a corporate ladder is exactly what gets in people’s way, especially people of color. What I have learned is that the journey of advancement in one’s career is more of a Corporate Tight Rope than it is a ladder. The journey will be a lesson of forward movement requiring you to travel the distance between the platforms of where you are today and where you want to be tomorrow. This is a journey you must take by tight rope and to walk a tight rope requires significant strength, patience and balance. I have learned to look at my career as merely current state and future state. I very rarely even think about titles or promotions in setting my goals. Too many people are fighting for the titles and promotions and we must recognize that this is a fight we cannot win, traditionally. I know I can’t win if I am trying to play the game with the same strategies as those who are systematically chosen to be victorious. I had to understand very early that I am playing the game with a deficit score and that I would have to be willing to execute the harder strategies to win. The tight rope is the strategy corporate America and many other industries require of people like me.
I cannot try to go up against those with a ladder and expect to arrive at the top at the same time. I don’t have a ladder that reaches from the ground to the sky, so again and again, before I am allowed to move up, I must be one of the few brave souls that steps out on the tight rope of uncertainty and fear and take the journey across the thin wire towards the person I want to be next. When I wanted to become a leader of people, I had to sign up to lead projects and take accountability for their failures and successes. I had to equip myself with the skills learned only the through the difficulties of leading those I possess no authority over. When I wanted my seat at the executive table, I had to start speaking up in meetings, taking on strategic work and then campaigning for its implementation with whoever would listen. I had to create the work that influenced the company and improve processes without being asked, even though I was risking working on projects nobody would ever hear about. Now, when I need my voice to matter in the decision the company makes, I have to work harder to watch what I say and when I say it, because my ability to work with others matters. One wrong step into being perceived as difficult, and I will fall off of the rope and have to start over.
The tight rope is a place that requires deep awareness of your environment and of yourself. You must understand if you are walking this rope in hostile conditions requiring more balance, focus or even conditions that require you to hold tight and wait for a better time to proceed. You have to be aware of your own weaknesses and how they will manifest in the moments on the rope where you lose your balance and wobble. Will you run back to platform, or dive towards your destination risking life and limb? Will you flail your arms and kick and turn your body as you wobble? Will you lose focus when the audience gasps at your state of potential peril? Will you find the humility to take two steps backwards to find your balance before moving forward with your journey? The tight rope is a place where fear becomes your driving force toward the other side or it becomes the wind that blows you over. It’s the place so many people avoid while they search for steady ground to place their ladder. It’s the place where your strength becomes your weapon against those that watch you from their positions of safety in the bleachers. It’s the place where people like you and I find our something special that we bring to an organization that may not ready to give us the ladder.
I will never say that I do not get resentful of the tight rope I must walk. I tire and want to arrive at a platform without immediately having to pivot, assess how my environment has changed and then step out on the next tight rope journey. I have times I want to scream at the unfairness of it all. I want to use the strategies that others use, and have it work for me. Worse, I wonder at times if my willingness to walk the tight rope is going to continue to perpetuate the need for the tight rope for little girls that look like me that will join this world one day. I wonder if it hurts them or helps them. But then I remember that when I am on that wire, and people are watching, I have an opportunity that so many do not. I have the opportunity to gain wisdom and learn lessons so much sooner than others. I have an opportunity to travel along the thin line of self-reflection when others may go their whole lives without doing so. I may arrive a little more bruised and exhausted than my neighbor who had a ladder, but I will also arrive stronger and more skilled. I am who I am because of the corporate tight rope. The tight rope and the willingness to be exposed as you balance on it, is the place where greatness is manifested. I may dream for my daughter’s future and this it will consist of a career with an easier journey; maybe with thicker rope or even a bridge to cross. I don’t dream that she will avoid the tight rope journey completely. I hope she is willing to be watched a little more closely than others and I hope she can experience having the wind shake her foundation to the point of self-doubt. I hope this for her and for all of you because, it is in the moment that you save yourself from falling, where you learn who you really are and what you are capable of. It is in that moment that you will become everything you want to be and when you are your most authentic self, coupled with the rarity of grit and skill, the titles will come, the promotions will come, and the dreams will come true.