Out of Signal

“There’s something wrong with my new phone” said my wife exasperatedly, “it keeps running out of power. I have to plug it in wherever I go, it’s ridiculous!

This was a bit of a problem as she was one of the leaders of a school trip on the Isle of Wight and responsible for large numbers of very excited Year 6 children. If her phone went dead it wasn’t just inconvenient, it compromised safety.

The phone had been working fine since she’d got it the weekend before and I couldn’t work out what was wrong, so it would have to wait until she got home. So, lacking any other solutions, my wife navigated the Isle of Wight from electricity socket to electricity socket.

The problem, it turned out, was that the phone had every connection option switched on for almost every app. There was a constant stream of checks, messages and updates going between the phone and the network. This does put extra demand on the battery but that’s not normally too much of a problem – as long as you are connected to the network.

Now, the mobile network on the Isle of Wight is not as dense and robust as it is where we live. Added to that, she was in a coach driving around the island for large parts of the day as they ferried the children from one activity to another. As a result, the phone was continually moving in and out of signal, which meant it was continually polling, looking for a network it could connect to. It was this, continually searching for a signal, that was killing the battery. Once we had switched off notifications on most of the apps, the problem disappeared.

This is what it is like when you leave the Mothership and are working on your own. When you are part of an organisation and you have a role to fulfil, it’s like you are always in signal. Much of what you do, many of your meeting and your tasks just unfold before you. The amount of time you have for discretionary activities is probably quite small (and certainly much smaller than you would like!).

When you are outside the Mothership, it’s completely flipped. Almost everything you do is discretionary and you have an almost endless and bewildering array of options. It is like you are out of signal most of the time and you are continually searching for a connection, mulling all the options over in your mind and seeking a decision. And, like the mobile phone, this kills your batteries. Choice, you quickly discover, drains your energy.

So how do you make sure you are ‘in signal’ more often? Creating a structure to your work is important and having regular commitments puts in place some anchors that you can organise around. Of course, these have to serve your purpose and help you implement your plan. You can also create your own network, a network of people, to stay connected to and to get help from with ideas, feedback, accountability and encouragement.

We actually spend most of our time doing things automatically in order to save brainpower and energy. We are not designed to make decisions about everything so it’s important to make sure you automate as much of your activity as possible so that you can focus your energy on the things that really matter.

Establishing a routine or a framework keeps us ‘in signal’ and stops our batteries running out.


Belonging is one of our fundamental needs, just above food, safety and shelter. We are social creatures and we have come together in groups since our cavemen days. We belong to many different groups at the same time, and these change over time, but one of the most significant is the organisation that we work for. If we have been there for several years, it’s probably one of the more enduring relationships.

Our sense of belonging to our organisation is strengthened by the number of hours we spend working in it, the number of personal relationships we build through being part of it, and the degree of alignment between the organisations value and goals and our own.

It seems obvious then that when we leave the Mothership, we no longer belong to the organisation. It is also obvious, therefore, that there will be some sense of loss. What isn’t so obvious, however, is how big that loss can be and the impact it can have have upon us.

I remember speaking to a colleague of mine who took redundancy from BT, having joined as a graduate after 30 years earlier. Although it was voluntary on his part, he had been told that he should consider it equivalent to going through a divorce, such was the emotional and lifestyle impact.

He was part of BT’s “Project Sovereign” staff reduction programme and received a generous settlement as well as a support programme to help him transition. Today, less care and attention is lavished upon those who are leaving organisations. It is treated more as ‘business as usual’ and people are expected to take it on the chin and get on with it.

All too often, people leave the Mothership and find themselves sitting alone at home, becoming depressed and demotivated. The feel they are not supposed to complain, that it’s ‘normal’ and they should just cope.

This is wrong. The loss of that association, the lack of belonging, hits right at the core of our being. It leaves a huge hole in our lives and we must not ignore it. This is a serious matter and we must take steps to address it.

Finding new groups to being to is part of re-imagining ourselves, finding out about ourselves and deciding what our new identity, our real identity is.

We are compelled to belong to things, so when we leave the Mothership we need to build new associations to replace it. It’s good sense and is simply part of looking after ourselves and creating a platform for our future success.

Transition is the key to re-imagination

I called this blog ‘After the Mothership’ because it is about what you go through after a significant event, namely the end of your corporate career. It is about that transition, not about the change that caused it or the thing future you have yet to realise, but the process that you go through to bridge between the two.

I’ve been working my way through this process for some time and the mental model I like to use is the one first described by William Bridges in his excellent book “Transitions”. He was one of the first to write about this back in the 1980s and, whilst many others have addressed this subject since, I like the elegant simplicity of his 3-stage model.

