I was recently connecting with a friend who is a Director at a leading tech company. She was offered a chance to take on a much larger scope with a larger team. In a nutshell, it was a great career move to open other doors professionally in the years to come.

And my friend said no, thank you. Not because of imposter syndrome or not believing in herself. 

She said no because at this time taking on more was not aligned with her values and aspirations. Saying yes to this opportunity would mean saying no to other things in her life (at least for a period of time) and the cost and trade-offs were not worth it to her at this time. 

What she didn’t say but what I took away from her story was that she was confident and content with who she is at this time and didn’t fear that saying no today would close doors for her entire career (A fear that can often lead us to say yes to things even if we don’t want them). She was brave enough to not measure her worth as a person with her title, size of her team, and scope of responsibility. 

My point in sharing this story is not to popularize the notion that climbing the corporate ladder isn’t a worthwhile goal. It absolutely can be a very beautiful aspiration. Having additional responsibility, a newer kind of intellectual stimulation, different problems to solve, and the ability to influence a larger team can be very rewarding for many people. Even more, I’d love for thoughtful and competent women like my friend to run institutions. 

Yet, what’s not often discussed is the nuance with this decision, it is rarely black and white. The alignment with individual values and aspirations can be a very effective lever and should play a more active role in our career decisions vs. doing what we have normalized as the “only” definition of success – climb up the corporate ladder at all costs at all times. I hope we can also see that our careers are long and dare I say, not the only measure of what it means to have a well-lived life but rather can be a powerful and meaningful ingredient in one. 

Her story struck me because it’s a model of leadership we don’t see often. We don’t always celebrate self-aware thoughtful leaders who know when to pause and when to drive faster. Leaders who know that they may not be the right person at a given time for a role and that their teams and institutions are better served when another individual steps into that role. Leaders who can take the long view for themselves and those around them. And sadly, our institutions aren’t designed to always be inclusive of leaders like her. 

As we look to redesign what our future of work will look like, my hope is that we see more acceptance of all kinds of leadership and celebration of different models of career and life success both as individuals but also as institutions in the years to come. 

Reflection Questions

Think of a time when you said yes to fit in or it felt like a should not because you wanted to

What do you need from yourself to say no (or yes!) with more courage and integrity?

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