A tale about making a successful transition from the public to private sector

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is a hard business. If you try it, you will be lonely often and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high for the privilege of owning yourself”. Rudyard Kipling

My beloved, beautiful, courageous, wise and treasured mother, Anne, died seven months ago at the age of 69 after a four-year battle with ovarian cancer. She was the one who posted this quote to me six years ago, a few days after I resigned from my 17-year career in the Victorian Department of Agriculture (and its various incarnations) to take a leap into the great unknown and start my own consulting practice. I stuck the quote next to my computer in my home office and look at it every day with thanks. Mum always knew just the right thing to say.

My decision to resign happened quite quickly in the end, although it had been a long time coming. I stepped out into my new future with nothing lined up except, for the first time in my life, the self-belief that I was a resourceful, capable person and that everything would work out. What had stopped me from resigning earlier was fear and self-doubt. What if I couldn’t find any work? What if I made the wrong decision and was unhappy in my next job? What if I didn’t have the right skills? So many what ifs…....?

I had done a lot of self-reflection in the lead up to my resignation. I’d stumbled across a terrific book called “Do More Great Work” by Michael Bungay Stanier. It ended up helping to change my life. One of the activities I did was to identify the “peak moments” in my life so far when I was at my best and doing my “great work” – the work that really mattered to me, where I was in my flow and using my strengths e.g. Who was I when I was at my best – how did I feel, what was I doing? Of what was I most proud? Who else was involved? What behaviours had I exhibited when I was at my best? What behaviours didn’t I exhibit?

Some of the themes that emerged were that my “great work” had always involved facilitating; working with people and groups around change, leadership and personal development – things I was passionate about; I could initiate projects, design them, deliver and evaluate them; the work was varied; I was learning new things, taking on challenges and growing in myself; I was able to work with fabulous people with whom I clicked and who inspired me; I had fun; I was being creative; interacting regularly with others; and I was making a difference to people’s lives.

What also stood out was that the best things in my life had happened after I took on something that absolutely terrified me. I had done these things when I was younger so what had happened to that courageous person – where had she gone?

It hit me that I was not being my true self where I was currently working, that I was not doing the facilitation and leadership work I was passionate about and that I was feeling very inauthentic and was not being true to myself. I almost didn’t recognise the person that I had been in my “great work” moments. This reflection process was very powerful and ignited in me a realisation that I had done “great work” in the past and was capable of doing it again! Finally I was ready to back myself.

I took some time out to dream about possibilities and to identify my “great work” – in an ideal world without any limitations what would I be doing? The answer to that was working with people, teams and organisations to be their best, utilise their strengths and find their voice, mainly using my facilitation skills but also utilising coaching, training, speaking and even sometimes my skills from my days as a socio-economic researcher and extension officer. Ideally my focus would be leadership and personal development. I registered my business name, Cynthia Mahoney and Associates; joined LinkedIn and Twitter to connect with people from my past as well as new people I admired; I resigned from my job and then let my networks know that I had made a new start. I invited lots of people out for coffee in order to ask their advice about this new world of consulting and to hear about what they were working on.

The decision to proactively close one door seemed to create the opportunity for new doors to appear. A few key people in my network, some of whom I knew well and others less so, stepped forward with consultancy opportunities and valuable advice. Someone offered to be my mentor and I also employed a business coach to help me challenge my own limiting beliefs about success and to discuss practicalities about consulting.

At the start of each year I identify a theme for the year ahead and in 2011, my theme was “being OK with uncertainty”. I knew I would need something to help steady my nerves and keep me strong as everything I was doing was new. I decided to stop letting fear hold me back and keep me being a smaller, lesser version of myself and instead embrace it and have confidence that I was growing and developing through all these new experiences. This theme became my anchor, as every time I felt the fear, I would remind myself that experiencing uncertainty was what 2011 was all about, that I actually had wanted this to happen so I was on the right track.

I said yes to things that interested me (and terrified me!) and invited others in my network to collaborate with me if I felt I didn’t have all the skills a potential client needed. I rang peers and mentors when taking on new jobs in order to talk through my facilitation plan with them and gained feedback. Within three months I was facilitating three different leadership programs – one for a national horticulture industry; one for a major company and one for a not-for-profit that I had always dreamed of working with as they ran amazing programs with participants coming from the public, private and not-for-profit sectors – nothing to do with agriculture. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that all this would happen so quickly and that every day I would be doing my “great work” with clients who appreciated my style and shared similar values to me.

Of course there was a lot of hard work involved and long hours; I’ve found consultancy can be “lumpy” (i.e. sometimes almost too much work and at other times you have room for more) and I’ve battled a lot with my mindset about my own value. As a consultant you need to develop, deliver and sell all at once with multiple clients so there are always lot of balls in the air; you need to know your stuff and be good at the business management too; and you need to be comfortable with uncertainty.

My mother’s shock terminal cancer diagnosis came a bit over a year after I started my business. I found that being my own boss during this time was a huge asset. I will be forever grateful I had my own business during this four-year rollercoaster ride. I was able to prioritise the most important thing, spending time with Mum, and schedule my work around this. I could be flexible with location. My clients and collaborators were immensely understanding and supportive. The fact that I was doing work I loved, that was so positive and rewarding, that was making a real difference and that I was working with people who appreciated me gave me a lot of strength and helped my resilience.

In the six years since I left the public service I’ve designed and facilitated a range of leadership programs for organisations and people in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors; I’ve developed my own personal development program, “Driving Your Life”, to help people gain clarity for their career or life direction and also adapted it as a team performance program, “Peak Performance”; I’ve designed and delivered extension and facilitation training programs; given keynote addresses at conferences; worked on a social research project about women’s participation in agriculture; run team building and strategic planning workshops; embraced social media in my own business and ran training for other businesses and industries; worked with small businesses; undertaken evaluation; designed and delivered change management programs; developed and facilitated performance conversation and peer feedback processes; designed and facilitated a digital leadership program, a leadership program for people with a disability and a leadership program for a public health organisation; and more!

I deliver face-to-face and also connect with people on-line and am forever dreaming about new and better ways of doing things. It’s a big, wide world out there full of endless possibility and with the ability to connect with people from near and far in ways that work best for them. The skills I learnt whilst employed in the public sector have been crucial to my success. Facilitation, evaluation, research, strategic planning, systems thinking, culture change, conflict management, project development, negotiation, budgeting, understanding self, etc. are all highly transferrable to the world of consulting. You can fall into the trap of being “unconsciously competent” and so you assume that all this stuff is obvious and that everyone has done it before. However everyone is on their own development journey and so there are always people searching for the skills and knowledge we have, particularly those of us who have been trained well in the profession of extension, facilitation and change.

Six years on from taking a leap, I’m living authentically (most of the time), doing my great work (most of the time), feeling the fear and doing it anyway (most of the time) and am trying to be the best version of myself (most of the time). I’m excited about the future and the opportunities that the new world, “the connection economy”, offers people like me, whether we’re based in the private or public sectors.

There are indeed challenges involved with being a consultant but for me, “no price is too high for the privilege of owning yourself”. Mum always did know best.