Friday, May 11, 2012

naming rights

It was hard work maintaining relative silence about my resignation that would take effect around 4 months into the future. What I found the most challenging was maintaining a business as usual approach to those who were closest to me in the workplace; a couple of peers and direct reports in particular. Those above me, the executive, were of course all in the loop.

Over the period a couple of close peers were given opportunities to act in the role of one of the executive members, usually when an executive was overseas for a period of time. When this occurred, these individual peers were appraised and given the news. I tended to find out about these moments when a peer raced into my office, closed my door, and started to grill me. Usually with the words “is this true?”

I always felt relief when a peer was advised, as it gave me someone else in the workplace I could talk to. But the secret remained secure through the entire time. I appreciated that fact, as it did allow me to simply focus on delivering the business outcomes I had committed to. I found myself facing these tasks with a renewed vigour and even a sense of renewed empowerment.

At work I was delivering results – probably with more drive than at any other point in my career. At home, with my planning (and office construction) complete, I focused on my actual business development.

At times I found the “secret” to be a challenge here too, particularly in the drafting stages of my business design, marketing material and even web site wording. I have a large network of professional colleagues who I talk to on a regular basis. In ordinary circumstances I would have bounced ideas and concepts passed many of them. But Canberra is too small a city and the networks are too connected. So, like the workplace, I largely focused on the business development in isolation. Sue of course was the exception. Sue had built a successful executive coaching and facilitation business only a few years earlier and she continued to provide me with exceptional guidance and support throughout the initial journey and beyond.

I had already decided that my name would speak for itself. I was confident that the last few years of exposure as a senior human resource leader in the public sector had left me with a large enough network and reputation. Googling Stephen Walker and HR usually produced strong results with much of the first couple of pages referring to me: conference I’ve presented at or articles I’d written and so on.

So I went with my name. Through my research I found that internet domain names were possible using my name and that the register of company business showed I was clear to register a company with my name as the company name.

My brief to my graphic designer used my name. My brief to my web site designer used my name. The web designer though, did question this decision. He rightly questioned me about future business growth and whether the business name would last the test of time.

He succeeded in planting a seed of doubt. We revisited the early brainstorming about where and how I could position my business. Some words and concepts seemed to naturally spring out. Strategy was a key one. It flavoured a lot of our ideas. People, leadership, change where all strong too. But we reflected on what these represented and workforce emerged.

We put the combination of strategy and workforce to the “search” test on Google. The good news was that there didn’t seem to be anyone out there calling themselves any combination of these words. Search results also clearly focused on the topic and issues that I hoped. As luck would have it, the combination of “workforce strategies” was available as an Australian domain name and business name. It was decided and Workforce Strategies was born.

Friday, April 20, 2012


When I sat down that weekend, a year ago, to write my actual resignation letter, it took much longer than I anticipated. I had foolishly thought it would be easy. There were several drafts and redrafts.

I wanted to outline my plans to transition to the resignation date over the next few months. I wanted to outline what initiatives I would finalise over the period ahead. I wanted to acknowledge the opportunities that  my job had given me.  I also wanted to be true to myself too and to outline how challenging things were for me and that I couldn’t continue. 

It took me a couple of pages but in the end I was happy. There was still a moment of hesitation as my finger hovered over the “print” icon and a further moment of hesitation as my pen hovered before signing the letter itself. I delivered it to my boss’s office early Monday morning before he’d arrived at work as it happened. It wasn’t long though before he came to my office to have one last supportive discussion. My resignation was flagged later that day at the executive meeting and it was agreed not to make my resignation public until June. This time frame would give me the support I needed to effectively accomplish my raft of workplace initiatives without the risk of being in the role as a “lame duck”.

I was elated and a tad scared. This was actually going to happen. Not going public for a couple of months was a two edge sword though in that I would have loved to have started talking to people about my plans. But I would now keep it to myself. The hardest part was not saying anything to either my executive officer or my executive assistant.

It remained within the four walls of both my immediate family and the executive team. I even kept it from my extended family and friends: Canberra is too small a town.

I took a call that night from one of the executive team expressing his disappointment that I’d be leaving. But he also expressed his admiration and suggested that whilst a lot of people talk about doing what I was planning to do, that almost none have the courage.

