Moving on, a year on

Reflecting on the first year of my new life, more’s gone right than wrong. The key is preparation.

On 30 June 2020 I shut down my laptop for the last time as a partner at PwC. It was a strange ending. No wistful final walk out of the building — unbeknownst to me, my last time in a PwC office had been more than three months earlier. A leaving party via Google Meet. Summer holiday plans not quite what they were. One day a senior partner at PwC. The next…I wasn’t sure what I was.

Writing this a year on, I’m a responsible business expert, academic and financial coach. Some of what’s happened is predictable, some not. To my surprise I’ve never once regretted my decision to move on (I fully expected a low point six months in) and the life I’m living now has exceeded my expectations. Putting modesty aside, I seem to have done more right than wrong. Of course, luck plays its part, but so did hard work and extensive planning. A lot is within your control if you take the right actions early enough.

This is what I’ve learned.

1. Hand over well

Organisations are relentlessly forward looking. Once you announce you’re moving on the world shifts quickly. Accept it and go with it. Frame it as a point of pride that your handover will be so good that the organisation won’t miss you when you’re gone. It’s the last, and one of the most valuable, acts of service you can provide.

I found out pretty quickly that I wasn’t indispensable. Clients with whom I had excellent relationships were sad I was moving on but got over it eventually (normally after five minutes, sometimes six). The reality is that I was only ever a relatively small part of their lives. I used the trust they had in me to position successors on all my clients up to a year ahead of moving on, to enable time for new relationships to build. I purposefully sought to step back so that the transition when it came could be seamless.

I will confess that on occasions the brutal rapidity with which the world moved on dented my ego. But I chose to accelerate transitions when I could rather than cling on to my own sense of self-importance. Looking back this was the right decision. All my clients have been retained by the firm a year after I left and I’m not missed. This means I got succession and transition right and I get a lot of satisfaction from having ensured a good ending with the firm that gave me so much and where I spent over two very happy decades.

2. Prepare psychologically

As successful professionals, work forms a significant part of our identity. Most of us are insecure success junkies who’ve used our careers to help meet our need for love and affection. We get addicted to the strokes we receive from the project won, the task completed, the satisfied client. So it can be a shock when this is taken away.

I was well aware that the loss of status and of being needed were two consequences of leaving work that could hit me like a train. So I sought help, from Amy Iversen, a terrific coach, who helped me unpick what was behind these issues in the two years leading up to my departure. Yes, two years. Because that’s what it takes to diagnose the issues, reframe them and build resilience to the psychological jolt you’ll face.

In all the excitement of what your new life can give you, it’s also important to figure out what you’ll lose, and how you’ll replace that, or cope with the loss. Don’t underestimate the psychological challenges of this significant life change. And recognise it’s an ongoing process. I still get caught by the desire to be needed, relevant, achieving, which isn’t always in the service of my own happiness. 

3. Be sure you can afford it

Successful professionals are in the luxurious position of not really needing to worry about money. A chunky paycheck each month supplemented by a sizeable bonus means that material needs can be met without much difficulty.

So the prospect of the tap being turned off can be nerve wracking (particularly if a global pandemic and 30% market fall happen a few months before you move on). Most successful professionals are more financially secure than they realise. But getting really clear on whether you’ve got enough and how you’re going to manage your income in this next phase of your life is a critical part of a worry-free transition. The last thing you want is to inhibit your golden years through fear about your financial situation.

4. Create opportunities not commitments

One of the best bits of advice I got from people who’d transitioned to a portfolio career was this: don’t over-commit. Your mindset changes in ways you don’t expect when you leave your main career. Parts of your personality that have been in the background take on greater prominence. Things that seemed important become less so. Your thinking before you move on is hugely conditioned by where you are today.

So you need to leave space to experiment, let luck play its part and adapt what you do. This transition period creates uncertainty but is a vital part of transitioning to your new self. Herminia Ibarra describes this time as being between identities. If you overcommit, the first year of your new life will be defined by the attitudes and habits of your old one. As one non-executive director client once said to me, “I spent most of my first 18 months extracting myself from stuff I wish I’d never committed to.”

