Humdex Founder Caroline Brent takes us through her personal journey jumping from the corporate ladder and how the appeal of remote working for senior execs impacts younger generations.
Remote working and the long goodbye
I recently read an article by Korn Ferry called ‘The Long Goodbye’ exploring the impact of the pandemic on senior executives. It is true that the levels of stress in learning new ways of working, and the ultimate impact of job losses has created unprecedented times for many.
I however, wanted to reflect on one of the hidden impacts of the pandemic that is called out by Korn Ferry in their article. For many senior exes, and I count myself historically amongst that number, those senior positions pre-pandemic involved a great deal of international travel, an avalanche of meetings notwithstanding the plethora of ‘corridor ‘conversations that makes corporate businesses the melting pot of both small and large-scale politics. Managing all these aspects of the corporate environment effectively is usually part of the key to corporate success.
One of the interesting points raised by Korn Ferry is that with the advent of the online, rather than the physical person to person corporate world, the sheer exhaustion created by continual meetings, constant international travel, and those ‘ad hoc’ discussions have, to some extent, dissipated. The ability to lead from your home office in the comfort of your own home is encouraging some senior execs to put off retirement, extending their stay at the lofty senior levels of the corporate machine. Consequently, succession planning may then become more challenging for CHRO’s. How to keep those millennials who are snapping at the heels of their corporate bosses motivated and engaged when the stepladder to success may be extended and job availability and security becomes more of a concern for younger generations.
This is not to say that those senior execs in post are ineffective, far from it. For instance, long serving senior execs can bring, stability, calm, a sense of security and an even-handed approach to people and problem solving that is built on a deep knowledge of a business and its employees. We all need a mixture of enthusiasm and experience in our leaders that gives organizations confidence in the present and an exciting and inspirational vision of the future. A mix of youth and maturity is often a perfect mix for success. In some case it is preferable to persuade the experienced to stay longer than risk poor preparation in successors. Knowing when the time is right for change is a key succession planning dilemma for CHRO’s and for businesses in general.
In the long term it is about what is best for business and for the people in those businesses. I wanted to share my own personal experience of jumping off the corporate ladder along with some of the drivers for my own decision making to illustrate my thinking around this subject. Although my decisions were not influenced by the pandemic – they were made a few years before anybody had heard of Covid 19, I think it is still pertinent to the decisions of those senior execs who choose to stay in post longer than they may have originally initially intended.
Being a dinosaur and jumping to my second career
This is my story. I had a long and successful career in corporate business. Most of my career was spent in the manufacturing sector, and despite being female I secured a number of senior HR roles. I and my family took the opportunity to move abroad to Germany where both myself and my family were excellently treated by the company I worked for. Ultimately, I found a stimulating senior role working for an inspirational boss based in Sweden with a work content I loved. Lucky me! I was offered more senior HR roles outside the business but chose to stay where I was. I had a role I loved and was not seeking another promotion. I held this role for 8 years!
All of this got me thinking. I could probably sit in this role for any number of years until I retired or the business tired of me, but two things did not feel right. Firstly, with all of the experience I had gained from over 20 years in corporate business surely, I should put into practice what I was always preaching. If I truly believed that the methodologies and approach that I had helped create was right for business I should have the confidence to launch my own business and test my own theory around business success. In other words, would other business pay for my help and expertise, was I credible?
In my experience, it is often true that those who have spent their lives in corporate businesses have many ideas on what they and others should do to be successful – but to really test what you believe in – do you have the courage to leave and put your ideas and approach to the test in the market?
Secondly, how frustrating it must be for those below me in the hierarchy to sit underneath somebody who had no intention of leaving, did not seek promotion and was not likely to be asked to leave. Was I just blocking the chance for others and for any change that might come should I not be in that post? Both of these issues played on my mind for some time.
In February 2016 I took the decision to leave and start a business of my own. I was helped by UK private pension rules which enabled me to make my final decision with some form of financial safety net, although nothing like the pay and conditions I had been used to. I felt relieved that I left when I still felt relevant and valued and I hoped I was not viewed as a career blocker by any of my colleagues.
The change was dramatic and took about 6 months acclimatization. Previously, whenever I wanted anything – help with my laptop, appointments made, software updates, invoices sent, anything to do with using and accessing technology and merely the closeness of people and my team, everything was immediately accessible. In my new world, I had to learn and relearn how to work and how to get things done, and most difficult of all; how to re asses my place in the hierarchy of those with whom I worked. No longer was I the most important person in the room. If I wanted something, I needed to organise that myself. It was a culture shock I can tell you, but there were tremendous upsides. I could choose what I wanted to do and when I wanted to do it. I developed my customer skills and learned a huge amount doing that. I set my own timetable and I was so flattered and humbled by those who I had worked with in he past who came to me with offers of both work and support. I count myself incredibly lucky to have such good colleagues and friends who saw value in what we developed and trusted me and our new business to deliver for them.
Three messages for Senior Executives
So, what is my point? During the pandemic, most senor execs have been forced to become acclimatised to the technology that allows you to work at a distance. In the move to my own business becoming self-sufficient in this aspect was probably my greatest challenge. For senior execs I want to deliver three messages:
1- Firstly, if you have an idea you believe in, it might just be worth thinking of a second career and using all that excellent knowledge for the benefit of others. After all a key leadership skill we are always talking about is courage and it takes some of that to voluntarily jump off of the corporate gang plank. You have achieved one of the key milestones by being able to function remotely, the rest is down to you and your ideas.
2- Secondly, if you love the business you work for, and I definitely did; then think what is best for them. Senior and experienced senior exec can bring great business value, so there is no ‘one size fits all’ here. My biggest fear was being seen as a blocker and a corporate dinosaur.
3- Finally, the sense of freedom and achievement that I have gained from being part of the concept and launching of Humdex - workforce analytics had been both a steep learning curve and probably the most fulfilling and exciting thing I have ever done.
If you read this article and want to know about Humdex, what we do and about me and my thinking please click the following link. Alternatively, you can contact me via LinkedIn, I’d love to know your views and experiences.
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Author -Caroline Brent
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