I had a “proper job” for 20 years. By which I mean I was employed full time on a salary by an organisation. During yet another organisational restructure and cost-saving programme, I decided it was time to leave. Not just because I’d been through the cycle too many times and had lost faith in its ability to deliver long-term change, but because I felt that if I was going to make a career out of organisational development and change work, I needed to experience it in more than one organisation. I was technically redundant as a result of the restructure, and although I could have taken another role, I decided this was my moment to leave.
The organisation offered me outplacement coaching as part of the redundancy package. My Outplacement Coach asked me the “magic wand” question – if you could do anything at all, what would it be? “Work for myself, running my own business.” Obvious, easy answer. “So what’s stopping you?” she asked. After reeling off a long list of barriers, it gradually dawned on me that the only thing actually stopping me was my own attitude... Because of the scale of the restructure, many of my colleagues were also leaving the organisation, so my network was suddenly exploding out into other companies and sectors. The Masters degree I was studying for had introduced me to new people and new contacts, and new thinking about organisations and work and what I was capable of. Actually, the only thing stopping me was a lack of belief that I could actually do it.
So I did it. Not recklessly or without careful planning, I hasten to add. I drew up lists of everyone I knew, mapped them out on networking grids according to how well I knew them, how well connected they were, whether they were likely to help me or not, whether they might be able to put me in touch with other useful people. I worked out (roughly) how long I could live on my redundancy money while I got myself established. I met with an accountant to work out what structure would be most appropriate for my new business, and what I would need to do to establish it as a legal entity. I worked with a new business advisor on producing a business plan, and also on the brand position I wanted for my company (more Mercedes than Ford Mondeo – no offence to Ford Mondeos) and how that would show up in practice in everything from how I dressed to meet clients to the quality of paper I printed my invoices on.
So there I was, with all my paperwork in order, going to meetings or coffee or lunch with every contact and connection I could find, including lots of people I’d never met before. Or since, in some cases.
Ten years later, I still haven’t discovered any scientific formula for how to win work, or how to predict which connections will deliver and which won’t. I go to meetings where I feel I’ve really clicked with the other person, we had a great conversation, there’s lots of potential. And nothing happens. And then there are meetings where you think it went ok, you didn’t make a total idiot of yourself, but there wasn’t really a spark. And before you know it, they ring you with an offer. You hear nothing from some people for months, or even years, and then there they are with a proposition. Other people, who you nurture and see often and whose company you enjoy, never offer you any work at all.
Lessons learned? Enjoy the conversations you have with people. Learn something from everyone. Invest in relationships - because you appreciate the relationships, not because you are hoping for payback. Never turn down the opportunity to meet someone, however random it might feel. Be clear about what you do and who you do it for - and also be prepared to think big when someone offers you something new.
(First published 10 June 2012)