John Lefferts' Blog

Friday, January 8, 2010

New and Improved

For those who have met my acquaintance, it's hard to envision me out of a business suit. In fact, I've earned the rap over the years as probably being born in a pin striped business suit. So to them, it may sound odd that in 2009, I wore a business suit less than a dozen days, slipped from my Executive Platinum status on American Airlines, and charged well under the six figures they look for on my AMEX black card. How did I manage that? One word: Sabbatical.

I know the term Sabbatical generally refers to college professors who take a year off with pay every 7 years to return back to the same job. Typically the time is taken for research, travel, writing, etc. Well, in my case, it took 27 years and I don't plan to return back to the same job...and I'm not a college professor. But I did a fair amount of travel, writing and research during a year that could be argued as the best in recent memory to sit on the sidelines in the financial services business.

I had the good fortune to have a very generous buyout package from my firm of 27 years complete with benefits bridging and all the good things that come with it. So I realize that not everyone has the opportunity to take a breather in mid-career. Frankly, if the circumstances hadn't lined up so well pointing me in this direction, I wouldn't have done it either. But as they say, even a blind hog can find an acorn now and then!

If you can pull it off financially, I can tell you from personal experience, it can be one of the best and most fulfilling periods of your life. There have been many realizations I've had during this time, but here are the top 3 among many:

1. It forced me out of my cocoon: Spending a career with the same company as a workaholic with little time for anything else, stepping out of the daily grind allowed (i.e. forced) me to seek contacts, relationships and interactions outside of the company. While I value my friendships at AXA, I finally had time to go to various industry conferences, network outside my prior controlled environment and dare I say, even go to a few social events. I was the type who went to company conferences and called it a vacation. Now I know spouses don't give credit for that!

2. It gave me time to reflect on what I value, believe and want for my future. When you're going from year to year, quarter to quarter, meeting to meeting, paycheck to paycheck, most of us typically don't take the time to think about whether we're on the right track, much less what we want in life. A two week vacation is hardly enough time to get in a different frame of mind. But a yearlong sabbatical forces you free yourself of potentially outdated beliefs about what success looks like and crystallize thoughts of your own choosing and not someone else's.

3. It caused me to be far more open to different points of view politically, professionally and personally. When you're on the hamster wheel focused on doing whatever you have to do, there is little time or brain share available for that which does not fit the mission at hand. I found that my time and energy was spent on achieving goals fitting to the silo I happened to be in and my mental door was closed to anything not aligned with that. But when I stepped off the wheel, a funny thing happened. A whole new world opened up and I began to see possibilities where prior there were obstacles...the blinders were taken off.

Again, I consider myself fortunate to have had the financial wherewithal to take the time off. For me it was like being in career detox. Aside from all the obvious benefits of taking a year off like more time with family, getting in the best physical shape of my life and lowering my tension levels by several notches, it had many other unforeseen positive affects as well. As I entered the year scared to death about leaving the comfortable and familiar for the unknown, I was concerned about whether or not it was the right decision. As it turned out, this past year off was one of the best and most fulfilling in my life.

So now the "Sabbatical" is complete, now what? Early in the year I had thought about jumping back into the frying pan doing the same thing I did at AXA but with "Brand X"...and I may still pursue that. But as the year progressed, my mind opened, and as I consulted with several Private Equity firms, I've become interested in developing a new era version of a financial services distribution firm built for the pending re-regulation, new economics of the business and shifting consumer needs... kind of a new and improved version. And that's exactly what this year has done to me: New and improved!