Last year, after stepping away from a 35-year career in the financial services industry, I found myself not working for the first time in my adult life.
"Retired as CEO" was the phrase the press releases used.
"Ready to write the next chapter of my life," I told family and friends.
During the first month, I was like a newly-caught fish, flopping and thrashing about in the bottom of a boat, completely out of any familiar element, thinking "Where's the water?"
Until it dawned on me...I'm obviously not the first person who's been through a professional life change. So I set out purposefully to talk to people I admire who've been through similar experiences, to read about transition, to take a self-taught course in how to navigate through this strange, scary, exciting period. It may just be about hitting a professional "pause" button, or it may mark the end of my working career, or it may be the start of an entirely new chapter of an entirely new book. I simply don't know yet.
Here are some of the pieces of advice I've found helpful (so far):
Frame what you're going through.
If you really are retiring, you'll think and act very differently than if you're planning to go back to work, either right away or after a hiatus. Alternatively, if you're trying to redirect your career, or if you just don't know, you will make other choices. In my case, I've decided it's most accurate to tell people I'm on a "sabbatical." I'm planning to go back into the game, back onto the field, but not right away. Putting it that way and thinking about it that way feels right and it's helped me prioritize what activities I'm going to focus on, and for how long.
Create space and time to decompress and reboot.
It takes a while to get out of the intellectual mindset and emotional space you've been living and working in for decades. Time to adapt to a cadence different from 5 am alarm clocks, four airplanes every week, different hotel rooms every night, business dinners and receptions, scheduled meetings every 30 to 60 minutes and sleeping aides to downshift at bedtime. Just how long depends on your personality. In my case, I listened to my wife's advice and gave myself an extended summer vacation, the first time I've done that since college. Of course, truly decompressing takes much longer than a few months - at least a month for every year you've been working. But consciously setting aside a designated "no fly" zone can really help. And provided you've been able to set aside operating reserves, there's no reason you can't allow yourself more than one period of extended vacation. (I'm hoping to arrange more.)
Recognize transition is a process.
Not working offers an opportunity to examine what's been motivating you and how you've been living. It's a chance to question whatever sense of purpose has been driving you to do the things you've done in the past. Hold it up, turn it around, look at it closely and ask whether it hasn't changed as you've changed over the years. In his book The Power of Purpose, Richard Leider suggests that "As we mature, our purpose becomes deeper, richer, wiser."
Strike a balance.
Between having a game plan and a strategy (on the one hand) and staying open to opportunity and possibility (on the other). Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen writes in his book, How Will You Measure Your Life, "You need to be emergent, experiment in life... with different opportunities." "Keep the aperture of your life wide open" and be "ready to pivot". "Priorities, balancing plans with opportunities, and allocating your resources - combine to create your strategy."
Chum the waters. Network. Get on the radar screen of people and organizations that can identify and refer you to opportunities going forward. You don't have to follow up on everything that comes your way or everything that you uncover. But my own personality type is such that I need to be in the "flow." I need to bump up against people, rub up against possibilities. I need to talk out loud so I can hear what I'm thinking. I need to attend conferences, read magazine and newspapers, try things on for size.
Don't rush into anything.
Shortly after I announced I would be leaving my CEO role, I was approached about running a high-profile not-for-profit organization focused on issues that had long been important to me. I went to ask the opinion of a retired CEO whom I admire, a local "village elder," who just shook his head and said simply and powerfully, "Never, ever, swing at the first pitch."
Halfway through my one-year "sabbatical," I can already sense my priorities and expectations shifting. I now understand why one of my friends told me early, "Be ready for the possibility that what you thought you wanted to do and what you end up doing will be very different". Or why author Kristin Zambucka suggests, "No growth takes place in a straight line."
What I first thought of as my "Plan B" is looking and feeling more and more like what I thought was my "Plan A" every day.
[This is the first in a series of transition updates I plan to post during the coming year.]