Forever Relevant

By Joost J. den Haan

A few days ago I received a call from a good friend who informed me that his long career as a lawyer in active service of a huge petrochemical multinational had come to an end. His story was like that of many others. The combination of restructuring and centralization had made his position obsolete. “But it is not all bad news”, he said. “I joined an international law firm now!”, he added enthusiastically. Congratulating him with the new job and asking him about how and what, I noticed that things were not as easy as they seemed.

The law firm did not exactly “hire” him, but they “offered him a position” with the firm. Fred, who is 48 years of age and always enjoyed the pleasures of corporate life to a great extent, in fact had to establish a business of his own to acquire and serve clients. But after having had intensive training he could do so under the firm’s well established name using all of the firm’s facilities. Once in a while the firm would assign clients to him as well. A complex system of profit sharing was agreed upon.

It’s a trend going on for a bit now. The traditional business model with only in-house consultants no longer works. Costly overhead, bureaucracy, lack of entrepreneurship and an overall too comfy feeling of job security no longer matches the needs of today’s marketplace.

Who would have thought that Fred would become an entrepreneur at his age? His story made me think of a similar experience I had, five years ago…

Starting a business of your own is always scary and never without risk.

Some five years ago, I left my VP Communications position with a global fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) company and started building my very own little boutique communications firm in the Netherlands, named ID Est Communicatie. Returning to the mere essence of communications and gaining more flexibility and freedom were some of the motives that drove this initiative.

But then, while working on the business plan I got struck by fear, slowly building up to a situation of utter panic. Where would I find my clients? Would I manage to do it without the inherent status of senior level positions and corporate life? Would there actually be something that I am good at? What am I good at? What do I know?

Successful and long-term functioning in the highest ranks of corporate life may spoil you. Navigating on once earned trust, solid relationships and established best practices, can easily lead to losing your edge and relying on what once proved to be successful. Success is easily confirmed. Self-reflection and challenging your own insights and capabilities is not the most natural thing to do, or is it?

The bigger part of my first year as an independent entrepreneur I spent on re-educating myself on my true passion: communications. I subscribed to a variety of business publications and my days were filled with reading blogs, visiting seminars and establishing and maintaining a network of professional colleagues around the globe, whom I trusted to challenge me and my professional insights through regular Skype meetings. So many of them kindly shared their ideas, their connections and their work with me.

At an older age, one of the things that I learned was that talking to similar minded people does not add much value. It’s the argumentation, the discussion and the free flow of crazy ideas, which bring new thoughts and inspiration. It was then when I decided to life-coach a few very young, but ambitious, communications professionals. They will probably never know that they most likely teach me more than I will ever be able to teach them. The insight in their media-consumption, brand perception and social interaction refreshes my views and renews my ideas. We can’t stay forever young but we can certainly stay forever relevant and current…

Those were also the days that I came to develop a new skill, being the art of “self-education”. Whenever I read or heard about a new functional development, industry trend, or marketing and communications theory, I tapped all publicly available sources and wrote my own little white paper on it. This way terminology such as “thought leadership”, “insight selling”, “corporate character” and “authentic advocacy” became a natural part of my vocabulary. With it and bit by bit my level of confidence grew and I started to feel more secure reaching out to earn credibility with potential clients.

In hindsight, I wish that I made the jump to independency sooner than just before my 50th birthday. But this move at a later age made me aware of the importance to stay relevant, up-to-date and current. Whether that is in the profession, in your network or in your current job.