Corporate roles, personal journeys

I recently brought together seven colleagues for a ‘Micro Forum’ in Chicago, IL to share their strategic and organizational perspectives. It became a vivid reminder of the very human side of our work relationships.

All the participants were VP-level leaders in corporate environment, safety, sustainability and/or energy functions. They came from a wide range of companies and sectors from transportation to health care and technology to household-name consumer products. They shared many of the same strategic and organizational challenges. Behind those, though, they each had very unique personal journeys.

For seven people in roughly the same roles, the range of their stories was fascinating. Some were lifers, with their whole career in one company. Others were in their third or fourth or fifth company – in one case, just within the last five years. Some had spent their whole career in the same function but with different companies, while others had been in multiple functions in one company.

They were at very different stages of their careers. Some were nearing the final lap. When asked what they hoped their personal story would be three years from now, some were hoping to be gone from their companies, retired – but they still had things to accomplish before going. Others had one last big initiative – or promotion – in their sights before retiring. Their journeys over the next few years involve choices about timing, negotiating exits (if they expected to have any say in it), geography and what to do next.

Others were entering the prime of their careers. They faced choices about balance: balancing families and work, balancing the ambitions to move up (which might mean leaving their functional area) with the ambition to do more within their function (which might limit promotions).

They opened up to each other. Some had only met over dinner the night before. Others only met when they walked into the conference room at 8:30 that morning. By 10:30 they were sharing. By noon they were asking each other for advice.

I had the great opportunity to sit and listen. Several things jumped out at me:

  • How committed they are. Despite setbacks and frustrations, all deeply care about helping their companies do better at protecting their people, communities and the environment. All are genuinely proud of their accomplishments. None of them sit in the C-suite, but they are leaders, truly leading from below.
  • How valuable this was. “Peer-to-peer” isn’t just a technology file-sharing geek term, it’s an important human concept. These can be lonely roles. The participants quickly realized they were sitting with genuine, smart, trustworthy peers. There was a clear sense of relief in the room, as people opened up, asked for help with real problems and offered support.
  • How hard it is to be proactive about your career. These bright, realistic people spend a lot more time planning for their companies and programs than for their own careers. They know they need to be prepared for what may come, both opportunities and disappointments. Those in mid-career know that no jobs (or even companies, these days) are secure. Those late in their career know that windows may be closing and options may be narrowing. Yet they struggle to find the time and mental space to create the options they want rather than waiting to react to what happens.

Most importantly, I was reminded that everyone we deal with has their own personal journey behind their organizational role. It’s all too easy to fall into dealing with them solely in terms of their roles, without understanding (or caring or helping) with their personal journeys. I convened a bunch of corporate officials. I spent valuable, affirming time with a room full of people. That was a healthy reminder, especially this time of year.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM and Program Director at US BCSD. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM or its partners or clients, or US BCSD, its members or partners. To share this post, see additional posts on my blog or subscribe please go to I also invite you to follow me on Facebook or Twitter.]

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