When I left my corner office as Group Head of HR and Marketing in June 2011 after six years at the company, I did not have a clue what lay ahead. The departure had been ‘mutual’ in that I felt that I had done all I could in the role but to be frank at least one or two in the company had reached the same conclusion! I had been an HR Director for three sizable organisations – Fidelity International, COLT Telecom (COLT) and Aspen Insurance (AHL) – over the previous 9 years and now I was approaching 50 and leaving the stresses and comfort of corporate life. After nearly 30 years in HR I had climbed the slippery pole, done the top job in three sectors and now, on one summers day, it ended as I walked out the oversized, marbled foyer of my City office building.
My first decision was that I wanted to explore coaching and enrolled on a course that would lead to a Masters level certificate in Executive Coaching. The coaching course was an ideal environment for exploring my career dilemma. Another HR Director job? Interim? Set up a business? The great thing about coaching is that it enables a person to dig deep into their motivations, clarify their thinking and make better-informed decisions. Somewhere in a hotel in the countryside around Bristol, I decided the corporate career was over and I was going to build a business.
Anyone who has set up a company will tell you that the next phase is the fun bit. Inventing a name, designing business cards, buying stationary, designing a website, defining your services, buying some IT kit, setting up the company and finding an accountant. A few weeks later you are ready to start.
I am not superstitious, but I did officially launch the company at 11 minutes past 11, on the 11th November, 2011. Yes, 11.11,11.11.11. Apparently 11 is a lucky number. Leadenhall Consulting is now about a year and three months old, how did it go and what have I learned?
Corporate life as an HR Director has some massive advantages balanced against some massive disadvantages. The advantages of corporate life are:
• You have the privilege of owning the people agenda for your company. The buck stops with you. Not every one gets a chance to do this in their career, you can make your mark.
• If you enjoy leading a team, you have the opportunity to exercise that leadership – guiding future HR leaders, delivering projects, introducing technology, having fun with colleagues as you progress.
• You get paid every month, and if you are in a senior role, bonuses, stock plans, pensions, medical plans, life cover and if you fly regularly – the holy grail of a BA Gold Card.
• You take part in the action of leading a Company, have a sense as part of the Executive Team that you are helping move the company forward.
• You work with some fantastic people in some fantastic places. For me this has included living in the States as an expat and traveling throughout Europe, Asia and the States.
• You are in a gilded cage. No complaint, you sign up for the job, but there is a price to be paid for those generous corporate benefits. The hours are long, the pressure high, the travel schedule wearing and thanks are few. After 16 bonus cycles in a row, in which executives competed for the pie, tight deadlines and compensation committees to report to – I had my first stress free January in 2012.
• You own the people agenda, but within the framework that you can negotiate with your other senior colleagues. This can be a constant process of challenge.
• Corporate politics. It will not surprise you to hear that not everyone who reaches senior levels are decent, reasonable human beings. Behind the scenes maneuverings, backbiting and politics are part and parcel of corporate life.
• You are stereotyped at the ‘HR’ guy. I was lucky enough to run marketing and helped rebrand the company before I left, but generally, you work within a framework that is pretty well established.
And how does the life of a ‘silver entrepreneur’ compare? The advantages:
• My time, activities and priorities are decided by me. I see more of my family and work around my domestic life much more effectively.
• I have found great friends and colleagues to work with – of our mutual choosing – no a**holes.
• I use all my skills. I have done the finances, the marketing, the sales, the purchasing (10% discount card at Rymans), the facilities, the IT and yes – the work. There is also room for creativity and innovation – no more risk aversion and excessive caution. Try your new idea and see if it works.
• You eat what you kill. Your reward is limited by your ability to build the business. No-one appraises you, no-one second guesses you and no-one sets your pay rise.
• The sense of satisfaction is huge. The highs are higher, maybe the lows are lower, but you are responsible for your achievements.
• You choose the work that you wish to do. No more compensation cycles for me. Coaching, training, consulting and assessing talent are my areas of activity.
• There is a recession out there. Don’t think that people are waiting out there to throw money at you. There are plenty of other former HR Directors looking to work, plenty of coaches, plenty of consulting firms.
• You have to earn the right to do business with your clients, then show them what you can do again and again.
• You have to earn those benefits that companies were willing to give you so easily as part of the package. Maybe though this is an advantage – you do not take things for granted.
• There is financial pressure like you have never experienced in your life before. You take the risk and work to make it successful. But storybook endings are for Hollywood. The market will be the judge.
Overall, I have not enjoyed business life so much in all my life. I am now working with some great associates including Laura Hawes, former Executive Director at Fidelity, Martin Hall, former co-Head of Fixed Income at Fidelity International, Lembit Opik (yes him, he is the best trainer I have ever worked with) and Professor Adrian Furnham, prolific author, academic and speaker. As I walked out of that door a year and half ago, I would never have predicted that……and even now, I am not sure where the story ends, and that is the fun of it.