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The Time I Threw Myself Off A Ladder

My phone buzzed as I was out for my morning walk last Monday. 

When I’m exercising I keep it tucked in my bra nestled up against my fake right breast.  In case you weren’t aware, I had breast cancer and my real breasts were trying to kill me. 

The buzzing of my phone was a text message from a good friend sending me a link to a press release she was mentioned in. 

I knew something was coming. We’d had dinner together a few nights earlier and she’d told us she was going to be starting a new project…but she couldn’t say what it was.  

The press announcement was big news in financial markets here in Oz. So big in fact that it needed to be communicated to the stock market before it could be made public. Hence, she hadn’t been able to tell us about it at our dinner catch-up.

My girlfriend is a pretty big deal. She is a kick-ass business leader who has led large teams, negotiating deals and acquisitions worth millions and leading business units with hundreds of staff reporting up to her. 

I was proud and pleased for her. But I felt another emotion too.

You see, whilst I absolutely love to see her succeed, I recognise that deep within me I have a voice that likes to mutter “that could have been me” in these moments.

Twenty years ago I was well and truly on a similar path to my girlfriend. I was winning sales awards and gaining promotions at IBM. I’ll never forget the sliding doors moment that occurred at the time when I fell pregnant at the same time as I was offered my first management role. I determined that I couldn’t in good conscience take the role and then announce shortly thereafter that I was “up the duff” as we colloquially call being pregnant here in Australia.

So I politely declined the opportunity informing the senior executive that had offered me the position of my impending motherhood. He didn’t try and talk me out of my decision and simply congratulated me on my exciting news.

You could say that was when I officially slipped off the career ladder. 

When I subsequently had my baby and took an extended maternity leave I came back into a full time position that I hated. I hated being away from my daughter and couldn’t wait to get pregnant again so I could go on maternity leave again. In actual fact I didn’t even get to that next maternity leave because I chose to take a redundancy from IBM.

I can honestly say that for many years after that I kicked myself for not taking that management role and saw it as an epic misstep. 

My girlfriend on the other hand is someone many would regard as having climbed the career ladder to great success. Over the same twenty years she has continued to climb onto increasingly higher rungs.  

As I watched her grab hold of this next rung I still had to quiet that internal narrative that tells me I spectacularly fell off that ladder. Indeed, I didn’t fall, I threw myself off the ladder. 

But no sooner has that thought been voiced than I tell it to take a hike. Why? Because I know that in getting off the ladder I was moving across to the spider frame (see image below if you’re wondering what the heck a spider frame is).

I know now this was the right move for me to make.

I talk about this more in this week’s episode (#118) of Being Indispensable. It is all about how it’s possible to feel happy and confident moving laterally, diagonally and yes even moving downwards when you see your career as a spider frame. How there are lessons to learn and experience to benefit from wherever you find yourself. 

The truth is that this perspective has been possible for me because of the post-traumatic growth I experienced grappling with breast cancer and its after effects. 

I’m telling you this because regardless of whether you are at the start, middle or end of your career journey I want you to see it in its entirety as a spider frame of experiences and opportunities rather than comparing where you are on a ladder with where someone else is on their ladder.

The other great thing about thinking ‘spider frame’ as opposed to career ‘ladder’ is that on a spider frame there’s room for others….we don’t need to see climbing over someone else as part of navigating the darn thing!

In the case of my girlfriend I can tell you that I am celebrating her accomplishments and her recent announcement and cheering her on. To the outsider it might look like she’s climbed the traditional ladder but it’s been a spider frame for her too. It just involved different moves than mine.

As I say in the podcast episode, wherever you find yourself on the career spider frame there’s always a view to be had. Make sure you enjoy it.

That, my lovelies, is my wish for you.

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Liz Van Vliet - My EA Career

Meet Liz

I work with executive assistants and administrative assistants to equip them with the skills and confidence they need to influence more effectively and demonstrate the leadership and interpersonal skills to make them a 'linchpin' to their boss and organisation.

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