A new destination on the work horizon might beckon, but how do you get there? Derek Parker explores the issue.
We are often, for better or worse, what we do. It is the nature of our society that people tend to define themselves by their occupation, and are likewise defined by others. When a job provides personal fulfilment, satisfaction and purpose, this model works well. But for many people, at some point in their lives they find themselves confronted by an old question: ‘Is this all there is?’ If the answer is no, then the time may have come for a radical change.
The reasons are varied. The de-layering of corporate hierarchies means fewer opportunities for advancement. Companies themselves are increasingly subject to flux, with greater outsourcing of a huge range of functions.
More personally, some people find themselves no longer challenged by their work. They may have been promoted or displaced from the very tasks that attracted them to the job in the first place, or they may have become so familiar with their role that there are simply no new frontiers in sight. Boredom – not just with a job but with the life built around it – is not an insignificant factor.
So how does one go about making a radical change? How do you decide what will be more fulfilling?
One person who has made the transition from a corporate role to self-employment is Ann Tout, who moved from a HR role at Westpac to successfully running her own executive coaching firm, 6e Leadership Coaching.
“At some point in your life, you start to think about what it is you really enjoy,” she says. “I realised that the most satisfying thing for me was enabling other people. Setting up a small business was the best way for me to do that. At the same time, it gave me the flexibility and overall balance in my life that I wanted.
“The process makes you think about your personal resources and talents. There are certainly practical problems in going it alone, and issues like cash flow and marketing take careful planning and thought. If your clients are large companies, you can find that they run on a different timetable to you, and that requires patience. But if you see the difficulties as challenges waiting to be solved, it turns into a satisfying experience.”
Dougall Walker, General Manager for Australasia of the highly successful surfwear and sports company Billabong, is an example of a senior executive who has signalled that he will be stepping out of the pivotal role when a successor can be found.
“I’ve been with the company 18 years now, and I’ve seen it grow into a major enterprise,” he says. “But I have a young family, and they’re not getting any younger. I know that the company has got a lot of good talent ready to come up, and I’m ready to move on. It’s a win-win situation.”
Walker, a one-time professional surfer, also plans to spend more time on the waves and, he explains, “generally kick back”. But he sees his professional life as far from over, saying: “I’ve accrued a lot of expertise, and I plan to use it – perhaps in a consulting capacity to Billabong or in a small business way. If you look, you can always find plenty of projects to pursue.”
Going it alone
Ian Benjamin is one person who took a circuitous path to find satisfaction in his work. After passing through several large organisations, he developed a three-pronged consultancy. His major and preferred activity is his role as a self-employed trainer of consultants, and has provided guidance to more than 5000 intending and practising consultants. In his book Consulting, Contracting and Freelancing: Be Your Own Boss #, Benjamin argues that the transition to a solo service provider or small business operator provides a solution for many people who have grown dissatisfied with work in a corporate environment.
He believes that those who make the transition to self-employment fall into one of three groups: passionate practitioners, who take great pride in their work and believe that they can better practice and perfect their craft outside a corporate environment; lifestyle seekers, who want the flexibility of self-employment as well as a greater opportunity to balance work and non-work aspects of their life; and reluctant recruits, who look at self-employment after being made redundant or moving (unhappily) into retirement.
“The issue of looking for more from life than what you can get in a nine-to-five job comes up again and again,” Benjamin told Management Today. “Many people get fed up with the politics that often comes with a large organisation and just want to get on with their real job. Then there are people, especially women, who become ‘freed up’ as their family responsibilities change, and start to think that they owe something to themselves.”
But being successful as a sole service practitioner or in a small business can be more difficult than it appears, and careful preparation is needed.
“For people who are moving into a new and unfamiliar area, I advise getting some specialist training in the field,” says Benjamin. “You should also observe someone already working in the field, as a sort of apprenticeship. You need to understand the work pressure as well as the lifestyle aspects.”
For those who stay in a similar line of work, especially those in the ‘passionate practitioner’ group, the problem is often more about creating and running a viable enterprise.
“You only realise how much infrastructure a corporation provides when you have to pay all the bills and do all the paperwork yourself,” Benjamin notes. “There is a tendency to work in the business rather than on the business. Many people start off with a few client relationships they have brought with them from their corporate work but eventually they will need to develop others. So you need to maintain communication skills, and you need to keep up-to-date with industry developments.”
