Orrin Woodward LIFE Leadership Team

Winner of the 2011 Independent Association of Business Top Leader Award; Orrin Woodward shares his leadership secrets.

  • Orrin Woodward


    This is the blog where leaders come to learn with NY Times, Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Money & Business Weekly best selling co-author of Launching a Leadership Revolution & 2011 IAB Top Leadership Award winner - . This blog is an Alltop selection and ranked in HR's Top 100 Blogs for Management & Leadership.

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Meritocracy & the Middle Class Squeeze

Posted by Orrin Woodward on February 3, 2012

Meritocracy and the Middle Class Squeeze

When I was a young, growing up in Columbiaville, Michigan, I loved watching sports. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat taught me so many lessons that I applied to life. In fact, I believe the lessons I learned from watching, playing, and modeling my favorite athletes helped form who I am today. Furthermore, because of my sports heroes, I became an avid reader of sports biographies, learning many of their secrets to success.

I had no idea how instrumental the hundreds of books read of my sports heroes would affect me. In truth, it wasn’t until I began teaching leadership for a profession that I realized what an impact my early reading had on my life. The numerous stories of young men who dreamed, struggled, and persevered until they had their victory, taught me that anything is possible in life if one is willing to work hard enough and endure through the expected setbacks.

Perhaps I was naive and should have known better, but my meritocratic world-view was shaped by playing, watching and reading about competitive sports – one of the last remaining bastions of a performance based meritocracy.  In other words, in the competitive arena of sports, no points are given because of your previous record, your family’s background, or your ability to talk smack. Each game has pre-defined rules, an impartial referee, and competitors who begin equal with the right to become unequal based upon their performance as individuals and as teams.

In high school, I suffered from severe low self-esteem, constantly viewing others as better than myself. In many ways they were better, however, I carried it to the extreme, typically defeating myself before the competition even began. It’s hard to hide from the scoreboard, especially when you are a runner and wrestler. All eyes are upon you and you cannot blame anyone else for a lackluster performance. The scoreboard provides the facts for both victories or defeats.

Although starting late in both endeavors (junior year), I rapidly improved through hard work, great coaching, and experience, ultimately receiving several awards – most improved wrestler my senior year  (losing 5-2 to the national record holder for pins in a high school career),  All-Genesee County in Cross-Country, and anchoring the 2 mile relay that set the school record.  I say all of this, not to relive high school sports, but to share a key principle learned. It’s only through the willingness to endure painful experiences, persistent practices, and constructive feedback that a person can separate himself from the crowd. Simply put, meritocracy demands performance.

With my foundational principles formed along with a Manufacturing Systems Engineering degree from GMI-EMI (now Kettering), I boldly entered into my professional career. I believed through the application of the same principles that had helped me achieve success in competitive sports, that I would quickly rise to the top at GM. However, nothing could have been further from the truth.

It’s not that my career didn’t start well enough. For in less than three years of working full time, I had received four patents, was in the process of winning a national technical benchmarking award and received a 19% raise. Additionally, my division committed to covering all my tuition expenses for the #2 nationally ranked MBA program though University of Michigan. I was living the life I had dreamed, being on the fast-track at General Motors and developing a tight relationship with the Director of Engineering of our multi-billion dollar Delphi division.

So what went wrong?

One of the most painful moments in a person’s life is when he realizes there is no port of call for the ship of his dreams. In other words, even people who work hard, waiting for their ship to come in, will find they waited their life away. The old plan of working hard, getting good grades, going to college, and getting a good job with benefits is DEAD! In fact, it’s rotting corpse has been buried for years.

My personal realization of this fact came when Laurie was pregnant with our first child. Naively, I went to my boss and explained to him my dilemma. Laurie was working as an accountant, but we both wanted her to be a stay-at-home mother to raise our family. I asked my boss what I needed to do in order to be promoted to 8th level and receive a company car. I knew it would take this level of income to fulfill the plan of having Laurie home.

One can imagine my shock when I was told that I was only 25, and no matter how hard I worked, or what I accomplished, I would not be promoted until at least 30 years of age. Moreover, our division had over 100 extra 8th levels already so being promoted at 30 was a long shot. Talk about a bubble being burst! This was a blow below the belt that I was completely not expecting. I felt like a rat in the proverbial rat race, running around the maze as fast as I could with dead ends everywhere I looked. I vowed to get out of the rat race, no matter how difficult or painful.

Do you have a story to share of your middle class squeeze? Part II of mine tomorrow. Sincerely, Orrin Woodward

10 Responses to “Meritocracy & the Middle Class Squeeze”

  1. Elaine Mallios said

    Oh yeah. It happened to us too. I was a nurse and kept making less each year. More for parking, more for continuing ed, more for insurance, etc. My self employed husband – same thing. Food costs kept rising in the restaurant , profit margins were lower. We tried a lot of stuff. Buying and selling real estate, building houses, night shift, day shift, marketing nursing ed materials, just crazy. Then we figured out the old ways didn’t work!

  2. John Graff said

    …And to think I thought I knew your story inside and out, right-side up and upside down?!? I wasn’t aware of the 19% raise or the ‘discussion’ of what was required to become 8th-level. From one engineer to another (and in my case, I use that term loosely), a dead end is a dead. Thanks for showing us the way out.