Bridges starts with an important distinction between change and transition. Change is the thing that happens to you, whereas transition is the internal process you go through to come to terms with a change, to let go of things from the past and re-orientate yourself to the new circumstances.

Change, such as re-organisation, redundancy, moving jobs, is given. Transition, however, is not. Each person’s  path and experience is unique and can vary widely in duration. Some do not achieve transition at all and will seem to repeat certain events in their lives, like having a string of personal relationships that fail for the same reason, or a series of jobs that follow the same pattern.

Bridges goes on to explain that there are three stages to transition:


Ending is about letting go of the past, giving up on attachments and emotions connected to the previous situation. This can be extremely difficult, particularly if the change was not your choice. However, if you don’t let go you can never complete the transition because the emotional connections to the past will hold you back.

The Neutral Zone is a period of confusion and anxiety, but also innovation and creativity. You have to figure out how fit in this new world, what you have to unlearn from your past and what you have to add. It’s a period of re-invention and it is very challenging. This period can be quite short or may take several years, it really depends on you.

Finally, you re-orientate yourself and see the new possibilities and opportunities. This is your New Beginning, which you approach with energy and enthusiasm.

All too often we get stuck in one of these phases. We fail to let go of the past because we are unwilling or unskilled at exploring out emotions, so we ignore them and continue with our previous behaviours. Or we find the neutral zone to uncomfortable, we are unable to tolerate the ambiguity and uncertainty. the anxiety and confusion is just too much for us. We cut short the process and instead plunge straight into a new job, a new venture or relationship.

However, because we have not internally processed what has happened to us (the change) and have not learnt from it and changed our mindset or behaviours, we make the same errors and mistakes in the new situation. Added to that, we now have the emotional baggage from the incomplete transition dragging us down as well.

It’s not to hard to see work out that after a few cycles of failed transitions, we are weighed down with so much emotional baggage that we are practically immobile. We are stuck, often in the very uncertainty and emotional turmoil we were seeking to avoid.

Well, who knew? I certainly didn’t because no-one had ever told me about these things. No-one ever spoke of the hard emotional labour that is needed to work through these transitions.

Quite often I was actually in denial that I was in a transition, that a phase of my life was ending. As for the Neutral Zone and staying is a state of uncertainty and ambiguity, that was to be avoided like the plague. I had been taught to deal in certainties and clarity, no good would come of confusion.

These are common, if unhelpful, reactions, driven by society’s beliefs and pressure to stay the same. However, now I know that once the process of transition has been started it is vital that we complete it and internally process out emotions. These transitions offer us the opportunity for recovery and renewal, to expand our sense of reality and deepen our purpose. This enrichment ourselves and our lives is one of the gifts that is to be granted to us at the end of the process.

That process is seldom easy and there are not any short-cuts and but it is an essential part of re-imagining yourself so that you can move towards a better future.


A star has gone out in the sky with the passing of David Bowie, a rare talent and modern-day icon. Alongside his musical brilliance he will be remembered for his numerous re-inventions, moving from one persona to the next as part of his artistic renewal.

Bowie was an absolute genius at re-imagining himself and had a shape-shifting quality that has been copied but never equalled. He showed us all that it is possible to change everything and retain your integrity, to be completely different and yet remain the same. He showed us that there aren’t any boundaries except those that are in the mind, our own and others.

So, for us Post Executives who need to re-imagine ourselves after leaving the Mothership, it’s simple. Be like Bowie! He’s showed us the way, we just have to follow.

Well, simple is not the same as easy, is it? That sort of change and transition is hard work, challenging and frightening and dangerous. It’s OK, you don’t have to wear make up and outlandish costumes (although if you want to, that’s absolutely fine too. Channel your inner drama queen and all that) but you do have to put in the emotional effort to explore the possibilities and to take some risks and experiment.

It probably not something you’ve done before or even contemplated. It certainly wasn’t on my life plan, such as it was. I joined a large corporate and expected to see out my career there, either with that business or in that environment. By the time I hit my forties I had a family and a mortgage and I was not looking for any big changes.

In fact, when I started work the expectation was very much that you were ‘set in your ways’ by then. Middle age, middle management, middle of the road, that was the norm. It was still the scientific view that you had probably learnt all you could by then and would stay the same until you retired. The adage was that “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”.

We now know that the mind has plasticity and we can not only learn new things throughout our life but change the way our mind operates, creating new neural pathways and patterns of thought. It wasn’t until as recently as 2012 that Carol Dweck wrote about the concept of a growth mindset, that our qualities were not fixed but could be developed by us.

