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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