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Guest Blog: From mathematician to satirist

by DOUGLAS BOARD September 18, 2017

When Sheryl Sandberg left college looking for her first job, Mark Zuckerberg was still in nappies. But it’s not just the world which changes: so do we. If you get what you want, will you still want it?

Management Today reported that 70% of 40-somethings want a major career change. They picked 40 individuals over 40 to showcase what that might mean. We asked one of them – novelist and coach Douglas Board – to share his experience and insights.

What’s been your journey?

A first class in pure mathematics, a civil servant, a head hunter, starting a charity, becoming a coach, doing a doctorate and writing two applied research books and two satirical novels. Plus being a trustee of Princess Diana’s memorial fund and chair of the Refugee Council.

Was any of that planned?

Doing the same subject at the same college as my father and grandfather was probably planned, but not by me! In my 20s I dipped into my Civil Service salary to pay for career advice. I emerged with criteria which enabled me to analyse headhunting and then to choose it when it popped up. At the end of my 30s I decided not to go back to large employers because I wanted to cut my day job to four days a week, and start other stuff.

What was the first ‘other stuff’?

Something I didn’t expect to like: I got a personal trainer. Up to that point I hated physical exercise. Now I aim for two PT sessions and two swims a week. It took me a long time to find out that we think with our whole bodies, not just our brains.

What was your luckiest break?

Workwise: when I joined, I hadn’t a clue how unusual Saxton Bampfylde (the headhunting firm which I joined) was, and still is: in methodology as well as values. It would have been a very different story almost anywhere else. Academically: stumbling across the doctor of management programme at the University of Hertfordshire. Personally: marrying Trish when I was 29; we both chose not to have kids.  

What’s been the high point of changing careers?

Two things. First, coaching a C-suite executive whose CEO was heaping huge tasks on her (and others) but treating them badly. Unusually but quite rightly, the CEO ended up spending more time with his family. And this June being able to re-tweet this about my second novel:

It can’t all be laughs?

Right, the novel is bit Dr Strangelovian, so it’s not all laughs … Seriously:

  • Trish and I have less money (for ourselves and for charitable causes) than if I had stayed headhunter, but I’m healthier, less stale and less stressed;

  • there’s pain as well as excitement in going from ‘being somebody’ (or so you may imagine) to being a novice, but the pain is survivable; and

  • expect sometimes to be dismissed as lacking calibre because you didn’t get to the top of one thing and stick with it. Why? Often we’re too busy to bother understanding the detours in someone else’s life. Innovative careers can also be subconsciously threatening. And sometimes the comment might be true!

Some advice to finish?

I coach on career change and also on power and politics (the climb to the top, if you will). Neither switching nor sticking is automatically the right career move. The puzzle to be solved is multi-dimensional: a significantly undiscovered self facing a longer active life in a chaotic world. Here are four suggestions.

  • Cut your teeth on the basics: future lives will have more changes of field, more climbs and also more falls. Take a look at ‘

    ’ by London Business School professor Lynda Gratton.

  • Understand more about career change. If it’s not on your radar right now, go for Insead professor Herminia Ibarra’s HBR article ‘

    ’. If it is, the book-length version ‘Working Identity’ is a must-read.

  • As the career universe becomes noisier, so the importance of signal rises. ‘Signal’ is the ability to put your own journey across through a portfolio of short, medium and long stories. Story crafting is work and needs a good editor. Find that person and put the work in.

  • Take care to sustain a core of candid, mutually respectful peer friendships, even if (especially if!) your paths diverge greatly. Few of us grasp how precious this is.


Douglas Board, Head of Career Management at Coachmatch

On 21 September 2017 he is speaking at St Stephen’s Walbrook (City of London) on flourishing at work.

‘Time of Lies’ (Lightning Books 2017) is available here, from Amazon or UK bookshops.


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