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The Trappings of the “7-Figure Club”

Earlier this week I was chatting with a close friend about leadership in large organizations. Specifically, we spoke about the fact that there are many people in the beautiful city of Toronto who earn 7-figure paycheques without having to take any entrepreneurial risk. We were lamenting the fact that, at a certain level, executives often become more interested in protecting their large incomes than anything else. And we were eschewing the specific behaviours that are born of this mentality.

My friend told me that he completely understood this mindset, even going as far as to say that both of us would behave the same way if we were in the 7-figure club. I agreed a little too quickly. But ever since that conversation I’ve been thinking deeply about my response. I’m now convinced I was wrong. And as I tend to do when I need to work things out in my mind, I write. Let’s explore this a little deeper.

Before I go any further I should provide a little context and expose a little bias. My friend and I are kindred spirits. Each of us have over two decades of corporate experience under our belts and each of us are now pursuing the path of entrepreneurship. Neither of us ever crossed the threshold of the 7-figure club. And while it’s true that neither of us had the stomach for corporate politics, the fact remains that this explanation for never entering “the club” might be a little too cute. Nevertheless, each of us got close enough to “the club” that we understand both personally and observationally the trappings of it.

A Few Questions to Ponder

Now for a few questions to ponder keeping in mind that self-deception can be a voracious parasite. Regardless of whether you’ve entered “the club”, do you spend as much time defending your position as you do performing the duties in your job description? How do you believe you’d behave if you did find your way into “the club”? Would you do anything to stay there?

You already know my answers. And before you answer, please don’t allow yourself to use your prevailing organizational culture as an excuse for sacrificing your values. To view your actions as anything other than a choice would be to akin to disavowing your freedom, regardless of any behavioural precedents evident in your firm. And if you haven’t thought much about it, I’d like to expose a few rather thorny problems associated with “moat building” around high income corporate roles. All of them affect the leaders as much as the followers.

Developing a “Me” mentality.

I have had periods in my life when I spent way too much time angsting over my own problems – financial, relationship or otherwise. From experience, I can tell you that I neglected other important people in my life in doing so, most notably my family and my team at work. The bottom line is that it takes a lot of mental energy to defend against an unwanted outcome, leaving very little to give to others.

If you’re in the 7-figure club or close to it, it’s highly likely that you are responsible for many people in your organization. If you’re squarely in the “defending me” zone, you are almost certainly neglecting your team. And trust me, that mentality is contagious.

The most recent “State of the American Workplace” study by Gallup showed that only 21% of workers believed that their leaders inspired them to do outstanding work. We have a massive engagement problem and there is a rather striking logical connection to the “me” mentality that is so prevalent in today’s leaders. This mentality is clearly having an impact on organizational performance.

Stalling Personal Growth

There’s also this funny thing that happens when you make the call to maintain your position – you start to stagnate. Nothing in our world ever stays the same forever. And this is most true in human beings.

If you’re focusing your time and effort around the continuation of a 7-figure income, then by default you are not stretching, not challenging yourself, not putting yourself in uncomfortable situations, not taking risks. These are the situations that spawn large leaps in personal growth.

If you’re more motivated by having and getting rather than being and becoming, it’s likely you’re on a journey to unhappiness…if you’re not already there. Personal growth is a requirement for inner peace. Only you can know what this is worth in your life.

Subversive Actions

Perhaps one of the most insidious side-effects of a “maintenance at all costs” mentality is the lengths many people will go to in order to achieve it. Most often we label these actions “office politics”. But that seems like too serene a label for what actually goes on. The more ruthless will backstab, fire anyone who threatens them, publicly shame those who speak against them and even resort to blackmail. I’ve seen all of this and more in my corporate days. What an incredible waste of resources. But more poignantly, these actions represent a tragic suppression of the human spirit.

Unless you’re a sociopath (they do exist inside large organizations), resorting to these actions will have a materially negative impact on your self-worth. And it’s a vicious circle, each precedent of subversive behaviour you set represents a new low bar that you come to accept. I’ve seen good people fall into this trap of rationalizing increasingly destructive behaviour.

Leaders are Responsible for the Employee Experience

We’ve seen what can happen when people en masse act purely in their own self-interest. There’s this little thing that happened in 2008 called the credit crisis. While individually this self-interested behaviour was somewhat understandable, in aggregate it created a rather large problem. I would argue that we have a not-too-dissimilar problem with leadership in many of our large institutions today. For proof, check out the Gallup study of the American workplace…or just ride a commuter train and look at the abyss behind many people’s eyes.

Isn’t evolution about improving upon societal norms and resisting instinctual impulses for the benefit of the whole? Or are these concepts simply too airy fairy to hold water in the real world? Do we not possess the capacity to consciously change our thoughts and actions? Or do we subject ourselves to too much personal risk in this “dog eat dog” world by taking a less self-interested approach? These are questions that each individual needs to ponder privately. While there are no black and white answers, failing to do so is to unwittingly achieve the outcomes above.

I admit that I’m a dreamer. I believe all entrepreneurs need a healthy dose of the dreamer potion. But this is not just a social problem. Countless billions of dollars continue to be wasted each year in activities completely counterproductive to the organization and the people in it. And that doesn’t even account for the wasted potential of all those individuals who have mentally checked out because they have lost faith in their leaders.

At the risk of sounding hopelessly naive, I would argue that the shift in mentality needs to start somewhere. And that somewhere is in the hearts and minds of every leader and potential leader out there. Otherwise, nothing will ever change. For the benefit of everyone in the corporate world and for continued economic prosperity, I sincerely hope emerging leaders begin to embrace the obvious benefits of serving rather than protecting.

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Brent C. Wagner