HOW TO REINVENT YOURSELF: Is now the time to morph your career?

HOW TO REINVENT YOURSELF: Is now the time to morph your career? - The doctor who quit the NHS for the City, the banker-turned-novelist, the biscuit factory manager who became a film-maker, the consultancy high-flier who walked out on a six-figure director

by MATTHEW GWYTHER
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The doctor who quit the NHS for the City, the banker-turned-novelist, the biscuit factory manager who became a film-maker, the consultancy high-flier who walked out on a six-figure directorship ... Matthew Gwyther tracks down a quartet of highly motivated people who hit a crunch-point in their working lives and made a radical change.

The cusp of a year is traditionally a time when people's thoughts turn to change. Out with the old, in with the new. In January, sales of that old stalwart What Color is your Parachute, a practical manual for job-hunters and career-changers, go leaping up. Divorce lawyers and headhunters are also busy, as some of those New Year resolutions turn into real action.

Careers for life are now looking increasingly like a thing of the past Anji Hunter has reinvented herself from being the PM's right-hand woman to spinning for BP. David Schwimmer (dollars 650,000 per episode for playing Ross in Friends) announces that he's considering re-training as a teacher. These days, even we earthbound mortals are likely to work for an average of five different organisations before we pop our occupational clogs, and we'll undertake at least one major career shift in our working lives.

During the course of the past year, two further factors have left many contemplating the possibility of reinventing themselves. First, the general economic downturn, with its offers, or enforcement, of redundancies, is enabling those who have dreamed of a change to do something different, maybe even with a pay-off to provide a softer landing. Second, the shockwaves of 11 September have led many to step back and question where they are going with their working lives. They have been jolted into finding a broader, perhaps more philosophical, perspective on what they are doing and what their work really means to them.

On the one hand, self-reinvention can seem like a terrifying leap into the unknown. What about your responsibilities - mortgage and family - and your status? Yet you might also see it as a metamorphosis, a caterpillar transforming itself into a butterfly. You get only one working life. This is no rehearsal for the real thing.

So, if you have ever felt like breaking out of your box, maybe now is the time. MT spoke to four individuals who made radical, and in some cases dramatic, career changes. Although the drop into a new working life has been traumatic for some of them, none regrets strapping on the parachute ...

JOHN McLAREN

INVESTMENT BANKER NOVELIST/MUSIC COMPETITION ORGANISER

John McLaren became a diplomat after university and then used his experience of Japan to head Baring Brothers' Tokyo office. He worked for a venture capital firm in San Francisco and then came back to London to join Morgan Grenfell as a director in its M&A department.

'I knew I was never going to stay at one job, going from university to the gold watch at 65,' he says. 'To like the City you've got to be money-driven, and sooner or later everyone begins to feel uncomfortable in their skin there. I'm not a money monster. I had good adrenaline moments during hostile takeovers but ended up finding it unfulfilling.

'Hitting 40 also had an effect. With such flat hierarchies in business now, the next big event after 40 can look like death. There's nothing left. And nobody on their deathbed has ever said: 'Thank God I was an investment banker.''

McLaren gave himself two years to find some alternatives. 'Nobody gave me any useful advice at all,' he recalls. 'You really need to make your own roadmap. If you talk to your family about it you just worry them.

My parents looked ashen when I explained I wanted a change. They assumed I'd been fired. Close friends were nervous to share the responsibility because it's a bit like asking: Should I leave my wife or husband.'

McLaren wrote a novel and eventually got it published. His decision to quit was made easier by the fact that he had squirreled away a good sum of money. He has a nice house next to Westminster Abbey and is still single.

He has since published three more novels. (The latest, Running Rings, is reviewed in MT this month.) He also founded Masterprize, a competition for classical music symphonic composition, and he is chairman of the Barchester Group, a small officeless corporate finance and strategic advisory company.

McLaren's tip: A great test of whether you're doing the right job is how you feel when asked the 'What do you do?' question. I found that, from initially feeling neutral, I started to hate saying that I worked in the City. If you feel like that - move.

SUE DELAFONS

MANAGEMENT CONSULTANT NOT-FOR-PROFIT SECTOR

It was a classic high-achieving career. After Cambridge, Sue Delafons became advertising director at Saatchi & Saatchi in its heyday. After her MBA at the London Business School, she joined Gemini Consulting, later becoming vice-president. She headed the UK strategy practice, then the global transformation and best-practice units.

