You can’t always get what you want

With loss of influence comes loss of control. Get used to it. And have a plan B.

Last week I had a rude awakening: things don’t always go to plan.

The Centre for Corporate Governance at London Business School had been a significant part of my activity since leaving PwC. Last week, it ran out of funding and closed. Attempts to get new sponsors didn’t come to fruition quick enough. The school decided to pursue the responsible business agenda by other means. Given that the centre had been the ideal platform for my post-PwC academic activities, perfectly fitting my portfolio of interests, this wasn’t the outcome I wanted. But I found I had no ability to influence events to a different result.

This was an important lesson in humility and a reminder of my newly reduced status. When I was a senior partner at PwC, if I battled hard enough, I normally got what I wanted. I had strong networks of influence, but most importantly I was commercially extremely valuable to the firm. By contrast, at LBS, I’m a nice-to-have at best, so my voice carries little weight.

Although it’s disappointing, that’s life, and it’s the life I’ve chosen, which I don’t regret for a moment. I’ve chosen to look on the bright side and to remember the positive experiences I’ve had through the centre, not least working closely and extensively with the brilliant and supportive Professor Alex Edmans. Even though it has come to, what to me feels like, a premature end, it has provided the perfect transition into other roles and experiences. And I will still be an Executive Fellow at LBS, working with the Leadership Institute and promoting responsible business in other ways across the school. So it’s a first world problem.

But it still hurts a bit. As Jan Hall and John Stokes highlight in their book Changing Gear, loss of status is a major challenge faced by successful professionals moving to the third stage of life. Coming to terms with this is a pre-requisite for a happy transition. I’d worked on this as part of my preparation for leaving PwC with my coach Amy Iversen, and that work has largely been successful. But I still carry with me a part of the achievement addiction that’s defined much of my life and can easily creep back into prominence. So it’s good to have that balloon popped once in a while.

The forced reminder of my insignificance has also caused me to focus on matters I can control, rather than things I can’t. Not least the four holidays I have planned in the next three months as it becomes possible, post-COVID, to take advantage of the freedom of my new existence. More broadly, it’s enabled reflection on why I chose this life of greater freedom and fulfilment, and the benefits it’s bringing me beyond the professional.

But on the professional side there’s a lesson too. In the same week that the Centre for Corporate Governance shut at LBS, I was appointed the inaugural Executive Fellow at the European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI), which is the leading global network of academics working in the area of corporate governance, investor stewardship, responsible business, and ESG. So as one door shuts, another opens with perfect timing. The universe has provided its answer. This opportunity had been a year in the making, and I wasn’t sure I’d have capacity for it. But it sounded interesting so I decided to keep pursuing it on the basis that it’s always good to have options.

I’m now very pleased I did. Things can come and go in a portfolio life. This is needed to keep things fresh and evolving. It’s a useful reminder to me that, as Herminia Ibarra recommends, I need to keep experimenting, find my next side bet, always have plenty of irons in the fire. It’s a change of mindset from the linear career, but one that is in many ways more rewarding.

As the song says, you can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime, you’ll find you get what you need.