I have found that the foundation of an authentic, meaningful life and career is your willingness to always face true north come what may; to know who you are at a deeper level, what you want… really… and to pursue only that. Life throws us curve balls to give us the chance to test out just how strong our integrity is. If, for example, our choices are based solely on survival needs (income), at some point we will probably pay the price. I share the following story with you to highlight just how critical listening for and heeding your soul’s calling can be.
As a relative novice in my coaching and facilitation career many years ago, I managed to secure a contract facilitating leadership programs in one of Australia’s largest corporations. During the previous three years I had successfully run my own executive coaching consultancy providing an innovative self-empowerment program mainly for managers in small to medium businesses and small branches of larger international corporations. I did this while studying for a Master of Leadership and Management degree.
Inauthentic choices ultimately have negative consequences
At the end of the third year of my consultancy I hit a wall. I had worked tremendously hard and felt my income was too low for the number of hours I was putting in. This caused me to question my direction. Though coaching people was my real love, rather than stay the course and push through this difficult time I decided that earning a higher income for my family was more important than pursuing my passion. Training jobs in Perth where we lived were like hen’s teeth, so I made a bad choice. I was convinced that I had to go to a bigger city in order to make this professional leap. My husband went along with it. For a year we would cope by visiting each other frequently.
I flew out to the east coast and met with a recruiter the day I arrived. She suggested she had a facilitator role that would be perfect for my skills and background. I knew nothing about large organisations but knew I could learn quickly so applied, excited at the prospect of being part of this large prestigious organisation and earning a great income. The team’s manager initially put me through many hoops: two interviews in different cities and a six-week probation period where I had to learn one of their programs and deliver it effectively.
All went well, I got the job. Even though I was a contractor I felt comfortable enough with the small team; then a rush of excitement as appreciative participant workshop feedback came in. Walking through the revolving entrance door to the building each day I silently said thank you to the universe for helping me to ‘make it’. I had no idea what was in store for me.
Heed the signs
Not long and I made two critical ‘mistakes’ in this organisational culture that should have alerted me to looming challenges. At the Christmas party I relaxed and joked with the director of the training department not knowing he had just been given the sack. No doubt suffering with this hit to his self-esteem he viewed me as insubordinate and commented on it to my manager. Then, the new director gave a talk to the whole department and asked everyone to email him some feedback on his presentation. I spent several hours in my own time writing carefully thought out ways for him to hone his presentation and emailed it off to him with the intention of adding value. Over coffee he said he was impressed with the feedback and thanked me.
A few days later my manager took me to one side, and in a sound proofed room ripped shreds off me yelling, “We don’t know if we want you here! You can’t come in here and promote yourself like that!” I felt a wave of nauseating fear well up inside me as this unexpected new aggressive face of authority emerged.
The next day my manager’s manager also took me to one side and over coffee politely explained that all the managers in the department had families to support and that what I had done was out of line. He made it crystal clear that I was not to voice my opinions in future. Ever. I felt like a child being told off.
Their message could not have been clearer: my creativity and entrepreneurial spirit was inappropriate. These managers had a certain agenda and expected extreme staff compliance. I should have left then, in my heart I knew I could never be myself in this environment, I was not interested in competing with anyone, but I was indignant at being silenced like that and naively decided to take a stand. Part of me did think I needed to improve so I applied myself to doing an even better job, but this turned out to be very misguided.
The world reflects us back to ourselves
Across that year I learned all about bullying, as I was subjected to continuous, unrelenting pressure. The team closed ranks on me. I was taken off the email list so as not to receive meeting invitations and became isolated except for the support I received from another manager I had co-facilitated with on a few occasions. When I did make it to meetings two team members dominated in double-speak so it was impossible to know what was going on. It was like working in a fog. I was then removed from an exciting design project and subjected to a formidable facilitating schedule. it was physically, mentally, and emotionally gruelling. To top it off a large volume of administrative work that was not part of my contract was then handed to me on top of the demanding facilitation schedule and my days stretched to well over ten hours to keep on top of it all.
