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Be prepared for the emotional rollercoaster of leaving corporate life

16 October 2018 By Victoria Tomlinson

It doesn’t matter who you are and how successful you have been, don’t be dismayed if you find the transition of leaving corporate life to pursue a portfolio career or unretirement or whatever, very hard.

In many ways, this was where Next-Up started – when people came to us for practical help in sorting an unretirement plan, they ended up talking to us about how challenging it was proving.  And they would email after saying ‘thanks for the therapy session’.  It may have been said light-heartedly but it was often the first time they had felt able to open up about how they were feeling.

I had an amazing conversation with a dear friend this week.  She was asking about the business and as I shared our Next-Up stories, she completely empathised with everything I was saying and started sharing her own experiences.

She was so articulate, I thought I would share her story – anonymising it because it’s still not the right time to give all the details, despite her having started all sorts of amazing new things. So for this story we will call her Maria.

Maria was a stellar high performer, but her experience of leaving corporate life was high profile and not pleasant. She started by mentioning a friend of hers who had been HR director at a major retailer. One minute everyone wanted to talk to her but as soon as she left, without the brand name behind her, she said, “Who am I? I dread dinners – the other evening I sat between two big-hitters and when they said, what are you doing I didn’t know what to say.”


Leaving corporate life can often be an emotional rollercoaster


Maria said that when she left her final ‘job’, she was relentlessly upbeat and so terrified that she would never work again, she threw herself into ‘everything’.  She started interviewing people for a book – that she later decided she didn’t want to write, too emotional. She took on speaking opportunities, did some consultancy and eventually set up a business.

We were discussing the need to create a quick new identity after leaving corporate life – just so you don’t dread the dinners wondering what you say you are/do. She agreed with this, but questioned being too active too quickly.

“A year later I started having nightmares about everything disappearing around me.  I think I probably needed to take more time to process what had happened to me and come to terms with it all.”

She said the hardest thing was having spent her life being a stellar ‘superstar’. 

“The thing I couldn’t bear was anyone pitying me. People would say they were so sorry about what had happened and I thought ‘noooo’.  I don’t need pitying. But I didn’t really admit to myself how deeply painful the whole process was.”

Maria added that she read Monica Lewinsky’s book about what happened to her and the shame of being a victim, and related to this. “I had some responsibility for what happened, but I wish I had had some support or help.  I do think you need to take a bit of time to sort out your feelings.”

Maria’s initial strategy was never to say no to coffee with anyone, “till I had coffee coming out of my ears”. 

What this did was to help her become curious again. “Someone recently said to me you can’t be anxious and curious at the same time. I’d never thought about this but it is true.  And meeting lots of  people started getting me interested in other people, new ideas, getting my brain going again.”

She says it also helped her to move on from being ‘institutionalised’. “If you have worked in a corporate or corporates for most of your life, you inevitably become narrow in your experience and thinking.  There is so much world out there and you only work in a tiny bit of it. It’s important to find a lot of new ways to build your self-esteem again – it’s been taken away. 

“This whole thing of a 100 year life is both daunting and energising.  There is so much you can still do. Yes you want to dial down parts of your life – you probably don’t need to earn as much as you used to, you want to travel and spend more time with family and friends.  But you can also create something really new – and that is unbelievably exciting.  If also scary!”

If you are looking for new things to build your self-esteem, contacts, ideas of what to do – why not join the Next-Up conference as a first step?

It’s designed for people who are building a portfolio career which could include acting as non-executive director, trustee, consultant, advisor or mentor. Sue Tyrer, of specialist non-executive search firm, The Orcid Partnership, is a speaker. She says: “This conference is an easy way for non-executive directors and advisers to keep up to date and demonstrate that wider interest and conversation when discussing non-executive roles with chairpeople.”

You will meet 10 young tech entrepreneurs, charities and headhunters who are looking for your skills and experience and the day includes hot seat workshops, where one entrepreneur or charity will sit at each table and ask for your input on a burning issue.

You have a lot to offer after leaving corporate life – we’d love to help you succeed in doing that.

Victoria Tomlinson

Written by Victoria Tomlinson

Victoria Tomlinson is chief executive and founder of Next-Up. Next-Up supports employers with a range of services for directors, partners and employees to help them understand the impact of retirement on mental health and create a plan to use their skills and experience in new ways to ensure wellbeing. A key part of our role is to inspire people with ideas and contacts, beyond traditional expectations. A former director of EY, she is an international speaker on unretirement, personal branding and using LinkedIn strategically as well as on leadership and women on boards. She mentors chief executives and directors, start-up businesses and ex-offenders. Victoria is Honorary Teaching Fellow at Lancaster University and chaired an advisory board for University of Leeds.

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