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Detours ahead

Detours ahead

Swerving careers and stepping off the ladder.

As accounting jobs go, it doesn't get much better. CFO of a big bank, working with a respected chief executive, in an organisation you love. But when Steve McKerihan, the CFO of St George Bank, saw a job advertised in his local church newsletter last year he thought: "This could be what I'm really meant to do." In July, McKerihan left St George after a 30-year career in banking to work for the Anglican Church as chief executive of the Sydney Diocesan Secretariat. The numbers are a lot smaller: a balance sheet measured in the hundreds of millions, instead of $100 billion; 90 staff rather than 200 (out of St George's 8500); and a pay packet that has shrunk by two-thirds. Yet McKerihan, in an interview one month into his new role, says he feels better prepared than he did for his only other job switch, when he left the Commonwealth Bank to join St George 22 years ago. "I don't feel I'm taking a step backwards," he says. "The operations are on a different scale, but I'm still working with very professional people."

McKerihan's move - like those of other career swervers we interviewed - is not about a sea change, downshifting or semi-retirement. Nor is it about chasing the big bucks. Mostly, radical career changes mean less pay and fewer perks, as well as a courageous plunge from the familiar to the unknown. For McKerihan, 51 and a committed Christian, it was about following God's calling to do a particular job. "I was not operating to a game plan, it was more that this role found me," he says.

A game plan was to the fore for Brendon Hulcombe when he made his career switch from music to real estate. Hulcombe, now the 33-year-old chief executive of property advisory group Herron Todd White, was desperate to move from Sydney back to his hometown of Brisbane. That meant two things: Leaving a job he loved - manager of the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) - and finding a whole new career. The ambitious Hulcombe wanted to be "at the pointy end of something". In Queensland, that meant sport, tourism or property.

Hulcombe joined HTW as a lowly business manager in 2003 and became chief executive two years later. "It wasn't a hard decision," he says of the career switch. "It was exciting. In a way it was very sad to leave the ACO, but I had given it a fair bit of my life." He's now in charge of 43 offices, 440 people and revenue of $45 million, on a salary that's more than double his orchestra pay. And he's reduced his nights away from his wife and two young children to about two a week, down from the 130-plus a year while touring with the orchestra.

Does he miss anything about his old career? "Being around people who want to be the best in the world - that's a pretty hard thing to top," Hulcombe admits. "I do feel comfortable with the career change, but I feel extremely proud of my path to get here. It's not as if I feel I wasted my early years in the arts and I should have gone straight into business."

Hulcombe's career switch was dictated by geography, but Stephen Johnston sees a growing number of successful mid-career executives whose desire for change is about heart rather than hearth. Johnston, an executive search consultant at Korn Ferry and the author of What Do You Do For A Living? (Hardie Grant Books, 2007), says the typical age is mid to late forties. "You do start to question a little bit 'why do I do what I do?' and 'how can I make a contribution or leave a legacy?'" says Johnston, 46. "Am I really leading an authentic life? Is this really me?"

If this sounds like a conventional mid-life crisis, it is - with a modern twist. Johnston says the growing focus on organisational culture, values, vision and corporate social responsibility has an inevitable personal spillover: "It's very difficult to start playing in that space without thinking about how it all impacts on you as an individual."

Johnston experienced his own career epiphany in his late thirties, when on the first day of his first managing director role he struggled to describe to himself what he actually did. His career as an executive in fast-moving consumer goods and entertainment companies was a confusing jumble of meaningless management titles.

Johnston has managed to step off the chief executive treadmill and fashion a portfolio career around advising others about careers. But some of his friends still ask when he plans to get a real job. This, he says, is the toughest part of a major career change - managing other people's expectations. "We live our lives through how others perceive us," he says. "It does take a bit of courage to go off on the road less travelled."

For Melanie Hogan, living up to the expectations of others was pretty much all she did - right up until she ditched her job at Macquarie Bank to become a filmmaker. She had been a creative child who gradually dropped arts to focus on subjects she knew she'd do well in, culminating in a first-class economics degree from the University of NSW. That led to a coveted analyst's job in Macquarie's equity capital markets division.

Hogan lasted a year. "I always was a bit of a fish out of water," she says, explaining that, back then, her self-identity was all about being an outcome-oriented overachiever. "I knew before I went to the bank that I wasn't being a hundred per cent true to myself." But she says the decision to leave was easy, buoyed by the confidence of youth (she was 22) and an eight-week film course she'd just finished in New York.

Seven years later, Hogan is brimming with enthusiasm and after the successful cinema release last year of her award-winning full-length documentary Kanyini. But she's also candid about the tough years in between, when the former honours student struggled through her one-year NIDA course, trying to rekindle her creative spirit. She moved back home, living on one-tenth of her Macquarie salary, and spent long, introspective days reading in libraries and getting to know herself.

"It was harder than I thought it would be," says Hogan, now 30. "I thought I was going to achieve again really quickly. I overestimated myself - but I'm persistent."

Mike Wilson is another who says his career move - into the not-for-profit sector - was a bigger step than he realised at the time. But, like Hogan, he was young (29) and assumed he could parachute back in to his old management consulting job if things didn't work out. Seven years later that get-out-of-jail-free card has long expired, and Wilson is now the chief executive of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

After five years at Andersen Consulting, Wilson was adept at business modelling, industry analysis and other diagnostic business tools, but felt that his people skills were not being developed. "I feel a little bit over-credited with a sense of selflessness," Wilson confesses. "I didn't think I was going into a backwater; I'm learning and developing my skills." None of his peers saw the change - complete with a 40 per cent pay cut - as a good career move, and many thought it was because he couldn't handled the pressure. But, after seeing him score a chief executive role at 34, overseeing 25 staff and a $14-million turnover, they've changed their tune: "The same people who were saying 'isn't it nice you sacrificed your career?' are now asking 'can you find something for me?'"

Sidebar:

Wrong way, go back

A radical career change doesn't always work out, and sometimes the startled reactions of friends or colleagues can be prescient. With the wisdom of hindsight, Anna Booth can now see that her big career move 12 years ago was doomed to failure. Booth, now 51, swapped an 18-year career in the trade union movement for a full-on corporate gig as vice-president of government affairs at Sydney's Star City Casino.

She knew nothing about casinos, did very little due diligence about the job, and overestimated the depth of commitment to a multiple bottom line demanded in the corporate world. She also saw herself as a technocrat - good at government relations, economic analysis and the like - without understanding the importance

of the values that had attracted her to unions in the first place.

Within three months, she realised it was a terrible mistake. A Chinese man jumped off the Anzac Bridge after gambling at the casino. Without asking anybody, Booth made a donation from the casino to the Chinese community's welfare fund. She wasn't hauled over the coals, but it was frowned upon. She lasted two years in the job before comments by then chief executive Neil Gamble about "square pegs in round holes" finally hit home. "He could tell more than I could that I was in the wrong place," says Booth, who doesn't regret her time at the casino. "I think I was a goose - but I had fun being a goose. I had been so busy for 20 years, I hadn't really grown up. I hadn't really learned the hard lessons."

Helped by a career planner and several life education courses, Booth learned two things about herself that were "ridiculously obvious": her work has to align with her values, and she is more interested in lifestyle than money. It took her another three years to sort things out before she set up a boutique workplace relations consultancy. Earlier this year she became chair of the plaintiff law firm Slater & Gordon, and she's on the board of Members Equity, which acts as a bank for industry super funds.

Strangely, the other job she was offered as she left the union movement was as the director of UNICEF in Australia. "If there's one thing I regret, it's not taking that job," Booth says. "But I wanted to make the really big change."

© Fairfax Business Media

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