It went on, and on and throughout the ordeal I missed my family terribly. Yet I hung on determined to be strong and rise above the harassment, still harbouring a small desire to find a permanent place in this organisation. In this I did receive some help from another senior manager who took a liking to me. Her encouragement enthused me to continue to work hard but really my fate had been sealed. At the end of the year it was indicated that my contract might be extended but my manager was just using me for another two months while they made structural changes to the department. At a review meeting I was informed that though they would miss my facilitation they would not be extending the contract further. I again briefly considered applying for a role elsewhere in the organisation but decided against it. In truth I had to acknowledge that my talents were better suited to consulting. Besides, I wanted to go home to my family.
So, although the decision to leave had been made for me, I would undoubtedly have left anyway, sooner or later. Clearly that organisation had a toxic culture. This was reflected in the language used by the CEO at that time - “shoot them”, “play the game”, “tow the line”, “dodge the bullets” – and the politics of power. My manager, for example, maintained control of a strong network of favored external consultants, friends who enjoyed a constant stream of significant, highly lucrative design and facilitation assignments. I was an internal senior facilitator with a growing reputation for excellence and she clearly saw me as a threat to her power base. I knew I would bump up against these power plays anywhere I went in the organisation.
Use mistakes to clarify what you stand for
Taking a deep breath, I realised that I had been on track running my previous consultancy. Taking full responsibility for what had clearly been an inauthentic choice, I committed anew to my deepest values and direction as an independent coach and facilitator. The upside of course was that I now understood the intimate details of the dynamics and challenges of working in a large organisation making me a far more useful resource for my clients.
This experience did teach me another valuable life lesson: that of wholeness. None of the people, especially managers, who I encountered in these businesses were bad people. On the contrary they were hard-working and diligent. It is just that they were not good leaders. They did not have the best interests of their people at heart. They were intrapreneurs driven by a desire for status and dollars with a tremendous sense of entitlement. They harbored a highly materialistic worldview and profit-making was everything in this business. Fear of losing their place in that world was a powerful driver. Vigilant self-protection caused them to play these nasty, covert power games giving no consideration to the negative impact they were having on anyone outside their designated ‘in-crowd’. It was crystal clear that by and large they lived fragmented lives playing war games at work and then being kind and loving to their families and friends at home. In their favor I pondered that perhaps they were a product of the culture; but in truth I believe it was just that they were on to a good thing and were very protective of their patch. Our team did provide a valuable service to the organisation. I knew from discussions aired in my workshops between literally hundreds of leaders in the organisation that they were not happy with the culture as it was. They knew there was a better way. It was just that they were cynical about the possibility of ever making their ideals a reality in this profit-making enterprise.
We cannot change anyone else. But we can change our self. Every individual who transforms themselves and stands firm for more compassion, more empathy, greater self-awareness, and truth, changes the world around them. The choices we make cannot hope to have sustainable, positive outcomes unless they come from a place within us of wholeness, of integrity. This is what these painful experiences taught me. I am grateful for the learnings that brought me home to myself. I gained clarity and confidence in my own worldview which requires me to live a free, meaningful, purposeful life of service. Compassion and care for self is paramount. From this perspective it is a delusion to believe that just working for a great income in a job where you are bullying and unjust on the one hand, or persecuted and suppressed on the other, is how things are meant to be. We humans are in this together. We owe it to ourselves, our sense of self-respect and self-esteem, to trust that if we pursue an authentic path that honours our soul’s calling, whether that is working within an organisation or independently, with integrity and commitment we will not only survive, we will thrive.
To maintain your authentic career direction, be brave and ask yourself the following revealing questions:
Despite our current global challenges and the changing face of work, the world is still a beautiful place full of abundant opportunities. Now is the time to make the changes that transform your life and work into all it can be. You do not have to settle for being anything less than who you really are. Standing by your truth, being unapologetically who you are while caring for the people around you, will be the making of you and our organisations.
I would love to hear about your current challenges. Please email me your thoughts and I will respond within 24 hours.
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