Zigging and Zagging: How Two Top Executives Switched Careers

At a time when some 40 percent of workers at all levels are considering leaving their jobs, a focus on exploring more unconventional career options rather than merely finding new employment in a similar role is especially apt. Against the ever-present backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, people are reexamining their priorities, rethinking their relationship to work, and reimagining their lives.

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LHH recently hosted a webinar focused on career transition, “The Unconventional Career Journey: Navigating a Path to Success.” Deanna Mulligan, author, and CEO of advisory firm Purposeful, spoke with Ken Daly, former COO of utility company National Grid turned college president, and Lee Godown, former VP of Global Markets, Policy, General Motors, who now runs his own global consultancy, about what it took to make the dramatic shifts in their professional lives.

At a time when some 40 percent of workers at all levels are considering leaving their jobs, a focus on exploring more unconventional career options rather than merely finding new employment in a similar role is especially apt. Against the ever-present backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, people are reexamining their priorities, rethinking their relationship to work, and reimagining their lives, noted Mulligan. 

For Godown, who started Alpex International, a boutique firm that specializes in crisis management, business advocacy, and global government relations in March 2019, a radical career change wasn’t the culmination of a long-held plan. “I had the typical boomer mentality: you climb a ladder, always looking for the next step up in job title and salary – which I did,” he recalled. 

And he did to great success. After first planning to be a doctor, he switched majors at the University of California and pursued a career on Capitol Hill, starting off as a Congressional intern and staying in government service, in one form or another, for some 30 years. He then parlayed his network, credentials, and experience into the position at General Motors. After 8 years, he felt ready for a change. But a change to what? “I had always worked for someone else,” he says. “I wasn’t sure about going out on my own.” And by his own admission, he is a creature of habit, comfortable with the familiar. Not necessarily a likely candidate for the unpredictability that comes with starting a business after a 40-year career.  

Godown’s career change couldn’t be more different than that of Ken Daly. If Godown zigged, you might say Daly zagged. After spending his entire working life essentially at one company – albeit one that grew dramatically – rising from meter reading to president and chief operating officer, he set his sights on another top job: college president. He says he knew the odds of making such a dramatic shift were literally 100 to 1. 

When he retired from National Grid on March 31, 2019 – on his birthday – only one of the last 100 college presidents that had been hired in the U.S. had come directly from the business world. And he was one of nearly 100 candidates for the job at St. Thomas Aquinas College. He had long known that such a job was his goal – even if he didn’t fully have the traditional background. 

Godown and Daly, both of whom worked with coaches from LHH’s ICEO team, shared some insights gleaned from their respective journeys. 

IT TAKES A NETWORK

And a coach. Daly admits that he didn’t have the building blocks in place: a network, a LinkedIn profile, a presence on social media, or any experience of having job hunted since college. He notes that his coach, Ted Grant, who had been chief of staff to one of the most powerful CEOs in the U.S., was well-versed in both the tactical and strategic aspects of career transition. “I went from feeling like I was on my own to having a whole organization behind me,” he said. “That narrowed those 100-to-1 odds.”

Godown says he had a strong network; one that made him equally able to call prominent politicians or chief executives around the world. He says that relationship building was always a strength of his, but like Daly, he found that he needed help with other basics, like polishing his LinkedIn profile. Just as critical, Godown said that working with a coach helped him overcome his own doubts and arrive at a career plan that made sense for him personally and professionally.  

SELF MANAGEMENT

Daly likens the time preparing for the transition to being an athlete, demanding that one get in the best shape physically and mentally, and in his case, academically. He says that throughout his career, he always had – and kept to – a development plan. That meant everything from getting two master’s degrees as well as going to Harvard’s Advanced Management Program, serving as an adjunct professor, and sitting on the boards of several schools. “I took advantage of every opportunity to improve myself,” says Daly.

Godown says it’s important to maintain a certain discipline – even if it’s something as basic as making the bed every day (a habit he adheres to), getting out of the house, and doing something proactive on the career front. “You’ve got to keep your skills fresh.” He admits that he still applies for jobs, even though he’s not necessarily interested in another career change. He points out that you don’t want your most important interview to be your first.

PASSION AND PURPOSE

Both Godown and Daly incorporated what they were passionate about into their lives and careers pre- and post-transition. For Godown, one of those things was building international relationships. “Human relations and global interactions were a part of my job but also a passion of mine,” he says. “And that’s been a benefit in my new job [as well].”

He says that paying it forward and giving back has also been a consistent theme, often expressed through mentoring or educating people about complex issues. Godown describes the sometimes-arcane nature of international relations and government affairs as “a little bit of a black box” and that he enjoys helping people understand something as complex as infrastructure. “When I think about what turns me on in the morning it’s not money or a title – though those are nice – but at the end of the day, I want to be able to look back and feel like I made a difference.”

For Daly, education was always a draw. In addition to teaching, through National Grid, he and another company partnered to open a high school for underserved students with the goal of giving them a career-oriented education. His mantra for St. Thomas Aquinas College – borrowed from another college president, he freely admits – is making education “accessible and affordable.”

AVOIDING PITFALLS

Daly acknowledged that it’s too easy to get caught up in the emotions around leaving a company and job that one loves, especially if it has been a strong part of one’s identity. He advises focusing that emotional energy as soon as possible on what’s coming next.

Godown admits that he was his own worst enemy; between being a creature of habit and having doubts about whether he had it in him to make the move. Once he “got over” himself, he was able to view things more realistically.

BEST ADVICE FOR OTHERS

Don’t be afraid to make a change before you reach the logical end of the career you’re already in, says Godown. While he’s candid about saying he doesn’t know if he should have made a change sooner – or would have – had he known he would be successful, he thinks people shouldn’t be afraid to try. “You can always fall back on what you know or try to make a change again in a few years if it doesn’t work out at first.” He also advises people not to be afraid to ask for help. “Someday you’ll be the person that someone turns to for help,” he notes.

Daly says that while it’s ok to give yourself a chance to recharge and reflect, commitment to the next step is essential. People can’t move forward when they’re looking back, so it’s critical that they move through the down leg of the change curve as quickly as possible. “I had too much emotion and energy caught up in looking back and I needed to redeploy that emotion into the next opportunity.”

Though Godown’s and Daly’s paths and approaches to their new careers on the surface are in sharp contrast to each other, Mulligan pointed out that both were resolute, passionate, and persistent – qualities that will help anyone looking to make a change, whether it’s a zig or a zag. 

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