Why trying to get a job could be your worst option

It’s a natural reaction after leaving the Mothership to look for another job. After all, paid employment is all the we’ve known and the pull of the paycheque remains strong. We feel like there is certainty and security around having a job and it looks a lot less threatening than the alternatives. In fact, it seems like the safest and best option.

In fact, the opposite may well be true, for several reasons.

The first one is that recruitment is broken. The process of selection has become so convoluted, so contrived and so capricious that it has become painful to go through. It’s a massive time and energy suck, from deciphering the management gobbledegook and ridiculously specific requirement specs to submitting your application through tortuous and unfriendly websites.

In return, you mostly get ignored (if you’re lucky) or demeaned. Not only do companies feel it is perfectly acceptable not to acknowledge any applicants (even though this would be a cheap and easy thing to do with today’s systems and technology), I’ve heard of people who have gone through several interviews and then hear nothing, get no further response at all. I’ve also heard of job specs being changed during the interview process or jobs being pulled altogether – both between the offer and the contract and even between the contract and the start date.

It’s hardly comforting to reflect that your fate throughout this process is in the hands of people who would have looked to you for advice and guidance, and even mentoring, in the past. Now, they can remove your application in a second, due to misunderstanding, bias or even by error. After so many years of holding senior positions and being responsible for making things happen, this lack of control makes you feel powerless and is very stressful.

The second reason is that if the process doesn’t kill off your chances, somebody in the process will because of your age, experience and perceived cost. Of course, ageism is illegal but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, it just means it’s not explicit. It’s entirely possible the people interviewing you, selecting you and potentially those managing you will all be younger and less experienced than you. They may perceive you as a potential threat, or inflexible, or too questioning, or just difficult to relate to, or any of the many other preconceptions about older executives.

It’s been shown that the older people are, the more effective they are in getting things done but this premium, that comes from experience and wisdom, is not well recognised. Youth and energy is more prized in our modern work environment.

Thirdly, it is likely that you will end up applying for roles that only play to one or two of your strengths, or are at a more junior level than you had previously worked, in order to widen your search and improve your odds. Actually, this can do the opposite. If you go for, say, project management roles because you’ve done a lot of that in the past, you are going to be up against project management specialists who will have more focused experience and skills than you. If you are going for more junior roles, you will be seen as over-qualified and may be perceived as a threat by those who will be above you.

Finally, if you didn’t leave the Mothership on your own terms, you probably had a painful and bruising exit. You may well have had an extended period of unpleasantness before that. Do you really want to go back into that sort of toxic environment again? Is it really worth it?

In short, trying to get a job back in corporate land can leave you open to indifference, rejection, disrespect and even abuse. It’s entirely possible that you can spend months and months applying for jobs without getting anywhere, draining your energy, enthusiasm and your precious finances. When your confidence has already taken a blow and your self-esteem is in a lull, opening yourself up to this can be very risky. Does this still sound like your best option?

Some people do manage to get another job, often through their network, and it’s likely to be one of the large percentage that are never advertised. If that’s possible for you, then great. You will probably know if that’s viable quite early on and will have had opportunities come to you by that route in the past. However, there is still the question of whether you wish to remain in that toxic environment. What’s more, the chances are that you will be back outside the Mothership again in a few year’s time.

For many of us, however, our networks are not well-developed or extensive enough to yield these opportunities. If that’s the case for you, then your best and safest option is to focus on Plan B and forget about trying to get another job. And Plan B is to create a life that is rewarding, fulfilling and sustainable. A life designed to fit you and not to fit an employer. The best option is actually to work for your own future.

5 ways we sabotage our business after leaving the Mothership

It’s quite common for people to set themselves up in their own business after leaving the Mothership, offering  their services as a consultant or coach or trainer, or some combination of these. I did and I’ve seen many others go this way because it’s the easiest and obvious choice, so it’s popularity is not surprising (although whether this is the best choice is a question for another day).

What’s surprising to me, however, is how these intelligent, articulate and able people manage to sabotage their new businesses whilst believing they are being perfectly rational. Even more surprising, they all make one, some, or even all of the same five unintentional mistakes (yes, me included).

