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How to Pivot to a New Industry at 50+

Reinventing yourself at any age is hard, but taking a flier on an entirely new work environment at age 50+ is a leap of faith.

That’s what Doug Bowker, a marketing and business development expert did when he moved at age 63 from the familiarity of the for-profit world to the unfamiliar terrain of a privately operated non-profit in the long term seniors care sector.

To get an inkling of some of the potholes to sidestep with a major career transition, I spoke with Bowker, now 65, who has35+ years of for-profit sales and marketing and sales experience and knows how to grow a company.

A newbie at the time to non-profits and social services in general, Bowker thought he could take his for-profit, get-it-done, bottom line approach to the non-profit world and all would go smoothly

How do you transition from the for-profit to profit world?

But let’s back up for a minute. How did Bowker manage to cross the for-profit to non-profit divide and land a job at age 63 as an executive director of a retirement community?

Like much else in life, timing is everything.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Bowker visited a 120-bed retirement community with his sister to scope out the place as a potential new home for his parents. A high school acquaintance, who served as the community’s director of care and showed them around, told Bowker that the community needed a new executive director with a business background.

Although he had never worked for a non-profit, Bowker thought he could make the leap, that his skills were transferrable. Adept at building and fine-tuning operations and communications, he relished the opportunity to help the organization grow and thrive.

Also, in a real sense, it was returning home. He had grown up in the retirement community’s town of Sherbrooke, Quebec, and still knew some many of its residents after being away from the area for 35 years, including his old high school principal, a few former high school teachers and several of his high school friends’ parents. 

Beyond that he felt an emotional connection. “I jumped at the opportunity to provide real life value and benefits to vulnerable people unable now to fend for themselves,” said Bowker, rather than focusing on driving revenue to corporate bank accounts.”

He interviewed for the position and was hired.

Tasked to “bring financial, strategic and organizational stability and sustainability to what had been essentially a ‘mom and pop” shop that had a historical reputation for providing exceptional levels of care, Bowker believed that his for-profit business experience would carry the day.

The End of the Road

That turned out not to be true. He learned that meeting business objectives weren’t wasn’t the end of the road. That politics and continually catering to donors and community influencers who had funded the construction of the new facility that replaced two old obsolete buildings also played a key role.

“In my business career, my performance and a great deal of self- confidence in careful research could usually overcome political traps and hidden agendas,” Bowker told me.  “That’s not necessarily so in the private not-for-profit world where donor money very often has emotional and entitlement strings attached that performance may not necessarily be able to override.”

It was a new world for Bowker and he failed to properly survey the terrain. Like someone lacking peripheral vision, he gazed strictly in front of him, failing to see the backdrop or to understand the real-world dynamics of staff politics and historical community influencers of the donors.

A Senior leadership members who had always pulled the strings  resented some of the changes Bowker was making, despite verbal buy-in, and complained about him to a sympathetic faction on the board, which was represented the traditional past and present donor and influencer community.

Meanwhile, Bowker was left defenseless, with. He has no a small minority of allies among the board and the realization that contesting the accusations based on actual performance and achievements would only create conflict and damage the residence within the community. After a 2.5-year stint, he was out.

Doug Bowker
So what can you learn from this?

The 4 Keys to Making a Successful Transition to a New Environment

Understand motivations.

“If you’re going to make a complete change in direction, make sure you analyze and understand the key motivating differences in the two worlds, not just the similarities,” said Bowker.  “Rebrand yourself rather than just saying ‘well, I’ve always been successful doing things a certain way and I’m going to continue’ because that will probably come back and bite you.”

Don’t assume your past way of working will continue to be effective.

“Make sure that you carefully analyze the dynamics of this new direction and that you know what motivates people in the new environment”, said Bowker. “Carefully analyze this and understand what you need to do. Don’t assume what has carried your success in the past will work in the new setting.”

Scope out the situation. Understand what you’re up against.

“A change in direction at this point in a career is can be hugely rewarding, and for the most part the past 2.5 years was just that, but do it with your eyes more open than mine were.” advised Bowker. “Attend to what’s going on behind the scenes not just what’s right in front of you.”

Listen to warnings.

Bowker was had been warned about certain influencers ultimately responsible for his undoing by several people who told him they could would stab him in the back. Bowker said in retrospect he should have dealt with the situation early on. Instead, he thought he could logically work things through using familiar business practices where bottom line performance and the management authority to implement agreed-upon initiatives would be sufficient.

Bowker now plans to return to the for-profit world but with his eyes now wider open thanks to his non-profit experience.

“I think I might be a little more conscious of the behind the scenes influencers,” he said. He also said he has learned to restrain his results-at any-cost style where if he couldn’t get buy-in he would still move ahead.

Bowker also said he has no regrets about his non-profit interlude.

“I mean other than being blind and naive, where I should have been a little smarter, especially with the number of years experience I’ve got, other than that I have no regrets,” he said. “It was a it was a great experience. And with a couple of little changes in the way things are decided if they were to call me back today I go back immediately.”

Have you made a transition at 50+? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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Wendy Marx

Wendy Marx

Wendy Marx, author, coach and marketing and branding authority is the founder of Thriving at 50 Plus, a coaching program that helps baby boomers find more purpose and meaning in life. Wendy over the last 30 years has helped many business owners and executives become well-known, going from Anonymity to Industry Icon™. Her business articles have appeared in The New York Times, InformationWeek, Inc., Advertising Age, & Fast Company, among other outlets.

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