With this positive reinforcement in my mind, I got to work. I got to work on two fronts. Building and designing my business; and delivering the workplace initiatives I’d committed to – especially now that I had new self-imposed deadline.

Work became easier. At least it felt easier. I know my attitude shifted and I believe that this was noticeable to those around me. A burden was lifted and I had a new spring in my step. The spring wasn’t there every day of course, but it was present more than not.

I recognised that I still needed to do something about health. I was technically the owner of the workplace gyms, including the one in my building. Amongst my team were several fitness instructors as well. I really had no excuse. So I signed up to a program and committed to three days a week in order to bring my fitness back from the edge.

Oddly enough over the period between April and June I managed to slow down, yet achieve more. It highlighted to me how being energised about something could have such a positive impact.

After hours I spent time building my office which gradually took shape. It was actually very thereputic to build an office. It was a physical representation of the business I was concurrently building. It also gave me additional thinking space.

I had a long list of things I needed to start organising for my business. Business and web domain names were of course priorities before thinking about designing web pages and other practical steps.

We plunged back into brainstorming. Would I offer a niche set of products and services? Would I take a generalist approach? For the past couple of decades I’d workedin the pucblic sector. Was there capacity for me to sell to the private sector too?

Every spare moment over the following couple of weeks, Sue and I worked through a process of articulating my skill sets and potenital offerings from the perspective of clients. We revisted the previous brainstorming we had undertaken and drew out the themes. We shaped the themes and a strong outline of my business emerged.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

My Resignation Discussion

I now had all the arguments I needed to justify taking the next big step: my resignation. Still brimming with the energy of my brainstorming, I locked in a time to talk through my decision (and resignation) with my boss. In my head I was upbeat and excited. The future was positive and optimistic – at least on paper. So why then did I feel sick as I approached his office?

I guess the fact was I was walking into a discussion where reality would hit. I’d resigned from organisations before. I’d even resigned from the Australian Federal Police before some 17 years earlier. Almost every other time though, I’d been resigning to take a promotion or to earn more money. Almost every other time I was climbing some ladder.

I think there must have been something in my body language that Andrew started to read as I entered his office. Possibly just grim determination.

I’d worked for Andrew in two organisations. I admired and respected him, as he was the rarest sort of leader: one I would follow anywhere. I realised as I crossed the room and sat down across from his desk, how painful this was going to be.

I hadn’t rehearsed my “speech”. I certainly hadn’t thought about how I would start. Fear of what I was going to do or fear of the possibility of being talked out of my decision saw me simply blurt out the words “I want to resign”.

I’d asked for 30 minutes when I locked in the appointment, but the discussion chewed up the remainder of the afternoon. I don’t know precisely how long Andrew gave me (I didn’t take note given that at the time I did not envisage writing about it), but it was much closer to a couple of hours than 30 minutes.

Andrew gave me the space to talk about my thinking. Space to explore my current work. Space to explore the future. He also gave my emotions space too, as there were times during our discussion where I was all but overcome.
He reflected on his own past experiences and sought to clarify my thoughts by asking a number of extremely relevant questions. He never directly challenged my decision though.

I talked through my reasons. I talked through my ideas. I followed through and talked though my plan for how I could lay the foundation to succeed.

I did not want this resignation to be immediate: in fact quite the reverse. I wanted to leave having accomplished more. I also wanted to leave having done all the groundwork I needed for my future business to start the day I walked out the door. I also wanted a safety net.

Whilst I had achieved many significant things in my role already, I had more to do and believed I could accomplish several critical things over the coming 3 months. I’d recently had a new Police College Commander appointed and felt it important to give him as much ongoing support to allow him to deliver against an important reform agenda. We had a significant backlog of work in another critical area and a raft of innovate strategies were about to be applied not only remove this backlog but to change the process altogether. It had been an extremely challenging year in the context of the budget within my division. If I was going to leave, I wanted to shore-up the best possible budget position for the next financial year so that my successor was in the best possible position. Corporately I was also on a mission to deliver a particular whole-of-agency staffing outcome. This was the hardest objective to achieve: but I was determined to deliver it in the time I had.

