By: Tom Miller, Former SVP and CIO of Coca-Cola and Anthem

The irony of my story is that I was invited to lunch one day by an executive that offered me a promotion. As I contemplated the implications of that career move, my gut told me I needed to turn it down to avoid getting trapped in a suboptimal career path. Here’s how it went down.

I was enjoying a successful early career at Coca-Cola. I was crushing it and after just three years in sales and having won both state and national-level awards, was likely to be offered my own branch office very soon. I was also finishing up an undergraduate degree in computer technology at the time.

It was the last selling day of the quarter and we needed to hit a target that was 4x our daily average of 9,000 cases and 2x our distribution center’s all time high of 17,000 cases. We did it! I’ll never forget the euphoria of working through that day, calling on accounts, selling truckloads, and then coming back to the office to celebrate with the other salespeople. High fives were flying! We were the all-time sales champions of our city and perhaps the entire state.

Then it happened. As we were sorting the paper sales orders into truckload deliveries, the lead Teamsters warehouseman appeared in the sales office with a hopeless look on his face. He scoffed as he said, “this is never going to happen.” The bubble burst. We had just sold 38,000 cases to shatter every sales record, but that was the easy part. The hard part was the logistics challenge of physically loading that much product on delivery vehicles throughout the night.

I knew immediately what I had to do. I pulled off my tie and rolled up my white shirt sleeves and said, “I’m not leaving until it’s done.” We worked all night long, loading all the company trucks and at least a dozen rental trucks. Delivery drivers started arriving at 4:30 AM, returning thereafter for load after load. Around mid-day it became apparent that we would hit the goal. It was a miracle, and I was exhausted. I shot a prayer up to heaven that went something like, “Thank you God! But don’t you see me? This is NOT a white-collar job!”

Moments later an announcement came over the loudspeaker that I had a call from a VP that wanted to talk to me. It was Ted, and he wanted to meet for lunch. Primed by my desperate prayer, I was confident this would be about a promotion. There was an opening in a mid-sized branch not far away and I was hoping it would be mine.

We met that next week and Ted began to tell me that I had a great sales career ahead of me and he would like to offer me a branch manager job of a very small rural distribution center in a place called “Bad Axe.” I mean, if the size of the opportunity wasn’t disappointing enough, it was going to be in a town called “Bad Axe?” I immediately thought of becoming known as the “Bad Ass from Bad Axe” and wondered if that would be a badge of honor or something more akin to a criminal’s title.

I was disappointed. I thought about moving my family to another city so I could “branch manage” an operation smaller than the partial branch I was helping to manage presently. I couldn’t see it. I asked for a larger branch and was told that I wasn’t ready. Ted said, “You want to play in the Super Bowl but you haven’t been to practice.”

I couldn’t stop thinking about the hassles of running a small branch, filling in for sales people, drivers and warehousemen that were out sick or on vacation. And the reward for killing it would be another move to a slightly larger branch, and then another and another. I imagined twenty years of uprooting and moving my family around to finally get to a true senior management position. I couldn’t see it so I said, “no thanks.”

I surprised myself with the boldness of my response. I had the audacity to turn down not just a promotion, but an entire career path that had been laid out before me. Perhaps it was the fact that I was working on a technology degree that gave me hope of another career path. Then it hit me. I caught a glimpse of a vision of my colleagues bustling around the first floor of a building. I then saw a couple people work their way up a tucked-away staircase to the next floor. There were a few less people there but they were bustling about too. Then a person on that floor found the staircase to a third floor. Less people, still hustling. I got the picture.

I looked at Ted and said, “The way I see it, everyone here thinks the only way up is the staircase, and few seem to find it. I’m not leaving this floor until I find the elevator.” My metaphor stunned both of us. Lunch was over and we parted with those final thoughts.

Sure enough, weeks later I was offered a promotion to a national-level job in a quasi-technology role that would launch a career in IT that gave me the elevator ride of my life! I ended up being promoted every two years for the next two decades, traveling the world, working in over fifty countries and eventually retiring as a chief information officer of the company.

I’ll never know how much I forfeited when I turned down the career path in sales that day over lunch, but I do know that it led to the most amazing and lucrative career I could have imagined. What started as a single bold decision over lunch became a God-ordained pathway to multi-generational wealth.

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