Why did Alex Ferguson retire? Why did Michael Jordan switch from basketball to baseball? Why hasn't Tiger Woods stopped playing championship golf? While there is usually more than one reason, there are some common themes: ‘nothing left to prove’; ‘achieved everything in one field and ready for a change’; ‘not sure what to do next and clinging on to the familiar’.
What can the average banker take from the career journeys of these above-average people? And more precisely, how should a banker know when to quit banking? Based on the careers of others and my own experience, I think there are four key ways that banking careers come to an end. (I've been in Asian banking for many years and have held global-head roles at Deutsche Bank, HSBC, and most recently at Standard Chartered in Singapore. I left industry in 2015 to run a consultancy in Thailand).
1. You achieve your goals in banking and make the optimal contribution you can make. If you look ahead and see more of the same – days filled with more ‘déjà-vu’ moments than ‘ah-ha’ moments – it’s probably a good time to start considering your future.
2. You see that it’s possible to use your abilities in a different way and still stay motivated.
3. You are no longer at the top of your game. Perhaps new technologies or concepts/strategies are advancing beyond your intellectual bandwidth or appetite to adapt. This is a bitter pill to swallow, but sometimes the worst tasting medicine is the most effective.
4. You've done such a great job at building your team that the next generation of leaders are chomping at the bit. By staying in your job you are delaying their progress, at the risk of them leaving the bank or losing their edge if they remain in a holding pattern for too long.
As you start to see some of these career-ending warning signs emerging, it’s time to start planning for your career after banking.
Plotting your post-banking future
To begin the planning process, first answer my ‘golden questions’: Where are you now?; Where do you want to get to?; How do you get there?. I'd actually start with the question about ‘where you want to get to?’ If you begin by examining your current situation, you'll probably self limit your aspirations.
When looking at your future goals, be open to exploring new areas – but only those where you can actually add value and remain motivated. When answering ‘where are you now?’, don’t just look at your career, consider your wider experiences, knowledge, contacts, relationships, financial standing, family etc.
And finally, when answering ‘how do you get there?’, you need to align the answers to the other two questions.
The journey between the two points may not be straightforward – that’s why it’s important to identify that you want to leave banking early, leaving you enough time to plan a successful, unrushed career change.
My own experience
Looking back, I can certainly recognise a number of the signs that my banking career was coming to an end. Two stand out the most. The first was a growing feeling of ‘been there, done that’. In many meetings to discuss problems and find solutions I kept having flashbacks and a feeling of having had the same conversation many times before. While the solutions were always nuanced, the nuances were minor and getting more so.
The second driver was a variation on the ‘top of your game’ situation I mentioned above – a feeling of lack of respect for actually being on top of my own game. Having been hired as the subject matter expert in my field, decisions were increasingly being taken by less knowledgeable people with agendas that differed from my own acute focus on my clients and my teams.
Did I react to these warning signs quickly, appropriately and logically? I'm not so sure. Perhaps I was a little too much like Tiger (carrying on regardless) and not enough like Michael Jordan (trying something new). In retrospect, I wish I’d shared more of my career thoughts with some of my trusted colleagues and friends. I should have got more of their advice and feedback while I was still in banking.
If you’re thinking of a career change as big as leaving banking, the people who know you best can also help challenge your thinking – which will hopefully result in a better career outcome for you. Eventually, however, it worked out for me. I saw the signs, answered the three golden questions, left banking, and now I'm travelling on a different career track running my own consultancy.
Russell Graham is a partner at Transaction Banking consultancy SkyTxB. He most recent job in banking was as global head of service and solution delivery at Standard Chartered in Singapore.
Image credit: EM_prize, Getty