leadership

Why Helen Wiseman walked away from the partnership of a large accounting firm

Helen Wiseman /

Helen Wiseman

Source: Women's Agenda

Eight years ago I made a high-stakes career change. It felt like stepping off a cliff, it felt like madness — one of the gutsiest decisions I have ever made.

I wasn’t the only one who thought I was mad. Not many walk away from partnership in a large accounting firm voluntarily, with no defined path, but an incessant internal voice said it was time to pit myself against new challenges and see what I was capable of.

I had savings and a few things that would generate at least some income, but otherwise I was walking into greenfields territory. I rapidly learnt that getting out of your comfort zone is U.N.C.O.M.F.O.R.T.A.B.L.E. I couldn’t have walked that journey without my coach and mentor.

At first, I tried to be sensible. I started applying for board positions. As time wore on, I got quite proud of my ability to tolerate rejection! And then I met a very influential figure in the board recruitment world. He heard me out and then stopped me in my tracks.

He gave me a pivotal piece of advice. He said: “Helen, you are still young (early 40s), you have time when others don’t. You have a rare opportunity to experiment and do whatever captures your imagination, don’t rush to lock yourself into big roles.”

As rejections went, this was certainly original and at first, I felt a little wounded.

But when I stepped out of the lift and into the street, that same voice in my head said: “Stuff it, that’s exactly what I am going to do!”.

That decision was transformational. Although I hadn’t heard the quote at the time, Steve Jobs nailed it when he said:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future … because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path.”

And by this stage, I was well off the worn path.

Over the following years, consistent with the advice I had involuntarily received, I did things I could never have planned for, nor even conceived of.

I’d gone from being a corporate tax partner to co-founding Imalia, to working with some of Australia’s largest companies delivering coaching and leadership programs. I deepened my work supporting women and children impacted by the criminal justice system, and I got to work with dynamic founder chief executives at The Executive Connection.

I travelled five continents and built up my board experience. Now, as a seasoned audit committee chair, I bring both traditional and fresh thinking to my roles in a way that I could never have done back then.

Most importantly of all, I got to nurture my little girl and I got to reflect on what was unique about me. I got to work out where my strengths add the greatest value, and where I thrive (and where I don’t). I got to work out the big things that will drive my purpose and impact for years to come.

Today, I get to work with truly outstanding people as a mentor and as a non-executive director. I have a vision for both roles. My purpose in life is clear.

I would not be in this position had I not made a high-stakes career change, had I not overcome the fear.

We like to believe we can somehow control or predict our future — it’s what drives the fear. But it’s an illusion. And it precludes unimagined possibilities.

A high-stakes career change is far from risk-free but even riskier can be playing it safe.

Eight years ago, I took my future into my own hands by leaving a firm and colleagues I loved. In keeping with my original goal, I get to challenge myself against problems I would never have conceived of back then. My personal and professional growth has been exponential.

I want to thank every single person who has been a part of that journey, with whom I have had the privilege of working.

If there is one thing I have learnt about a high-stakes career change, it’s that no-one does it alone. And to John Mumm — thank you for the advice that changed everything.

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.

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Helen Wiseman

Helen Wiseman is an experienced non-executive director and audit committee chair for national and internationally listed companies, including with boards listed on the ASX and the JSE. She is a chief executive mentor, with 30 years of business and leadership experience; a chair and facilitator for a peer group of chief executives at The Executive Connection; and co-founder of Imalia, an online financial and insurance services business.

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  • wormseye

    All BS – if you are an accountant with any ambition you understand that you need to do a spell with one of the majors to be taken more seriously when you start applying for top commercial roles where the money and interest lie. One look at the partners while you are there, however, will promptly convince you that there is no future in shortening your potential lifespan by casting your lot in with that dull bunch – doing the same thing indefinitely 52 weeks a year is just too boring.