When you begin a business delivering your personal services, you have a set of existing assets that you should be using to turbo-boost you at the start. These are

  1. Your experience and skill set
  2. Your industry knowledge
  3. Your network of contacts and relationships
  4. Your ability to address specific, high-value problems
  5. Your status and credibility (to some extent, this is a product of the others)

Using these to get your business up and running, you can get to that crucial break-even point as quickly as possible. You can develop a new direction after that but you will have proved to yourself that you can make a  living from your own efforts and can move forward with confidence.

Instead, all too often we disable or ignore these assets by doing the following:

  1. Doing something completely different

You’ve spent all your career in IT but now you’ve decided you are going to offer psychometric profiling as a service. Or leave behind your HR expertise and go into web design. This is not usually driven by some mis-guided desire to ‘follow your passion’ but by a desire to have a change from what you’ve done in the past (and got completely jaded about).

2. Work in a different industry

Similar to above, we decide we no longer want to work in the industry that we know. It may be because we believe it is shrinking or just that we are heartily sick of it. Instead of leveraging our knowledge and contacts, we decide to go into an industry where we know nothing and nobody. Or worse, go into several industries, any industry, as long as it’s not the one we’ve come from.

3. Work in a different location

You’re fed up with the commute and the noise and hassle of working in the city, so you decide it would be nicer to work nearer to home; have a better life balance, spend more time with the family or on our hobbies. This sounds lovely. Unfortunately, you don’t know anyone in your local area and so have to build up networks and relationships from scratch. As you get to know your area, you  realise that there aren’t any of your target customers in your locality, which would have been obvious from the start if you had thought about it for more than a second.

4. Ignore our existing network

Having spent all our working life building up relationships and establishing credibility and trust, we decide to ignore this network because we don’t believe it will be relevant to our shiny new business. Instead, we put large amounts of time and energy into meeting new people, in the hope that they will prove to be the right ones to reach our customers. However, these new people do not yet know us, trust us, rate us or remember us and so do not provide any leads. Meanwhile, the people in our old network (who do know, trust, rate and remember us) could  connect us to our target customers immediately but aren’t because we’ve never asked them too – because we’ve assumed they couldn’t.

5. Make a generic offer to a generic market

About the most common statement I have heard at networking events and when speaking to people new to running their own businesses is “I provide a wide range of consulting services to small, medium and large businesses”. It’s not their fault, they are unfamiliar with the skills of marketing and are operating well outside their comfort zone but they might as well say “I do some things for some people”. Actually, that is what they are saying. It’s impossible for anyone to help them get any business or for them to focus their own efforts in an effective way. They are basically firing arrows up in the air and seeing who they land on because they are scared that if they aim at a specific target they will miss out on other opportunities. (I, of course, have NEVER been guilty of this ;-9)


These apparently rational decisions are often made because we have not worked through the ending of our corporate career. This is an event that has the same psychological impact as a divorce or the loss of a loved one and it is vitally important to process the events, feelings and emotions so that we can move on and transition to a new career and life-style. All too often the final part of corporate career is an unpleasant experience, a bruising and sometimes traumatic exit that colours our judgement and causes a rejection of what went before. Instead, we need to hold onto the positive assets to build your new business, at least for the initial stage.

It seems to take people about 1 1/2 to 2 years to figure out what they are doing wrong and to process their experience enough to be able to re-evaluate their past career and leverage those assets. By this time their initial enthusiasm, energy and capital is badly depleted but, with luck, they will have learnt enough and found enough resources along  the way to recover the situation and make their business the success they were always capable of.

If you are a corporate leaver, consider these five unintentional mistakes before you decide on how to start your new business. You don’t have to build upon your past but it makes it a lot easier to get to a level of success that supports you financially, so that you then have the freedom and confidence to move in a new direction.

Sometimes, of course, changing your occupation, industry, location or network can work but not if you are looking to trade on your prior expertise, which you often are as a consultant, coach or trainer. These are mistakes people make unintentionally, that’s why you need to think about them. (although the last one is ALWAYS wrong and you definitely need to think about that).

Brene and Me

I can’t remember when we first met. I think we were introduced by a mutual friend, Seth. I followed a link in his blog and there she was, talking to Ted.

I watched her talk. It was startling, surprising, moving. And I knew it was aimed at me. There were hundreds, thousands, maybe millions in the audience but I know she was talking to me.