Having said that, you need to use your current position to create opportunities for the future. If you’re a senior professional in business, people will want to speak to you. They’ll return your calls, make time for you. Once you’ve left, much less so. You’re a nice-to-have rather than an urgent priority. Use the status of your current position to your advantage. The brand of your current employer will open doors to opportunities that may not be so available once you’re on your own. The trick is to have enough irons in the fire but enough flexibility to scale your commitment up or down as your motivations become clear.

5. Keep learning

One of the privileges of a senior professional career is the relentless challenge. At times we think this is exactly what we want to escape. And, indeed, the treadmill can get wearing. But with challenge comes learning and growth. My experience is that we don’t lose the appetite for that. But we can get it in a different way.

I’ve learned more in the last year than in the previous five. I’ve set up a new business. I’m working towards publishing an academic paper in collaboration with co-authors from LBS and LSE. I’ve broadened my knowledge of responsible business from executive pay into wider corporate governance, responsible investment and leadership and diversity. I’ve developed my listening skills through training as an executive coach. And I’ve learned how to play tennis.

I’ve had to get used to being bad at stuff. Going back to being a novice. But this has helped to bring out my growth mindset. The pleasure comes from the trying and improving as much as the succeeding.

6. Build a social life

How much does your social life depend on work?

In my case it was quite a lot. I had old friends I stayed in touch with a couple of times a year. But in truth, like many men, I relied on a social life organised by my wife and supplemented by work. This wasn’t going to be enough.

I tried a few things to fill the gap, starting a couple of years before my planned transition. Although I’m not a hermit I’m also not that confident socially. I knew it would take time for me to build other connections and I couldn’t afford to wait until I’d left PwC. The magic bullet for me was cycling. Joining a club, getting involved in regular group rides. I now go out twice a week for three to four hours with a great group of people and we connect beyond cycling too. This has proven a vital social glue for me and I think things would’ve been difficult without it. Particularly with the pandemic limiting face-to-face interaction through professional activities.

My wife’s pleased, too. As the old saying goes: in sickness and in health, but not for lunch.

7. Focus on your relationship(s)

How well do you know your partner now? Do you have a relationship or is it no more than a series of logistical negotiations about the children’s activities? How do they feel about you moving on and how (and to what extent) do you expect to spend your time together?

More people over 65 are now getting divorced. Perhaps improved health and longer life expectancy mean people are less prepared to settle for second best. For successful professionals there’s the risk that separate lives have emerged with only the children providing a common point of interest.

One of the reasons I started working part-time early in my career was to ensure that my wife and I retained the habit of interacting with each other as adults with shared interests rather than simply as diary managers. We’re used to doing things together as well as having our own separate lives and interests. It’s worked.

Take an honest look at the state of your relationship, and if work is needed, invest the effort now.

8. Start planning early and devote the time

There’s a lot to do. Moving on, transition, retirement — whatever you want to call it — is one of life’s great discontinuities. You need to prepare for it. I think it takes two to three years to thoroughly prepare for a successful transition. If the decision on timing is taken out of your hands you may not have that luxury. But if you’re in control, take the time to prepare: professionally, personally, psychologically and pecuniarily.

Working part-time, if you can do it, is a great way to ease your way to new habits, opportunities and ways of being. If you can’t do that, make sure that you devote at least a day a month for at least a year to planning your transition. This is the bare minimum. Ideally, you’ll spend a multiple of this. This will involve getting the right coaching, building the right networks, opening up the right opportunities and preparing yourself personally for the change that is to come. You’ve given a lot to your organisation — be prepared to take a bit of time for yourself and your family’s future.

Life on the other side

Using the success you’ve earned to live the life you want to lead is easy to say but harder to do. One of the most challenging points is the transition from your main earning career to something else. Throwing off the shackles of others’ expectations and learning to live life on your own terms is harder than it seems.

Of course you have to be realistic. Our life situation is less of a determinant of our happiness than is often assumed. Some truths are eternal. Your happiness is largely determined by your relationships. You’re only as happy as your least happy child. And so on. So don’t expect a life of constant bliss. 

But at the same time, a well executed transition can genuinely give you a new lease of life. Don’t underestimate what’s required. But equally, don’t fear it. Making a success of your transition is largely within your control if you focus on the right things at the right time.

It sounds a lot to think about and do, but looking from the other side I can tell you: it’s worth it.