Career coaching for the 100 year life?

There’s a curious irony in the fact that I’m increasingly coaching high fliers in Professional Service firms whose organisations are majoring on the Future of Work. Increasingly, those same high fliers are coming into coaching because they’re burned out; discontented by the treadmill and can’t see any way out. All at a time where it feels as if the career ladder they were climbing – if there ever was a career ladder – is coming away from the wall. And the grown ups – if ever there were grown ups – who would like to help don’t always know how to help, because we live in times where it really doesn’t feel as if the future will resemble the past.

I’ve always been interested in career transition. Ever since my Dad gave me a copy of What Colour is your Parachute for my eighteenth birthday, I’ve been wondering what I’m going to do with my life. Happily for me, I finally figured out that one thing what I want to do with my life is help other people figure out what to do with theirs. And I’m particularly interested in what used to be called ‘late career transition’, traditionally helping people in their mid fifties. But which, in the era of the 100 Year Life, we need increasingly to think of as mid career transition.

Whether you are:

— Mid career (and it matters more than it did that you know you are in a bullshit job) (about which more in future posts)
— Hate your job but love your kids (and need a job that will pay enough to put them through private school)
— Really want to be doing something else (if only you could figure out what it was)
— Have enough LTIs to retire (but don’t fully know how you are going to fill your days)

Coaching can help you figure out what you want to do with your “one wild and precious life”. The elements, about which I will be posting over the coming months, involve a dance that includes looking backward; looking forward; and looking within. In this post, I’m going to be looking at pivot points and life lines but I want to start with a few thoughts about the Future of Work. I’m not aiming for anything as high brow as the many PowerPoints and papers PS firms are generating on the topic. But it is important to highlight the context because many approaches to career management are still operating on the basis of a three stage life (education; work; retirement) based around a life expectancy that is no longer valid. If – as many experts suggest – those in their fifties or sixties today have a good chance of living to their nineties, what does that mean for how you plan your career and your life?

The 100 Year Life?
Camilla Cavendish, former head of the Downing Street Policy Unit and now Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School has written a book, Extra Time, which looks across the globe at how countries such as Japan are addressing the way that our chronological age is becoming decoupled from our biological capabilities. And Linda Gratton and Andrew Scott’s The 100 Year Life highlights the way that people currently in their 20s are likely to be working into their late 70s and even 80s. In South Korea, the average effective retirement age for women is already above 73. In the US, older workers are sometimes referred to as “perennials”, as influential in their way as millennials. All of which highlights Cavendish’s argument that if we are to make full use of what she calls Extra Time, we will need to re-write the career timetable.

Pivot points and lifelines
When my beloved Dad died (in Zurich, twenty years ago, after his fourth stroke) for all the heartbreak, for a few weeks, the things that matter – kindness, humour, learning, relationships, music (particularly Bach) – were somehow calmly, crystal, clear. A year after his death I took a month’s unpaid leave from my job as a management consultant and three months later set up my own business as a consultant and coach.

It is these pivot points, the death of a parent, divorce, a serious health diagnosis, that often bring people into coaching. I recently started to work with Stephanie, a senior leader on the Board of a Professional Services firm. One prompt for coming into coaching was her father’s death a few months before. We started by doing the following Lifeline exercise. It brought her to tears, and started her on the dance of uncovering answers to questions like: “Who am I, apart from my history and the roles I have played?” that characterise this second half of life. A time that is often about the move from external identity, achieving and performing, towards a more internal identity, purpose and meaning.

Exercise: the Lifeline
The Lifeline helps you look back at your life in a way that shapes your past rather than seeing it as a series of completely random events and experiences. This can be a first step to shaping the life you want to live in the future.

1. Take a piece of paper (flip chart, A4, A3 or Ipad with Apple Pencil whatever works for you).

2. Create a horizontal sheet and draw a lifeline across the middle starting with your birth on the left and whatever age (60 70, 100 years) you feel comfortable with on the right. (The example below comes from the excellent Open University STEM website).

3. Write ‘low points’ on the bottom left and ‘high points’ on the top left.

4. Take time to map key events in your life focusing particularly on those that mark high or low points in your life.

5. Think about how much these events were the result of outside influences or chosen by you

6. Do they have anything in common?

7. What did you learn from them about what really matters to you?

8. Anything else?