Benjamin also identifies the pricing of work as a problem for those who take up a consulting role, and his book sets out a range of suggested fees. Another issue that is often overlooked is the marketing of the business, which should take a prominent place in the business plan.
Significantly, Benjamin has shifted his base of operations to Maroochydore, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast (although he retains a presence in Melbourne). This points to another aspect of radical career change: the move from the CBD.
“There has been a steady shift away from the major cities towards coastal communities for the past quarter-century,” says Bernard Salt, Partner, Property, KPMG, and author of The Big Shift: Welcome to the Third Australian Culture †. “But in the past ten years the focus has shifted from retirees to people in their late forties and early fifties, people who want to make a lifestyle change but also want to continue to work. Some decide they want a complete break and take up a different type of work in the local area, but many continue in the same field they were in before, or in something related. The difference is that they work as a consultant or contractor, working from home and utilising the skills they have accrued through their conventional working life. They see it as involving much less stress than a CBD job, but they still feel they are productive.”
Salt notes that areas such as Sunshine Beach in Queensland, Nowra in New South Wales and the Torquay/Lorne area of Victoria seem to be particularly attractive to ‘sea changers’, and have a high proportion of home-based workers.
The spread of Internet-based communications technology is one of the underlying factors of the shift, although Salt believes that this group wants to retain access to a major city – and, significantly, to a major airport.
“This shift will be one of the hallmarks of the next decade,” Salt says. “What we have seen so far is just the thin end of the demographic wedge.”
Whether a career change should extend to a fundamental lifestyle shift is a question that each person must decide for themselves. However, the difficulty of undergoing radical change should not be underestimated. Leaving the safety of a steady corporate position takes courage, especially when the short-term consequence is a period of confusion and instability. But the ultimate goal can be, for those who choose the road, extremely satisfying.
According to Herminia Ibarra, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD and author of the new book Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career *, making the change can be extremely difficult. In her book, Ibarra examines 39 professionals who made major career transitions – a psychiatrist who became a Buddhist monk, an IT manager who became an independent coach, and a literature professor who became a stockbroker, for example – and reaches some surprising conclusions.
“First, we are not one self but many selves,” she says. “We cannot simply trade in the old working identity for a new one or upgrade to version 2.0. To reinvent ourselves, we must go through a period of transition. Second, it is extremely hard to think out how to reinvent ourselves, and to go about it in a planned and orderly way. No amount of self-reflection can substitute for the direct experience we need to evaluate alternatives.”
An irony is that some of the transitions Ibarra discusses are, on analysis, less radical than they first appear. The psychiatrist, for instance, came to realise that the elements of Buddhism that most appealed to him were very similar to those that first drew him to medicine. In this sense, an important aspect of defining a new career is to understand what it is that provides personal satisfaction. It might be building connections with others, meeting intellectual challenges, or working at a frontier of knowledge.
For many people, especially those in the second half of their working life, answering this question can mean looking back to one’s earlier days, and matching the motivations of that younger self with present circumstances.
Ibarra believes that people who want to radically change their working life should act rather than over-analyse. An exploration phase can take the form of applying for jobs, looking at postings, or talking to headhunters. It can also include taking up temporary assignments or undertaking voluntary work. The key is to look at possibilities outside the routine framework of one’s life, and a good step is to consciously build new social networks. The capacity to look beyond the usual is easier for some people than others, depending on the nature of their existing work.
“Professionals such as lawyers, consultants and academics generally have more autonomy over their work schedules than most other occupations,” Ibarra notes. “They already have one foot on the outside, in their work with clients and their interaction with the world at large, and that helps when it comes to reinvention. On the other hand, managers bogged down by internal meetings and such typically do not have much freedom. So finding ways to step back is especially critical for them. Sabbaticals, chunking up vacations, moving to freelance work, or simply chucking it all without a safety net are frequent tactics used by managers wanting to move on to the next thing.”
Experimentation with different jobs and types of work represents progress towards a fulfilling role, but the transition period can be fairly lengthy. Ibarra believes that major career transitions can take up to five years.
* Herminia Ibarra, Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career, Harvard Business School Press, 2003.
# Ian Benjamin, Consulting, Contracting and Freelancing: Be Your Own Boss, Allen & Unwin, 2003.
† Bernard Salt, The Big Shift: Welcome to the Third Australian Culture, Hardie Grant, 2003.