If you have reached senior levels in an organisation, a great deal of your personal identity is wrapped up in your job title. How do you work out what you want to do next, how you should be seen and how to make the most of this new identity – or personal brand – to find opportunities and make them work?
This article explores the issues around leaving a corporate life, working out your unretirement options and then how to make them work.
Elizabeth Jackson, former chief executive of Directorbank, said of her own transition to a new identity and starting a business:
"The hardest part is being patient, giving yourself a break and allowing yourself time to reconnect with yourself. You need to disassociate yourself from the person that your business life defined you as."
"Being regular ‘Mr John Brown’ rather than ‘Mr John Brown, sales director or chief executive’ is quite hard. It doesn’t come naturally, it doesn’t come easily. But it’s invaluable because at the end of the day it is you – John Brown – who exists and not the company!”
Elizabeth Jackson, former chief executive of Directorbank
In Elizabeth’s case, her unretirement option was eventually to follow her passion for gardening. She set up Flowers from the Garden, growing flowers over four acres – for florists and farm shops.
Another director said:
“I’d worked in a company for more than 20 years. On the one hand it gave me an enormous sense of achievement seeing what my fellow directors and I had built. On the other, I hadn’t known life outside the company for years. I didn’t have a CV, hadn’t looked for a job in living memory, had not needed to think about who I was – I was just a director of this hugely successful company. That was my identity."
“Then suddenly I left and hadn’t had time to work out a plan for what next. Bizarrely the hardest part initially was meeting new people. I found myself taking five minutes to explain who I was and what I was thinking of doing – I’m sure their eyes must have glazed over! With hindsight I should have simply said, ‘I’ve just left a long corporate life and am now taking time to work out what next’. How simple is that?!”
Sadly, a quarter of those who wanted to use more of their skills in these unretirement options had not been able to – they had either offered them without success or didn’t know where to start.
When discussing the research amongst our peers, we were surprised to hear two stories that made this point.
Jules Gray who used to run executive education programmes for Ashridge Business School wrote to her local council to offer to be a governor or generally help schools. But never got a reply.
And someone who had been a TV presenter and then became a media trainer offered his skills to a number of charities such as Oxfam, asking if they would like his (free) help in doing media interviews. Again no reply.
So there is an art not just to deciding what you want to do in your unretirement, but also finding those who would welcome your skills.
And a lot of that is down to packaging your skills in a way that people can see how to use your expertise – and then networking to find these people.
Most executives we know have spent the last years of their career hating LinkedIn and avoiding it as much as they could.
Now is the time to get over this fear and/or dislike! The other day we had an email from a business leader who finally started using this social media. “It’s a revelation,” he said. “I can’t believe it was available all these years for free and I have been doing everything I could to avoid it. What a wasted opportunity.”
But all is not lost. You can start using it now and the great thing about this stage of your life is that you now have time to learn about it and use it properly for your unretirement options. It will deliver a great deal for you.
We’ve talked to dozens of senior people both coming up to retirement and recently retired. If you are not sure what you are going to do next, you are not alone.
One director, when talking about his possible options after corporate life, said:
“I’m not what you’d call a topiary watcher, visiting gardens every day. But the one thing I know is I absolutely don’t want to be headhunted to work for another manufacturing business.”
He recognised the importance of being part of something bigger:
“Working in a company is like a comfort blanket. I watched two former directors retire from the business after 30-year careers and saw how hard it was for them. I need to find other retirement options.”
So for him, he started narrowing things down. He didn’t want to be a consultant as for him that was too ‘lonely’ – he wants to be with a team. He started thinking about helping start-ups, possibly finding an investor/non-exec role with a fast-growing company.
At this stage, we suggested he start meeting new people to broaden his networks. Having ‘coffees with purpose’ is the phrase! We’ll talk about how you do this later on.
One partner in a professional firm said:
“There is a spectacular lack of imagination amongst professionals, as to what they might do when they leave their firm.”
Actually, in our experience, it’s not just professionals but the majority of senior people. Time and again this is because they have been working flat out and just not had the thinking time to look at unretirement options and think what would really make them happy.
Over recent years, becoming a non-executive director has been seen as a natural progression – and possibly the only or best retirement option. When this takes longer to achieve – or looks unlikely to happen – what is the back-up plan? Anyone who reaches senior levels in an organisation has such a wealth of skills and contacts that their range of unretirement options is vast.
But to do this you have to recognise which bits of your skills will be helpful to others and create a new plan.
