Most career paths twist and turn as they climb upward. With each change of role you had to shed some parts of your identity, but the new position with its title, responsibilities and perks was always there. Eventually your business card might have read CEO, EVP, Managing Director or ED. You reached impressive heights in your profession or organization, and your title was recognition of your talents and worth.
When you decide to “lean out” or you are forced to do so, a lot of identity-shedding happens suddenly. A door closes behind you and you may find that you are at a loss to articulate who you are. At first, you might use a phrase like: “I’m the recently retired VP finance of XYZ Co.” It’s hard to leave an impressive title behind. It may be even harder to let go of other aspects of your identity such as having teams of people reporting to you, sitting on the executive committee, or being privy to inside information. You may also find it challenging to leave the perks behind. The corner office, your capable assistant, flying business class and having your messages returned immediately are all symbols or your status. When these things are stripped away, it’s hard to see what’s left, let alone what new might arise.
First you must give your emotions their due. Leaning out brings many losses. Feelings of sadness and worry are normal. Allow yourself the time and freedom to express your emotions openly. If you bottle up your negative feelings, they will fester and block your path forward. Find patient, non-judgmental people with whom you can be honest. Talk it out. Write about it. Do whatever works for you to mourn the passing of your former identity.
Eventually, you’ll be ready to recall what did not go away when you scrapped your business cards. Everything that is core to who you are is still there. The skills and personal characteristics that propelled you belong to you, not your former employer. The evidence is in your stories. You need to remember and honor your experiences as the means to uncovering the clues to a new identity. To begin, think about the times when you were at your best. Record stories from every phase of your career using this formula:
As you reminisce, think about what really mattered to you in each of those stories. Be honest. What you valued might have been much different from what your mandate entailed.
Embedded in your stories is evidence of your skills, style, interests, knowledge and values. Draw from your stories the words to describe yourself using each of those categories. Perhaps you are skilled at leading people, strategic planning, finances, logistics, selling or teaching. What’s your style? Are you intuitive and innovative or more analytical and practical? Are you competitive, enterprising, co-operative, or empathetic? What captures your interest? What issues and topics do you read about when it’s your choice? Where does your expertise lie? You have amassed valuable knowledge over the years. What gives you purpose and meaning? Is there an issue, cause, product, service or endeavor that you would embrace with passion? What are your most deeply held values?
N.B. Collecting your stories and extracting from them the clues to your new identity is hard work. It will take some time to do it well. You might engage a friend, career counsellor or life coach to help you.
Once you’ve done the work of describing your capabilities, interests and attributes, you are ready to write a new script. Instead of identifying yourself as the former EVP Marketing of ABC Co., you could say:
My experience with branding and marketing has made me especially aware of how organizations present themselves to their target markets. I would like to contribute my expertise to the not-for-profit sector with a specific focus on organizations promoting mental health awareness. I am interested in finding consulting assignments or an opportunity to sit on a Board.
There it is … a new identity that’s all about you and your meaningful future.