“So”, I thought, “this vulnerability thing. It’s important, isn’t it. I really should do something about it”. And then I carried on as before.

I came across her again a few weeks later. Someone else, I think it was Jonathan, was talking to her. “This is definitely important” I thought, “I must do something about this. Perhaps I should get her book.” Only the book was only available in hardback in the US, so I decided to wait until the paperback came out. I told myself it was the price but maybe that was a convenient excuse to avoid possible discomfort from reading it.

It was a few months later when I got her book and I read it through avidly. “Wow, this is really serious stuff, I must do this wholehearted living thing, I must be more vulnerable”, I thought. And I carried on pretty much as before.

But I kept bumping into Brene. More talks, more blogs, more podcasts. I felt like the damn woman was stalking me! “I haven’t really got this yet, have I?” I said to myself. So I read the book again, and I told everyone how important it was. And I carried on pretty much as before.

Unsurprisingly, not much changed. This was a disappointment. “What’s wrong with you?” I asked myself, “why don’t you get this stuff? Why aren’t you doing ‘vulnerable’?” Exasperated, I read the book again, only this time I took copious notes. One way or another I was going to drill this stuff into my thick skull.

Now, change is a funny thing. It seems that nothing is going on and then it all happens at once. Of course, it’s not really like that, it’s a steady stream of small, almost imperceptible changes that occur until a tipping point is reached. I kept going back to my notes, listening to Brene again, trying to shed the armour I had built up over the years. Then, one day, I just decided I wasn’t going to do that shame thing anymore. I decided that what other people think is entirely their affair. No more shoulds, oughts, musts and have-tos. I decided I am enough. I decided I am worthy of love. I decided I am going to be vulnerable (because that’s what let’s the good stuff happen).

This wasn’t the beginning, nor was it the end, but it was a big step. I was able to switch off all the scripts that I ran to do myself down and make me feel bad. I was able to quieten, if not entirely silence, my inner critic that always told me I was worthless and it was all my fault. I felt that I could look up and look forward, that I could escape the box that I had been trapped in for so long.

I still meet with Brene from time to time. We still have work to do. There are relapses, there are times when I want to put the armour back on, times when I want to crawl back into the box and hide. Being vulnerable, you see, is not about weakness, it’s about strength and courage and some days we just don’t feel that strong or courageous. It feels easier to go back to what we knew, what had been familiar, what had seemed comfortable. But a few words from Brene puts me straight, reminds me how awful that was and what more there is to be gained by wholeheartedly embracing life.

I still wonder why I knew this was important, why I persisted. Intellectually, I got it but I couldn’t seem to access it, as if the armour I was seeking to shed was getting in the way. But it called to somewhere deeper inside me. I just knew I had to listen to Brene until I got it.

I think you should listen to her too.

Circles of Safety

Ever been in a team where everyone trusted everyone else to give their all and you all looked after each others’ backs? It felt good, didn’t it? I’m betting that team was one of the most successful you’ve ever been part of.

Remember when you last met up with your mates for a few beers? People you had known from school days, had got into scrapes with, made mistakes with. Can you remember the times you fished each other out of trouble, covered up for each other’s nefarious activities, looked after each other when you’d gone too large too early? Doesn’t it feel great to be with people you can trust, with a bunch of people who care for each other?

That warm glow that you feel is because you are in a circle of safety. It triggers the release of two chemicals in our brain that make us feel good.

We release serotonin, which makes us feel responsible for those who help us succeed. And helping us gives them a hit of serotonin in return.

We also release oxytocin, which generates feeling of friendship, love and deep trust. It causes us to carry out acts of generosity, to feel empathy for others, and to develop bonds of trust and friendship. Not only that, it’s effect last and grow stronger over time, replacing that serotonin hit with a continuing good feeling.

This is how we feel inside a circle of safety, when we feel that we belong.

I always tried to create circles of safety for the teams I led and I believe the successes I achieved where due in large part to this. I didn’t know why it worked at the time but I could see that it did and it was just the way I preferred to work. I am prefer positive, progressive environments, I prefer to enlist people and persuade them to co-operate. They give much more than you expect when you do that. Now I know I was just addicted to the good chemicals!

However, when I reflect back on my corporate life, I have to say there weren’t too many occasions when I felt in a circle of safety. In fact, most of the time the environment seemed to have been created to  have the opposite effect. A culture of fear and control kept us continually on alert, or ‘on our toes’ as our managers euphemistically put it.

