The impact of ‘career trauma’ and staying in your lane of ‘positive influence’ – By Bola Abisogun OBE

“If you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” – [late] Toni Morrison

Now that Black History Month has passed, and as we prepare for another ‘official’ celebration in October 2020, I’d like to take this opportunity to contextualise why that month in particular is so important to people of Black origin, with a particular focus on the workplace. The assumption I have deployed is that the reader is familiar with the current day statistics of the low representation of both the women and BAME populations across the built environment, in particular the Surveying profession.

Is there a reason why we feel that the pursuit of success in the workplace is all that is worth achieving, in the workplace?

Is it fair to assume that ‘mutual respect’ for EACH other is (or should be) a de-facto principle of our mutual acknowledgement and continued co-existence to deliver the client’s brief?

How many ‘self-less’ professional people have you met, that didn’t harp on about their next promotion, and actually asked “so how are you today”?

Did you ever wonder why you were overlooked for a promotion that should have come your way but simply went in another direction (and, to a lesser qualified individual) …..?

Is there a reason why the upper-echelons across society, defer to pull rank when and if they are about to be exposed, undermined or even called-out?

Does the reality of being good at what you do, and capable of outshining ‘the Master’, quash and cripple your inner-confidence rendering you to simply submit to the reality of having to ‘be average and just coast’, possibly at the expense of your own career, thus allowing others to catch up (or simply believe that they have caught up)…..?

Questions, queries and daily challenges for the ‘ordinary’ employee and committed grafter. No-one said it was going to be a walk in the park (easy), or, that life was going to be fair (really?) – and no-one dared suggest that simply ‘being good at what you do’ will be enough. In fact, one thing for sure – [aside from an untimely death and increasing taxes] is that everyone can identify with the mantra – it’s not what you know, but who you know and also who knows you. Oh, and you can forget the free-lunch too [unless of course you are prepared to pay for it yourself!].

Recently, I’ve had an opportunity to contextualise on the above, in real time. For the record, I’m really just a humble young man, with great genes (care of my Mother!) and an ability to not only look after my own family, but that of many others too. But a word of caution, according to some in my professional circle, I am ‘exceptionally gifted’, emotionally intelligent and purposefully driven. And, throughout my career I have willingly taken on the challenge(s) whatever shape or form it has arrived in. Like many, I take pride in overcoming the challenge(s) that ‘Mother Nature’ decides to throw at us; whilst achieving outcomes that so many others had said was virtually (I’m)possible. In fact, I want to take this opportunity to publicly apologise, profusely, to all the doubters and naysayers, and simply affirm that I just don’t do (or accept) failure.

You see, where I was born and raised – on the Kingsmead Estate in Hackney, east London – failure, was a luxury that I simply could not afford to own, it was never an option for me or those around me. I am also extremely sorry for not having conformed to the ‘stereotypical’ outcome, but my armour of humility and quiet confidence continues to mature like a fine wine. In time, I may remove my cork and open up to be poured – choosing to be shared by many, but as I conclude to comfortably remain closed, my inherent value proposition will simply appreciate, exponentially too.

Today, I live firmly in the knowledge that my many ancestors, have indeed endured – on my behalf – and their collective pain has simply equipped me to withstand the ‘established norms’. That pain includes my ‘life-long’ commitment to raising the bar of excellence, maintaining an acceptability of the facts [as they stand] and inspiring the next generation to be better, bigger, bolder and more informed than I could ever be. I was raised by loving Nigerian parents to pay it forward, no if’s but’s or daydreams.

Luckily for me, in most quarters across the professional world, failure is selectively permitted, but only if you are the one that gets to approve it and affirm that it’s ok. If on the other hand – like me – you are or have been on the receiving end of a derogatory workplace existence, then take a moment to pray and make sure that you are either head strong and/or ridiculously resilient in the face of adversity. Do not pray for revenge, pray only for sympathy and time to heal yourself, as He (as only He can) will take care of the mess. Being (constantly) told that you are no good at what you know to be your God given calling, particularly by an individual that is of a distinctly lower level of emotional intelligence (and capability) is potentially damaging to one’s own self-confidence. And, if you remain within hearing distance of such negative rhetoric and allow same to be frequently repeated in and around you; you will not be forgiven for actually beginning to believe it.

