This may be a controversial post. I’m not a victim. But I’m talking about painful times and what I learned. Hey, I was a Controller for a larger division of a coporation . . . I was also the Controller or CFO of different businesses. I had power right? No.
I’ve told some colleagues a piece of the story here and there. The pain behind the scenes. And they told me to write about it.
So, as tough as it is … because I don’t usually write about personal things . . . here goes! And what I am hoping is that someone out there realizes they are OK . . . just as they are . . . and to not get caught up in the manipulation and power struggles. A lesson I learned from behind the scenes: we all put on a game face at times when we’re climbing the corporate ladder … and everyone I have known in corporate business had pain.
#1: Be a peacemaker without boundaries – NO!
I understood politics. But as I reflect, it seems the ones who went beyond surviving to thriving . . . PLAYED politics well.
I didn’t play. But I knew what to do to survive. And I did survive for a long time. I spent years in corporate and larger small businesses.
I was the peacemaker. That’s my personality. And, it is easier to be a peacemaker when you are an accountant because sooner or later your colleagues need you. And, therefore, I went underneath the the political radar screen many times.
That sounds great. I didn’t have as many back-stabbing episodes or power plays that affected me. (Key phrase: as many, but there were some major ones). BUT … I was constantly walking on ice — ready to maneuver so I didn’t fall.
And I, for sure, had my share of politely veiled put-downs. Some people just decided to help me be better — so they systematically tried to manipulate my confidence in order to get something they wanted.
I learned well so I could hopefully avoid a fall. But the secret: you can’t avoid all falls. It’s like the ice … you don’t always see what’s coming.
Peacemaker THE Standard
I remember the Divisional VP who I reported to, once said to me: “I know I have to be careful sometimes with you because you are so calm and then you blow“. Blow? Oh, he meant, when I finally disagreed.
He must have been talking about the time he never wanted me to take a vacation and then in December told me I had 2 weeks to take it because he was getting pressure from his boss to tie up lose ends. I always worked to “get along” but this time I said I needed time to plan something so I could enjoy it. He then said he never told me not to take a vacation.
I guess he also forgot the time I finally took vacation the year before and he wanted me to be “On-call” during the entire vacation. The fact: for years I didn’t have a true vacation or even attend a seminar where I could fully get a way even for a couple days.
But “blow”? That sounds like a complete melt down. I remember thinking: “I didn’t yell like my counterparts — they were just yelling at him and cussing at each other the other day. What did I do? I just finally looked upset and said ‘that’s not good’.”
My lesson learned: once a peacemaker . . . you have a permanent higher standard.
But to all the people coming up corporate, I would say: have better boundaries. I was the peacemaker … the confident . . . the one who would jump … and smile when jumping. I was the calm work-horse.
And I worked hard until I burned out. I am now out of corporate and have my own business and the good news: I can say “No” a little quicker. The bad news: it took me years to set better boundaries.
#2: Lower your Standards – NO!
There was a lot of pressure over the years to lower my standards and the stress seemed too much at times. I saw this happen to others and I even remember watching my boss and saying to myself: “Oh my goodness, he sold his soul to this company”.
Pressure will come
Of course, just know, if you don’t sell out, you will have pressure. People will try to manipulate you — they for sure tried with me, who was in Accounting. Here’s just some things that happened to me:
- A CFO (who was fairly new to the company and had then hired me) said: the employee who has been here 42 years is mad. I know I told you to figure out what he does in the accounting department. I know he’s coming in every weekend when no one is here and no one understands exactly what he does. This could be a typical case of Fraud 101. But you started looking in to what he does and he’s now mad, maybe we should just let him do what he wants.
- My comment: “What? We need to know. There could be problems we don’t even know about.”
- The CFO did tell me that even though he wanted me to fix problems, I would have had less issues if I would have just went to my office and slept like the previous Controller.
- A sales director told me that he didn’t actually get the revenue, but he was going to close the deal and get it; he insisted I book the revenue because he wanted his bonus that quarter. He said he “needed” the bonus right away.