When we feel threatened in this way, our body responds by firing up our fight or flight response. Cortisol and adrenaline flood our body so that we can deal with immediate danger, the levels returning to normal once the threat has disappeared. However, under a culture of fear the feeling of danger is constant so the threat never disappears. Consequently, our body retains the high levels of cortisol for long periods of time, which causes very real damage to our bodies and our health.

When you leave the Mothership, when you are no longer part of the corporate life, that sense of permanent danger is removed and your body is no longer stressed in that way. However, you are also removed from the circles of safety that existed. Even in the worst environments, you always have a few colleagues who look out for you and watch your back. Even the worst corporate provides support and protection from some of the sources of danger.

Now you are alone, isolated and feeling very vulnerable. Like the old antelope left by the herd for the lions to attack, you now feel in mortal danger and your fight or flight response is on full alert.

This is why you may feel jumpy, edgy, and find it difficult to concentrate, feelings you may have expected to leave behind once you had escaped the fear-driven culture of the corporate.

In this situation, it’s very important to connect with the other communities that you are part of, to get that social connection and the reassurance that you belong to other circles of safety. It’s also important to start building new networks of people who are in a similar situation, where you can support each other and create a new circle of safety for each other. You may not really feel like doing either of these things but it really is crucial to your well-being and success in coping with this situation.

One of my aspirations is to create a community around this blog and to enable the formation of those circles of safety. To make it easier for us to connect with others of like-mind and experience, so that we once again feel that there are some people looking after our back, who care for us and who we care for in return, somewhere that we feel safe and feel that we belong.

Dance to your own tune

Gary Vee is speaking tonight. He’s an internet star, a serial entrepreneur, an authentic presence, a force of nature. And he swears a lot because, man, this is f*!<ing important! He’s that kinda guy.

Gary says you gotta hustle. Gary is big on hustling, he says you won’t get anywhere if you don’t hustle. If you want to build a great business and be a successful as him and you aren’t hustling, well, you are just dreaming. Get off your ass and hustle, man!

I used to read Gary’s blogs and Medium posts because they had some good insights. And they were short. That was probably a big reason. But I stopped reading Gary’s posts because, well, I don’t hustle.

I’m actually anti-hustle. I hate being hustled. If you try to hustle me, you are qualifying yourself out, I will never buy from you. I won’t meet you for coffee, I won’t read your blogs, I won’t be open to anything you do. I just want you to go away.

And I don’t know how to hustle, I am not equipped to hustle and I have no inclination to learn how.  Even if my life depended on it, I’m not sure I would be able to hustle. I could no more hustle than balance the Tower of London on my nose (although that would be way cooler).

So I had to say goodbye to Gary Vee because Gary Vee says you HAVE to hustle. There’s no point in listening to someone who tells you to do something you are not going to do, it’s just depressing. And it feels a bit like bullying.

Of course, I want my business to be successful and I want people to know about what I do and I want to create relationships with people who I can work with and all that stuff.

But Gary Vee says I have to hustle to do that and, well, that’s just not my style. And I don’t agree with him. That’s the way that HE makes that stuff happen, that’s his dance. It’s not mine. There are other ways that are more aligned with who I am.

You can copy someone else’s dance but you will never copy their passion and connection with the music, you’ll never get their flow. You will always be a pale imitation, slightly behind the beat, self-conscious and awkward. And difficult to watch.

You have to dance to your own tune, work with the music in your soul and and create your own moves. You can be inspired by others but you have to connect with your own rhythm, you have to follow the song in your heart. That’s when the magic starts to happen.

And no hustling. Unless you’ve got the flares for it.


It’s only a flesh wound

I’ve been ‘let go’ three times in my career.  Only once was it an actual redundancy but in each case my role was terminated and I wasn’t needed any more. I thought I was probably a bit unlucky but not particularly exceptional. I mean, it’s just a fact of business life, isn’t it?

I didn’t make a fuss. I just picked myself up, dusted myself down and carried on as best I could. That’s what we do, isn’t it. Of course it hurt, I felt rejected but, stiff upper lip and all that, no time to wallow in self pity and blame. After all, nobody likes a cry-baby.

