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Managing career transition

Interview: Graham Watson and Ken McKellar


Graham Watson
Graham Watson: sounding board (photo by Terry Murden)

Facing the challenge of change

The money, the perks and the status of being in a senior job is a potent cocktail. Executive life at the top can be addictive, seductive, and certainly lucrative. But what happens when the music stops and there are not enough chairs to around?

Mergers, closures and cutbacks also happen. Two jobs are folded into one and your name is no longer on the door of the executive suite. The car keys and the company credit card have been handed in. You’ve been downsized, or edged out.

It can happen to anyone. From an executive in a multi-billion pound takeover to the head of the family firm being asked to step aside for the next generation. One day you were running the show, indispensable and the centre of attention. Now you find yourself surplus to requirements. What then?

Executives everywhere suffer the fate of the unexpected brown envelope. Others, of course, get a big promotion, sometimes to another continent. The new job is a challenge enough. But how do they cope with a different culture or ways of doing business?

Some voluntarily decide they want a new challenge, a change of career. But what? And how do they go about it?

Graham Watson is a veteran in the leadership industry and has teamed up with a former Noble Grossart colleague, Ken McKellar (son of the late singer, Kenneth), to help executives handle a significant career change.  In many cases it is unplanned and creates emotional as well as practical challenges.

McKellar (right) is a partner in AGM Transitions, which is working with executives during periods of personal and corporate upheaval.

“Executives often need someone to help give them some clarity, focus on what they are good at and steer them in the right direction,” says McKellar.

“Some of the most senior people we have worked with have become so internally-focused on what they do that they are lost when they’re outside it. When they leave it they lose their network of contacts to fall back on.”

Sometimes, he says, the individual may simply have too high an opinion of themselves, or unrealistic expectations. “They will need a little grounding.”

There are many consultancies and recruitment agencies, from McKinsey to Michael Page, offering executive coaching or strategic advice on how to cope with change; everything from the impact of social media and e-commerce, to understanding working practices and cultures, such as hot-desking and gender issues.

Managers whose roles are no longer required – perhaps through technological change – can often find themselves having to re-engineer their careers, and in some cases almost start again.

So is there a gap in the market?

Watson and McKellar say they are providing a sounding board to help individuals manage transition and they have no vested interest in the client outcome.

“We are dealing with those who are going through a transformation in their career,” says McKellar. “We are a sounding board.”

Watson, the founder of Edinburgh-based Positive Leadership and an experienced non-executive director, is bringing the AGM proposition to Scotland.

“I am not aware of anyone doing this sort of thing here,” he says, “but we have the same issues in Scotland.”

Watson has been around the corporate finance scene for more than 25 years, at home and abroad, working with VC backed companies to FTSE 100 companies and in a variety of industry sectors.

He notes the number of senior people displaced from the banking sector and insurance businesses over the years.

“Many of these people held top roles, surrounded by people ready to serve them. Suddenly they find they’re no longer there.”

He spent 10 years as a corporate finance partner with Deloitte, and for the past 10 he has run his own strategic leadership and corporate finance advisory firm. He also sits on a number of corporate, educational and not for profit boards.

He accepts that it may surprise some people that well-rewarded executives, with years of experience at the top, might need help.

“You find them facing the same problems in furthering their career as anyone else. Many of them have not had to apply for a job for 30 years. They don’t know how to go about getting back into the workplace.

“In many cases they have spent a lifetime in one career, or even with one company. They don’t know how valuable their skills might be to someone else.”

McKellar adds: “A lot of them don’t know how to market themselves. They have to learn how to manage their reputation. Many of our clients have come out of damaged brands so they have to work out how to shake that off and present themselves.”

He says many companies no longer have a paternalistic approach to staff welfare, either through choice or because of the time pressures of modern working life.

“In the past, senior executives had more peers and colleagues around to offer advice, share the load. Now everyone is so busy, so focused on trying to do more tasks with fewer resources that they don’t have as much time for helping colleagues.”

Graham WatsonGraham Watson

Education: George Heriot’s, Edinburgh; University of Edinburgh (law); ICAS

Career highlights: Noble Grossart; Positive Leadership; Scottish Health Innovations; AGM Transitions

Other activities

Member of the court of Heriot Watt university; member of council of Law Society of Scotland; founding member of the GlobalScot organisation.

Anything else?

Occasional caddie for daughter, Sally, who plays golf professionally on the Ladies European Tour.

Ken McKellarKen McKellar

Education: Cambridge and Strathclyde universities

Other qualifications: Scottish Chartered Accountant; WABC Certified Business Coach member of ICF, and a member of the Institute of Coaching affiliated to Harvard University.

Career highlights:  Partner at Deloitte, EY; Director of corporate finance at Andersen, UBS, Noble Grossart; AGM Transitions

Other skills

Fluent German and French as well as conversational Arabic.

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