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View From the Top: Become an Executive?

Over the last decade or so I’ve seen my career soar.  I took a step back the other day and realized my income has increased by 35% in the last 4 years.  Not too shabby.  I’ve enjoyed my success but I wanted to post a cautionary tale, the view from the top as an executive may not be worth it.

I have turned down Executive Roles

My current job is an individual contributor role, basically the top level you can achieve in my company.  I however have been a manager before as well.  I’ve had roles in many different organizations in ways that some would consider multiple careers.  And yes, I’ve been offered executive roles to leave my current company in the past.  And yet, I turn them down.

The sirens call of an executive position

Let’s be honest, it’s alluring.  Be an executive.  Make a huge amount of the decisions that shape the company rather than just heavily influence them as I do.  Not to mention the massive boost in pay.  I make very good money where I am at.  I make a decent stock bonus as well.  But to be honest my incentive bonuses don’t hold a candle to an executive position.  All positives for making the leap.  So why haven’t I?

Downsides of an Executive Position

The reasons for me are three fold.  You see my current role has me sitting on executive staff meetings and working hand in hand with them.     So the life and world of an executive, at least at my current company, is not a mystery to me.  Well the job comes with two major down sides.

  • The first one is the control to make decisions is an illusion.  I might be able to heavily influence decisions while an executive can make a few decisions, but the key word is a few.  There is always someone else higher in charge.  A President to a VP, a CEO to a President, a board to a CEO, and even a share holder to a board.    The reality is the big decisions aren’t made in the vacuum of an individual.  So no matter how high you climb you won’t be truly making the decisions.

This also means the politics get worse the higher you climb.  The higher you are the less time you spend doing and the more time you spend trying to garner support for your ideas.  I’ve spent a career trying to get support for changes and I can tell you it’s extremely stressful.  But in my case it’s just one tiny sliver of my job.  I also design, test, train, cheerlead, and any other number of things.  I can’t imagine what life would be like if the only thing I did was attempt to change people’s minds.

  • The hours are brutal.  It seems a cliché it is so common, the executive that works themselves to death.  I’m here to tell you it’s true.  Almost every successful executive I’ve met is a workaholic.   I’ve witnessed at least 2 have a breakdown from the number of hours they work.   Beside the 12 hour days many of them in large corporations travel non stop.  While I travel a lot for work, I have nothing on some of my executives.  I travel somewhere around 8-12 weeks a year depending on the year.  Most of the executives I know approach 50 percent of the time.   Work is all most of them have.  That life frankly is not for me as I like knowing my kids, traveling for fun, etc.  
  • My company is a serial acquirer of other businesses.  There is one thing I’ve noticed about almost every acquisition.  The acquires executives are the first to be shown the door.   At the level of executive frankly it’s very tough to move to another executive role outside your industry.  As such in a way an executive role ties your well being to your companies even closer.  Your job stability in effect decreases when you become an executive unless the acquisition will make you financially.

Deciding to Stay Where We Are

Honestly as I pause and reflect on what I’ve written so far in this post I come to a quick conclusion about an executive role.  It’s got all the downsides of being self employed: long hours,  stress, and increased risk of job loss.   Even with the fantastic pay it’s missing one of the major positives of self employment, the income potential is not limitless as you are still working at someone else’s beck and call.    So in a way if you can be successful at it starting your business is probably a better deal than being an executive.

So if I truly ever decide I want to move up from here, at least for me it’s probably a better move to start my own business.  Read more about the process of starting your own business here.

What do you think?  Any executives out there with a different perspective?


  1. Mr. 39 Months
    Mr. 39 Months August 15, 2018

    Not that much of a different perspective. I’ve been a “boss” almost my entire professional career. The old joke is that the best thing about being the boss is the people, and the worst thing is…..the people.

    Still, the ability to make some decisions is a big lure that I see in my engineering profession for folks to take the plunge.

    As I close in on FI, I am looking to drop down from the role of director/executive, and just do my own engineering work. Call it burnout or whatever, but it does wear on you after some time.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance August 15, 2018

      Makes perfect sense based on what I’ve observed over the years.

      As a former people manager all I have to say is so true. Your team can be the greatest part of your job or the worst nightmare. Often times it can be both at once.

  2. Steveark
    Steveark August 15, 2018

    I worked at one place from summer intern to VP and General Manager where I was technically employed at the pleasure of the Board of Directors. While I enjoyed being an individual contributor a lot and then running a technical team of brilliant engineers for several years I always had my sights set on advancement. The thing I noticed about becoming a corporate officer were that the stock awards and bonuses were two or three or even ten times larger than any individual contributor could earn. The hours were not much worse than average if you were talented enough to produce a lot of work quickly but the politics were, in fact, more complicated. However, anyone with the political talent to rise to that level is not going to be overwhelmed by the politics, you’ve got a pretty thick skin at that point or you would have never made it that far.

    As you said the decision making is kind of a myth. In a way I made the most decisions as an individual contributor because they were down in the weeds of my projects and the people above me did not know enough to get involved in them. But as my authority grew the kinds of decisions became very public and everyone from the CEO on down thought they were an expert. And of course when I had eight engineers who were just like me to lead life was easy but when I had 700 people with different jobs it got a lot messier.

    I think had I not hit that level before I slightly early retired I would have always wondered what it was like so I’m glad I hung around to find out. In truth the absolute most fun I had was when I ran a group of individual contributors and was able to be a player and coach at the same time.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance August 19, 2018

      Thanks for the personal example Steve. More money does await those that clime hire. One does have to ask if it’s worth it.

  3. Dr. Dividend
    Dr. Dividend August 17, 2018

    I have to agree with you here! While as enticing and alluring an executive position may sounds, I do find one will sacrifice the more important and fruitful experiences life has to offer. Granted to him/her their own, but for me, work/life balance is essential! I like to work for a-b hours, then “play” from c-z hours 😉 I like how you outlined the reason for it, and the reasons against it. Thanks for the great post fullTimeFinance.

  4. Cubert
    Cubert August 18, 2018

    Part of me wonders if we work for the same company, especially when you mention the never-ending acquisitions…

    Excellent piece and a cautionary tale to anyone who things the executive life is “all that”. It tests your patience, your pride, and your sanity. All of the execs I know are seemingly always on-guard. Buzzed out on caffeine, or trying to escape for cig break.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance August 19, 2018

      You never know;)

  5. Mr. Need2Save
    Mr. Need2Save August 19, 2018

    Although I’m not bumping up against an executive position, I am a Senior Director. That comes along with a modest amount of influence and having around 12 direct reports. Most of the time I enjoy the ‘coaching’ aspect of working with my team.

    Looking at what my boss (VP level) needs to deal with, I’m fine staying at my current level. I’m an engineer at heart and once you hit the VP level, it’s all about project management, yearly metrics, etc. I still enjoy my small doses of engineering work.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance August 22, 2018

      Long time no read (on your site or here). There is certainly something therapeutic about doing things yourself from time to time.

  6. Simon |
    Simon | August 19, 2018

    A wise commentary. Some of these exec roles are burn out material. When you’re making good money it’s a good idea to invest to help iron out the ups and downs of the employment market in the future.

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