Besides, we’ve all heard those stories where someone tells you that, although it was horrible at the time, on reflection it turned out to be the best thing ever happened to them. Everyone assumes you’ve banked the redundancy money and gone straight into a better job. Or that, now you’re out of the corporate rat race, you are following your dreams. Of course, it’s not really like that but, hey, no-one wants to hear how miserable and upset you are.

So you put on a brave face, nod and smile when they say how much they envy you lying in bed and missing the daily commute and laugh along at their jokes about working in your pyjamas all day and forgetting how to tie your shoes up.

Then you carry on as best you can.

The thing is, being ‘let go’ is a major psychological event. Redundancy is like going through a divorce. Leaving corporate life is like moving to a foreign country. This is a big deal.

This is not something we should be trivialising, ignoring, trying to brush off. That’s not down-playing it, that’s denying it. As a Brit, I love our sense of understatement and talent for self-deprecation but it is not appropriate in this case. This is deadly serious stuff that needs an equally serious response.

Only I didn’t do that. I ignored it, made jokes about it, pretended it wasn’t a big deal. Like most people do.

“It’s just a flesh wound” says the Black Knight in Monty Python’s film “The Holy Grail” after King Arthur has chopped both his arms off, and then proceeds to call Arthur a chicken because he’s stopped fighting. The absurdity of someone suffering such wounds just to support their ego and ridiculous sense of machismo makes us laugh (well, it makes me laugh every time I watch it). Of course, we don’t behave like that when we’re ‘let go’, do we?

“I’ve ‘ad worse” is his response when his first arm is chopped off earlier in the sketch. Imagine if, after being made redundant, we tried shrug it off by saying something like “It could have been worse”? How ridiculous would that be?

When you have a shock, you feel it physically, emotionally, mentally and even spiritually. If that shock was obviously physical, like breaking a leg, would you try and laugh it off? No, you’d get treatment, you’d take time for rest and recuperation, you would learn exercises to rehabilitate yourself. But because this shock is firstly psychological, we consider it less serious and fail to treat it. How does that work?

So let’s stop being like the Black Knight about this. It’s not ‘only a flesh wound’, it’s a serious trauma, so let’s give it the attention it deserves and get the help and support we need.

Laughter is great medicine, so start you treatment here by watching the sketch:



The terror of freedom

If you’ve seen a tame elephant you might have wondered how it is that this, the strongest of animals, can be constrained by a flimsy rope tied to a stake. It could easily tear the stake out of the ground, or break the rope just by walking away, but it stands there, calm and docile.

It’s because there was a time when the rope was a real constraint, when the elephant was a baby and lacked the strength to break the tether. The baby elephant came to associate the rope around its leg with being unable to escape and so accepted its fate. Even though it grows bigger and stronger, it keeps that belief that the rope and stake cannot be escaped and so it never tries. It has learnt to be helpless.

Even when the rope is removed, the elephant is is often reluctant to move away and explore new territory. It prefers the comfort of staying where it is.

We can feel like this when we have left the Mothership. We are so used to having decisions made for us, having out priorities and targets given to us, having our calendar filled by obligations and our time and mood dictated by the flood of emails, texts and other messages, we find we are unused to the freedom that we now have.

Like the elephant, we feel more comfortable with the rope around our leg, constraining our possibilities but making us feel safe. We look for someone to set our priorities for us, so we let our emails drive our actions and fill our time with aimless meetings and ‘busy work’. This is our learned helplessness, conditioning from several years of being at the whim and caprice of our managers and the organisations we worked for.

It’s not surprising that we feel uncomfortable when we find ourselves free to decide what we do and when we do it. We now have an unlimited number of choices, of possibilities, of options and we simply do not know how to cope with it. In fact, though an effect known as the Paradox of Choice, it makes us anxious. More than a few choices causes us distress, which rises as the number choices increase. Having unlimited choice can max out our  anxiety.

Freedom. It’s bloody terrifying. Well, they didn’t tell us that when we were tied down to our day jobs, did they? Now we have escaped the treadmill we are stressed and anxious because, well, we’ve escaped the treadmill. Marvellous.

The good news is that this fear of freedom is temporary. Once you have become clear on what your Post-Executive self and lifestyle is going to be, then you will naturally develop your own goals, make you own priorities, and move into action.

