I created Humans of Big Corp for people who want to turn around their bullsh*t job into a positive force for change. Together we can use human-centered leadership and business-for-good practices to pave the way for a better future.
At a time when I had success in the palms of my hands, exciting challenges in my head and many reasons for fulfillment in my heart, I was seriously considering quitting my job. Like many people of my generation, the stiffness of the corporate world was in conflict with my drive for impact.
I realized that the most courageous thing to do to get out of my depressing quest for meaning was not to run away to another job / company / career / country but precisely to stay in my job - and to drive positive change from the inside out.
As I described previously, at age 25 I had achieved my professional dream - to work at the forefront of Research & Development in a large group with exciting projects and means to deliver. I had the chance to be able to choose for a company with a strong sense of societal responsibility and I was working towards making food healthier for millions of people.
On a daily basis, I was working with the quote-unquote “world-leading scientists” and we had access to high-tech equipment, brilliant working facilities and were driving exciting discoveries. The team leaders were equipped with inspiring and effective management tools and techniques and people were truly considered at the center of the company’s success.
On a more pragmatic level, I had avoided unemployment (which was not an easy task at the time) and I had the comfort of a well-paid job with a permanent contract. I was learning to let go of tracking my expenses and starting to be invited in conversations about tax optimization through property acquisition.
I had made it in the world.
Is this how happiness feels like?
And yet, something was off. I couldn’t say that I was feeling like a fish in water. Better even, I was increasingly under the impression that I did not belong, I was different and as a consequence that I was weird. I surprised myself thinking more and more regularly: “Is it me or something is wrong about XYZ but nobody seems to speak up?”
As it turns out, I started to realize that one thing is particularly valued in most traditional companies: conformity.
Conformity is nice, it is comfortable. This is the human application of the principles of the successive industrial revolution: high productivity is achieved by processes which treat every single piece of the system the same way for a consistent outcome.
In this mindset, an employee is more or less a production unit - you are given a task to be executed and you are expected to deliver the task to a pre-established standard and in a certain way. You are a piece in a bigger machine, your process settings can be optimized for the best output and if you break down, you can be replaced.
In the list of challenges to fit in the corporate conformity, there is hierarchical reverence - agreeing with the bosses. Of course the company culture as promoted by the HR slogans is one of openness and encouraged feedback. But in practice nobody will dare to challenge the hippo in the room (the HIghest Paid Officer).
And if you do (which I did because I learned this by trial and error), you don’t notice much at first - until your end of the year evaluation when you hear that you need to work on your communication style. And you realise in hindsight that you’ve lost 2 years of your career on the side bench in a non-business critical, non-visible job.
This is called the corporate mold. It is slightly different in its modalities and its amplitude for each company but it is definitely present in all companies, as the other side of the company culture coin.
It feels like an armour which is heavy and prevents you from moving. To some extent indeed it is safe, you do not need to think much for yourself and can have a long and prosperous career by calibrating your behaviour on the average around you. But that’s exactly what I am not able to do.
I am a self-thinker - always have been. Critical thinking is my strength (and my curse) and I am intimately convinced of the power of robust conversations and different viewpoints to find the best solution. There is no co-creation if everybody agrees, right?
My biggest discovery in these years was that the word “opinionated” has a negative connotation; for me being a mindless follower, a zombie, a sheep is the negative mindset, because it hinders risk identification (forget your first-time-right), creativity (forget about disruptive innovations) and proximity to consumers (forget about tapping into Millennials trends).
What has been seen cannot been unseen
This is probably the time when I discovered a new hobby - using the workplace as a giant sociological study. What are the codes, the unwritten rules of the corporate game? What are the drivers and motivations behind someone making (or not making) a comment or raising a question? How much are people acting out of habit without challenging the ways of working and why is it easier to do something inefficient and irrelevant rather than using common sense?
This was the first step in regaining interest in my job routine: tapping into one of my core strength (in this case curiosity) to re-ignite a sense of motivation to face my daily dose of corporate BS.
The years of observation that follow after this point made me realize how big the gap is between the theory of efficient workplaces as established in scientific studies and the reality (and obsolescence) of the corporate world’s way of working.
One of my favorite example of available knowledge which is not implemented is the analogy of the flock of super-chickens (as made famous by Margaret Heffernan) which compete with each other to death. A workplace operating on hierarchy, job titles, end of year evaluation determined by calibrations and a pinch of competitive targets is the perfect ground for short-term selfishness, backstabbing, and even sheer sabotage.
A workplace operating on hierarchy, job titles, end of year evaluation determined by calibrations and a pinch of competitive targets is the perfect ground for short-term selfishness, backstabbing, and even sheer sabotage.
Even when companies launch top-down initiatives to modernize the workplace, it is bound to fail if it does not include a culture change chapter. The well-intended new policies become hindered by the persistence of classical culture and land as tick-in-the-box communication operation rather than actual change.
Old-fashioned assumptions about “employees being lazy by nature and not liking to work” stand in the way to modernize workplace practices like flexible working hours. Obsolete social models of the man as primary provider with a wife taking care of the household prevents male employees from making the most of great initiatives such as gender-neutral parental policies because of the risk of no longer belonging to the man’s club.
Finding my personal mission to choose my impact
The second step in re-booting my career was closing the loop of my reflection on the direction I wanted to give to my career. I was well-taken care of, how could I use this to care for others? To contribute to the world, have a positive impact, start building a legacy?
After going all over the place in exploring how to be a force for positive change - from a career switch to NGOs to opening a restaurant to fight loneliness via the option of working at the United Nations - I realized that the answer was right under my nose.
The pressure of "Fit in if you want to succeed" dilemma: forget who you are or forget your career
The paradigm in place can be summarized as “Fit in if you want to succeed” - which means that you have 2 options:
- You fit in - even if that means bending out of shape and leaving (a part of) who you are at the door - so that you get the next challenge, the next promotion and the corner office. After decades of pretending to be someone in order to fit, you do become someone else.
- You hold onto who you are and speak up when you disagree, see a critical risk or - but take the risk of being labelled as the “party pooper”, the “trouble maker” or worse. It's a pretty dangerous place - nobody protects the whistle blower.
Surely if I was feeling oppressed by the pressure for conformity, others were as well. If I could see the missed opportunities, others could as well. If I had difficulties growing in my career because of being too much of me, surely others were stuck as well.
What if the part I wanted to play was to change this outdated situation? That’s when I decided that my personal mission was to trail-blaze a 3rd option - where I could truly be myself and be successful on my own terms. And hopefully inspire others to do the same.
I picked up my energy and my courage and decided to stay in my job. I decided to make the most of the opportunity I had to deliver on a respectable promise (bring to market innovative food products that contribute to people’s health) while figuring out a new way of being at the office where I could navigate a corporate world with established codes, while actively contributing to creating a new set of rules.
“If you feel like you don’t fit in this world, it’s because you are here to create a new one”
How about you? Let me know about your quest for your personal mission
in the comments down below!