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Lessons from leaving the corporate world

One of the hardest decisions is to leave the safety of a nine-to-five job. BERNADETTE MCCLELLAND shares her insights into striking out alone and succeeding on one’s own terms.

Nearly two decades ago, as everyone was preparing for the Y2K bug to close down the world, I was closing up my files, picking up my bag and saying my goodbyes to a company I had called home for some 20 years.

I’d joined the business at a time that pre-dated mobile phones and when messages were delivered via wooden pigeonholes.

The first plain-paper fax machine I sold was for $20,000 and the sales floor was a boys’ club with few women.

It was an environment and an era that taught me a million lessons.

It was also a time where my company was the leader in its field until temporarily losing pole position when moving the goal posts from analogue to digital.

We bounced back with strategies that included leadership through quality, customer delight and world-class solution selling.

I was truly fortunate to be part of a tribe, albeit one that frustrated the living daylights out of me. Whilst it gave me a sense of family however, something was missing.

Something that said, “There is more to work and even more to you.”

A new paradigm of work

Today, with the gig economy hitting its straps, an increasing number of people are escaping their corporate cubicles.

They are going in search of roles that align with their lifestyle, purpose and growth, and they are leveraging powerful new technology to do so.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) says approximately 2.5 million people in Australia have swapped their offices for corner cafés and it’s a cultural shift that’s expected to continue.

And as I reflect on nearly two decades of freelancing and entrepreneurial ventures in the gig economy, these are the biggest lessons I have taken away:

1. Don’t expect people to understand – Whilst you will be excited about the prospect of growth and trying new things when you leave your office job, you will lose commonality with those who are no longer in your world.

Some will be supportive but some might be sceptical, even laughing and mocking you for being a ‘dreamer’.

"Whilst you will be excited about the prospect of growth and trying new things when you leave your office job, you will lose commonality with those who are no longer in your world"

There is a natural human reaction for others to want you to stay where they are, especially if they see you are on a growth trajectory. At a biological level, our brain distrusts difference and when you branch out on your own, you are set apart from the pack.

2. Find a group of people who ‘get it’ – Acclaimed businessman and author Seth Godin got it right when he said, “A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.”

Finding groups along your path that understand you is critical. This is not just for support but also for sharing ideas – and the latter will always lead to growth.

3. Get used to moments of self-doubt – Enjoy the highs that come with your new venture but don’t walk away from the lows.

The biggest mistake I made was walking away from a venture after only two years and taking an eight-year detour because I didn’t think I had what it took.

Be mindful of those winters as spring and summer will always follow.

4. Recognise the important people – This means your family. Why? Because stepping out on your own crosses both personal and professional boundaries, not necessarily in equal amounts.

Having great kids and a supportive husband has been my biggest blessing in life. My partner truly believes that his wife has commercial value as well as personal value and he is not be threatened by that at all.

5. Customers won’t come just because you have a dream – I remember someone asking me early on, “So how are you going to market yourself?“ It didn’t take me long to realise that marketing is the number-one priority over and above what you actually do.

With that came my first book then my second, a website when the Internet was fairly new and a newsletter at a time when personalisation was novel.

It also meant doing free speaking gigs to get testimonials and brought a feeling of uncertainty of what to charge when nobody would give me a straight answer.

I look at freelancers, entrepreneurs and even small businesses now focusing so much on their product and not enough on marketing and I think, ‘Flip it, flip it!’

6. Qualify those coffee meetings – Everybody wants to have a quick meeting or a coffee chat to ‘pick your brains’. A brilliant learning for me was to ask why.

If their answer didn’t align with my own goal for the meeting then I would postpone it. Minding your time is critical and qualification is not just about prospecting; it’s about protecting your time as well.

7. Always invest in yourself – I have been fortunate to work as the Asia-Pacific lead coach for Tony Robbins, one of the world’s best-known life and business coaches, all because I was ‘coachable’ and open to being brave.

I am grateful for the learning and leverage I attained from that experience.

"Changing your environment always has its benefits – shifting up your circle of influence will also produce positive outcomes, as will living by the mantra that there is no right or wrong"

I have also invested in one-on-one mentoring with leadership expert Matt Church, who introduced me to models and commercial thinking that I can now incorporate into my training, keynotes and writing.

I have been fortunate enough to invest in travelling to different parts of the world to hang out with like-minded people and I have now shared my message across five continents.

I’m not suggesting everyone needs to do what I do but picking up a book, listening to a podcast, asking for feedback and having a conversation with a mentor or person you admire and want to emulate are all ways of investing in yourself and your growth.

8. Trust your gut – I always wondered if the answer I was seeking was outside of me.

Ultimately, we often know the right course of action and we need to own that knowledge.

For example, the right course of action could mean saying no to clients that aren’t a good fit; refusing to discount your price because you know your value; distancing yourself from people who do not align with your values.

It’s about doing what you love and listening to those internal messages you hear but may not always trust.

Winners, high-achievers and go-getters have more than belief – they have faith. They know that everything will be okay, and that taking both leaps and baby steps, forwards and backwards, in the pursuit of change is always about growth and innovation.

The opposite of faith is disbelief and fear. When you live by rules that confine you to the way you’ve always done things, you are operating out of fear – you are simply trying to stay safe, or protect your ego with bubble wrap.

With this mentality, you stop yourself from pushing boundaries, colouring outside the lines, challenging the status quo and busting expectations.

9. Know that you are where you are supposed to be – What you are doing today may not be the right thing for the future but it is the right thing right now.

There will always be a reason why you are doing what you are doing, so don’t beat yourself up if it is not all it is cracked up to be.

If it’s not a fit then make a decision – do it for a reason or don’t do it at all. If it is exactly where you want it to be then be grateful and pay something forward.

Do not play the comparison game – ever! You have way too much value to offer and it’s a game you will always lose.

None of us know what tomorrow will bring; however, changing your environment always has its benefits.

Shifting up your circle of influence will also produce positive outcomes, as will living by the mantra that there is no right or wrong.

Final reflection

I hope these nine personal truths can help you get your head around a change of direction and motivate you to stay the course.

In the words of the rapper Eminem, “If people take anything from my music, it should be motivation to know that anything is possible as long as you keep working at it and don’t back down.”

Keep working at it.

Bernadette McClelland

Bernadette McClelland is a keynote speaker, executive sales coach, and published author. Learn More:


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