Some of us can be paralysed by this freedom, however, and get stuck for a while. It’s a good idea, therefore, to create some temporary structure and goals to keep you occupied whilst you sort yourself out. Getting yourself fit, starting a creative project, learning a new skill; these types of short-term goals create commitments that put some boundaries around your choices and stop you being overwhelmed by them. That, in turn, dials down the anxiety and gives you the mental space to work out what your Post-executive future is going to be.

Swimming amongst the sharks

When you leave the Mothership you can find yourself bobbing around in some pretty stormy waters. You’re splashing around, trying to keep your head above water and figure out which direction to start swimming in and it feel rather dangerous. But that’s not all because, whether you’ve realised or not, there are sharks in water and they are starting to take an interest in you.

You see, you are just what they are looking for. You’ve got plenty of meat on you, with that nice redundancy package and those savings you’ve built up. You’re probably not in great shape, either, battered and bruised from the way you left the Mothership and emotionally fragile. You’re not going to put up much of a fight. Easy pickings.

So, who are these sharks, then? You can’t see any.

It’s the outplacement company that want you to pay them few thousand for a programme that won’t meet your needs but will give you an amazing cv that nobody will read.

It’s the ‘consultants network’ of ‘director level people’ that will sign you up for ten thousand or so and put you in touch with other ‘like minds’. They won’t actually deliver any business to you but you will have an accreditation that no-one recognises and some nice events to go to.

It’s the company that will licence their ‘technology’ to you for ten to twenty thousand and train you to deliver something you could put together yourself off of the internet. It’s not bad material, it’s just that not many companies actually want to buy it. Only they don’t mention that, or the fact that they have flooded the market in your area because, well, their business is selling licences, not making their licensees successful.

It’s the franchise company that will sign you up to their system that *can* deliver you six-figure annual earnings – if you do exactly as they say for the next 5 years. Starting with paying them tens of thousands of pounds for the franchise, which makes you a sales person with revenue targets that they have set. Only they didn’t quite put it like that when they were telling you what a great life it was going to give you and you didn’t read the small print very closely. If, and often when, you fail to hit target, they terminate your franchise without a refund – but if you are lucky, they’ll release you from the ongoing payments.

And, worst of all, are the ‘get rich quick’ boys, the ‘millionaire entrepreneur’ clubs, the ‘billionaire business’ schemes. They lure you in with free weekends and then upsell you an unrealisable dream that’s always just one more product away. “If only you came to the all week intensive in Bali, only 25,000 pounds”. These are the vampire sharks, once they’ve got their teeth into you then they’ll bleed you dry.

“Don’t worry”, you say, “they won’t get me. I can spot them a mile off and I can swim away”.

Only the thing about sharks is that they have such big smiles. And not many people are smiling at you at the moment. So you think, “well, maybe they’re friendly, maybe they’ll be nice to me” because you are all alone in this big, stormy sea and you desperately want someone to be nice to you.

And they are nice, for a while. Just until you have let them get close enough to bite you.

Think I’m being cynical? Well, I’ve got the bite marks that prove differently.

Swimming with sharks is dangerous. Keep as far away from them as you can.


Did your career run on autopilot? When you were on the Mothership, you may well have been  following a career progression and had a rough idea where you were headed in the next year or two, or perhaps even longer. Even if it wasn’t particularly structured, there was an expectation that you would move up the hierarchy and you could have some estimationas to when you could reach each level.

Your annual reviews would include a discussion about this and you may have been involved in succession planning. Of course, you could move around and you influenced where you went, and by hard work or politics or luck you could increase your velocity. At the least, you had a perception of where you were going and a desire to progress at a certain speed.

Whilst I certainly influenced where I went and what I worked on in my career, it was in the context of this broader structure and how I was moving through the hierarchy. When I left BT, the fact that I had been stuck at one level for some time and had reached the upper limit of that pay band was an influencing factor in my decision.

When you leave the Mothership, there is no longer an autopilot on your career (or your life, for that matter). You have full agency over what you do, when you do it, how much you do and where you go next. There is no hierarchy to navigate your way through, there aren’t any levels of success to achieve. In fact, success is entirely what you define it to be and you can shoot for as much or as little as you want.