- My comment: “This wasn’t good accounting and both of us would get in a lot of trouble”
Don’t Sell Out
The CFO questioning if we should just look the other way and hope for the best was painful. It went against every bit of accounting education and training I had. Everything I had learned about accounting internal controls was screaming “you need to fix this”.
Painful. As I was talking to my brother, I told him that I knew how I could make my life easier. I wasn’t going to look the other way, but before I could tell him that, he said “It sounds like if you did you would being selling out for a job and money”. My brother believes in doing good f or God and not lowering standards for people or prestige. Yes, I wasn’t going to sell out — I believe the same thing — but his words helped strengthen my decision.
There were other things with that particular company. There were times, I thought “why am I in accounting?” I remember a few months before I left, an employee I had hired told me “I love working for you Barb, but I can’t stay at this company any more”. She was leaving and I knew my time would come.
It wasn’t the happy ending I had hoped for when I joined the company. But I have no regrets about my work. My core belief: don’t sell out your values; do good work; don’t give up your peace for a job or money. You have to live with yourself when you have this job and when you don’t have this job.
#3: Constantly Adapt Your Personality – NO!
I laugh now with clients. I am animated. I tell stories to help them understand a point. I am less formal.
In corporate: I always smiled; I was patient, polite, and pleasant. But I always . . . always . . . had my armor on.
One time I temporarily got a new boss — you know, things gets switched up with no warning in corporate. He soon brought in someone with less accounting experience to be my boss. I was fairly new in my career, was reporting to a Director who respected me, and I didn’t understand why this new boss was bringing in someone just because he liked her. I went to the bathroom and cried.
But like the phrase from Tom Hanks in the move, I thought “There’s no crying in baseball” and “There’s no crying in business”. So, I cried by myself, looked in the mirror, and then put on my game face.
I went and talked to my prior boss who told me exactly what to say and do. He wasn’t a mentor, but he was going to help me in this situation and get me back to working for him. I did exactly what he said. Soon,he was again my boss.
But I implemented this corporate lesson for years: be prepared, cry alone, and always have on your armor and game face.
Tone it Down?
I am an accountant. Heck not only was I an accountant, I ran Accounting departments. I am a CPA and then became the main accountant– a Controller – for a corporate division and for larger small businesses. Great huh? Not so fast.
Here’s the problem: I was an accountant who was also personable, animated . . . and when you were a woman years ago, you were then “Bubbly”. A bubbly accountant. So, I focused on being more formal a lot of the time. My goal was to constantly prove I was smart.
So, I learned to “tone it down”.
Many of the people I worked with wanted the accountant in the movie Scrooge. They wanted the person who looked serious and maybe even looked a little depressed. Many didn’t want me to talk much because accounting isn’t fun to hear about plus it would take time away from Sales and Marketing. I remember one meeting I limited my “update” to 3 minutes while the sales guy went on for 20 as did the marketing guy (but the hard part is that neither were even prepared, they rambled, and it was still OK).
I didn’t need 20 minutes, but I felt pressure to take no more than 3 so I could be who they wanted. Yes, who they wanted.
What’s a Mentor?
I was usually the lone woman with a group of men. I had to fit in. Many were my buddies — I had always had guy friends. But I also worked with an endless number of men where I had to put on my game face daily. (For years, I didn’t have many counterparts who were women, so I didn’t have a plan to fit in with women.)
I never had a mentor. Most of my career was “Sink or Swim”. I was good at the work, but I had to learn politics and I had to learn how to adapt in order to survive.
But I don’t survive anymore, I am working on thriving — I started my own accounting firm 5 years ago — and I have freedom. I adapted for years, but now I smile a lot more in meetings. I especially laugh a lot more. I still have jolts where after a meeting, I ask myself “was I professional and serious enough”, but those questions come less. And it’s great when I consult and advise my clients to state an opinion quicker — instead of pondering the exact perfect formal sentence to say.
I am still very serious when I do the work, but I am showing my true personality much more when I meet about the work.
I wish this for you.