What I learned being Fun-employed

What I learned being fun-employed

After 30 years of working with no more than 2 weeks off at a time, I spent 6 months unemployed.  The sabbatical – filled with networking, reading, writing, praying, organizing, exercising, traveling and spending time with family – was life-changing, transforming this period into fun-employment, an early peak at retirement, and a chance for a reset.

 I also picked up a few insights worth sharing for others unemployed.

  1. Enjoy the freedom: people don’t truly care what you do:

I spent much of the first 30 years of my career caring what people thought – about where I worked, my title, role, and content of my job.  Even though I left my last role after getting great results, I was very nervous about sharing with friends and acquaintances that I was unemployed, and I perceived a stigma. What I quickly learned is that people really don’t care.  In fact, people quickly pivoted to what I was enjoying with my time off – travel, kids, books, writing.  In fact, they always leaned in when I described a non-profit idea that I had (finally) had the capacity to begin to develop.  

My advice: people are consumed by their own career and family, so the perceived ‘stigma’ of joblessness, at least in my case, was not real.  So – since people don’t care, enjoy the freedom, and forget your ego – talk about it, learn and grow, and explore what is next.  

  1. Networks matter

One of the best pieces of advice I got when beginning to network was to review my contact list and divide them into three categories.  Category (1): people who know me well, and can help me find a new role; Category (2) people who are one or the other from #1; and Category (3) everyone else.

I took this advice, and began to work my way contacting Category (1) people.  I only got to the B’s, before I was so busy following up on leads that I had to pause.  One ‘B’ contact liked an idea I had, referred me to a few books on the topic, reminded me of an adjacent contact, who introduced me to another person, with whom I am now developing a business case for a new startup.  This stuff really works. 

My advice: the people with whom you work, play and go to school with are gems – rare and incredibly valuable.  Besides family, work associates are what make life exciting and fulfilling.  When you are ready to seek new directions, advice or connections – use them. I was pleasantly surprised the percentage of former work and school associates who were happy to provide counsel, a contact, or open a door.  

  1. Find a place to go

One thing I missed most about not having a job was being around others, and having a place to be. Much of our lives are filled with routines and seasons – whether it be school years or semesters in school, quarterly and annual cycles at work (budgeting, talent planning, fiscal years).  It is important to not lose that discipline, nor momentum, while not working. Without the discipline of going somewhere, I quickly could have filled the days, weeks, and months by only working around the house, yard, going to the gym, social media, etc.  

My advice: find a place to go ‘work’, at least for 4 hours per day.  I was lucky to have a home office that worked quite well.  Just like when I was in the career workforce, I made a to-do list, scheduled appointments, read, wrote – but for 4 hours per day, not the 10-11 hours I was working prior to being unemployed. Starbucks, ROAM and other ‘rent-an-office-space’ concepts and others know this about people, and make it easy to grab a latte, open the laptop and set up an ‘office’ anywhere. 

  1. Recruiters aren’t what I thought

I assumed recruiters were like real estate agents – some representing the buyer (employer) while some representing the seller (the employee) – but I was wrong.  I have hired dozens of executives, often using a recruiting firm, and been placed in two Fortune 200 companies by head-hunters, so thought I knew the model. What I failed to realize is that recruiters work for the company who pays their fee, not the job candidate.  

Of course there are ‘sell-side’ agents in many professions, and recruiters are happy to help you if you are a candidate for an open search they are running.  I talked with a dozen recruiting firms – sent my resume into their database, and talked with 5 or 6 senior recruiters over coffee or in their offices.  What I learned was they were not actively seeking roles for me, it just isn’t their model.  I got a few ‘hits’ for opportunities, when my skills and experience matched up well with an active search, but this was a learning on how the model really works. 

My advice: get your resume on job boards and in recruiter databased, working your contacts.  These professionals are very good at coaching what hiring companies look for, and possible roles. That said, the candidate selection process starts with junior search-firm associates searching databases, and building candidate ‘slates’. These are vetted many times prior to putting candidates in front of a client. If you want an advocate, you can hire an agent to help you polish your resume and market you via social media – but it is not the role of the big headhunters to do this.  Work your personal network instead (see #2 above).

  1. Success or Significance?

One of the biggest fears I had was not being employable again, at least not in a dream role.  Everyone said this was irrational, but it is hard to believe once you have no job. In my recent experience, I have found that as you work your network, opportunities will come your way.  It takes discipline to decide ahead of time what your interests are – and then stick to those criteria.  It is OK if your success measure is immediate income replacement – just write that down and you will then weigh opportunities against that criteria.  In my case, I took the time to decide what I truly loved to do, where I had success and drew energy from my work, then wrote those attributes down.  I also chose to focus industries and roles that would allow me to make an impact of significance in the word, not just financial success. Now I had a filter against which to measure the opportunities fit with me needs. 

My advice: be formal about this.  Do two simple exercises: first write down what scares you, then an acceptable outcome, and your ideal outcome.  Second write a set of criteria that fit your ideal outcome – role, industry, location, income, impact on family, etc.  A helpful inclusion for me was also including attributes that went beyond worldly success, also ensuring my impact would be of significance.  

  1. While unemployed, think about what you will do once you retire

I was 52 years old, and while not yet ready to retire, I was thankful that this sabbatical gave me a glimpse into the future of the retired life.  Even if you are 32 or 42, or 22 for that matter, take time while unemployed to think about how you want to spend your time when you financially no longer need to work.  Is it a life of leisure, travel and family – or is it balanced with staying engaged in your vocational area, giving back to your community and/or a non-profit cause?  I realized that I was not set up for the right retirement – yes, having time for leisure and family is important, but so is (for me) time and capacity to work on a non-profit project, and roles on boards of directors to maintain a source of income in my retirement, and remaining engaged in the business world, and around people. 

My advice: use a time away to envision your ideal retired life, then work toward that in your next role.  One of the keys to happiness and fulfillment is not just retirement income, nor rounds of golf – rather having something to get up for that you are passionate about, and that makes a difference in the world. For me it will be building out a non-profit startup idea – now, and building relationships with firms for which I might later serve as a board of directors. 

I hope these ideas prove helpful to you.