Success Story: The Executive Who Broke Through the Glass Ceiling

A favorite success story of mine centers around one of my clients. To protect her identity, let’s call her Catherine Banks. Catherine hired me when she was working at a major US Bank. She was a Senior Vice President of Marketing and Sales. She was frustrated with her job because of the corporate politics and the old boys network that she couldn’t seem to crack. Her boss complimented her work, but she had to fight for everything she wanted to do. Despite this, the job paid well, and she had a great team of people working for her.

One day she received an employment offer from her prior company, another major U.S. bank.

Her old boss wanted her back and offered her a position there as head of Sales and Marketing. He also offered a slightly higher salary package. She hemmed and hawed and wasn’t sure what to do. Then on one of our calls she told me about the unbelievable behavior of one of the senior executives at her current job. He had inappropriately hit on her employee. Thankfully there was a witness in the room–one of the secretaries had seen it happen. Catherine didn’t know what to do. Her employee was mortified, embarrassed (and probably scared to death) and didn’t want her to say anything about the event.

I pointed out to Catherine that as his boss, she had an obligation to protect him from physical abuse in the workplace. Knowing what she knew, she had to report this behavior.

She couldn’t cover it up without becoming liable herself. It took tremendous courage on her part. She was certain this would derail her career and worried that she might get fired. Ratting on the big boss was not something that she was keen on doing. She took the courageous step of reporting this event to Human Resources. An internal investigation ensued and other employees came forth and spoke of similar abuses. Thankfully, the man was sacked.

Given the clearly appalling work conditions, it would seem obvious to anyone that she should jump into the new job offer with open arms. But Catherine couldn’t decide whether to accept the offer at her old bank or not. I suggested that she shouldn’t take the new offer until she was jumping up and down for joy.

If they are coming to you with an offer, then you’re in a great position to ask for what you really want.

Make a list of everything you want that would get you really excited about taking the job. Then, make a huge request. Catherine knew that in order to really do what she wanted to do, she’d need a bigger title. With the title comes respect, power and influence (not to mention better perks). She made a list of about ten things she would need in order to accept the offer. She got almost everything she asked for on her list of ten! At that point she was jumping for joy and took the job. As a follow to this success story, I asked her some additional questions.  Her responses may help you write your own success story. 

What was the biggest shift for you?

“It was making a huge and outrageous request and getting it. I realized that I wouldn’t be happy taking a job that wasn’t big enough and challenging enough. I didn’t want to make another lateral move at this point in my career, even if that meant getting out of a really negative situation.”

What was your biggest challenge?

“I’ve had to keep on making big requests at the bank to get what I needed in order to do the job properly. When my requests were approved, then I knew they were really behind me and that I had the support to get the work done. We are now one of the few banks in the US that hasn’t been bought out by the government.”

What was the best outcome from your career transition?

“I have created a coaching culture at the bank. Even the finance department talks about coaching now. Everyone of the managers and their teams has gone through the computerized assessments and they manage around developing people’s strengths, not their weaknesses. I’m pleased to have made that kind of impact in the company.”

How did you overcome your fear for change?

“In the end, you have to live with yourself. I knew I had to do the right thing and report the abusive behavior of this senior executive even though it could have destroyed my own career. In the end, it actually had the reverse effect and my career has sky-rocketed to the top. It took every bit of courage that I had, but it was the right thing to do.

And, as for the fear of taking the new job, my fears were right on target and were stopping me for a very good reason. If I had accepted the job at the lower title I would not have had the respect and power I needed to really make the impact I wanted. I needed the Chairman and Board to respect me from the beginning and that meant starting at the right level, not working my way up to that point. Once the job offer was right, the fear disappeared and it was easy to make the jump because I was jumping for joy! Thanks to your coaching, you had me hold out and get the offer I really wanted. You didn’t let me settle for less. If I had settled, I can see now I would have been miserable.

What’s personal advice you’d like to give others who also want to transition in their career?

“Make really outrageous requests and be prepared to back up your reasons for those requests. I knew exactly why I needed that title and when I asked for it, there wasn’t one single quaver in my voice. I was confident and firm. People can sense when you mean business and when you are not going to back down on something. When I got it clearly in my head that this was what I needed to accept the offer, it was non-negotiable for me.”

So, how will your success story go?

Excerpted from Coach Yourself to a New Career: 7 Steps to Reinventing Your Professional Life by Talane Miedaner (McGraw-Hill, April 2010). Order the book.

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