Staying Fierce.

Keeping Current

Risk and Rejection when climbing the corporate ladder

The upward path to professional reward is not without some challenges. Risk and rejection are two elements that we as women commonly encounter when striving to reach the height of a successful and rewarding professional life. This is where we meet Sade Balogum—on her altitudinal climb of success, now serving as Group Brand Manager at Starbucks HQ.

Her ascension is all but ordinary. In her time with us, she shared how she leveraged rejection into growth opportunities and calculatedly assessed her competencies to determine and migrate where they would be most valued. Lastly, she shares with us how to establish professional boundaries to protect our mental health. As you read this, I encourage you to glean these navigational truths as they will help you scale the ladder of your career.

Use rejection as a catalyst for (re)calibration.

Sade vividly remembers the moment she experienced her first major disappointment. She was preparing to apply for business school—both a demanding and rewarding endeavor—fully giving herself over to the process by studying for the GMAT (taking the exam, twice, might I add), completing applications, and of, course, penning personal essays. Much to her surprise, she was not admitted into certain schools. She was devastated. To her, this was very personal!

Rejection can often catch us off guard and cause a visceral reaction of confusion or uncertainty. It stirs up an urge to retrospectively probe our processes and call into question every decision we’ve made along the way. Rejection can set us on a course to reassess and readjust for the better, or adversely, for the worst. The fact is that any goal worth achieving is not without risk and rejection. It is all in how we handle it.

Although Sade was unprepared for rejection then, she stayed the course. She resolved to not be emotionally wrecked by rejection again. As Sade reached new heights in her career, she made it a practice to calibrate her efforts along the way, saying, “I’m always doing mini sort of postmortems[.] [D]id I give it all so that I’m not surprised by the outcome at the end?” Being attentive and intentional about learning from past rejections can present opportunities for growth. Should we avoid righteous indignation, we may find that our temporal moment of rejection yields some insights that will only strengthen our professional maturity as we pursue greater professional heights.

Take inventory, then go where you are valued.

As someone who was always clear on her goals, Sade took every effort to chart her path carefully in order to reach her desired destination. Upon graduation, she started her career with big-box retailer Kohl’s as a Business Analyst, transitioning to tech startup Groupon a few years later. After experiencing a growth spurt, she hit a plateau and began to question her next step.

We all end up here: at a place of uncertainty. Been there and done that. Unsure of how to plot the course for the next stage of our professional elevation. “What’s next?” is the all-to-common question that seems to occupy our minds. We stare into space hoping that something will gravitate to our minds, but it doesn’t. We look outwardly, but could the answer already be inside of us?

Sade’s journey gives us directional guidance on this. She intuitively encourages us to trek introspectively, “Take inventory of the gifts and skillsets and the knowledge that you bring to the table. Seek out ways to strengthen those things[.]” See, we are already uniquely gifted and have the right professional skills that only need to be sharpened.

In her search, Sade realized that she wanted to find new ways to apply her marketing competencies across different businesses. She decided that a more formal education could better leverage those marketing competences, so she enrolled in NYU Stern School of Business. Sade didn’t have to wait long after graduation before coffee giant Starbucks Corporation saw merit in her fine-tuned abilities. Now she is Group Brand Manager. Like Sade, as you continue to improve on your competencies and seek out the best opportunities, you will undoubtedly reach your professional pinnacle. Not only will we secure the position, we will be promoted time and time again.

Fierce is a measure of character.

As a first-generation Nigerian American, Sade developed an “outsider” perspective, a combination of being born American but nurtured from a perspective of an immigrant. That, amplified by a Type A personality, stoked Sade’s desire for, and commitment to, achievement. As expected, her professional successes accumulated, her influence increased, and by default, so did her responsibilities. Ultimately, Sade’s enthusiasm was curtailed by the imbalance in her personal and profession life. Arriving to the office early and leaving late, she was only sleeping a few hours a night and consuming an unhealthy diet. Her work was adversely affecting her physically and mentally, and she was in desperate need for boundaries.

At some point in our professions, all of us were sacrificial lambs—willing and available at a moment’s notice to do what had to be done to prove our worth as team players. All the while forfeiting our time, our self-esteem, our energies, and as in Sade’s case, our health, for the “greater good” that turns out to not be so great for us. Boundaries define our limits and encourage moderation. Our desire to perform and achieve is an admirable and purposeful aspiration; however, without boundaries, it can lead to excessive behaviors and a very toxic lifestyle.

After a much-needed vacation, Sade was able to reclaim her work-life balance. In defining a daily routine, she put boundaries in place that were reasonable, effective, beneficial, and agreeable to not only her but to her employer. In gaining her footing, she was able to be her fiercest self, by her definition. She says, “For me, fierce means being unapologetically the healthiest version of yourself … whether that is relationally healthy, spiritually healthy, mentally healthy, [or] emotionally healthy.” When we are not our healthiest, our most essential qualities and unique personalities are not on full display. When we are our best, we shine for the world to see! Sade’s journey shows us that it was her character that allowed her to navigate risk strategically, overcome rejection gracefully, and to experience all the great rewards that come with achieving great professional accomplishments.