“Why would a director in good standing at Procter & Gamble leave after 20 years, too young for retirement, and without another corporate job to land in?”
That’s the question I’ve been getting non-stop since I announced I was leaving P&G last month. It’s not unusual to see corporate-types job hop from one company’s corner office to another. But here I was leaving one of the oldest and most prestigious companies in the world to do something as uncertain and unstable as being a full-time author, speaker, and trainer.
“Why on Earth wouldn’t you just stick around for another 9 or 10 years and retire comfortably, then go play around with this stuff?
It’s a fair question. And that’s why it took me several months of agonizing to finally pull the trigger. But my reasons were sound. And since so many people asked – and on the off chance there are others out there wondering what it would take for them to leave the safety of their corporate womb – I’ll share my conclusions.
After much soul searching, I settled on three criteria that could compel me to take the leap:
1. Work I’m truly passionate about. Let’s face it. Not many people actually hate their job, or they wouldn’t work there. But I think equally few people really love their job. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. We like our work. We like the people we work with. But they call it ‘work’ for a reason. If it were fun, we’d call it something else.
Most people in a corporate environment do pretty much the same thing. We go to meetings, respond to emails, go to more meetings, and struggle with the latest budget cut. Oh, and did I mention go to meetings? Compared to toiling in the fields to grow our own food like our ancestors, office work today is a pretty good gig. But few consider it the kind of exciting, inspiring enterprise that you jump out of bed each day excited to dig into.
But I learned something important about myself through the process of writing a book. Apparently, I really love writing! I found myself so impatient for the one hour a night I had set aside for writing that sometimes I cheated. I’d sneak in 30 minutes at 6am before I was even out of my pajamas, or squirrel away for a few minutes in a closet somewhere at work over my lunch hour.
But the best part was talking about it. I learned that at heart, what I really am is a teacher. I absolutely love standing in front of an audience and sharing the incredible wisdom and inspiring stories I’ve collected from the hundreds of leaders I’ve had the privilege to work with or interview as part of my research.
2. Work I can excel at. You’d think if P&G let me stick around for 20 years, through a handful of promotions and a half-dozen relocations, I must have been doing something right (and hopefully that’s true). But I had to admit to myself, compared to my peers I was only average at my job. Coming to work every day to be average is so very . . . average. Wouldn’t it be better to be in a line of work you can excel at?
And that’s exactly the kind of feedback I was getting from my readers and audience members in my speeches and training courses. Sales of my book have exceeded all my expectations. It’s now in its fourth printing in the U.S., and has been published in five languages and available in dozens of countries around the world. And when I finish a speech, people stand and applaud (not exactly the reaction I got at the end of my weekly department meetings).
Conclusion: I was good at corporate America. But I think I can be great at this.
3. Work that makes a real difference in people’s lives. Sure, it sounds cliché. But that’s only because so few of us actually do work that makes a meaningful, positive, and tangible impact on other people. For most of us, our work is what we do to support ourselves and our family. Making an impact on the outside world is something we might do in our spare time, if we can ever find something called ‘spare time.’
What I found is that one of the greatest rewards an author gets for his or her work is to hear from readers. Each week through email, Twitter, Amazon reviews, blog posts, Facebook, or personal visits to the podium after a speech, I get to hear what people like about my book or how they felt after one of my training courses. While you never tire of hearing any kind words about your work, what you live for are those moments where you realize you’ve made a life-changing difference for a total stranger.
For example, one gentleman told me that a story in my book gave him the inspiration to create a computer application to solve the problem posed in the story. He already had a working prototype, and had been approaching big companies as potential customers of his new product. The first thing he did on each sales call was tell the them that story from my book. At that point he had completed 5 sales calls, and he had 5 confirmed customers.
A more personal case in point, I recently posted a story I’m working on for my second book on a social media site. I got a response from a man I didn’t know saying, “Paul, I could never explain to you in words the impact your story had on me and my wife in the last 24 hours. So please suffice it for me to just say, ‘thank you for sharing it.’”
Now I’m not curing cancer, or rescuing children from human trafficking. But just the two examples above are among many that convince me that I can be a much more positive influence in people lives through my writing and teaching than I can have sitting behind a desk in a corporate office.
Those, then, are the three criteria that gave me all the rationale to make this seemingly crazy and costly decision.
So . . . What are you passionate about? What do you excel at? And what can you do to change the world and make a positive difference in people’s lives? Are you doing it already? If so, that’s great. If not, maybe it’s time for you to make a change, too.
– Paul Smith is a former director and 20-year veteran of the Procter & Gamble Company, and author of Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives that Captivate, Convince, and Inspire. Paul is also the primary architect of a thoughtLEADERS course on Influencing through Storytelling and loves teaching every minute of it.