  3. I will just say I am forever grateful that I haven’t had to experience the middle class squeeze being that I was introduced to the TEAM early in life. While I know it teaches many life lessons, I would prefer to learn those lessons from other people’s experiences. Thank you for carrying the torch and allowing us ‘young folks’ to take responsibility for our freedom using the-life-business and TEAM. The middle class squeeze doesn’t have to happen for everyone! My mission is to make sure of it. Thank you for being so transparent in your story!

  4. Ricki Wines said

    Dear Orrin,
    Thank you so much for your everything you and the Life Founders do and providing us with the vehicle to reach our dreams. I enjoy reading your story’s to know that anyone can do the LIFE business if they set their mind to it, learn the system, and perform. Being in automotive 25 years I have succeed in everything I have done, however my salary keeps going down and down. I have always wanted to work for the big three ….I have what it takes but I don’t have a college degree. I have found in the Auto Industry that knowledge, Experience and even my performance gets me where i want to be. All the postings for new jobs lately have a degree required. I love the fact that LIFE doesn’t require a degree to define your potential, your income, your purpose or your dreams.

  5. JILLIAN MANTON said

    Orrin, what you have just shared I can totally relate too. How to stay focused and positive when your beliefs may be different and unsupported by some who may be important to you. How to understand the wisdom of leading with a fresh but mindset even when you may have just been an observer up to this point.

    Sometimes in the journey of discovery, we havent yet put into place and mastered that which we can see is more relevant, so we loose credibility. This is when we have to back our own judgement if its true and pursue forward. Im looking forward to your next section.
    Jill Manton

  6. rjfisher1 said

    Reblogged this on Richard and Jammie Fisher Leadership and commented:
    This is part one of a blog that Orrin Woodward wrote. I believe it is the beginning of the biggest movement we may see in our lifetime. Inform yourself with what he lays out here, and find out what part you can play in the restoration of our nation.

  7. Jessica Wienke said

    At age 22 my husband and I were working our lives away trying to live the “American” dream. He was working nights as a mechanic while I worked days drawing houses. We couldn’t seem to figure out how to move forward financial and with our life dreams. It’s not that we weren’t willing to work hard, but rather we didn’t see that the way we were working hard was going to pay off. It was at that point we decided to take our lives savings and start a self employed construction business. Over the next year and a half we both worked as usual for our employers and we built homes in our spare time. We built three homes during that time and had dreams of leaving our jobs on the horizon! What we didn’t know is that there was no real way to keep the $ we had earned. It seemed the only way to keep it from being taxed away was to reinvest it into the next project or to live in one of the projects long enough to get around tax law. It was crazy! There we were, squashed in the middle with no answers. Shortly after this realization we were introduced to Team. The biggest thing we saw that first day was a opportunity to be paid on our performance and a system to run the business. We were willing to what ever (legal, moral & ethical) it would take for our dreams.

  8. Maribel Damphousse said

    Taking time to read your blogs is like taking time to be mentored, to learn from the best and to follow the footsteps of one who has the results. Thank you for the time you devote in writing your blogs in order to teach, to develop our thinking and to show us the way. God bless!

  9. Rob Crichlow said

    When a software company I founded was eventually sold to a fortune 1000 company, I discovered that your comment about working hard and pursuing a career with passion would provide your dreams of being appreciated and accomplished was indeed a ‘rotting corpse’. I watched people, many superstars at what they did, who had invested most of their career with our software company, be treated as if they were just a placeholder in a position. The only real solution for people today is pursuing leadership … thanks for being a great example.

  10. Jerry Robbins said

    I was recently retired,at 42 years old, from the military in Canada with 20 years service, getting 1/4 of my pay while I was in as a pension, and working security for a university. I had a co worker that just turned 70 along side me doing the same thing I was doing. Sure the work wasn’t hard, however the shifts were 12 hours, days and nights. I had a young family with two girls ages 4 and 1. When I was introduced to the TEAM and Leadership I was forced to look at my co-worker and realized that if I kept doing the security bit I was going to be like him. It was a sad, sad day for me. I had two children from a previous Marriage and lost them when they were young never being able to have the time with them that was needed for me to be the Father I wanted, so I realized that this time around as a new Father I wanted to make sure things were different. Time became the most important commodity in my life. Time with my family that is. I realized then that what I learnt up until that point in my life got me to where I was, and I needed to start to learn something new. That is when I bought into reading, listening to, and associating with different people. Now my life is tremendously much better than it was 7 years ago. We, of course, are not exactly where we want to be, however we are getting there. We now home school our children and my Wife does not work. I have become very passionate about Leadership and realize that if we do not teach the next generation Leadership Principles then there may be no future for society. Although we are two different Countries, as far as I am concerned we are the same. I want to bring the dream back into North Americans minds of FREEDOM. Although I know that compared to other countries in the world we are Free-er than others, I don’t feel too free when over 50% of my money goes to taxes. I only feel half free. It really is time for a revolution. A leadership Revolution.
    God Bless.

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