We have been conditioned to position ourselves based on what we can do, but we do not give nearly enough importance to what we want to do.
The conversation took place six years ago, a few weeks before Christmas. I was in London, introducing myself to a Partner at an Executive Search firm. Over recent weeks, this type of meeting had become a regular occurrence. By then, I had helped many people from my team land safely into new roles, either with other divisions or at other companies. It was now time for me to prepare my own transition.
We had been discussing my career path for about 30 minutes when the Partner looked up from my CV and said with a smile, “yes, I see you’ve achieved many great things but tell me, what is it that you want to do?” emphasizing the word want. Given my circumstances, the question threw me: what do I want to do? Which part of me needing to find a new job was unclear? And there it was, my problem, in broad daylight. I had entered that discussion just like similar exchanges in recent weeks, centering my narrative on what I can do rather than what I want to do. Surely if I explain my achievements and areas of expertise, we should be able to find opportunities that match my skills – right?
Change within change
Nine months earlier, my family and I had moved from Brussels to London. We liked London however this wasn’t a key driver in our decision to move. Rather it was my job, an executive role in marketing, that prompted the relocation. Our headquarters were in London, much of the leadership team was based there and commuting weekly from Brussels was no longer a viable option, neither for me nor for the company. Importantly, the move was not going to be a short expat assignment. It was a definitive move with no return ticket.
We had been discussing my career path for about 30 minutes when the Partner looked up from my CV and said with a smile, “yes, I see you’ve achieved many great things but tell me, what is it that you want to do?” emphasizing the word want. Given my circumstances, the question threw me: what do I want to do?
While the distance between London and Brussels may appear tiny on a map, the move had been deeply consequential for the family: my wife had undergone a double lung transplant five years prior so she had to leave the medical team that had cared for her over the years; the kids had to transition to the British school system despite never having formally learned English; I had to sever my ties to the Belgian pension scheme; and the relocation forced a decision in respect of a lovely home that we had purchased a few years earlier. Despite these challenges, we focused on the upsides, mustered all our courage, and jumped.
One of my greatest fears in the run up to the move had been the possibility that the company’s strategy might suddenly shift and that as a result I’d find myself seeking a new job from London. Unfortunately, my intuition turned out to be correct. Three weeks after our move, the company announced plans to unwind its position from virtually all sectors served by our global division. Soon we’d be splintering and selling most of our global franchise to buyers around the world, a franchise that many had spent decades building.
Immediately, my team and I pivoted from brand building efforts to maximizing franchise value throughout the disposition process, all the while acutely aware that our jobs would come to an end in less than a year. In short, the announcement sealed the fate of 50,000 employees worldwide, including mine and that of my team.
Close friends and family were shocked to hear that the company would have allowed my family’s relocation to proceed less than a month prior to announcing such a drastic change. I rationalized with all of them, in the company’s defense, that the impact of the decision left no margin for leaks beyond the boardroom. After all, mine wasn’t the only family caught off guard when the music stopped and frankly in a company of over 300,000 employees one has to accept that, at every level of the organization, deeply consequential decisions will inevitably be taken by people outside our perimeter of awareness, let alone influence.
In truth, despite the turmoil, I was genuinely committed to helping the company achieve its new objective; I understood the drivers behind the decision to sell and I was convinced this was going to be another growth opportunity for me. Also, if seeking a new role either within the company or with another employer was truly important to me, I knew that throwing my toys out of the pram wouldn’t have been a very effective strategy. In the words of Charles R. Swindoll, “life is 10% what happens and 90% how I react” …this was undeniably one of those moments.
Reflecting on my predicament and to build my confidence, I reminded myself that I was no stranger to career changes. A decade earlier I had deliberately executed a career jump from industrial settings into financial services. My motivation at that time was simple: by adding corporate financial services to industrial commercial management skills, I could deliver greater value to an organization and in so doing further develop my career.
Now however things were very different. Firstly, this change had been forced upon me; I had not chosen it. Secondly, I had not been on the job market for many years; I felt rusty and dusty – and I suspected that it showed. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, I had seen many colleagues go through the difficult experience of being made redundant and the subsequent need to reinvent themselves. I knew that mindset and resilience mattered deeply.
So, I dug up all the internal drive I could muster and went through the motions of finding a new challenge outside the company albeit without a specific idea of what I was seeking. In the end and with only a few days to spare before my termination date, a new and exciting opportunity was offered to me within the company, this time in Budapest. Despite the need to relocate again, I saw many upsides with this new executive appointment, including the fact that I would be staying with the proverbial devil I knew (a comforting consideration when alternative scenarios aren’t clearly defined).
If seeking a new role either within the company or with another employer was truly important to me, I knew that throwing my toys out of the pram wouldn’t have been a very effective strategy. In the words of Charles R. Swindoll, “life is 10% what happens and 90% how I react” …this was undeniably one of those moments.
As I transitioned into the new role, I knew that my discussion with the search partner in London had reshaped my thinking about career management; the exchange had compelled me to reflect about where I wanted to go next (after Budapest) and importantly, why. As I jumped into my new challenge, I recalled the advice offered by my first boss twenty years prior: “Remember this and you’ll always be happy: nobody cares more about Michael than Michael.” Suddenly these words were imbibed in new and more profound meaning.
