How to survive a mid-life crisis

Paul Sutton

How to survive a mid-life crisis

This article appears in the September issue of our International Corporate Structures Newsletter.

It was a cold, clear morning in late September 2009, around 7.45 am. I was enjoying a mid-life crisis (I reserve the right to have more), and was standing in the top floor reception area of an office with a wide view over central London. I was waiting to see someone I had never met before – someone I had reached out to by email a few weeks earlier, asking for some personal guidance.

I was on a mission to find some role models for my professional life. Someone who had achieved the kind of success I wanted, but with no loss of humanity. If you also work in the corporate world, you may agree that such role models are not always easy to find. Hopefully you will find the insights below useful in your life, too.

I will spare the blushes of the man I met, and so won’t name him or his area of legal work. One of my previous colleagues had mentioned his warmth and energy and also the transformation he had achieved for the group he led in his professional firm, a well-known law practice. The transformation was from a team in crisis, with a fragmented client base in financial distress, to one known for its strategic work with financial institutions, and for its innovative working practices.

My meeting didn’t disappoint, even though it can’t have been longer than 45 minutes. I still have the notes I took. Unsurprisingly, he said the first step is to decide what you want. In his case, he chose to focus on his department, and not on the management of the wider firm. He said it’s useful to ask ‘who likes me?’ and ‘who do I like?’, so that you don’t need to create artificial barriers between work life and personal life. Don’t try to be someone you’re not, especially in so-called ‘client entertainment’. Share your personal passions and attract people who share them too.

Interestingly, he recommended creating relationships with your competitors; they will probably understand what you do better than anyone else, and may be inclined to say nice things about you, reinforcing your position in the market. In your office environment, cut out the distracting noise and engage only with issues concerning clients.

Finally, he said you don’t need to be brilliant. People are much more likely to recommend you because they like you and can rely on you. It’s hard to imagine someone saying “that guy’s a jerk but you should work with him because he’s really clever”.

I believe that those lessons are relevant to anyone in any position, not just professional advisers. We all have the power of choice, and we’re all in the business of marketing ourselves and the value we bring. I’m looking forward to my next mid-life crisis!