After 30 years working for the same company, Ken Daly retired from a job he loved and made a leap into the unknown.
It was early 2019 and Daly, Chief Operating Officer for the US Electric business of National Grid, one of the world’s largest energy companies, felt he needed a new challenge for the next phase of his career. It was a feeling that had been building for a long time.
For almost as long as he had worked in the energy sector, Daly had demonstrated a deep passion for, and commitment to, higher education. On top of his demanding day job, he taught at the secondary and post-secondary levels for nearly 30 years, developed initiatives to promote STEM education, and sat on the boards of several colleges. In the very back of his mind, he had always viewed these activities as the “building blocks” for a future career shift.
So, at age 53 with a resumé that was heavy on technical and financial knowledge of the gas and electricity industry, Daly decided it was time to do something that few executives of his age and tenure would ever consider: he threw himself, heart and soul, into a life-long dream to serve as a college president.
“National Grid was incredibly supportive as I transitioned my career” Daly said. “So were my wife and my kids. They had mixed emotions when I told them. For as long as my kids have been alive, they knew me as ‘Mr. National Grid.’ They were sad to see me leave something they knew I loved but they also knew about my deep interest in education.”
Although he was confident about the dream he wanted to pursue, he was less confident about what it was going to take to achieve that dream. The full magnitude of his knowledge gap began to come into focus within days of his retirement on March 31, 2019, a day that also happened to be his birthday.
“For 30 years, the energy industry was all I knew,” Daly said. “I mean, I loved my job. I never missed a day of work over my time with National Grid. That was 7,000 consecutive days. Now, for the first time since I left school, I was going to try and start something totally new. In many ways, I’m not sure I was 100% clear on what was involved in a move like that.”
Notwithstanding his long and successful career, Daly said he was patently aware he had not undertaken a job search since he was in college. Having only applied for internal promotions over his three decades at National Grid, Daly admitted he didn’t really know how or where to start pursuing his second-career dream job.
Daly certainly had a lot of advantages as he entered this new and somewhat uncertain period in his professional career. He had a wealth of experience leading and transforming large organizations with equally large goals. He also clearly had a calling and deep commitment to higher education having served as an adjunct professor, school board member and advisor to many different schools at different levels of the educational system. He had shown repeatedly that he was guided by a deep set of personal values with a commitment to helping future generations.
Still, the magnitude of his challenge began to create a very stretching aspiration in Daly’s mind, which was a new experience after three decades of feeling completely in control of his professional destiny. He was going to try something completely new, which meant there was a distinct possibility he would fall short of his very specific goal.
Fortunately, National Grid offered Daly the opportunity to work with LHH’s International Center for Executive Options (ICEO), a boutique advisory firm specializing in senior executive leadership and career transitions. Very quickly, Daly said, he started to grasp the magnitude of his challenge.
Although he knew the exact type and level of job he wanted, Daly had not formally applied for or even talked to a college about his career aspirations. In his own research, he learned an astounding and somewhat daunting fact: the odds against him making the leap from the business world to higher learning were about 100 to 1.
Set a timeline to achieve your goal
“When I started looking, I was aware that of the last 100 college presidents hired throughout the country, only one had come directly from the business world,” Daly said. “They traditionally went from dean to provost and then to president. I knew I was swimming against that tide to some extent. So, to make sure I wasn’t doing anything foolish, I gave myself just one year to pursue my dream.”
Prepare your mind and body
To ensure that he was mentally and physically prepared for the challenges to come, Daly started what could be described as a second-career bootcamp. He enrolled in a course that prepared aspiring college presidents. He also hit the gym with a vengeance and did exercises to strengthen his mental attitude. He was making himself physically and mentally stronger so that he could seize any opportunity that came along.
Build your personal brand
Daly also worked with his ICEO advisor to strengthen and re-establish his identity as a candidate for college president. He created a robust presence on social media, including LinkedIn, to emphasize his role as a leader of big organizations and to highlight his love of education. He began to relentlessly mine his network in the world of higher learning, using it to gather insights and understanding of what would be demanded of him in this new dream job.
