THE TYPICAL burned-out, stressed-out—or even merely disaffected—professional looking for change knows that he or she wants something new but doesn’t (yet) know what. Those of us with a little more direction come equipped with a long list of career ideas—one that is usually well padded with sensible options that really do not appeal. Even when we have more precise notions of what’s next, we tend to change our minds as we learn more about what they really entail. Bottom line, no matter where we start, our ideas for change change along the way, as we change. Where we end up often surprises us. For these reasons, as much as we would like to, we simply cannot plan and program our way into our reinvention.
Making a career change means rethinking our working identity. As Gary McCarthy’s story illustrates, this is not a straightforward process of trading in an old, tired role for a new and improved one; nor can we always make progress along a straight and linear path. Trying very hard to go in one direction can lead us, circuitously, to another. So spending a lot of time at the start looking inside to find the “truth” that can guide a systematic search can be counterproductive (it may even be a defense against changing). Sometimes the best way to find oneself is to flirt with many possibilities.
Everything hit Gary McCarthy all at once. After years of putting off the search for a more rewarding career, at age thirty-five the English business consultant got what he felt was a negative performance evaluation. His boss concluded—unfairly, thought Gary—that he had not pulled his weight on a key project. That was the last straw. It was one thing for Gary to decide to quit consulting; it was quite another for his company to tell him he was not up to par. That same week, Gary met Diana, the woman who would become his wife. The problem: He was already engaged to someone else.
“It was a snapping point,” says Gary, remembering that time in his life.
The bad study and meeting Diana happened in close proximity and prompted a major rethink. I finally bucked up the courage to see MetaConsulting Group (MCG) for what it was—a job.
If I look back over my career, I have always responded to social pressure, what others thought was the right thing for me to do. After college, I worked at a prominent investment bank. I was working with someone I admired, but I found the work boring and repetitive. At the end of five years, I realized that running valuation models was not fundamentally what I wanted to be doing. The work is very, very cookie-cutter. I’d never seen how a company works. All I did was process numbers.
I wanted to do something different but was shocked to realize that people were already pigeonholing me. I tried to brainstorm with friends and family about what other things I might do. All the ideas that came back were a version of “Well, you could get a middle management job in a finance department of a company.” Or, “You could become a trainee in a management program.” That prompted me to go to business school in the U.S., which typically means “I don’t like what I have been doing and I don’t know what to do next, so I’ll go to school for a couple of years and come up with a strategy.”
I absolutely loved being in the States. I had always dreamed of living on the West Coast. But I ended up doing the “Gary copout” again, just as I did out of college. MCG offered me a green card and a perch in San Francisco for a couple of years while I figured out what I really wanted to do. So I headed out there for a new beginning.
I did not enjoy consulting at MCG for the same reasons I had not liked banking. I liked the problem solving but found the work repetitive, the tools constraining. Intellectually, I enjoyed analyzing companies, but I hated the treadmill. And you are always the paid adviser. I longed to manage the problem, not the client. I wanted ownership of the solution.
After two years, I took a three-month sabbatical. I was tired. I needed a break, having burned myself out on a couple of big projects. But I knew it was a signal that I was starting to go into an exploration phase again. I was still in the “I don’t know what I want to do with my life” mode. I started looking at what I would call traditional transitions out of MCG. One idea was to explore alternative careers within MCG, in other offices. I spoke to the people in Hong Kong, where I’d spent my childhood, about helping them develop the MCG practice in Asia. At the same time, I started interviewing with companies like GE Capital, where I could combine my consulting and finance backgrounds. But it was obvious to me I didn’t want to do any of those things.
The bad evaluation really knocked me out, because deep in my heart I knew that I wasn’t as good at the job as I pretended to be. There was an element of truth to it. Yet it seemed unfair, in that it was delivered by a guy who had not spent any time understanding what was going on in the project. That combination of events was a catalyst: I was being told that I might fall off the ladder at MCG’s instigation rather than my own instigation. I had to recognize the fact that my heart wasn’t in it and that I had been going through the motions for some time.
