Which Train Are You On?

Careers in tech, and any demanding profession, can feel like a sprint within a marathon. Many don’t consider burn out until it is too late, when they have so little energy that no matter how deep they dig, they cannot find the drive to keep going. As an executive coach for women, I advise my clients to think about their career over the long haul and consider the best path to reach their ultimate destination without losing the moxie and mettle that got them to where they are today.

I suggest that women think of their career as a train, and make a conscious and thoughtful decision to be on the express or the local at any given time in their career.

Some women decide to stay on the express, the train that whisks through certain stations without even stopping, headed straight for the C-suite, and I applaud these women. Others find that the price of the express train can be too high when it does not allow them to take care of other aspects of their lives. Should they get off the express train? And if they do, can they get back on?

I coach women to stay on the train, but hop on the local when they need to focus more energy on their lives outside of work. For example, I was promoted to Manager at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) right after my second child was born. My son’s birth coincided with my husband taking on a role that required him to travel internationally three weeks out of every month. While I was fiercely determined to ride the express train to Partner, I found myself in an untenable position. I tried my best to “do it all”, but quickly became anxious and depleted. I made the difficult decision to transfer to the local and work part-time. I knew this decision would result in a longer road to Partner, but I also knew that staying on the express train at this particular point in my life would likely lead me to burn out, negatively impacting the quality of my work, my engagement as a mother, and my long-term career. I was certainly fortunate that my husband’s income allowed me to accept a reduced salary. Indeed, I had the luxury to make the decision to transfer to the local, a luxury that most single mothers do not have. Still, I found it painful to decide on a course that would handicap my ability to reach my career aspirations. I also feared that I would never be able to jump back on the express when I was ready. Transferring to the local was a leap of faith.

Since that first time on the local, I have hopped back and forth between the express and local trains several times: from being a founding member of tech start-ups (express) to consulting to private equity firms and their portfolio companies (local), to my longest ride on the express as head of human capital and chief talent officer at an investment management firm. I am now back on the local, coaching women executives while addressing my own health issues.

I have learned two things from all this train hopping:

Women need to have faith that their innate talent will not dissipate while they are on the local.

Whether they turn the volume up or down on their talent, it is there for them to access at any time.

Senior leaders need to support women’s choices and fuel their faith that they can return to the express.

Getting off the fast-track can be unnerving and sow seeds of self-doubt; it is these insecurities that keep women on the express train headed straight for burn out. Senior leaders can help mitigate these consequences by sponsoring women through their transfers.

Getting on the local does not convey a woman’s lack of ambition or work ethic — it conveys her appreciation of life’s challenges and the realization that she is not superhuman.

We need to help women not get to a point where they feel so overwhelmed or defeated that they get off the train completely. A women’s choice to get off the train is certainly a decision we should all respect, but that decision should come from a place of strength and conviction, not a place of hopelessness or defeat. Whether women get off the train completely or transfer to the local, we need to provide them the opportunity and support if and when they choose to get back on the express.

So which train are you on? It doesn’t matter — I am just glad you are on the train.

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