Just occasionally, though very rarely - so rarely that for many people it never happens - a life changing career opportunity comes along; for the lucky ones it may happen once, or if they’re very lucky indeed twice in their entire careers. I’ve seen them in my professional capacity and can confirm they are rare.
It happened to me, once, 24 years ago and by pure luck I spotted it (though I’m not sure I really understood what it was) and of course, that is when I joined Sharp Consultancy. I had three other offers the same week; two with Plc’s and yet I joined a fledgling business, with four employees, on the lowest salary of the four offers and went ‘backwards’ to be a trainee again after eight years of (slowly) climbing the ladder in banking. Family and friends thought I was bonkers.
I’ve seen many people miss their moment by either failing to see it or, more often, failing to grasp it. Their reasons are varied an I’ll go in to that a little later. First of all, what is a life changing career move?
Let’s start by saying what it isn’t. Most moves are progressive; they follow a similar path, perhaps with an elevated trajectory, but the theme and flavour doesn’t change materially. There is NOTHING at all wrong with these moves, indeed we could describe them as normal. Most people go through their entire working lives having nothing other than ‘progressive’ career moves; they climb the ladder, enjoy their work, get satisfaction from what is important to them - financial reward, responsibility, autonomy, status or anything else. They’re happy. No reason not to be.
A life changing career move is one that changes not just your job but changes the direction of your life. It changes the lives of those around you and that change, for you and your family and friends is material. It’s when you look back and say “Where would I have been today if I hadn’t……….?” It’s when you were able to achieve things you never thought you were capable of (again, I mean things that are important to you - these may include status and financial reward but may not be what’s important to everyone). It’s a feeling beyond being satisfied. It’s often hard for you to believe.
Occasionally the reason someone doesn’t grasp the opportunity is that they don’t see it. More often however, they see it but walk away. In my years doing this job I believe there are predominantly four reasons why someone walks away. All are understandable. Rarely are they conscious. It helps if you can see any one of them in yourself but that isn’t easy and, equally, it’s difficult to have someone point them out to you (chances are you won’t like having it pointed out and you’ll shoot the messenger ). Once you calm down and think it through rationally, you might just agree. So what are they?
1) Fear. Fear of change, fear of growth, fear of the unfamiliar. This is natural – we are
programmed to be frightened of certain things (think of all the phobias out there: heights,
confined spaces, snakes, spiders, horses [OK that last one is just me]). Whether it’s the first
time you have to speak publicly, the day you get married, go to university, you leave home
and a whole plethora of other things, it is natural. What isn’t natural is allowing it to control
you otherwise you’d never do or achieve anything (though that’s sometimes easier said than
2) Self Confidence. Or rather the lack thereof. This is a huge topic and one I am not
qualified to comment on in any sort of professional capacity but have seen first-hand how
crippling it can be. Interestingly though, I am stunned by how many hugely successful
people suffer with this yet still find a way through or past it. It never leaves them but they
are able to override it. In fact, I think for some people it is the reason for their success;
always striving to prove to themselves they are worthy, they are good enough and they
push and push themselves to fantastic heights. Over the years, many CFO’s, MD’s,
CEO’s and partners in major accounting firms and private equity houses have all
confided in me that they have a problem with self-confidence. You really wouldn’t
have known if they hadn’t told you. Though it can lead to success, sadly, it rarely
leads to happiness. Listen to those around you and what they say about you - it’s often a
more positive view of you than the view you hold of yourself. Take heart from this, theirs is
usually the more accurate one and isn’t coloured by your lack of self-confidence.
3) Ego. This gets in the way for so many people. They would rather do a job they don’t
enjoy, in an environment they don’t like, for a boss they can’t stand - even to the extent it
has negative effects on them and on their relationship with their families and their friends
- because they are an ‘ABC Director’ for one of the world’s most prestigious Plc’s/investment
banks/private equity houses/management consultancies/firms of accountants – delete as
appropriate. After all, what would they say to their friends if they moved to do something
less prestigious, or, heaven forbid, on a lower salary, even if it was more enjoyable?
It doesn’t fit with their self-image. There’s a sticker that you often see on the back of cars
(Land Rovers normally) that if I recall correctly reads ‘One life. Live it’. Good advice. Do what
makes you happy. There really isn’t much else that counts, especially not ego.
4) Intransigence. Perhaps inflexible is a better word. If you’re ambitious you need goals
and if you have goals you need a plan. A career plan is a very good thing. I’ve seen people
achieve great things without a plan - but very rarely - and it always involves either unbelievable
luck or a level of brilliance that is simply in a different league to everyone else – both unlikely.
So Plan = Good. That well known 19th century Prussian Commander, Helmuth von Moltke
was credited with saying ‘No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy’. So Plan = Good.
The flexibility to change plan as need or opportunity arises = better.
Let’s say you had the goal to be a millionaire by the time you were 40 (ignore whether this is a
noble goal or not) and you had a plan about how you’d achieve it - how much you would save,
where it would be invested and so on. It’s a 20 year plan. After 10 years someone came along
and offered to give you the winning lottery ticket. Who wouldn’t take it and save themselves a
further 10 years of effort without guarantee of success? I’ll exaggerate now to prove a point
but the exaggeration is nowhere near as great as you might think.
Let’s imagine now that you wanted to be a CFO by the time you were 40 and you were offered the chance to be interviewed (we’ll assume good company, relevant opportunity etc) for a CFO role when you were 36 years old. Some people would jump at it. But a lot – and more than you would think - won’t because they have a plan and this wasn’t part of the plan. They walk away from the opportunity because “I have a good chance of making CFO where I am in under four years’ time, IF my boss retires a bit early when he’s 55 as he thinks he might, and IF Andy gets that move overseas that he’s looking for, that means Sarah will probably get promoted IF she passes the internal panel interviews and no-one externally who’s better comes along, and as long as that happens and IF the economy stays strong then I should get my chance at promotion to CFO IF I too pass the internal panel interviews, which should be in the next three or four years, all being well”. That probably made you laugh. A version of that happens all the time.
Life is a race. Some win, some don’t. ‘That’s life’ as the saying goes. A career is a race. Some win, some don’t, some don’t even bother entering. It’s a surprisingly short race. For most people after 40 years it’s over - and of that 40 most of the climb is completed in the first 20. And of that 20 a surprisingly large amount of ground has to be covered in the first 10. So if you’re in a race, try and ride the best horse. We can’t all ride the favourite, sometimes because we’re not good enough to ride it (a fact, not a criticism) and sometimes because we don’t like the favourite. But if you can’t or don’t want to be aboard the favourite make sure you’re sat on one of the front-runners. You might like the 100-1 horse but 99 times out of 100 you will lose. The favourite doesn’t always win, but there’s a lot more at stake than a £10 bet; there’s your career and a large part of your life - at least bet with a good chance of winning.
A final thought. There are no guarantees. Odds on favourites lose. Things out of your control can get in the way. Play the odds and opportunities as they arise. A lifelong friend of mine from my school days (now an FD) at the age of 48 achieved what he had always wanted; he did a MBO – 3 months before the pandemic struck. His business is in a sector that will struggle. Hindsight now shows us he may have been better not doing that MBO. But that was his Life Changing Career Move moment and he knew it and jumped at it. My heart goes out to him. It wasn’t his fault. That’s (rather crappy) life. Thankfully he’s immensely talented and level headed; his plans have changed, his company’s plans have changed and he and his business will probably find a way through. I hope so. Back to that car bumper sticker. One life. Live it.
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