I realized that until this time I had never said to myself, “You’d better be damn sure when you wake up that you’re doing what you want to be doing as opposed to what you feel you ought to be doing or what somebody else thinks you ought to be doing.” Within the space of three weeks, I told MCG I was leaving. I told them I wasn’t even remotely sure what I was going to do next, but I was going to take some time to think about it. I broke off my engagement and left California. I up and went home to the U.K.
Leaving California meant tearing up everything, both professionally and personally. It was shattering for those involved with me, particularly my very staid British parents. “You’re doing what? You’re giving up your job? You’re breaking off your engagement? There’s another woman?” But I had finally crossed a bridge in my own mind, from the “insecure overachiever” mindset into an “I will decide what I do with my life” attitude.
It wasn’t always easy, but it was an incredibly liberating year. I stayed on the MCG outplacement list for the whole of that year. I took up the offer of career counseling. It wasn’t hugely useful. They made me do two or three standard psychological tests like the Myers-Briggs. There was the “OK, you need to start thinking about what it is that you are looking for in your life” approach and the “Are there jobs that you think you would actually enjoy being in, and do any of those make sense in the context of where you are today?” tack. Then it was, “By the way, if you’re going to go off to do something weird, we probably can’t help you very much.” Based on that process, I divided my search into “conformist” and “nonconformist” lines of investigation.
I felt that whatever happened, I was going to find something I enjoyed and got excited about even if it was badly paid. Maybe I got the idea from
What Color Is Your Parachute?1 I made a list of people I admired and things I liked doing
It was a short list. There were two or three names on the “Choose someone you really want to work with” list: Richard Branson of Virgin, Charles Schwab, and, I think, the CEO of British Airways. Schwab was just launching the online brokerage, and that was exciting. British Airways was there because I’ve always had a great passion for the airline industry. Branson had always been a role model for me, almost a folk hero. So that represented combining the traditional path with an untraditional company.
The “nonconformist” path was to turn a passion into a living or to turn a personal interest into a small business. My passions were scuba diving and wine. Diana, who had by this time become my fiancée, shares my interest in wine. We looked at whether we could create a high-end wine tour business—the kind of thing in which we would arrange dinners with the owners of the chateaux. We’d be the tour leaders and live in a nice little house in rural France for a fraction of the price of anything in London, earning enough money to be cheerful and happy doing something we enjoy. We have friends who’ve done that. Diana and I went as far as drawing up a business plan for joining them.
But I felt that if I was going to go the alternative route—which meant a financial sacrifice—I was going to make sure I explored things I had always wanted to do. One was getting my scuba-diving-instructor qualifications. So I took two months off to go to Fort Lauderdale to diving-instructor school. I was surrounded by eighteen-year-olds, because that’s the age when people typically become diving instructors. I was thirty-five at the time. I spent eight weeks going from just being an enthusiastic recreational diver to a certified instructor. I got as far as gathering sales particulars for two scuba diving operations—one in the Caribbean, the other in Hawaii—and trying to figure out if and how I could make them work.
I was starting to wonder if the diving business would lose its appeal after a couple of years, once I saw up close some of the mundane realities of owning a business like that. As my wife-tobe pointed out, I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life scraping barnacles off boats. Looking back now, I think I might have done that for two years and then walked away, because it is a repetitive existence. I wouldn’t have made any money. I would have discovered all the hardships and the boredom that creeps into life on a Caribbean island. I went to that edge and looked over and then came back again.
So when Diana said, “If you really want to do this, I’ll come with you. But understand that moving to the Caribbean is not what I want to do. Can’t you at least just look at a couple of other things that are a bit more normal?” I decided to take one more crack at what I would call a traditional career move.
When I got back, I spoke to some headhunters. I interviewed with GE Capital in London again, which confirmed that I would never like working there. I talked to two or three other companies. I looked at jobs in strategy, finance, anything with commercial responsibility. I called up the chief executive of Majestic Wine Warehouses off the cuff, because I liked their business model. That put me back into the “nonconformist” job search. I started calling a half-dozen people who I thought had neat businesses. My line was, “I’m really enthusiastic about what you’re doing and would love to explore working with you.” I was generally told that they would love to have me but couldn’t afford me or that there wasn’t a slot for someone with my skills at the moment. I called everyone I knew, figuring I could at least do some freelance work. I was having sporadic contact with Virgin, but nothing happened. I only had offers for traditional jobs, all of them standard career extensions for people coming out of consulting. I was about to go do a three-week project for Schwab in Birmingham, England, when out of the blue, the phone rang.