She then made a big mistake. She was pursued by a former client - a FTSE-100 company - which persuaded her to become its head of strategy. She realised her error immediately and after just a fortnight handed in her notice with no job to go to. A lone mother with two small children to bring up, she was walking out on a salary of more than pounds 100,000 plus performance bonuses.

'I suppose I just stepped out of the plane without a parachute,' she recalls, 'But I've never been so clear about anything in my life - I didn't want to do that job. I thought, 'Oh, Lord, what have I done?' and knew it was either two weeks or I'd have to stick it for two years.'

The episode made her realise that her dissatisfaction was deep-rooted.

'I felt I was a flagship working mother struggling with all the politics, the hours and the pressure. I had become my own myth, but I didn't even have time to think.' She cannot recommend too strongly standing back and reflecting on things for a few months. 'Don't worry - you don't fade away overnight when you're not working. You are still a capable person and you must believe in that.'

Her story has ended well. She is now a highly successful freelance consultant specialising in the not-for-profit sector ... and far happier.

Delafons' tip: If you're on the wrong track, you mustn't be afraid to acknowledge it. Don't be trapped by the relentless logic of your CV. Be careful and watch out for headhunters. They tend to encourage you to do more of the same thing.

STEPHEN TAYLOR

BISCUIT FACTORY MANAGER FEATURE FILM PRODUCER

Few Cambridge history graduates end up running biscuit factories, but Stephen Taylor did in his early twenties and loved it. 'One hundred million pounds' worth of equipment, 250 wonderful staff and we all made chocolate digestives, ginger nuts and fruit shortcake. I loved it.' He then went to business school at Stanford to do an MBA, and took the well-trodden path to consultants McKinsey.

As someone who works better from 'a firm knowledge base', he was probably not a McKinsey natural. He soon began to scout around for ways to perform his act of re-invention.

'I'd spent most of my youth at the National Film Theatre, always hungrily looking at the end credits,' he says. 'I realised that film was what I wanted to do, and I began the long process of trying to find a way in.

Eight months later, after lots of rejections, I walked into an independent television production company and got the job as general manager.' He also collected a 50% pay cut.

'The sheer fear factor when I left McKinsey was very great. I just thought: 'Oh, my God. What if it all falls apart?' But my final nine months there had been probably the lowest of my life and I've never regretted leaving. I just wanted to be somewhere else.'

Taylor now divides his time between feature film production - his Get Real (1999) did modestly at the box office but won awards - and independent consulting. He advised bidding consortia on both the Channel 5 and the Anglia franchise and is a non-executive director at Wall to Wall Television.

Taylor's tip: Be ludicrously persistent, but also pragmatic. You may not make much money, you'll experience insecurity, and life may become tense. You might become just another schmuck - if you can't live with that, don't even consider it.

GUY WOOD-GUSH

DOCTOR STOCK MARKET ANALYST

Guy Wood-Gush did what used to be an unthinkable act, rejecting medicine for the City. 'I'd practised medicine on the wards for four years but took two years out to do pure academic research into opthalmology,' he says. 'It was towards the end of this that I realised I simply couldn't face going back into the NHS. It treats its employees very badly indeed and I came to see that I just didn't want to do that same job for the rest of my life, as a consultant performing the same function in one place.'

So he did an MBA at Insead in France and then joined BZW as a stock market analyst specialising in pharmaceuticals and the bio-tech sector. It was a tricky move to give up a true 'vocation' in one of the caring professions and turn to Mammon. 'Certainly, some people tried to make me feel guilty, but four years of 120-hour weeks as a junior doctor was defence against that.'

Once the move was made, his problems turned out to be more subtle. 'What I felt was not guilt but loss. That job had been my identity, and for quite a while I felt disorientated. I was a doctor to myself and those around me. I missed other doctors around me - their culture, their humour and the way they communicate with just a raised eyebrow. Now my job isn't my identity and never will be again.'

Within the past six months, Wood-Gush has undergone a second career metamorphosis and left the City. He now works as CEO at Cancer Research Ventures, a technology transfer company set up by the Cancer Research Campaign that invests in promising early-stage cancer treatments.

Wood Gush's tip: Talk to as many people as you can - friends, people in other businesses - but realise that it's your decision at the end of the day.

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