10 lessons in a decade of professional change

Ten years ago I decided to leave the marketing business I co-founded and an industry I had devoted myself to for 21 years. Today, I’m reflecting on what I’ve learned in a decade of trying to make a different difference.

I say different because I felt like I was making an impact already: as an employer helping people build meaningful careers and as a marketer supporting my firm’s technology clients. I don’t know whether I was called to the path I’m on today. I may have just hit that mid-life stage when many of us take stock of our life and work. In any case, I wanted to do more to make the world a better, more sustainable place.

And how’s that going, you ask

Take a look around — our politics, our climate, our collapsing middle class — and it’s obvious I have some work left to do. When I set out on my journey, I didn’t have the benefit of a role model or textbook. If you’re contemplating a change like mine, I humbly offer 10 lessons from a decade of redirecting and redefining my career – with the caveat that your experience may be nothing like mine!

  1. Networks take time to rebuild: I didn’t fully appreciate the value of my network until I left the technology industry. It took me 20 years to build that network, and it had very little overlap or relevance in the new sphere I was entering.
  2. Reputations don’t automatically transfer: Whatever brand equity I had accumulated in the tech world had modest transactional value with prospective clients who were fighting climate change, helping at-risk youth or conserving precious lands. I’ve had to earn my stripes anew.
  3. Keep connecting your professional dots: I chose to apply what I knew how to do – strategy, branding, communications – rather than learn all-new skills (while also learning a new industry sector). I felt I could make a bigger difference faster if I leveraged the know-how I had developed over 25 years.
  4. Don’t get too attached to your ideas: There are the changes we plan to make in the world. And there is the world that changes our plans. I started down my new path in 2006 with a pretty defined idea of where I was headed. Two years later the Great Recession struck. It presented a hard lesson in letting go.
  5. Be flexible on how you achieve your goal: My goal was and is to direct my work toward building a more equitable and sustainable world. I thought I’d do that by developing the brands of sustainable businesses. Turns out my greater opportunities have come in the nonprofit sector, and branding is just a piece of what I do.
  6. Cultivate a learner’s mind: One of the best outcomes from my choice 10 years ago is putting myself in position to learn new organizational development skills, such as strategic planning, workshop design and group facilitation. Learning while helping good organizations is deeply gratifying.
  7. Walk your path with humility: In reality my only choice has been to adopt a learner’s mind. Once I left the tech industry I could no longer trade on my expertise as a tech marketer. I had a good set of transferable skills, but I still had a lot to learn. It can be humbling to move from teacher to student. It’s also invigorating.
  8. Keep an eye on your larger purpose: I am more keenly aware than ever of the world’s many needs and of the countless ways I can make an impact. It’s less crucial how I contribute than it is to simply find ways to help individuals and organizations whose causes I share.
  9. Money is the means, not the end: Consider the nonprofit axiom: no mission, no money – no money, no mission. I didn’t take a vow of poverty when I left the tech world. But I have stopped using money to measure success.
  10. Keep it fresh: Even in the realm of good works, it’s easy to fall into ruts. I am newly energized by a decision to start offering executive coaching services to mid to later career professionals who are ready to make their next difference – people not unlike me 10 years ago.