In Her Words: The Career Path Not Taken
While I was seven months pregnant with my first child, the CEO of our fledgling company resigned. Our company embarked on a rollercoaster ride trying to name a successor. That week, I was called to our Global CEO’s office. I saw her name light up on my phone and I gulped while my son kicked in utero. Something was up. My mind was racing. Our Global CEO at the time was Ann Fudge. If you Google her, you will find a pretty robust resume with lots to be inspired by. Fortune named her one of the 50 Most Influential Women in American Business—along with Oprah. Let’s be honest, I was just ecstatic she knew my name! When she contacted me, I was definitely off-balance, since I knew with the state of the company it would be a serious conversation and we would not be chatting summer plans.
I entered her office, which was larger than my studio apartment. She was kind, complimentary, inspiring, and calm. Then I heard the words: “Jennifer, we have been thinking about who could lead this team into the future, and we would like you to take the CEO position.” If I recall correctly, my eyes popped out of my head, my son kicked me once again, I said nothing but “oh,” and sat there with her words hanging in the air. I shook myself out of it and decided my only strategy was to buy some time to think.
I shared that I was extremely flattered but, as you can see, I am ummmm seven months pregnant, so I have to give this some thought. She was gracious and supported my request for time to evaluate this amazing opportunity.
So here I stood at a virtual fork in the road with two very different paths before me, both with a distinct impact on my career. Three key steps helped me decide which path was right for me:
- Worst-case scenario. I like to always think worst-case, knowing that the worst case is highly unlikely. If I turn down this job, I could be fired or never considered again for any promotion. If I accept it, I could be stressed and tugged in a thousand directions at a time when I’d also be taking on a lot of new responsibilities at home.
- Go to bed! Go to bed with the decision firm in your mind, and wake up and see how you feel. Are you regretting that decision or feeling good when you wake up the next day?
- Tell three people. I don’t like discussing big life stuff with more than 3 people at a time. I get confused about what I shared with who and who said what. Tell three of your most trusted people and LISTEN to their reaction. And three ensures no tie-in opinions.
It took me about three days to acknowledge this was happening, to think it through clearly, to get through my OB appointments, and to arrive at a decision.
The decisions each woman makes about work and life are deeply personal. For me, given I was about to give birth to my first child, we were looking to leave that studio apartment and the fact that my mother was also suffering from an ongoing illness, I felt the only answer for me was to decline. I declined it, however, with a very heavy heart. Because I KNEW I could do this job and I KNEW I would be great at it. What I didn’t know is what sort of sacrifice I would have to make for my family to have that job. And so, with a gulp in my throat and another swift kick from my son, I said the words out loud. Ann and the company were extremely understanding, but you could sense within moments that I was yesterday’s news and they were on to find the person who COULD do the job, and rightfully so.
Over the years, I have often thought about that decision, reflecting upon my firmly planted place among messy middle management and wonder, “What if I had said yes? What if I became a CEO 14 years ago?” But I also think about the life I have been able to live, being present for my family, supporting my parents through my mother’s illness and eventual death. I wouldn’t trade those moments, and I am not sure I would have been able to do both as well as I would have wanted to as a CEO at that time.
With reflection, I am sure I made the right choice for myself. My kids often tell me I am their “magnificent mom,” and the gift of time with my mother is beyond any value. BUT despite those accolades from my kids, husband, and parents, I can’t help but wonder what sort of “magnificent CEO” I might be right now had I said yes.
Jennifer Kohl has lots of jobs. Her paid gig is the SVP of Integrated Media at VMLY&R. Most days are like an episode of Shark Tank where she has the privilege to work with different brands, clients and business issues. Whether its pregnancy testers or chocolates, Rx or appliances, Jennifer brings her innovative solutions to the most vexing marketing situations. Her unpaid jobs include wife to a very chill Australian, mom to a middle and high schooler, daughter, aspiring writer, speaker, panelist, CYO, and Girl Scout volunteer.
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