I had some ideas about  my successor, including using the 3-month period to recruit someone to the role.

The 3-month period would allow me to deliver these outcomes and to also develop my business behind the scenes. Resigning with no guarantee of future income was certainly a big risk. So I sought a safety net. I had about 7 months of combined long-service and recreation leave. If I could take this as leave rather than have it paid out, this could continue to give me an steady income between July and the following March.

So, I put the timeframe and the safety net ideas to Andrew. Knowing him as I do, it should not have been a surprise that he saw the merits of everything I was proposing.

As we concluded, Andrew asked me to take the weekend to again revisit all the issues, the ideas and thinking and to talk on Monday.

I returned to my office, closed the door and stared out the window. This time I was overwhelmed. Standing there that day, I did cry. Part of me thinks it was just a necessary release. I felt I was admitting I was failure. I knew there was no turning back. I was bursting with excitement about the future.

I called Sue. She knew when the meeting was taking place. She’d called a few times during my meeting with Andrew – I knew this from the number of times the phone silently rattled in my pocket during the last hour of the meeting. I talked her through the discussion, welling up several times.

That weekend we did revisit our brainstorming. But before that weekend was over, I had partially constructed a wall in our house that was to mark the location of my office for the business I was going to create. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

My Change Realisation

Coming to the realisation that I needed to do something to change my life was not something that came easily. My situation of twelve months ago required much more than a simple “pros and cons” exercise.

I drew support from Sue, my wife, who is actually an executive coach. A few years before, Sue too had committed to leave a career in the Australian Public Service. The discussion did have a familiar ring to it. However, whereas Sue had been drawn to executive coaching for many years and finally took the plunge, for me it was different.

I’ve always held the belief that people should not run away from a job. Instead, they should run toward a job or new career. I had always applied this philosophy, but now it didn’t seem to fit my situation. In my mind I wasn’t leaping into a new career this time. It was much more like a leap of faith into the unknown. It is also true that, this time around, I felt that I was definitely running away. This philosophy of mine is partly based on the idea of ensuring that you don’t burn any bridges. But I also hold the notion that the grass isn’t always greener. If you’re changing because the grass looks and feels greener – then great, give it a shot. But if you’re changing solely because the grass your standing on is dry and brown, then there is a very good chance that you’re simply settling for the next piece of “grass” that comes your way.

I was fortunate at the time to be able to get some clarity and test the basis of my thinking.

In the Australian Public Service, there are relatively few agencies that are large enough to have divisions specialising in human resources (considerably more agencies have corporate divisions made up of human resources, finance and so on). There were probably only a dozen or so people at my level leading HR teams across the entire service. As luck would have it, one of the other positions was advertised in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. It was a job that ticked all the boxes for me: they were looking for a solutions driver to rollout a suite of human resource reforms. It was my kind of change agenda.

But it struck me that this was in fact, just the same kind of grass.

So I set out to create a concept of what life outside the public sector could be like: something tangible I could “run to”. With Sue’s support, I spent several days brainstorming. Our living room walls, windows and doors were soon to be freshly coated with butcher’s paper.

We predominately used a strengths based approach to explore any number of possibilities, pushing aside any judgement or niggling self doubts. We explored what I enjoyed and what I did not. We explored the past, the immediate and a decade into the future. We shaped our thinking on the basis that there were no barriers. It was a remarkably freeing exercise. It was also contagiously energising. One idea would build on another and begin to cascade. We grouped ideas into themes and the genesis of a viable business began to coalesce.

After exhausting the world of possibilities, we reflected on the people, systems and rules that could support me achieve the goals I was seeking. We deliberately didn’t focus on the obstacles – just the supporters and the support systems to could help me achieve. This was profoundly empowering for me. It challenged me to think about my formal and informal networks; about the tools that were available to me – even if I hadn’t used them before; and the safety nets I could use so that my likely exit from the public sector would have a soft landing (rather than a crash).

Without realising it at the time, these two approaches (exploring the possibilities and exploring the support systems) gave me the foundation for the design of my business as well as my business plan.

