From the corner office to a beach chair, and back again

I don’t recommend doing this in a down economy. But if you happen to find yourself burned out as well as out of a job, I have a story that might help get some perspective back in your life. A few years ago when the economy was gangbusters, I was out of work—intentionally. I walked away from my job as the CEO of Siemens Shared Services, a multimillion international company that provides administrative services for 70,000 US-based Siemens employees. I lost my passion for work so I exited a 23-year career without looking back or ahead. With no “Plan B,” I ran for the hills, or in this case, Nantucket island off the coast of Massachusetts.

I went from running like a Tasmanian devil to sitting on a beach chair, hypnotized by the rolling waves, too tired to figure out what to do next. I expected to feel better immediately, but soon realized being at the beach every day would not make me happy, either. First, I knew I was too young (46) to drop out completely. Second, I later found out I might have delivered a fatal blow to my career—dropping out without a plan often meant a significant step backwards.

Besides, how do you abandon all the behaviors you need to successfully run a multi-million dollar global business? You don’t. Within four weeks, I had my first emotional crisis. A chance encounter at a local diner left me shaken. A man sitting next to me at the counter making friendly conversation asked me what I did. I replied: “Nothing.” I used to be a CEO, but now, my answer made me feel like nothing.

Answers found me in the form of a colleague of my husband, who became my teacher and guide to rediscovering what I loved in the work I thought I hated. Our e-mail correspondence was a thoughtful dialogue about life lessons, beliefs and values. Over time, I was writing to myself and I was slowly building a list of what I needed to be happy at work. Because of this, I went back to work, renewed and restored, to an even bigger and better job.

Time off made this possible, inducing a calmness that made me ready to listen to my own heart. When I was ready, I was eager to go back. I rejoined Siemens in October 2006 with a completely different attitude. I no longer need to be one of the best; I was satisfied with trying my best and this change in my thinking made all the difference.

Time off from a high-stress job—whether you decide on your own, or someone decides for you—may end up being a life-changing event for the better. It was for me. And my priorities have never been clearer since.

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21 Responses to “From the corner office to a beach chair, and back again”

  1. Biswapaka banerjee says:

    According to the latest survey, 55% of Americans do not like their jobs and if this startles you, consider Australia where 75% wish to have a different job. If we assume the new generation (people below 25 are the unhappiest) trends are consistent globally, this is a challenging and daunting task ahead for employers.

    In today’s economy, having a job is great but when the economy picks up, does this mean we will witness a paradigm cross sectorial shift between workers? Probably not which means we will still have the same unhappy employees in place who will get more frustrated as there would be openings in the market but not necessarily for them.

    Taking a sabbatical is not very uncommon. There are several professional tennis players who have done so and made a successful come back (Martina Navratilova for instance). This must be especially hard for sportspersons who can only contribute and earn for a relatively smaller number of years and then there are cases of comeback failures as well – Martina Hingis, Monica Seles (although her case was most unfortunate) etc. In the corporate world, Steve Jobs is probably the most celebrated.

    This is probably a step only distinguished and successfully professionals can take as their reputation will remain intact which would make their employability easier later. Having proved one’s mettle across continents and divisions, you have earned the reputation of being a successful leader and as everyone knows, the only differentiating factor today is the right leadership. A concerted effort is being made to put ethics at the forefront and the pressure now is more than ever for leaders to follow a set of rules and yet achieve growth plans. There are probably a handful of people out there who can successfully combine both and have the personal charisma to lead, motivate and empower employees.

    From an employees’ perspective, we need to be realistic about our choice of ‘ideal’ job. We would need to introspect fairly and then work tirelessly towards them. For instance most engineers would see a google or apple or microsoft as dream jobs and a quick assessment of the number of openings versus the number of applicants should present a realistic picture of the chances. It’s like most B-school aspirants would prefer to go to Harvard or Yale or Wharton.

    In the end, I believe personal goals change with time and responsibilities. If you ask school children what they would like to be when they grow up, the popular answers are always doctors, police, firefighters. Words like entrepreneurs, research, corporate personnel are low on choices. Teenagers would probably ignore the question and those in the final year in school would give answers with a varied range (Marine biologist or librarian)

    Having responsibility towards spouses and children bring a natural case for stability and if the spouse is not working, there is no question of a break, taking chances, risks or even a pay cut to do what you love. How I would have given my left arm back then to be a sports reporter …Alas, this is the reality.

    (I apologise my comments are probably bigger than the original script)

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