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Finding Work You Love

Pivot, Relaunch or Metamorphosis: Managing Change Amid Personal and Professional Upheaval

A first-person account of healing, restructuring and starting a new career.

By Heather Suttie

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 startup, 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. I was — among other things — a business producer/anchor for the bootstrap startup 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 TV network’s flagship station in Winnipeg.

The startup 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; 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 else 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 the stamina and strength to swim a mile, 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. Initially, EY’s tightly structured environment was comforting and I was among some terrific people. However, my roles began to feel restrictive and I became 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 with four sections labeled:

  • 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 humor.

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 input. Nineteen responded. Some knew what I was talking about and others didn’t. But it hardly mattered since each was helpful in my startup and one became a long-standing client. That was 18 years ago. I haven’t looked back and I love what I get to do.

My core practice encompasses legal market strategy, which often means helping firms and individuals 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 along with triumphant personal successes.

Embrace Change: Get Out of Your Own Way

So, in a nutshell, here’s what I’ve learned and have 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. Once 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.)

You Might Also Like:

“New Lawyers Should Have More Than One Mentor” by Amy Timmer

“Time for a Career Change? Ways to Push Beyond Your Comfort Zone” by Wendy Werner

“The Power of Putting Yourself First: Lessons for Women Lawyers” by Kristine Reed

“Risky Business: Solo Startup Advice from Women Lawyers” by Joan Feldman

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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Heather Suttie

Heather Suttie is an internationally recognized legal market strategist and management consultant. She works with lawyers, law firms and legal service providers — global to solo, BigLaw to NewLaw — helping them thrive in the evolving legal industry by claiming a distinctive position and competitive advantage resulting in greater market share, revenue and profits. Reach her at heather@heathersuttie.ca or @HeatherSuttie1.

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