Cath Follin left her role as Head of Strategic Projects for Leeds City Council. We talked to her about a project run by the Council to help people look at their unretirement options. She made a surprising comment – she had been planning for her retirement from her early thirties – she is now a mentor and trustee of two charities.
“My father had been a senior civil servant in the health sector, advising ministers, writing speeches and more. He always had an expectation that when he retired, he would be offered a non-executive director role with a large pharmaceutical company. When it didn’t happen he became quite depressed and bitter – surely someone wanted his skills?"
"With hindsight, I don’t think he was proactive enough. He didn’t have a plan or actively use his networks to make this happen and he wasn’t prepared to look at other options. I was determined to do this differently for myself.”
Cath says that the Council’s project to help people prepare and look at unretirement options made her realise how closely we tie our sense of self to our work:
“Identity is really, really important. It equals your worth, what you do. Some people didn’t want to be described as a voluntary worker, they wanted more of an identity than this and one that recognised their skills – just as their job titles have done in the past.”
Some of the best retirement options aren’t always obvious. It takes a fresh eye to review your skillset and help you target exciting opportunities.
The key is to look objectively at your skills and then think, ‘who would want these?’. You need to pull out your skills in a new way now. You aren’t looking for a full-time job, so if you have been running a global organisation the skills you had were probably to do with strategy, keeping investors onside, leading your team, achieving growth in very different markets and more.
As a first step, you can start pulling out elements of what you did and then look at them from a new perspective. What is it about strategy that you are really good at? Is it say in a niche market such as fintech? Or understanding and predicting consumer behaviours? Could you become a consultant around your expertise?
Are there charities who could use your skills – could you research these and think how you could help them? This may be to do unpaid projects.
But whatever you focus on, you need to be clear in your own mind about your expertise and who it would be relevant to. You can’t expect others to work out which bit of your long career could be useful to them.
A good question is then to ask yourself, ‘what problem am I solving?’ This helps turn your skills into what is relevant for the people you want to help. It changes the language and focus.
Then you can start networking in these fields or markets to discuss find out what the issues are and see if you can find opportunities for yourself.
If you decide on becoming a consultant, there are typically two ways to do this:
How do you know if consultancy is right for you? Start by asking yourself a few questions. Are you good at identifying core issues and a strong problem solver? How good a listener are you? Can you influence from the side – as a consultant you aren’t the one making things happen, but explaining and persuading. Can you change your style from being the one who made decisions to one where you help others to make those decisions?
It’s worth talking to other consultants or going on courses to check out the skills you need and getting feedback as to whether it would suit you.
If you’ve ticked the personality box, the next step is to consider your skillset and identify any gaps. At Next-Up, we take people through this process helping them to understand which skills they may need to develop and find ways to do this.
In a previous life you probably had a team around you, putting ideas into action. In your new life, you will also need to build an effective team around you. We’ll help you build new networks and create new teams – as well as identify what skills you may want to buy in such as book-keeping or admin support. Or you may want to do these yourself.
You might also want to build a network of associates who have complementary expertise to yours. You can either bring in their skills as you need them or create what feels more like a small business, but not necessarily employing these associates. Or you can partner up with others to be their associate.
We worked with one director to help them start a consultancy. They didn’t feel confident about a number of aspects. So we got them to analyse their network and find other consultants (doing this through LinkedIn!) and meet them to discuss what gaps they had in their own offering.
This networking did two things. It created a lot of opportunities – people loved this director’s skills and contacts and several asked the director to work with them in various capacities. But talking to other consultants also took the fear out of doing this for themselves. They realised they knew what to do and how to do it. It opened up a lot of unretirement options – almost too many in this case!
Just because someone is senior, it does not mean they either have good networks or know how to network.
Now is the time to pick up this key skill!
We mentioned earlier that you want to have ‘coffees with purpose’. Once you have an idea of the direction you want to go – consultancy, helping a charity, starting your own business, helping schools or universities or whatever else – then you can start organising these coffees.
There are three key steps to this:
Every person you know is a potential goldmine just waiting to be tapped. But you need to take action to make the most of this rewarding pipeline by staying in touch with existing relationships and building new networks.
As you start to let people know what you’re doing now, you’ll find the conversations lift you. Instead of being a retiree who lacks purpose, you’re on the road to transforming yourself into a consultant or starting a business or finding a charity that needs your skills. Whatever your idea is.
