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The myth of the high flyer – or why you think your boss is lazy

On my way home today, I saw the shocking video of Michael Marin, a millionaire business man, mountain climber and socialite who appears to have poisoned himself in an Arizona court as he was convicted guilty of arson and insurance fraud – he was accused of burning down his $3.2m mansion to claim fire insurance. As it turned out, this so-called high flyer had seen his bank account balance shrink from $900,000 to $50 over the last year due to a lavish lifestyle and crippling $17,000/month mortgage payments. He seems to have chosen death over facing humiliation and shame in front of family, friends and the public.

It made me remember the equally tragic case of 24-year-old investment banking associate Anjool Malde, who jumped to his death from a fancy rooftop restaurant in the City of London following an investigation into prank emails he may had sent from work. It seems to have been a relatively harmless matter (in the grand scheme of things) that might have just led to a short suspension, but the possibility of losing his job or being humiliated in front of colleagues and superiors seem to have played a motive in his suicide.

Why is it that many people in business cling so much to their image of a high flyer that they are willing to give up everything, even their lives, rather than admit defeat or failure? I am starting believe that the whole notion of being an awe inspiring success is what sets people up for failure. How can you live up to this idea of perfection? Who can earn a lot of money, do a great job, be extremely popular, and have an active social life, all at the same time? This is how aspiring high flyers like to see themselves. But it is such an image of perfection that they are setting themselves up for disappointment. If your aspirations are so high, and you cannot accept weakness in yourself, you are bound to fail yourself – and you will be under pressure to maintain the notion of perfection at the same time, alienating you from friends and family.

I have observed such personal tragedies many times in my professional life. I need to be vague about it, but I can tell you I have worked with millionaires who went from successful executives to unemployed and divorced within a matter of a couple of years, because once the pressure increased and first cracks appeared in their superstar image, they lost good judgment and sacrificed their family lives and careers to keep up the notion of spectacular success. Even on a much less dramatic scale, I know many guys (and some women, though less) sacrificing their health and spare time for money and fast advancement at work, and often what they get in return does not compensate them for the loss.

These stories have convinced me increasingly that the notion that you have to be a superstar at work and sacrifice everything to get ahead is completely misleading. The surprising truth is that to get to the top, at least in the corporate world, very often you need to be around long enough to rise to the top. And if you burn yourself out within 3 or 5 years, you will never get to the level of seniority required to get into a leadership position! Many senior guys in big corporations have been around for 15 to 20 years before they get to the top, and this requires a certain level of balance in their lives to make it that long before they end up divorced or with a nervous breakdown.

Many articles advise young graduates on how to network, how to get promoted faster, rise faster and make more money, and I see a fundamental problem with this advice, based on my experience. This short sighted view suggests that if you work very hard and get promoted fast, you will reach the top faster. But a career is not a sprint but a marathon. Within a 2 or 3 year horizon, yes it matters how fast you get promoted and you may seem to advance faster if you get promoted ahead of your peers. But the reality is that many people who end up at the top are those who didn’t race to the top. I even saw examples at McKinsey of partners who had worked part-time for several years to spend more time with their children (and these were men! – though admittedly McKinsey is the place where everything I talk about her applies the least). I was very surprised at the time. But then I understood. Maybe if these guys had not taken it easy for a few years, they would have realized the job was incompatible with their careers and quit. Instead, they took it slowly for some time, and then just made partner years behind schedule, but they stayed in the game.

I am sure the same would be true for thousands of working mothers, and I can give you a personal example of this. If I had continued in my job the same way I was working previously – being in the office at 6.30am, staying till 7pm or 8pm, always delivering on time, always giving 100% – I would have quickly found my job incompatible with being a good mother, and I would have had to quit. Instead, I decided to take it easier, try to leave work by 5 or 5.30pm every day, only give 90%, be good enough, but not aim to be a superstar for a while, so that I could continue in my job and feel like a good mother, and this approach has worked well. It was very hard for me to make the switch, but then I realized that the fast track just does not work in the long term. I understood that you can either give 80-90%, or you can give nothing, because giving 100% to your job when you have a family is not sustainable.

Which brings me to a provocative point, and it is an issue I have changed my mind about over the last two years. We all know the typical story of hard working, competent juniors doing all the work, while lazy bosses just network, watch football or talk on the phone all day. It is a very popular notion. Then people say how unfair it is that the most ambitious, smartest people do all the work, while the bosses are having a good time and taking it easy. You know what? I think those bosses might be on to something!!! I think they have found a way of doing a good job (which often requires honing relationships, exchanging information and looking for new ideas much more than sitting in front of your computer all day) while also finding a balance in their lives, and this is how they have lasted long enough to rise to the top.

This is my advice to all you high flyers and ambitious graduates out there: continue to perform well and take pride in your responsibilities, but don’t kill yourself working and don’t sacrifice your family life and friends for faster career advancement. Chances are thatyou will get much further if you take it slow.

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{ 5 comments… add one }

  • alessandro July 10, 2012, 2:20 PM

    I think this is a great post!
    It’s like the corporate world seen from a different perspective, without the classic common sense ” faster and better”.

    The problem is:
    How can you weight out the effort?
    If you work at 90% of your possibilities, it could be enough.

    But it’s in the human nature trying to do the best, in particular in a work environment.

  • Sherene July 18, 2012, 2:47 PM

    Thanks for this post – it’s hard to block out the modern mantra of ‘faster is better’ which is what I have lived my life by thus far. But I’m slowly starting to realise the wisdom in balance and moderation. Now hoping to practice this new mantra…hard to break old habits!
    Sherene recently posted..MBAMy Profile

    • High Flying Ladies
      Twitter: ueberfliegernet
      July 18, 2012, 9:22 PM

      Hi Sherene – indeed it’s not easy, especially in an MBA environment! it’s one of the worst environments to follow this approach because everyone pressures you into going for more money faster. Am curious how it will work out for you. Wish you good luck!!

  • Jenny February 26, 2016, 5:27 AM

    Reading this in 2016! This is a breath of fresh air amidst all the motivational pump up by high flyers that reconfirm the career sprint lifestyle. Thank you for the message of moderation. I see this happening in my current company, where young and talented people sometimes feel bitter for being overworked and under appreciated, and they eventually disengage to pin their dreams on something else. On the other hand, people who can bring a spark of humor and optimism stand out over time, and I see them getting more included in discussions and idea generation.

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