A first-person account of healing, restructuring and re-engineering a career – more than once.
We’ve all heard “the only constant is change” and “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” When these two aphorisms collide, things get tricky. This is why you may wish to embrace change before something almost kills you.
I’ve changed careers more than once, pioneered a start-up, engineered two business turnarounds, and restructured myself at least twice. All were successful and I’ve lived to tell it.
Stress, loss and a resignation
Prior to life in legal, I had a 14-year career in broadcasting. During this time, I was — among other things — a business producer/anchor for the bootstrap start-up of Canada’s first 24-hour national television news network.
The turnarounds involved the broadcast division of a news distribution company and the news department of a Canadian television network’s flagship station in Winnipeg.
The start-up was a privilege and while the first turnaround was a snap, the second nearly killed me.
It happened when my sister was battling brain cancer. I was working 100-hour weeks to complete the turnaround as fast as possible, knowing I would need to get home to Toronto to help my sister and mother deal with what was to come.
The turnaround was complete in 19 months and as soon as maintenance management was in place, I resigned. By then, I was on the verge of a heart attack and under a doctor’s care. And more stress was imminent.
After returning to Toronto, my sister and I spent every day together for her remaining six months; and my mom and I cared for her at home, where she passed away just before Christmas 1997. The first few months afterward were filled with grief, estate matters, and all that happens when you lose someone you love.
Stepping out: The restructuring
Then came the self-imposed expectation to get on with the business of living.
Among other things, that meant hunting for a job, which I did with the fervor of someone who’d been conditioned to assume that you’re no one without a job title.
I searched, failed, and flailed for a couple of months until it occurred to me that I wouldn’t be any good to anyone until I was good to myself. So, I stepped out of life as I had known it so that I could help myself heal.
I did not take this decision lightly and, frankly, I felt like a failure. But I needed to rebuild, and spent most of 1998 healing and restructuring myself.
This entailed a physical overhaul building up stamina and strength to swim a mile and complete 1,000 sit-ups every morning, and weight train for an hour every evening. In between, I would walk in a park, window-shop, read, nap, see a movie, meet a friend, or whatever I felt like doing or not doing.
By mid-December, I was strong in body, mind, soul and spirit and was as a friend observed, “the girl he met at 19.”
Back in the stream: The low-tech rebuild
Better prepared for a new challenge, I joined the marketing team at Ernst & Young, one of the Big Four professional services firms. Initially, EY’s tightly structured environment was comforting and I was among some terrific people.
However, my roles began to feel restrictive and I felt increasingly restless. Salvation came with severance when EY restructured, which presented another opportunity to re-engineer myself.
This rebuild was low-tech and involved one piece of paper on which I drew a grid resulting in four sections labeled:
- What I Love
- What I Like
- What I’ll Tolerate
- What I’ll Never Do Again
It looked like this:
|What I Love ||What I Like |
|What I’ll Tolerate ||What I’ll Never Do Again |
For 10 minutes, I jotted down traits from my work experiences, personal preferences, and other random thoughts that came to mind. It was quick and dirty, and not one bit scientific.
Once done, I tore off the sections What I’ll Tolerate and What I’ll Never Do Again, and was left with What I Love and What I Like.
Using only these two sections, I modeled various roles that could encompass elements such as change, challenge, bright people, professionalism, problem solving, teamwork, independence, responsibility, organization, spontaneity, planning, diverse opinions, creativity and humour.
One of the models became an outline for an independent legal marketing and business development consultancy, based on my experience as sole marketing counsel to Donahue LLP, which operated from 1997 to 2003 within EY as Canada’s first (and so far only) Big Four multidisciplinary business law firm.
To complete the outline, I contacted 23 Canadian law firms to ask for opinions and input. Nineteen responded. Some knew what I was talking about and others didn’t. But it hardly mattered since each was helpful in my start-up and one became a long-standing client.
That was in 2000. I haven’t looked back since and love what I do.
My core practice encompasses legal market strategy, which often means helping law firms, legal companies and individual lawyers make tough choices and invoke change.
While doing so is not easy, none has failed. In fact, I’ve witnessed rejuvenated and thriving law firm practices and legal businesses along with triumphant personal successes.
Embrace change: Get out of your own way
So, in a nutshell, here’s what I’ve learned and passed on to others when it comes to embracing change:
Clinging like a barnacle to “what was” does not serve you well. Instead, work to your strengths, acknowledge your values; cleave to them and build your life around them.
Understand that no one can stop you except yourself. When you accept that, you will get out of your own way and step into your power.
Then, your transformation will be glorious.
[Disclosure: EY became a client of mine in 2011.]
This article originally appeared in Attorney at Work, August 2019.
Update Note: This article and my column, Restructuring Legal Markets: Brace Yourself, sparked a podcast with Steven Pulver on Legal Innovation Talks. More information and background about our conversation is here.
Heather Suttie is an internationally recognized legal market strategy and management consultant to leaders of premier law firms and legal service providers worldwide.
For 25 years, she has accelerated performance within law firms and legal service businesses — Global to Solo | BigLaw to NewLaw — by providing consultative direction on legal business strategy, market strategy, management strategy, and client strategy. The result is a distinctive one-of-one legal market position and sustained competitive advantage culminating in greater market share, revenue and profits.