The Journey Towards Personal Reinvention – With Robert Giles, CEO of SPC
For many executives, moving into the latter stages of their career can present unique challenges. As we develop our skills and credibility our roles become increasingly more comfortable, however as we age, the concept of reinvention, when combined with both the day to day demands of a senior role and personal commitments, can also seem too difficult or something that we’ll “get around” to tackling… but never do.
As a result of a growing economy and plentiful job opportunities in Australia for the past 30 years, there are a cohort of senior executives who have never really had to look for a job before. They’ve been approached by ex-colleagues for new opportunities and their career trajectory has happened organically, by reputation. This group have followed the mantra of “Good work speaks for itself” and, for their entire careers, this has carried them through.
On the other hand, there are a group of people who have dedicated themselves to building their networks and growing their influence internally and externally and they’ve combined “doing a good job” with promoting their achievements on social media, at events or through a plethora of other personal branding avenues. They’ve been the less settled group and tend to change roles every three to five years in order to maintain relevance and to stay sharp and agile.
Those executives who’ve not engaged in external promotion have typically told us that they’ve deliberately chosen not to, as they’ve viewed it as “bragging” or they’ve cringed seeing peers and colleagues do it poorly and have feared the backlash if they were to go out on a similar limb.
One such person was Robert Giles, now CEO of SPC. Rob is an incredibly humble and down to earth man who, once you get him on a roll, speaks with a level of pride in his team that is arguably greater than his pride in his own career achievements. However, like many, Rob was schooled in the art of keeping one’s head down and letting results speak for themselves. However, since joining SPC, he’s had a lot to promote and in the spirit of reinvention and evolution (and a slight twist of the arm), he’s pushed himself into promoting his work and SPC’s outstanding turnaround. Rob is now an active voice on social media and beyond.
After two decades with the same employer, Rob was also faced with the daunting task of pushing himself to the next professional level. It’s a conundrum that is either forced upon us, by way of redundancy or it’s something we can proactively take control of. Rob chose the latter…. and here is his story.
Rob: If I reflect, it was two pivotal moments that made me feel that it was time to take control of the next step in my career journey. No one could call me compulsive after spending 23 years with one employer. In truth, I left feeling we had both looked after each well. I joined Edgell Birdseye with its revenues circa $300m and left Simplot in charge of all revenue circa $1.5b. Simplot is a great company with tremendous brands and wonderful US owners that believe in manufacturing in Australia and truly understand and have the patience for agriculture. They had provided me with many fantastic growth opportunities, both personally and professionally, and I felt that upon resigning we left each other square. But as to those two moments, the first was the trigger, following a conversation we all have now and then with those Collins Street Recruiters – with their professional reception, clinical meeting rooms and amazing views over the city.
Whilst this particular opportunity didn’t make sense, the partner took the time to offer some advice that really struck a nerve. “Robert, it occurs to me you are coasting in your current role which isn’t healthy. You need to get some sweat under your collar again and feel some pressure.” It’s amazing how those few words “get some sweat under your collar”, really resonated and started me on the pathway to resign.
The second moment was the change in Managing Director at Simplot. I think his leadership over 20 years made me comfortable, as I knew he believed in me. To the surprise of so many internal and external customers, I decided to resign and be without a job as well. I knew I needed a break and I needed to spend some serious time planning what to do next. Importantly, I had the complete backing of my family, especially my wife, who is not a career person but fortunately, an amazing partner who would back me whatever my choice. Having said that, she must have also thought “What are we going to do?”. No big redundancy payments here, I resigned! All I took with me was some long service leave.
At first, I took some time and fished for a week on a charter boat on the Great Barrier Reef. It was a fantastic experience with good friends. Then I met my family in Noosa and we holidayed down the East Coast back to Melbourne. It was three months until I finally thought it was time to start making some contacts and deciding what to do. Simplot did give me access to executive outplacement, which really did help me considering I had been with one employer for so long. This service gave me some great lessons and helpful guidance regarding the way I’d approach the next chapter. I created a new CV, an improved LinkedIn profile and received some wise words from a coach. The service also provided me access to an office in the city, which helped enormously as I set myself up a few days a week to seek out my next opportunity. One piece of advice really stuck with me. There is more than an 80% likelihood that your next role will come via your network. I had a healthy network and I set about getting out and engaging it.
My advice to senior executives, and I was told this and experienced it firsthand, is to work with your network. You are most probably going to find your next role via recommendation. Be open and go buy a coffee for those you trust and get their perspective on the market and listen to their stories as it may create leads or inspire ideas to investigate.
Also, do not get too frustrated with recruiters. You will find one like Alex Kaar that shows genuine interest in you as a person and helps you through the transition. You will also find those that treat you more like a commodity and won’t phone you back until they are ready. It is what it is. You will find more long-term success with the former, but you must keep pragmatically working with the latter.
The main risk senior executives face is not learning and developing. You need to learn new skills. Throw yourself into programmes to learn new skills, like digital disruption or modern leadership. Also remember you are not really learning until you find it uncomfortable. I left my job upon the realising that I was too comfortable in doing what I was doing. I have learnt so much in my first two years as the CEO of a private equity business and I still have so much to learn. That old saying… as hard as it is… ‘Be comfortable with being uncomfortable’.