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The Third Act for your Career

In movies and stage plays, Act 3 is where the climax and resolution of the first two acts happens. Romeo and Juliet die. Tom Hanks launches his raft and returns to civilization. The bad guy’s mask is ripped off and he would have gotten away with it if not for those meddling kids.

As professionals, Act 3 often starts at the height of our career (and earning power) – and offers many possibilities moving forward before the curtain falls. It is something worth spending time thinking about and planning for, because it will be upon us all at some point.

At The Rivet Group, we have worked with hundreds of executives through a career transition. We’ve seen many successful launches to Act 3 and many that struggled. We have distilled down some of the pitfalls and options – that we wanted to share.

The Pitfalls

1. Compensation growth is not a given – We all want to be paid fair market value for our work. That in and of itself is worth several blog posts to fully discuss, but here is the reality: there is no law that your compensation and market value always increase in step. In fact, depending on your discipline, your value to employers often decreases before the end of a career. Professional athletes are a great example. For the rest of us, it can be a combination of ageism and salary discrimination.

2. Financial Needs Continue to Increase Over Time – Many highly-compensated executives have lifestyles that match their paycheck stride for stride. This can significantly limit options if changing companies or careers.

3. Moving into overhead roles – Many executives move into roles that add questionable or less concrete value to a company, without a cut in pay. This makes them expendable if their company hits a rough patch. Examples: sales trainers, talent management, diversity and inclusion. Any function that is deemed a “nice to have” instead of mission critical can put you at risk.

4. Assuming loyalty matters – These days, being the “loyal company man” and $5 will get you a latte at the coffee shop. One change in management or a bad quarter and your years of service can become irrelevant.

5. Overconfident and Underprepared – Many executives have made dramatic pivots into sole-proprietorship consulting or business ownership (which can be a GREAT move -more on that in a bit) without considering all the skills needed to be successful in that venture. You might be a world-class expert in your discipline, like Ecommerce, global Sourcing, leadership development, etc. but that does not mean you can easily launch a new venture. Failure points can be not knowing the market, not having a business plan, or the other skills necessary to make it a going concern, like sales & marketing. “I’m a great consultant, but a lousy salesman,” is often what we hear

6. Personal life disasters - We have seen executives (mostly men, to be honest) that have had a mid-life crisis that bleeds into their professional life. That's all we'll say about that.

The most important thing you can do as you enter Act 3 is to stay engaged. Too often we talk to executives who's boss is coasting. In the Navy, we called it on the ROAD - "Retired on Active Duty." These are people who were great once but are just going through the motions now. With little upward mobility, they could have ten to 30 years to go until retirement. Might as well be in prison. There are ways to stay engaged. Here are a few to consider:

The Options

1. Move to a bigger or different role – If you have plateaued at your current company, remaining in place can run the risk of getting bored and going through the motions (a terrible fate, to stagnate). Your tenure will also impede the people on your team to grow as well. You can move into a different role at your company – think marketing to sales, finance to operations, etc. You could even create your own role to address a gap you know your company has - make a pitch to leadership. Barring that, you can move to a new company that offers you a bigger role or challenge. (That is what we do all day long). A good example of either would be a college coach moving to either an athletic director role or to a professional league.

2. Become a Player-Coach – Moving into a leadership-mentorship role or picking up additional responsibilities. If you value your experience, and your company does too, go groom the next generation. Start a high-potential leadership or internship program in addition to your regular responsibilities. Just keep in mind not to switch to a strictly “overhead” role as in number 3 above - which often does NOT come with a pay cut, which can make you an attractive target to lay off.

3. Mentor-Investor – Many successful executives we know have pivoted to early-stage start-up investors and become mentors for the founders and executive teams in the process. This can be rewarding both professionally and financially. Know your role, however – just because you are an investor does not mean you are the founders’ new boss.

4. Teach – Become an adjunct professor at a University or community college. The pay is usually an afterthought but can be personally rewarding for those who take that step. With the possibility of online classes continuing in at least some format, you could potentially land a role with a University in another city with students from around the country or world. This can become a side hustle while you keep your day job. Just pay attention to number 5 in the previous list – we’ve had several fail at this because the time/reward ratio was just not there. Their romantic notion of becoming “Mr. Chips” died as soon as they had to grade 100 papers over a weekend and build a curriculum from scratch.

5. Consult – While we know many successful consultants who have hung their own shingle, you don’t have to go it alone. There are many big consultancies and boutique shops that hire experienced professionals. There are different variations – like some that only pay you when you are on an assignment, or travel requirement, etc. If you are at point in your career where you can hit the road for weeks or months on end and have in-demand expertise consulting might be a good fit.

6. Start or buy a business – Whether starting a new business out of a passion (the investment banker becoming a baker) or out of necessity, there are many options for starting a new venture. Buying a franchise or an existing business can take some up-front capital but can be an easier path to success if you do your due diligence. It all depends on how you want to spend your days. Trading in a 9-5 for the grind of an ice cream shop might not be for everyone but might be everything for some.

Starting Act 3 might be a long-planned journey or a sudden start. It might start when you are 40 or 70. Generally speaking, the timing will never be perfect. That's ok. Make the most of it.

Are you at a point where you are ready for a new role? Maybe you are happy but feeling bored? We can help. We'd like to hear from you.

Thanks for reading - if you learned something, please consider sharing with your social networks. You never know who might need some help.

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