Reflecting on Three Years Helping “Real People with Real Challenges”
One of the many perks of my not so new anymore life as a fund development, communications and leadership coaching consultant is having more time to read. This includes many non-fiction books on leadership, innovation and talent development, but also many novels of both the literary variety and good ol’ pot boiler pulp fiction. It was in the latter category that I read “The Litigators” by indefatigable John Grisham.
The Litigators opens with the young, handsome, Harvard educated lawyer riding up the elevator to the 28th floor to his office at the prestigious blue chip law firm in downtown Chicago. He’s in a catatonic state of dread and loathing, his work pays him $350,000 per year, but it’s soul crushing, paper pushing, bill padding, work in which he never sees the inside of a courtroom nor much, his beautiful, intelligent wife.
When the elevator stops at the 28th floor, he can’t bring himself to get off the elevator and engage in the days’ grind. So he doesn’t. He goes back down, wanders the streets until he finds a dive bar that’s open at 9am where he gets plastered, and when he finally leaves, he, by chance, happens into the ramshackle offices of a two-man law firm of ham and eggers or “street lawyers”.
Our protagonist ends up asking for a job with this firm, and he starts at $1000 per month in salary and learns about wills, divorces, small tort injury law, etc. One of his new bosses plays it straight and dull, grinding out a modest living only a few years from retirement. The other is in constant unfocused and scattergun pursuit of a giant tort windfall, with questionable ethics and results. Our dashing lead decides to find purpose (and eventually fortune) in a third way – by “helping real people with real problems.”
A few months back, I was asked by a friend, professional colleague and mentor who was moving on (and up) to new challenges in her own career, how I am continuing to like my “gig”?
I replied that I am still very much enjoying it, and that her question was timely as I was approaching the December 14th three year anniversary of “The Decision” as I refer to the day I fully decided to leave both the financial security and status, such that it was, of being a college Vice President. March is the 3 year mark since I started serving my first client.
Now in terms of the reasons for my departure from salaried institutional life, there is no real parallel to the Litigators’ hero and his work at the big law firm. Olds College’s Advancement Vice Presidency is still and may always be the best job I ever had - leading fundraising, communications, relationship management and even athletics’ administration. I had actually just upgraded my academic pedigree too, attaining a “Master of Professional Practice” degree in Leadership through the leading polytechnical institute in New Zealand (Otago Polytechnic).
My time as a college VP was a “gig” I had for eight and a half years and loved for fully eight. In the last 6 months there were simply repeated whispers in my head for multiple reasons that it was time to go, time to embark on a new adventure, but keep my family in our medium-sized community that they’ve known almost their entire lives. Perhaps ironically, I set out to get my Master’s degree to enable my continued path in structured life of public higher education, but my learnings and reflections around being deliberate and intentional as a leader and professional got me thinking far more entrepreneurially; far more attuned to purpose and mission.
Now I lead no staff other than sub-contractors on various client projects, but have had some great client work in leadership coaching – something that I could never have done without that two year journey of study, research, interviews with countless executives that led to my 93 page thesis on Cultivating Cultures of Innovation and High Performance.
So back to our pulp fiction, I was struck by the parallels in how the Ivy League lawyer found meaning, purpose and balance by doing substantially less glamorous, less pedigreed work while helping real people solve real problems”. He sacrificed title, status, salary (temporarily anyhow) and prestige – reconnected with wife and family while helping real people with real problems.
In the three years of Jordan Cleland Consulting Inc., I’ve had and have some blue chip, big city clients. But far more often, I’ve applied my knack for persuading people of the worthiness of cause with small (by professional standards of the big leagues) projects that mean the world to my usually rural, not for profit clients. I have found a niche.
Most professionals that have the skills I have developed are concentrated in larger cities like Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Toronto. They play in big cities for big salaries. The vast majority of rural recreation and sports societies, municipalities, educational organizations and First Nations, have nowhere near the financial capacity to pay for “one of those” in-house, on salary. But the niche I seem to have carved for myself is with those smaller organizations and their transformationally important projects who can afford to rent a piece of me.
On the third anniversaries of commencing service to my first client, I sincerely thank all of my clients for their trust and patronage. I also thank the innumerable others that have helped and encouraged me in carving out a great niche doing meaningful work for good people and worthy organizations trying to advance their missions.
Jordan Cleland is the President of Jordan Cleland Consulting. He does performance and leadership coaching, keynote and retreat speaking, fund development and public relations consulting to subsidize his addiction to being a volunteer coach and leader in several youth sports.