In November 2012 I learned that my CIO position had been eliminated and that I would be without employment starting January 1, 2013. I knew I was starting a new journey – and unlike most journeys in my life, I had no idea where this one was going to end. A little after a year later, I look back and find myself one of the luckiest people in the world. In the end, I have found a new career path that I love, I have become a better husband and father, I have returned to good health, and have found a balance I never could find before.
For those who I have not told, I have officially made the leap – I am now a strategic consultant and owner of O’Brien Consulting, LLC. The path here has been a bit circuitous, but one filled with so much fun and growth that allows me to give perspective to my layoff. I don’t think I would have had the guts to quit a “stable” job to be a consultant, but sometime these kinds of transitions can bring you to some pretty wonderful places.
When I first left my job, my friends and mentors told me that a job search for another CIO position could take six to eighteen months. While we had a decent rainy day fund, it would only last us a year so I started contracting to give myself more time to find the next job. Then I found another contract, then another. At some point, I started to think that I could make this work – and early this year, decided to commit to doing consulting full-time.
I would very much appreciate you keeping me in mind if you or any of your colleagues need strategic consulting. While I have traditionally held technology titles, my talents and skills have always been an even mix of technology and organizational change. And while I still enjoy doing technology jobs, I am especially inspired and excited about helping foster innovation, leadership development, change management, executive coaching, and other areas that help organizations in the midst of change.
Along this journey, I learned so many things that I wanted to share:
1) People are awesome. When I lost my job, so many people came out of the woodwork to help me find a new job and win new contracts. And while you expect your friends to help, there were several people who I barely knew who went out of their way to keep me in the loop about new jobs that were opening. It was such an amazing time of grace, and so wonderfully humbling. This reaffirms my belief in the goodness of humanity.
2) We should be equally diligent to stay true to our values as we do to our morals – which is difficult to do with a traditional job and commute. As I progressed in my career, each job required increasingly more time that had to be taken from somewhere. As a result I spent less time with my family, completely gave up on exercise, and short-changed myself when it came to personal growth. I had no idea just how out of alignment I was.
The time off from my job reaffirmed just how passionately I love my wife and son. My wife and I have grown so much closer, and my son and I have an entirely different relationship. I knew I reached a new level when he would let me soothe him from a scraped knee or a bad dream.
I also knew that I needed to get healthy again. Every year I put on a few pounds until I hit my peak during my last job: 230 lbs. Wanting to be around for Christina and Christopher for a long time, I got back in shape, lost 55 lbs, and can run half marathons on a whim. Exercising is therapeutic, clears my head, and keeps me sharp.
I don’t know how normal people do it, but I never could make my hours work with my last job. I had a (rarely met) goal to sleep eight hours each night. It took two hours to commute, and I was at the office for at least nine hours a day. It took me an hour to get ready in the morning, and an hour when I got home to change, walk the dog, have dinner, etc. Add this up and you are at 21 hours. That left me a scant three hours to be a husband, be a dad, do chores, exercise, read, and do the extra 1-2 hours of work a day that was expected of me.
As a consultant, time is far more fluid and I am able to make things fit a lot better. Just having the two hours a day back from not commuting is immensely helpful. I still work a lot of hours, but everything just seems to fall into place better.
3) With consulting, you can focus exclusively on your strengths. In a traditional job, you may be responsible for twenty things for which seven you excel, another seven you are good, and maybe six you struggle. And because you are not good at those six, you spend a disproportionate amount of time on them.
With consulting, you can really focus on the things you do best. For areas that are outside of your competencies, you bring in partners that are strong in those areas. This leads to a much more satisfying work life.
4) When I considered consulting, everyone said that the hardest part was business development. Interestingly enough, this has not been a problem for me. In my first year of consulting, I had ten contracts of varying sizes. I am now building a partner network to help me with the work and am going to hire a virtual assistant to give me more time to focus on clients.
I consider myself extraordinarily lucky, but I suspect there are a few ingredients that contribute to this luck. I haven’t put much thought into this, but I believe that good Karma returns to you in unexpected ways. So when I help someone who may be a potential client, it is not with the attitude that it may profit me somehow – but that it helps Karma. Sometimes it results in a contract, sometimes the only benefit is the good feeling that I helped someone, and sometimes, that person recommends you to someone else that leads to a partnership. So ultimately it all comes around. When you take this attitude, you don’t see people as walking ATM machines and this allows people to see you as a partner and not someone on the take.
5) Income Security. While there were many things I liked about consulting, the idea of income insecurity was a hurdle. However, as I increasingly got more contracts, this fear did a complete 180.
When we talk about retirement, it is universally accepted that you should diversify your investments. Yet when it comes to employment, we somehow feel that is more secure to have all of your income come from one source. However, when you get 10 contracts in a year, not one person can make a decision that fundamentally impacts your ability to support your family. When you work for an employer, your life can turn up side down in a day. Now the thought of putting 100% of my income eggs in one basket seems enormously risky to me.
6) The Power of Resilience. Growing up, I had ADHD before anyone understood what it was. I struggled in school and was told that I just had to “try harder.” Experiencing repeated failure year after year often leads one to feeling that no matter how hard they try, failure is inevitable. But one day I remember realizing that I was actually pretty bright – I just saw the world differently than other people and that this could actually be a super power. I kept trying different approaches to school – some worked, some didn’t, but I kept trying. I was absolutely determined, even obsessed, to crack the code and be successful. I weathered many struggles but ended up graduating from my university Magna Cum Laude.
This experience helped encode resilience in my DNA (for the record, this probably is not technically possible, but I never really did well in biology). When I lost my job, I didn’t think, “Oh no, my world is over!” but saw it as just another setback that I needed to overcome. Moreover, there was no doubt in my mind that I would come out in a better place – it is just an instinctive reaction to obstacles in life.
Looking back at the last year, it is clear that my early struggles in school helped prepare me for situations like this. And in a strange way, I am grateful for those experiences that helped teach me be strong in the face of adversity.
7) Being bitter is destructive. While I didn’t agree with the decision to eliminate my position, I empathized with those who made the decision and recognized that they were in a tough spot. There wasn’t any way that they could have made the budget numbers work that would have been popular. Moreover, they were humane, fair, and did this in an incredibly dignified way. So while I could have been ticked that two years of extremely hard word with very tangible results ended up with a pink slip, this tact was only a path to darkness. By focusing on all the people who came out of the woodwork to help, my days were filled with joy and appreciation.
I am so enormously grateful, thankful, and humbled by all the people who helped me through this year of discernment and growth. A year that started with extreme stress has ended full of joy, fulfillment, and with a wonderful sense of accomplishment. But I could never have done this on my own – so to all who played a part in this last year, please accept my most profound thank you. I really hope I can pay it forward.