This can be overwhelming. On the Mothership we are encouraged to let the organisation determine  our career to some degree. When I first joined BT, it was very much the case that the organisation would look after you and develop you. Although this changed and people were encouraged to take moe responsibility for their own careers, there was still an ‘organisational flow’ that carried you along. You were expected to progress and to do so in certain ways. You were expected to grow into roles that suited the organisation, there were square holes to fit yourself into regardless of the shape you wanted to be.

When it is entirely up to you, it can be hard to find the right reference points. You may not know any other people who do what you want to do or have been through the same transition. You may not have any role models, there may not be a path that you can follow or at least learn from. You can feel totally exposed and in the dark, which is very disconcerting after the certainties of the Mothership.

This contributes to the confusion and uncertainty that you experience in the Neutral zone, as you transform from corporate life the new, re-imagined you.

You’ve got hold of the controls now, it’s up to you to decide where you want to fly the plane.

Old spanners, new nuts

When you leave corporate life you have a wealth of experience, skills, abilities and knowledge and you start out with the certainty that these will stand you in good stead in whatever you do next. It’s not an unreasonable assumption, it just happens to be wrong.

What you find out is that much of what you know is irrelevant, and some of it can be positively harmful. It’s like trying to work on a new car with a set of trusty old spanners. You find your spanners don’t fit because they’ve changed the nuts to different shapes and sizes. The trouble is, well, all you’ve got is your old set of spanners, so you have go anyway. Not only do the nuts remain stubbornly unloosened, you’ve now burred the edges and even the right spanners won’t work.

You end up hot, angry and frustrated, and are going to have to pay someone a lot of money to sort out the mess. (Believe me, I speak from experience).

This pattern has played itself out in my experience since leaving the Mothership.

One of the things that I tried to do was to replicate my old working routine. I really struggled when I was at home so I ‘went to work’ and travelled up to London for meetings on a regular basis, working in coffee bars or coworking spaces. This felt like how I used to make connections and start relationships back on the Mothership. Walking around and hanging about has been my favoured modus operandi.

The problem was that I was replicating the appearance but not the substance. I thought it was enough to be hanging out with people in business-like spaces but it didn’t work because often they weren’t the right people. They were perfectly lovely but  without the shared purpose, values and culture of a large organisation it was difficult build meaningful relationships. I wasn’t loosening the nut of networking or getting things done.

I eventually realised that working at home was part of my new lifestyle and so I consciously changed my attitude and behaviours. Now I am quite happy working at home 2 or 3 days a week and limiting my meetings and trips to London. I am no longer playing ‘lucky dip’ when I meet people and I only meet those where I feel those meaningful relationships could develop.

A second example is my behaviour from corporate life to ‘make things happen’. I would create a vision of what I wanted to happen, such as a new product line or a marketing programme, gather the team together and then drive it through. I didn’t manage most of the people in the teams so I had to persuade them to do what I wanted rather than tell them.

I was good at working like this and mostly got what I wanted. Although my approach was gentle, I  knew that, ultimately, people had responsibilities that they couldn’t avoid and I could pin them down with logic or wear them down with persistent pleading. A steel hand in a velvet glove, I could force the outcome that I wanted.

It did not work well, however, when I tried to collaborate with other people and help them develop their business idea. On the Mothership, my forcing behaviour created a pressure that tended to highlight our shared objectives and pull people together. Now, it made my would-be collaborators feel uncomfortable and highlighted our differences, pushing us apart and causing them to disengage. It was proving counter-productive, sabotaging the relationships I had established and choking off opportunities.

It’s taken me a long time to realise this, so ingrained was this forcing behaviour into my way of doing things. I was unable to see the impact on others and that I was allowing my needs to trample over theirs, quite the opposite to how I believed I was behaving. Instead of loosening the collaboration nut, I was burring the head and jamming it on tighter than before.

Of course, some of the tools you have do fit and do work in the world outside the Mothership and others can be modified and still be effective. Some, however, are going to have to be chucked and replaced with new ones. You have to gather a set of tools that are fit for purpose, fit for what you are working on now.

The trick is to be aware and check first. Like with your spanners, offer it up and see if it fits first. Apply it gently, don’t just use brute strength. And ask around to see if anyone else has the tools that you need or knows where you can get them. It will take time and a lot of trial and error but you will eventually assemble the right tools for the job in the situation you are now in.