Although seeing Bowie go through his transformations and prove it as possible to re-imagine ourselves, we thought “not for us”, such is the drag of these earlier ideas about personality and qualities and life patterns. But now, it yes, for us. Change is not only possible, it’s essential. It’s not a threat, it’s glorious opportunity. And with the right knowledge, help and support, you can grasp it.

Go on, admit it. You’ve always wanted to be a bit like Bowie. Now you can be.

Pretending at work

It can just creep up on you, pretending at work.

When I started at work, I was just myself. A well-behaved version of myself, of course, but just me. I was young, I didn’t really know what I was like or who I was. I was fortunate that the environment I was in was quite entrepreneurial, there wasn’t any pressure to be anything else.

But then there was the meeting with my bosses boss, when my business case got ripped to shreds even though it was my first one and was approved anyway. I thought it was unfair but I learnt to hold my tongue. “He’s just had a bad day, he’s not normally like that”, my boss told me afterwards.

And then there was the time another boss called me in and shouted at me for missing my sales targets, which had happened because he had allowed the sales force to be moved to another division. I learnt that it’s not so good to have visibility when people are lashing out.

I’d already stopped sharing my political views as they were not in sync with a newly-privatised organisation in Thatcher’s ‘Free Enterprise’ Britain.

I wrote a paper about how the restructure of our organisational unit had unintentionally damaged the integrity of the business and would reduce income. A senior manager told me it was very well argued and he would raise it with out General Manager. This did not go well. I learnt that our General Manager did not appreciate business advice from junior managers, even where they had in depth knowledge and the best intentions for the business. So I learnt to be careful about who I shared my thoughts with.

I found out that it was easier to get things done if you kept below the radar. I learnt that if you kept quiet you avoided the ‘searchlight’, a management practice of focusing intently on a part of business for one or two weeks, driving the people to distraction with stress and pressure, until management got an answer or lost interest. I learnt how to fit in, to blend into the shadows.

You see, bit by bit, you modify your behaviour. Bit by bit you disengage, you narrow your focus, you ration your contribution. Little by little, you adjust your behaviour, you pretend to be like all the others, pretend to hold their opinions and pretend to follow the rules.

Even if underneath it all you are still a rebel and a maverick, you are being less and less like yourself.

And then one day you can’t remember if you are pretending or if it’s really you. It’s as if you don’t know your own mind anymore.

That’s why you have to go and find yourself again.


Dealing with your money worries

One of the big challenges for the Post-Executive is living without the monthly salary check. That big, warm, fluffy blanket of a wodge of money landing in your bank account every month is something you’ve become very used to and it feels dangerous when it’s not coming in any more. You feel exposed and vulnerable, even if you are reasonably secure for the short term.

There’s a very good reason why we feel this way and it’s to do with how our brain works. We tend to think of financial matters as a bit boring, a bit cerebral and intangible, so we might assume that they are dealt with by the reasoning part of our brain, the hippocampus. That’s not how our brain sees it.

It equates financial matters with security and so these thoughts are processed by the amygdala, the prehistoric part of our brain, also called the lizard brain. This is the brain of our ancestors and it concerns itself with three things only – sex, food and safety. It’s also the part of the brain that controls our fight or flight response and it is plugged directly into our nervous system.

So when you think about money, your fears go straight to your lizard brain and it puts you into fight or flight mode, filling your body with cortisol and adrenaline. You may know that you are financially secure but that’s in your hippocampus and you’ve already woken up at three in morning in a cold sweat before it’s even in gear. This is known as a amygdala hi-jack and it’s quite normal, if rather unpleasant.

That’s why you feel as if you are in danger, why you feel vulnerable. And that’s all your lizard brain needs to know to fire up. It seems irrational but back when the world was full of real danger, like massive bears and sabre-tooth tigers, it was this response that kept our ancestors alive and led to us being here today.

This really does affect everyone. In a recent article J K Rowling, one of the richest people in the UK, spoke about how she had “a real worry about money that was completely irrational” just before she had her son.  Well, as a mother-to-be, safety would be uppermost in her mind and so it’s not surprising her concerns got magnified by her lizard brain, so much so that it took over and set off her fight or flight response.

One way to reduce this anxiety is to go through an exercise of looking at the worse case scenario. So ask yourself ‘what if I only made X thousand pounds per year?’, where X is a low figure compared to your previous salary. Whilst the implications might be unpleasant, you will come to realise that you can meet your basics needs on a much lower level of income, and so satisfy your lizard brain that the ‘danger’ is much smaller than previously imagined.

If you are feeling really brave you can ask the question “what if I lost everything?”. Once you have worked out what your strategy is to recover from that is, you will get your financial worries into proper perspective. Granted, getting back from losing everything would be a tough experience but you would realise that it wouldn’t kill you either and that’s all that your lizard brain is really concerned about.