It is from this perspective that I wish to affirm – as an educated BAME professional of Black origin – that Black History Month is not only a time for dutiful reflection of the historic [and perhaps current] struggle for equality and mutual respect, but also a timely reminder of what must be continuously upheld and progressed, by all of us – ALL year round. I am reminded daily by the ‘spiritual’ presence of so many bold and brave figures; by their well-documented personal and collective sacrifice(s), such that I will never be allowed (or indeed permitted) to take such profound evidence for granted. The physical pain and emotional suffering, endured day after day, without recourse or mindful consideration for the trauma taking place within the person [and their extended family], simply inspires me to be the best version of myself.

My role [i.e. my purpose] is to raise the game and pay my respects through my attained level of excellence. I cannot become complacent because I fully appreciate that my purpose on this planet, is not about me, but about all of those individuals who are relying on me to perform at my best; and there are many. It cannot be right – by any stretch of the imagination – that by simply going into your designated place of work, any one individual (or group of individuals) is subjected to and treated in an abhorrent manner. Neither can it be right to expect a mere mortal to deliver outcomes that only a machine could deliver day in – day out, without deviation. Only a machine is ‘process driven’. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, IQ over EQ equals NO clue……. those that know, know!

Intentionally, I have just attempted to describe a modicum of the daily reality of many professionals [of all races, physical capabilities, sexual orientation and gender] in many workplaces, across the world. Fortunately, I remain privileged by my daily contact with many Surveyors and built environment professionals [including Client representatives] who absolutely detest going into their workplace, but remain ‘obligated’ to put on a brave face and suffer the daily tribulation of trying to earn a dollar / pound note / naira /euro etc. I have also alluded to and baked in my own personal experience of the workplace (in the UK), all symptomatic of the daily suffering instigated by ill-equipped and in some cases, completely incompetent management teams.

The fact is that whilst I was always convinced that karma exists, it does not make up for the ‘career trauma’ that has been – and regrettably, will continue to be experienced by many, present company included. You see, as a pre-requisite to adverse mental health conditions, some experiences never truly leave the individual and that is why we all – as human beings – have to be mindful of each others vulnerabilities. Notwithstanding, what I can say is that in seeking to ensure that no negative experience(s) overwhelms your wholeself, one must be sure to contextualise the pain and [if possible] share with those who have both the time and a sympathetic ear to listen.

For me, there is no such thing as a coincidence and I always reach back and pay it forward. I can clearly recall the morning that I received ‘the call’ from the Cabinet Office. It was Monday 10 December 2018, and I stood there in my Client’s reception area barely able to take in the telephone conversation as I was so physically and mentally tired. I mean, I was in complete shock and thought it was a prank call. More to the point, I had – that very weekend – just emptied my London office (in Hackney) where we had traded successfully for the last 15years, but which we were forced to leave as a direct result of complicit behaviour by others. No mistake at our end other than to aspire to be the professional that wanted to uphold the terms of the contracts in place, as they had been intended to be applied [and enforced].

But, on the 22nd October 2018 the bailiffs demanded the keys and I had until the 10th December 2018, to clear, clean and vacate the building. So, when the caller finally asked whether I would accept the Queens honour bestowed upon me, I simply remember saying to him “well, I stand on the shoulders of others……”. Just over two weeks later, on the 28th December 2018, it was official and I had been made an Officer of the realm. That achievement was for my ancestors (and my Nigerian parents!).

“It is when you are at your weakest that you have to be your strongest”

Wise words from my late ‘Baba Seriki’ – and how right he was, may his soul rest in eternal peace.

So, I will leave you with this; yes, the lure of the corporate world is great, the corner, glazed office is of significant importance if you aspire to be seen as important and then there is the corporate expense account and associated monthly salary which is also a nice to have, along with the luxury SUV or company sports car. All are indicative of the many benefits enjoyed throughout my 25year journey as an industry leader and Senior Exec, but to what extent does any of this become relevant when you have to leave all of the above behind? In fact, it is not until you finally leave all of those things, move on and (hopefully) retire, that you inherit the ability to think freely, on your own terms and in your own time. And that is often when it hits you, like a toe that connects with a door that was in the right place, but caused you pain when you moved your foot into the wrong position (ouch!). The only real question of material significance becomes one that often leads to self-denial and many regrets; my question is this:-

…..what ‘positive-impact’ did you make towards the lives of others and what is (or will be) the real legacy of your ‘successful’ career?…..

We must always remember, it’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice. As Chartered Surveyors, citing our RICS Rules of Conduct and also our Professional Ethics: we must unfailingly #TreatOthersWithRespect at all times.

God willing, let’s revisit the above in October 2020, until then…….. it’s up to you.

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