I now had focus. I knew what I wanted to do. I was convinced about the change I both wanted and needed. I’d had an “a-ha” moment (in truth I probably had a few). I was clearly now running toward something and I saw that I had the chance to leave the public sector without regret.

The brainstorming also gave me the confidence to frame my discussion with my boss – because what I was about to ask for wasn’t just a cut and dried resignation.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

My Decision To Change

It's been twelve months since I made my decision to quit the Australian Public Service. One of the promises I'd made to myself was to write about my journey: my first year and beyond. This blog is about that journey.

A year ago I hadn't labelled what I was doing; but reflecting on the year that has been, I realise now that my goal has been, and is, to shift the balance from work to life.

I'd had a great career in the public sector spanning twenty-four years, plus a few years in the private sector before that. Work and life had both been very good to me. I’d seen and experienced remarkable things.

As a twenty-year old I travelled to India. I was an assistant news cameraman working for a national network and in 1984 I was sent to cover the story of the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

I later became a cop working for the Australian Federal Police.

My wife (Sue) and I saw an opportunity and took it: teaching English in Japan in Junior High School. For twelve-months we immersed ourselves in Japanese culture as part of the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program.

I joined the Australian Public Service in the early ‘90s, starting at the Australian Taxation Office before moving to the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID). In AusAID I spent three-years as a Diplomat in Bangkok where I travelled extensively. I visited the opium fields in Burma, the Killing Fields in Cambodia and spent time with the hill tribes across the region. I met remarkable people too and was privileged to have had a private lunch with Aung San Suu Kyi, the long imprisoned Burmese Opposition Leader.

Late in 2004 I briefly returned to Thailand following the Indian Ocean Tsunami to undertake disaster assessment and coordinate Australian aid efforts.

Raising two young boys on an Embassy compound was challenging at times and on return to Australia we began to see our Australian lifestyle with new eyes. A backyard, trees to climb and blue sky.

On return from our Thailand posting, I moved into Human Resources (HR). This was an initial shock for me after the sort of work I’d been doing overseas. But in a short while I realised how I not only enjoyed the role, but I could make a real difference.

So, in Human Resources I stayed. Before long I was head of HR in AusAID and began looking for bigger HR challenges. I spent time in the Australian Public Service Commission and took a promotion to head HR in the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA).

I began to develop a reputation for finding solutions and delivering results. I was enjoying life: but wanted more, so started positioning myself for my next promotion.

A chance came for me to return to the Australian Federal Police. Whilst I was a little wary, I was encouraged by the fact that I would be working for someone I greatly admired. So I went.

In time the promotion came and I was appointed as head of HR. I had a Division of more 400 HR professionals delivering services to 6700 staff across Australia and overseas.

I’d never wanted a job as much as this one. No other application process had so much at stake for me as this one. When I was told I had won the job, I recall telling my family that I even felt taller. There were several times in that role that I remarked that I needed to pinch myself, just to make sure it was real. I think this had a lot to do with the fact that twenty-years earlier I had been in the same organisation as a very junior police constable; and now I was only two short rungs from the top. As a constable I’d never even met anyone at my current level.

The journey had been amazing. My span of responsibly was now huge. I had a top-floor office, executive assistant, executive office and “company” car. In my first job I made $11K per year. I was now earning over $200K. People were even calling me “Sir” these days.

Could it get any better?

My days at work were getting later and later. I’d been hospitalised once with pneumonia that came as a result of successive days of working in the office until after midnight (one day until 5am). I suffered insomnia: badly. Despite being in charge of all the gymnasiums and fitness staff in the Australian Federal Police, I could never find the time to go to the gym (which was in the building). I grew over weight. My cholesterol was on the rise. For the first time in my life, my blood pressure was up. My workday was made up continual meetings on issues of budgets, briefings and risk: I lost the day-to-day connection with staff. At home my fuse grew short and I grew snappy. I was drinking six or more large cups of coffee per day (I had a coffee machine at home and another on my desk at work). Take away food became easier for lunch. I had a headache most days.

Could it get any worse?

And that is what took me to March 2011 and the decision to change. Change was not new to me. But that change had always been about work change. This time I needed something new; something more. This change needed to be about life.