I’ve been helping some former colleagues manage a sudden, unexpected career transition. I overcame a significant, challenging transition in my own career several years back. I shared my experience with them in case it’s helpful, and now you…
It was 2003. Like many in New York, I was immersed in the aftermath of 9/11, an economic downturn and a roller-coaster of mergers, acquisitions and a volatile media and technology sector. I was eager to leave the rat race to recharge and cater to my soul. So I took a year off to pursue passions like sailing, non-business writing, gardening and cooking. That’s one of the best investments I ever made for myself, and I’m fortunate I was able to make it work financially and with my wife.
When I attempted to rejoin the tech and media industry in early 2004, economic and hiring activity was anemic. There were a few opportunities I could have pursued, but I was underwhelmed. After a few weeks of heavy networking, I noticed several emerging and established companies that really needed my capabilities but couldn’t commit to 100% of my time. So I put out my own shingle and operated Kalehoff Consulting for the next year, providing marketing and business strategy services.
Founding a company was one of my aspirations, but opening a consulting shop was not the type of business I wanted to create. I did it anyway, because I wasn’t sure what else to do. Fortunately, it quickly became a thriving small business and a compelling way to jump back onto the professional grid.
Benefits of my accidental consulting shop:
- It not only paid the bills, it provided strong cash flow with little risk.
- It stimulated my brain and got me working on fun, interesting projects.
- It connected me to interesting people and larger business opportunities.
- It was a license to quickly become an expert in new domains.
- It created insider knowledge and connections that made me highly valuable.
- It created freedom and optionality.
- It created an interesting personal narrative.
- It created a halo of success, mystique and demand.
The latter two benefits — “personal narrative” and “mystique and demand” — were especially important ones. Despite a strong reputation and professional connections, I suspected an unspoken hesitancy to fully engage and commit with a guy who’d just taken a year out of the conventional rat race. While my time off took some courage and was envied by most, it also positioned me as an outlier, with risk. In fact, new research proves that a key job requirement for open positions is to already be employed. Being unemployed now is officially a major cause of job hiring discrimination! My consulting business not only countered that friction, but created powerful lift and momentum forward — I believe more powerful than had I been conventionally employed.
While the consulting was a great phase, I did not wish to grow it into a larger business. My client operations grew significantly and demanded subcontractors and employees, and I was not interested in creating a human agency business. I aspire to start a significant company, but that will come later. I’m still honing a few ideas and gaining additional leadership and domain experience with other high-growth companies.
Fortunately, my consulting business created multiple opportunities and interesting roles. I ended up joining the early leadership team of one of my clients, and that company successfully exited 18 months later through acquisition, after the market recovered.
First, the conventional corporate world is not always accepting of pauses in your work history, even if they corresponded with important investments and growth in yourself. Still, you should make those investments and consider unsuspected career disruptions as rare opportunities and catalysts to do so.
Second, because of people’s preference to other people who have wind behind their back, it is critical to position yourself and take substantial actions that create a compelling personal narrative, along with a halo of success, mystique and demand. In my case, it was a consulting business, but it could be other vehicles as well.
Photo by Spencer Finnley.