Flight delayed, and as I settle into the new Amex airport lounge, I run into a college friend. An MBA from a top tier school, he quit the corporate world to set up a research and analytics business, which he’s just sold to a global KPO—a modest exit, that left him neither poor nor rich. We talk about his journey as an entrepreneur and the myriad reasons that led him to “quit” and sell out and the trauma of letting go and the emptiness after.
So what’s next? I ask. After some introspection and debate, he had decided to rejoin the corporate jungle. Did I have any advice on how could he navigate his way back? What was out there for someone like him? Would he be viewed as a failure, or as a quitter, he wondered? Since he had been an entrepreneur for half his working life, would prospective employers question his commitment to a job? Would he be seen as running away from his business or being drawn to a job?
Swapping roles: Are you ready to get back to the 9-5 office grind?
Also Read Sonal Agrawal’s earlier articles
Equally, he was plagued by doubts about his own ability to play in the corporate sandbox. In the “old days”, it was one boss and usually one line of sight to decision makers. Would he be able to manage the matrix, report to people and manage the relative lack of independence? Should he worry about “batch parity”? What kind of roles could he add value to, how much could he expect to make and most importantly, did he absolutely have to wear a suit to work?
I tell him about a forward-thinking businessman whose remit to us had been to look for “failed entrepreneurs” for his then fledgling retail business. His logic being that a spell of entrepreneurship, regardless of the outcome, taught more valuable corporate and life lessons than any business school and very often, more than one learnt in a functional silo in a large corporation. He wanted professionals who had experienced pain, understood bootstrapping and could see the whole picture, rather than just the tunnel up the ladder.
Hence my first piece of advice was on how to get the pitch right. Keep it honest, not too emotional. Many successful professionals have a healthy respect for the entrepreneurial itch that occasionally keeps them up at night. Some entrepreneurs are scared you will leave them to start off again, but some are not scared to hire people who are capable of doing that. While there was no need to be apologetic, he did have to be prepared to tackle the obvious questions—why he walked away, did anything go wrong, what he could have done better. We talked about focusing on the overall journey and not just the outcome—quantify and emphasize his accomplishments and experiences, highlight his business planning process, fund-raising capability, his ability to wear multiple hats, roll up his sleeves, carry people.
In terms of roles, apart from his direct area of expertise, I suggested he could look at situations that used his overall business skills. Some self-analysis about whether he fit—and most enjoyed—functional, consultative, operational or business head roles would be useful. Sunrise industries, start-ups and ramp-ups, intrapreneurship options within larger corporations, consulting opportunities, interim management options, operating roles in private equity-funded companies, regulatory bodies and associations, and even executive search.
Next, how to get himself out there. Some obvious ones—beat the old jungle drums. Write up a structured resume, access the headhunters, reach out to the network. Garner testimonials—from investors, vendors, mentors, clients. Find people who are willing to act as referees. Document the achievements—revenues, milestones met, funds raised, contracts negotiated. Use the network to ask for advice and leads, tap school, college, professional contacts. Start a spreadsheet that tracks options, coverage and follow-ups. Get online, on social and professional networks. Get visibility through writing, attending industry events, working the crowd. Maintain the Rolodex, update the contacts, set up follow-up reminders. And above all, remember to send thank you notes.
Most importantly, I urged him not to hesitate to take a break to cleanse his soul, put the past to rest and recharge his batteries. Enthusiasm is infectious, body language and confidence speaks volumes. I advised him to be positive about his experience, and welcoming and excited about the new patch that lay ahead.
Remember, nobody wants to be the rebound relationship—employers want someone who is attracted to them, not someone who is running away from his past, or looking to settle. “Me Tarzan,” he chuckled, as we hung on to the overhead handles of the lurching airport bus. Now to go find Jane.
Sonal Agrawal is chief executive, Accord Group, an executive search firm.
Write to Sonal at email@example.com