This is a warning to those looking to climb the corporate ladder: I’ve seen a disturbing trend in the corporate world.
Talented people start at the bottom and build their corporate careers from there. Some rise to management or mid level executive levels and take responsibility for elements of a business. If the corporation is large enough, many of these managers or mid level executives will always remain below several more layers of hierarchy. Those above them, obviously, have ultimately increasing levels of responsibility and oversight.
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Many of these leaders at the top got there because they have charisma and know to keep their bosses happy. They’re also skilled at staying close to successes and distancing themselves from failures. Essentially, they’re masterful bullshitters.
As hard knowledge and intelligence are sometimes lacking, these senior executives surround themselves with smart people who help elevate them to the top. These senior executives ultimately make the big decisions and build the framework within which everyone else works.
However, charisma alone cannot run a business. Because these senior executives are frequently inept, they often create an organizational structure that makes it near-impossible to get anything of significant value done. The thick layers of bureaucracy create a stifling environment in which it’s difficult (and usually unnecessary if the ultimate goal is career preservation) to take calculated risks because every action is diluted by group think. For fear of taking accountability, bold corporate decisions are watered down and approved by committee and made comfortable by precedent.
Ultimately, because of the grinding gears of corporate bureaucracy most employees within the organization fail to get anything of real value done. The business ends up falling behind competitors.
While the leaders at the top ultimately should take the blame for material failures within their organization – after all, they built the framework, hired the personnel and set the strategy – they usually have the political clout to shift blame to a corporate scapegoat.
Enter the mid level executive.
The career mid level executive is senior enough to have significant responsibility, but not senior enough to actually drive the future of the organization. The career mid level executive never gained entry to the senior executive club. More-or-less, the mid level executive follows orders and makes the most of a shitty hand. The mid level executive sounds like he’s in charge, but he’s really a helpful pawn trying to do the right thing for the business and its customers.
Don’t get me wrong, these can be fantastic, hard working, smart people. They just haven’t cracked the ceiling to reach the top 1% of an org chart, in which the real decisions – and real money – are made. As a consequence, they are disposable. In contrast, senior executives are a protected class, insulated from their own inadequacy because they are expensive to fire (in terms of money and reputation) and especially skilled at shifting blame.
So when things go tits up in an organization, what happens? Mid level executives who have worked their asses off – sacrificing family and social life for their company – get fired. They become corporate scapegoats. I’ve seen this happen over and over again. It’s an unfortunate reality they don’t teach you about in business school.
Unlike other lifetime careers – like teachers, doctors or electricians – the corporate career can hit a brick wall at any time. And often, those mid-level executives who hit a brick wall in their 50s never find another job. Forcibly retired 10+ years ahead of schedule. In fact, over my career I’ve seen more older mid level executives get fired than I’ve seen voluntarily retire.
People starting a career in a corporation need to understand that these organizations are politically motivated and that career lifespans are often only 20-30 years long. If this is the track you are on, plan your life as if your career won’t last forever. Use your earnings to build net wealth and avoid lifestyle creep as you rise through the ranks. When your time comes, the right preparation will prevent you from falling into a financial black hole.