When I was in practice many years ago I vividly recall walking into the office very early one morning not long after the beginning of a new financial year and finding one of my partners staring vacantly out the window of his office.
I asked him what he was thinking about and his response surprised me. He said, “I’ve just realized that I have another 25 years of doing the same thing over and over again, it’s quite depressing!”
We got to talking about life goals and aspirations and he confided in me that when he was at school he decided he wanted to be a Chartered Accountant and that he’d set himself very specific goals at various stages of his early career.
For example, his first goal was to get a job with a CA firm after graduating from high school that would allow him to study for his degree part time [goal accomplished], then to complete his degree as quickly as possible while getting good grades and working diligently for his employer [goal accomplished – he was an outstanding student and employee], then to complete his Professional Year for full CA qualification [goal accomplished], then to get noticed in the firm and assume ‘manager’ responsibility with the goal of early admission to partnership before he was 30 [goal accomplished].
Now, at the tender age of 33 he felt he’d run out of goals! He didn’t aspire to be the managing partner, he had already built and/or inherited a full book of business, he was busy all the time, often doing things he really didn’t get must satisfaction from and as a new financial year dawned, he couldn’t see what was going to change.
My recollection of this meeting jumped into my mind when I was reading an article written by Peter Drucker called Managing Oneself that was published in the HBR in March-April 1999.
“When work for most people meant manual labor there was no need to worry about the rest of your life. You simply kept on doing what you’d always done and if you were lucky enough to survive 40 years of hard work in the mill or on the railroad you were quite happy to spend the rest of your life doing nothing. Today, however, most work is knowledge work, and knowledge workers are not “finished” after 40 years on the job they are merely bored.”
“We hear a lot about mid life crisis of executives. It is mostly boredom. At 45 most executives have reached the peak of their business careers and they know it. After 20 years of doing more or less the same kind of work, they are very good at their jobs. But they are not learning or contributing or deriving challenge and satisfaction from the job. And yet they are still likely to face another 20 if not 25 years of work. That is why managing oneself increasingly leads on to begin a second career.”
I refer to this phenomenon in one of my Boot Camp presentations as career peaking. A career peak is a point in your life where you feel your career ceases to hold the allure it once had. A time when you don’t feel inclined (or can’t think of how) to set goals you really want to strive for and which therefore act as a motivational force for you. At this point in your career you go to work because you need to make a living to maintain your lifestyle (you “do it for the money” as David Maister so eloquently says.) If your career is within striking distance of your planned retirement date you can put up with the boredom but if it’s 20 years this side of retirement you have a personal challenge that should be managed.
Some people career peak early in their life and others peak later but from talking to lots and lots of people in the profession I believe it’s the norm rather than the exception. Personally I have career peaked twice, once as a university lecturer when I left to become a partner in a public accounting firm then subsequently I moved to start Results Accountants’ Systems with Paul Dunn. Each time I dramatically changed my career and each time I personally felt I moved to another level of personal accomplishment if for no other reason than I had a new set of higher goals to achieve.
In his article, Drucker talks of three ways to develop a second career. They are: (1) change jobs – move from one organization to another; (2) develop a parallel career e.g. become the part time CFO of a nonprofit organization and (3) create a new organization e.g. by becoming a social entrepreneur or active philanthropist (Bill Gates is an example.)
I’ll leave you to read Drucker’s article if you’re interested but I think there’s another variation on his first two ways and that’s to find a new career or focus within your existing business.
For example, you might do something like transfer 50% of your work commitments to another partner or manager and dedicate that time to building a “new” practice within a practice by bringing on new clients (or old clients with a new service offering) who you really get a kick out of working with because they have potential to grow, are keen to have your assistance and are willing to pay for that privilege.
Another variation might even be to transfer all (or most) of your clients to someone else and start from scratch. Remember how much fun you had in your early days of building your business.
If you’re a managing partner and you sense that one of your colleagues is suffering from career peak perhaps you could engage in some useful mentoring to help him or her understand the condition and put some professional development goals in place.
I have had the opportunity over the years to get close to several hundred partners in accounting firms and I’m amazed at how many of them related to the story I opened this post with and the concept of career peaking.
When I ask “what are you doing about it?” Their answer is almost always along the lines of “there’s not much I can do because I have made a commitment to my colleagues and I owe it to my family to put my head down and deal with it.” But this does not solve the problem. Career peaking leads to resentment, discord, leadership malaise and under-performance not only by the person concerned but also from the people he/she works with.
I’d be interested in your thoughts.