November 24th, 2023

As women, we spend a lot of time glorifying the pursuit of making it to the next rung on the ladder. It’s in our DNA. Thousands of years of women’s voices propel us upwards in their name to reach for more. We are encouraged to achieve our full career potential because we have options they never had. I have listened to their rally cry subconsciously and dutifully my whole life.

I launched my own professional services firm against the advice of a lot of well-intentioned friends and family. I grew the company steadily, year over year.  I knew there was no fast pass to success. There was only a steady, consistent focus on employee satisfaction and delivery excellence to build and protect our firm’s reputation.

By all accounts, I suppose I was the “picture of success”. My parents certainly thought so. If title and pay were the measures of greatness, I’d achieved more career-wise than most of the women in my family. I had climbed the ladder from marketing manager, to Director, to Senior Director, to Vice President to C.E.O. in record time.  I was growing the top-line revenue of my company. I was expanding my client base. I was enabling a lot of people to provide for their families. I was making a meaningful impact in the technology industry.

And then, in year seven of leading my business, I experienced failure, one after the other. The economy blew severe headwinds into our progress month after month. I felt beaten up by the downturn and utterly alone in a new, unforgiving wilderness.  The hits kept coming and I couldn’t catch my breath. I, like many other entrepreneurs I would find out later, eventually fell into a deep depression.  I was a top performer, and I couldn’t understand how so much had gone wrong so quickly.  None of my tactics worked despite battling hard each day.  So, I eventually retreated. I took my foot off the proverbial gas and became uncaring about growing anything, including revenue. Predictably, the business shrank further. Long-time employees left. Some clients didn’t renew their contracts. The key indicators were pointing downwards.  In short, I spent twelve months as a zombie in my own company.

My husband was so concerned about my mental health, that he asked me to see a therapist—which I did—just so I could examine my failures and make sense of them. The therapist told me I was clinically depressed, and that I would need much more than an improved economy to bring me out of the hole I was in.

At the end of that horrible year, I achieved record profit even though my top-line revenue shrunk. I was stunned.  How could that be? I did everything you weren’t supposed to do. I didn’t focus on the business. I didn’t design new strategies. I did the opposite. I set the company on autopilot for a year. What happened was my well-trained employees ran the business without me. My complex business became easier to run and as a result, it became more efficient. And during this time, my mental health improved. I was able to emerge from my fog with clarity. I was able to reflect on past mistakes with perspective, which gave me the learnings I needed to do things differently.  What I saw humbled me. I saw employees who really cared about what we had built together and who cared about me. I saw a C.E.O. in the mirror who was battle-tested. I looked her in the eyes and said loudly, You are no quitter! Get moving!

In year six the economy improved, I improved, and I built a new more stable foundation for the business. The lesson I took from that year and that I have since shared with many women is this: don’t pursue career growth or revenue growth at all costs. Especially if those costs include your mental or physical health.

For the next five years, I achieved record growth and revenue. I set targets and smashed them. I traveled around the world with my favorite clients and met amazing business executives. I strengthened my position as a thought leader and trusted advisor to some of the biggest tech companies in the world. I mentored my team and helped them grow. The business thrived once again.

My husband, always my compass in a storm, had a different perspective though. He saw a C.E.O. that was relentlessly driving for more revenue, more profit, more growth, more employee satisfaction, and more customer satisfaction. He saw a positive picture of financial health, yes, but he also saw a picture of fast-declining physical and mental health in his wife. He saw a woman pursuing perfection at all costs. He saw his wife who was stressed and impatient and working seven days a week and during vacations. In my world of business management and key performance indicators, I was what we might call a watermelon, seemingly green on the outside but deep red on the inside.

It was clear to him, that his wife was no longer living life. She was just working.

One day, he sat me down and said, “Are you truly happy working like this?”

I honestly hadn’t asked myself that question. I was irrelevant. All that mattered was that I was positively impacting everyone around me. The truth was, at that moment, I couldn’t answer him. I didn’t have a framework for what happiness was outside of work.

I’d accomplished so much. Didn’t achievement make me happy? When I was honest with myself, I realized that I was only creating new, artificial rungs of my own making to climb. This meant, so long as there was a new rung to smash my foot down on, I would be climbing up to the sky unfulfilled until I died.

I knew at that moment, finally, how to answer my husband’s question. I’m happiest when I am with my husband. I am happiest when I am creating.  I am happiest when I’m teaching and sharing knowledge.  I’m happiest leading when I have work-life balance.

I decided that week that it was time to sell my beloved company. After hearing my intention, a close colleague of mine asked, “Are you crazy? You’ve worked so hard. Why sell it when you’re so successful?”

I was tired of battling and fighting for the next rung. It was exhausting.  I wanted to have a positive impact at home, not just at work. I also knew my decision would have a positive impact on my employees. It was time for a new leader with new ideas. It was time for a leader with a fire in her belly to lead the team up new mountains.

After I sold my company, I focused on my happiness and with it, I easily found new ways to positively impact others. Today, I measure the impact I have through mentorship and fellowship with other women. I measure impact as an Angel Investor investing in female founders to propel them forward. I measure impact based on how much their products will help women writ large improve the mental, financial, and career health of other women. I am positively driving impact in new and profound ways that I couldn’t even imagine five years ago. Most importantly, I’m nurturing my sense of community. I’m watering new relationships. I am growing my sense of inner peace.

I read a quote from an unknown author recently that reflects my perspective at this stage of my career and personal life well:

A student said to this master: “You teach me fighting but you talk about peace. How do you reconcile the two?” The master replied: “It is better to be a warrior in a garden than to be a gardener in a war.”

My best advice to worthy women is, if making an impact in your career feels too much like war, ask yourself the hard question. Is all that I’m fighting for worth my own physical and mental health? My sincere hope is that we all continue to have the courage to answer honestly. Impact is about positively influencing those around you and yourself.



Join Top Women Executives

Invest in your senior leadership career and join our global, virtual community of the most influential women in business.