Be prepared to learn and to potentially fall at the first hurdle
Within a few months of starting his search, Daly found what appeared to be the perfect opportunity: St. Thomas Aquinas College—a small, liberal arts school north of New York City in suburban Rockland County—was searching for a new college president. However, Daly said he knew right from the start that getting this job would involve a steep learning curve.
The previous president had been in her job for a remarkable 25 years. Given the stability of leadership the school had enjoyed, it was determined to undertake a very thorough search for its next president. The school started its search with a remarkable 70 internal and external candidates.
Learn about the interview and screening process before embarking on it
Daly had always assumed that a school looking for a new president would employ a thorough and rigorous hiring process. Still, nothing could quite prepare him for the comprehensive, high-pressure search process taken by St. Thomas Aquinas College.
Initial candidates were screened and then twelve were offered interviews, which were held at an airport hotel for secrecy. Then, a short list of three candidates was released publicly so students, faculty and administration could learn about who remained in the competition. Although the school’s board makes the final decision, remarkably both students and faculty were given an opportunity to vote for their preferred candidate.
When it came down to a final list of three candidates, Daly said he was asked to do 10 presentations—each one 20 minutes of presenting and a full 70 minutes of Q&A—to different constituencies within the school so that everyone could be fully informed before voting. His experience leading and transforming complex organizations along with his deep insights into higher education served him well.
Play to your strengths
“I hadn’t been through interviews like that for 30 years,” Daly recalled. “When I was meeting with people on campus, I tried to play to my strength. I had done a lot of public speaking, and I think that helped me. Even though the corporate world doesn’t normally use an open forum show like this, I was very comfortable with the process and really enjoyed my time on campus.”
After all the meetings, presentations and the seminal vote, on a snowy afternoon in December, Daly received the phone call he had been dreaming of for most of his adult life. He had the job. He was going to be a college president.
After taking some time to celebrate with his family, Daly settled into a six-month period as president-elect and then became president at the beginning of July 2020. During that time, he launched a 100-day plan that involved a listening tour with each employee and some quick wins around building a strong team and making strategic campus investments.
Prepare for the unexpected when starting a new role
As it turned out, Daly’s arrival on campus directly coincided with some of the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic. In some ways, it was a fortuitous bit of timing; with so much uncertainty and fear, Daly’s training and expertise in the energy sector—where communication skills and crisis management are core competencies—started to shine through.
“My 30 years in the energy sector gave me a pretty solid grounding in emergency planning,” he said. “I had to manage operations through all kinds of challenges, like 9/11, Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Right away at the school, I launched a COVID-19 plan that would have looked and sounded exactly what you might find in a world-class energy company. I think it served us very well.”
No matter what experience level you are at, you always have more to learn
Looking back now on the tumultuous year, Daly said he cannot believe how much he learned, both about himself and the complexities of starting a new career later in life. “When you start out in your career, things are pretty straightforward. If you’re looking for a job as an entry-level accountant, you have a more or less clear idea of what you need to do. When you’re trying to make a late-career change, it’s a lot more scattershot.”
If he were to advise other senior leaders looking to make a similar change, Daly said he would emphasize the importance of “being humble enough to admit that you don’t know all the things you don’t know.”
“It’s so hard for people who are heavily embedded in their careers and former roles. It’s hard for all of us to shake off who we were and move on to who we want to be. But to make the leap, you have to pick a point in time where one chapter closes, and another chapter starts.” For me, that point was March 31, my last day at National Grid and my first day as an aspiring College President.
Above all, Daly said, senior leaders making late-career shifts need to embrace humility so that they can absorb and embrace new approaches to finding that right next role. And to commit yourself to making a break so you can undertake the journey to the next great stop on your career path.
“I learned pretty quickly that while you are making a break from the past, emotionally you have to allow yourself to look forward,” Daly said. “Other than the occasional dream at night, I never look back. That’s what people do to follow their passions. To find something that you really want to do, rather than something you feel you have to do.”