It was Virgin. I didn’t know the guy personally, but he was part of the MCG network. I had called him a couple of times just to say that I was freelancing and he should call if anything came up. Literally, I had three days’ notice. It was a project to explore establishing a credit card business. So I found myself catapulted into the new business group at Virgin. It was incredibly dynamic and chaotic, but for the first time in my life, I found myself enjoying getting up in the morning and going to work. And so I spent the next twenty months here, technically as a freelancer, before I was offered a job managing capital portfolios.
The group I’m part of decides what businesses to start, grow, or exit. It turned out that the tool set I had from investment banking, mergers and acquisitions, and strategy consulting was the ideal combination for this role. Would I have ended up just as happy in any other setting where I could combine my skills? I don’t think so. What is different here is that I am working for a person whom I’ve always admired, who’s an extraordinary leader and entrepreneur, and from whom I know I will learn a lot. At the same time, I have ownership of my recommendations and their results.
Models for Changing
Like Gary, most people embark on the process of changing careers with some degree of turmoil and a lot of uncertainty about where it all will lead. We can proceed from many different start points and follow many different routes. But at the most fundamental level, we all face two basic and interrelated questions: What to? How to?
At the start, Gary lacked a clear idea of what to do next. So it was impossible to devise a set of logical how-to steps. Like many people trying to find a new direction, Gary mucked around instead, trying various things. He took a sabbatical to rest and get some distance. He talked to headhunters, spent time with a career psychologist, and availed himself of the MCG outplacement services. He talked to friends and family and bought best-selling books on career change. He sought advice from top-quality professionals and people who truly cared about him. But by his own account, none of it was very useful.
Sure, he got started in the standard ways. He researched companies and industries that interested him, and he networked with a lot of people to get leads and referrals. He made two lists of possibilities: his “conformist” and “nonconformist” lists. What happened next, and what the books don’t tell us, was a lot of trial and error. Gary tried to turn a passion or a hobby into a career; he and Diana wrote a business plan for a wine tour business. The financials were not great. He next considered his true fantasy career as a scuba instructor. He got his instructor certification and looked into the possible purchase of a dive operation. When he began to question whether the scuba operation would hold his interest long-term and his fiancée asked him to reconsider “more normal” possibilities, Gary went back to the list, which included both regular positions and design-your-own jobs working for role models. He went through several rounds of interviews with traditional companies and kept talking to headhunters. He thought about doing a threeweek project for Schwab in central England. Finally, he took a job at Virgin as a freelancer.
Gary’s seemingly random, circuitous method actually has an underlying logic. But this test-and-learn approach flies in the face of the more traditional method, the plan-and-implement model.
Planning and Implementing
The plan-and-implement model encapsulates the conventional wisdom of career counselors and business pages. A recent newspaper article summarizing “essential steps recommended by career counselors to get you started on your career change” indicates that the way to start is by developing “a clear picture of what you want.”2
The precursor to change in this typical—if flawed—model is self-asessesment: identifying “what skills you like to use, your areas of interest, your personality style, your values, and what’s important to you.”
“Executives who start down the wrong career path because of pressure from family or other forces and now feel dissatisfied may not know what type of work they’d find more satisfying,” the argument continues. Understanding why we don’t like what we are doing now is part of the equation; otherwise, we risk repeating bad choices. Self-assessment can also uncover and then help eliminate a mind-set that might be a source of resistance to change. Once we have overcome the troublesome attitude within, we are ready to make change in the outside world. For the floundering professional, myriad self-help books and counseling specialists can offer assessment instruments to identify relevant personality types or interests and help answer the “Who am I?” question.
Once we are armed with more self-knowledge, the plan-and-implement method urges us to swing into action and proposes a thoughtful series of logical steps:
• Research career fields. (“Knowing your interests and most enjoyable skills allows you to begin matching them with professions and industries.”)
• Develop at least two different tracks or lists of ideas. (“One might be a variation on what you’re c...