Over the following three years I relished in all the wonderful experiences that my new role was offering. I was learning tons and leading a much larger organization. Our mission was to drive critical transformations affecting every division of the company. Each transformational objective was mired in complexity, driven by either the sheer scale of change required, time limitations, financial targets, resourcing challenges, technological hurdles, or legal issues. I was grateful for the opportunity and for all the personal development that this new challenge was affording me.
Despite my deep sense of gratitude, my thoughts were never too far removed from contemplating what I was learning through the lens of where I wanted to go next. While I had not yet defined that next goal, I started to take an active interest in how others were going about this task. In practice, this meant that I was deeply mindful when colleagues came to me with their own career development questions or concerns.
One theme that regularly came up in these discussions was purpose. Specifically, I was struck by how many colleagues, especially millennials, were articulating the “need to make an impact” through their work. As a mentor to several of these colleagues, I often asked them to describe the parts of their jobs that were, in their opinion, void of purpose or otherwise lacking in impact – essentially inviting them to rethink their role by highlighting first how their contributions impacted the rest of the organization and then addressing the gaps. In some cases, where the gap was simply too wide to bridge, the discussion turned to what the person was seeking in life beyond the confinements of our company and what they were willing to either put in or give up in achieving that goal.
On a personal note, these exchanges triggered a keen interest in reconnecting with my own sense of purpose. After all, what was it that I cared so deeply about that I could direct all my daily efforts to? The answer, as it happens, lay in my past; 25 years into my past to be exact. Back then I had just earned a post-graduate degree cum laude in environmental technology (industrial technology meets environmental management). My goal at the time was to work on waste management or energy efficiency. Unfortunately, there were very few jobs in this area and not a lot of jobs generally (this was the early 90s), so I was elated to accept an offer to join a large corporate when the opportunity presented itself, even though the job was a few steps removed from what I really wanted to do.
As so often happens, one job begets the next and before I knew it, I was many steps removed from working on pollution abatement or reducing energy consumption. In the meantime, the messaging around the urgent need to address climate change intensified. I’ve always been an avid reader and I had tried to keep abreast of what was happening in the field of climate change but now, as I went through this introspective analysis, I felt a calling to do more – much more. So, after 25 years of work in both industrial settings and financial services, I felt it was time for me to reset the clock: I decided to redirect all my efforts to helping the global fight against climate change.
Designing purpose into the plan
The obvious questions were, how do I drive this transition and where do I start? I began by drawing up scenarios and allowing myself to think more broadly than I had ever thought in the past. I didn’t want to limit myself by only thinking in terms of corporate settings. I had certainly seen all the positive aspects of working in a large company, and for sure there are many. I had also seen how far removed one can feel from the mission of a company beyond a certain size, and I had seen how companies tend to get in their own way as organizations become more complex. If anything, I was intrigued by the notion of working for a smaller company and specifically helping smaller companies to grow internationally.
In short, this was my first level spec: a small company with promising technology, a great team, and a genuine desire to expand internationally. So, I called up one of my contacts with over 25 years’ experience in venture capital and said: “hey, I think I’ll be ready for a move in about 18 months… what are you working on these days?” Soon after our call he introduced me to the founder of a wonderful scale up based in Portugal, leading the charge in cloud-based energy efficiency and energy management systems. It was a no brainer: I had found what I was seeking. Fortunately, timing worked well on their side too and I was able to transition seamlessly just a few months before the global pandemic began.
A few friends and former colleagues have marveled at how easily I transitioned from a large corporate setting to a scale-up. In truth, the transition wasn’t difficult for me because it was something I genuinely wanted. My transition was designed with purpose at its center. I also did my research, not only on the company but also on what it means to work with fewer than 100 employees. In the run-up to the transition, I tested myself repeatedly on what I was ready to give up, what I was willing to put in and what I was able to bring to the table.
As with all workplace settings, there are pluses and there are minuses. Working under severe resource constraints is standard practice at most start-ups and scale-ups: one must accept that of the millions of great ideas that a scale-up can pursue, only a few can be put into practice at one time. In short, this requires picking the right battles, saying no to certain things even though there may be short-term benefit, and being incredibly disciplined about how to approach these challenges. On the other hand, launching a new brand and growing it internationally, nurturing a company’s culture as it grows, and working closely with all members of the team towards a shared goal… I find these to be priceless upsides.
A few friends and former colleagues have marveled at how easily I transitioned from a large corporate setting to a scale-up. In truth, the transition wasn’t difficult for me because it was something I genuinely wanted. My transition was designed with purpose at its center.
In closing, I want to clarify a few important points. First and foremost, purpose is inherently personal and somewhat contextual – it can indeed evolve over time. Also, doing something that’s aligned to a deeper sense of purpose is not always practicable nor economically viable, however if you have a specific career goal in mind, try to articulate how you get from where you are today to where you want to be. If possible, give yourself plenty of time to prepare and execute the transition; there may be gaps you’ll need to bridge, either in job content or workplace expectations. Most importantly, define clearly what you’re ready, willing, and able to do to make that goal your next reality.
So, tell me… what is it that you want to do?
Michael Pinto is the CEO and Co-Founder of Cleanwatts; a scale-up focused on accelerating energy decarbonization for companies and communities all around the world. Prior to Cleanwatts Michael spent over twenty years working in various executive roles at General Electric and Dow Chemical. He currently lives in Budapest with his wife and two children.
August 24, 2021