The traditional storybook version of career achievement goes something like this: Find an occupation that suits your talents. Get the right education and training. Work hard. Reap the rewards.
But midway through life, you may realize that you want to take a new career path and start your own business — perhaps in an entirely different field.
Here, in my periodic Next Avenue entrepreneurship blog, I’ll recount the stories of women and men who have taken the plunge, sharing the details of how they made the transition and explaining what you can learn from their experiences.
A Heart Doctor Seeks a Change
One of these intrepid souls is Dr. Val Ulstad, a 56-year-old cardiologist turned leadership consultant.
Ulstad spent decades as a physician in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and in 1996, at 40, oversaw the merger of a group of cardiologists, becoming its interim chief. Yet despite her successful medical career, Ulstad felt she’d be happier doing something else after the merger went through.
With that in mind, she applied for and was accepted by two prestigious, simultaneous 18-month fellowship programs — one a fellowship about medicine, the other focusing on leadership — from the Archibald Bush Foundation, which finances midcareer sabbaticals for doctors, leaders and artists.
“After finishing them, I was sort of hatching this idea: How can I use what I’ve learned?” Ulstad recalls. Meanwhile, she returned to practicing cardiac medicine and its long hours.
Then, in 2000, Ulstad and her life partner, Dr. Kathleen Ogle, an oncologist, took a year off to volunteer with medical teams in needy areas of Central America, India and Africa.
Her 'New Kind of Heart Practice'
When they returned, the doctors accepted posts at a Minneapolis-area hospital. Ulstad opted to work there half-time as a cardiac hospitalist, so she could begin a “new kind of heart practice”: Partners at Cascade Bluff
, a leadership training consultancy working mostly with medical professionals to improve their lives. Ogle helped out behind the scenes, handling the administrative operations, while working half-time as an oncologist.
The new venture brought Ulstad fresh enthusiasm about work and life. “There’s nothing sadder to me than a high-potential person thinking they’re stuck,” she says. “You’ve just kind of got to dust off your imagination.”
Ulstad started the leadership consultancy because her fellow physicians had often asked her for assistance facing challenges, from career burnout to management issues. Her unique combination of medical experience and leadership training skills proved to be enormously helpful to her colleagues and word about the consultancy spread. Soon she was busy teaching leadership classes, consulting with medical practices and offering individual coaching sessions.
In 2009, at 55, Ulstad shifted to working exclusively as a consultant. Ogle, now 57, gave up her hospital position and joined Ulstad’s consultancy last year to become its chief creativity officer. Today, the leadership training practice is thriving and gives Ulstad and Ogle the flexibility to work there half the year and spend the other half volunteering — primarily offering leadership development to local nonprofits — which remains very important to them.
Career Prescriptions From the Doctors
Do you want to move into a new career or run your own business (even if you’ve never held a paying job before)? Here's what worked for Ulstad and Ogle:
Figure out how best to use your skills. Don’t just leap at the first opportunity for change that comes along, Ulstad warns. Instead, take an inventory of your skills and determine how to use them in a way that will bring you joy.
Educate yourself. You don’t need to snag a fellowship or two, the way Ulstad did. Local and community colleges often have a wealth of programs for would-be entrepreneurs, usually for a nominal cost. Your regional Small Business Development Center, run by the U.S. Small Business Administration, may offer classes or one-on-one coaching to help you turn your skills into a business.
Moonlight. To keep income flowing in while launching her business, Ulstad worked part-time at a hospital, devoting the remainder of her hours to the consultancy. Ogle, too, kept practicing medicine while ramping up Partners at Cascade Bluffs.
Cultivate your network. Since the consultancy relied mostly on networking to bring in business at the outset, the doctors’ hospital work was invaluable. Their “real jobs” kept them connected with hundreds of colleagues who could become prospects for their business. Today, referrals remain the main source of new clients for the firm.
Stay true to your holistic vision. Even when they were practicing medicine, both doctors knew that, whatever they did in the future, it needed to include plenty of time for volunteering to make the world a better place. Before starting your business, devise a clear vision of how the work will fit into your life. Then stick to it.