And, as Richard Firth discovered, these meetings can also be very lucrative. Richard spent most of his career leading and turning around educational organisations such as AQA and Pearson Education. He decided to become a consultant and used his network to get business – he saw this as a return on the investment of all the contacts and relationships built over the years.
“I started to get in touch with people I had known over my career making the effort to meet them where they were. It was as much social as anything, lots of lunches and coffees, often in London.
“It was very enjoyable but what I did with each person was to understand issues they were facing. I asked a lot of questions and with a lot of people, I could see ways to help them. I then put proposals together – and got all my work this way.”
In-person meetings can certainly be valuable but what about the power of online networking?
We’re experts in helping you position yourself for the best unretirement options with our online branding support.
Many of our clients not only dread LinkedIn but many have thought it’s not valuable for people with a strong network of offline contacts. Nothing could be further from the truth!
As well as being a great way to market your business and expertise, LinkedIn is also an extremely efficient way to find out what people in your network are doing, gently network with them without doing much and make new, really useful connections.
So how do you ‘gently network’ on LinkedIn?
Victoria Tomlinson, founder and chief executive of Next-Up, has been using LinkedIn for ten years. She regularly posts articles on it and is constantly surprised by who reads these – without her doing anything more than posting.
“I have dozens of examples of meeting someone at an event and they immediately start talking about a blog I have written as if we had been discussing it five minutes ago. To be honest, sometimes I haven’t a clue what they are talking about and it takes me a few seconds to register they are referring to a blog!"
“And when we were trying to set up a new bank account for Next-Up we hit a wall of silence in the process. I searched on LinkedIn to see who I knew at the bank and contacted someone via LinkedIn messaging. It was years since I had seen this senior manager, so I started with ‘I don’t know if you remember me’ – and was a bit stunned when she replied, ‘Of course I remember you – I’m a keen LinkedIn follower of yours’. So I had been networking with her for years without having any idea!”
Victoria Tomlinson, founder & chief executive of Next-Up
One way to ensure you build your online network is to help others for free. If you can, connect people who could help one another; provide blog content with key insights drawn from your experience; give your views when people ask for help online.
As with many of the other steps to becoming a consultant, this is another opportunity to recall and share your experience and take confidence from it.
Some of the unretirement options you look at may not bring in income. You have to weigh up what matters to you most. A number of people we have helped have said that while they don’t need money, they want to earn some – partly to provide luxuries but for many it validates their worth. Others just want to feel needed and the most important thing for them is to feel useful and relevant, and give their life a purpose.
If you decide you do want an income still by becoming a consultant, your fees will depend on your market – when you are having your coffees it is worth asking people if they use consultants and what rates they expect to pay. It’s a useful start to positioning your rates.
Richard Firth made a conscious decision that he didn’t want pricing to be a barrier to people using him – so he set his rates at a level that he felt would make it a relatively easy buying decision.
If you’re experiencing a crisis of confidence - as many retirees do - it can be tempting to set your rates in line with your level of conviction. It’s very important to ensure that you don’t undersell yourself – not least it is harder to increase your rates when you get busy. As you will!
Starting again might feel daunting and possibly even frustrating. Which is why a one-year plan is so important. If you have a plan, the chances are that a lot of it will happen. If you don’t have a plan it is highly likely that you will achieve little – or finding yourself reacting rather than doing the things you really want to do.
If you choose to work from home and do most of your work remotely, consultancy can be one of the more isolating unretirement options.
Online networking doesn’t have to be a standalone activity; complement it with face-to-face networking. One of the many established consulting networking groups will be only too glad to welcome a new member. Which will take your diary from empty to as full as you want it to be.
Not all consultancy roles mean starting your own business: you could apply for an advertised job. In Ranjit Arora’s case this was the perfect fit for her career as an education adviser:
“Some people can rely on who they know to win work, but I didn’t really have a support group of people who could help. I had to work extremely hard in searching for and applying for my roles – both as a consultant and as a Trustee in the voluntary sector. Just about all my appointments were advertised in regional and national media.”
For those who have run their own business and want a change, working in a consultancy role is one of the unretirement options for business owners that is worth looking at. This will depend on whether as a business owner, you have moved into more of a coaching role with your team, rather than still being the action person! The latter approach doesn’t work as well for consultants!
Next-Up will help you choose from a range of unretirement options to find the right approach for you. Our questioning approach identifies the strengths of your skillset and any gaps before helping you consider the best way forward for you.
Retirement - or unretirement as we like to call it - gives you the opportunity to review your unretirement options and find the perfect balance between work, fun and excitement.