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Into the great wide open

Leaving C-suite to start consultancy requires huge change in perspective


By Don Sibery
Posted: November 14, 2005 - 12:01 am ET
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After more than 30 years as a healthcare executive--19 of them spent as the chief executive officer of healthcare systems and the balance spent as an operating officer--I decided to resign. I left my position as CEO of a Chicagoland healthcare system in November 2002 without having secured a new position. There was no bird in the hand. No new hospital to call home. Nothing. Only years of experience, my integrity and a professional network filled with both colleagues and friends.

This decision drew to a close the chapter of my life known as "institutional-based leadership." At that time, it was the only chapter I knew or could envision. Like most healthcare executives, I had lived and breathed my job, eating and sleeping board, physician, strategy and patient-care issues, and spending more time with colleagues and board members than with my family. Choosing to leave something so familiar and known--to say goodbye and to step away from an organization filled with people I truly cared about--was one of the most difficult decisions of my life. To leap into the unknown, leaving behind my sense of professional security and letting go of an entire way of life while asking myself the same questions everyone else was asking--"Why?" and "What will you do?"--made the transition even harder.

The truth is, I knew why I resigned. I had no regrets about that decision. What I didn't know was what I would do next. Suddenly, I found myself balancing the desire and need to take some time off against the stigma that attaches itself to anyone who leaves a job without another one already lined up: Taking some time off is good, taking too much time off is not.

I decided to spend the next several months reconnecting with family and friends, and reflecting on what I really enjoyed doing. It was during this time off that I made a few key decisions. I decided to live where I really wanted to live, in Traverse City, Mich., which meant moving from our home in Illinois. I also decided I wanted to work closely with people I knew and I respected both personally and professionally, specifically, Tony Tedeschi and Duane Fitch.

And so the three of us leapt into the unknown together, forming the Sibery Group, a healthcare consulting company. We are operators who have chosen to be consultants, not consultants trying to understand the world of operators.

The journey from CEO to consultant has been an emotional rollercoaster ride marked by many lessons learned. I've had to move from the security of institutional life with its consistent salary, benefits, incentive programs, corporate staff and retirement plans to launching and building an entrepreneurial consulting company where nothing is certain and everyone wears every hat regardless of title or experience.

Now that I'm outside my former corporate comfort zone, I spend my time focused on things like filling the revenue pipeline, managing cash-flow issues, minimizing capital calls, weighing the pros and cons of hiring consultants versus contracting with "stringers," and navigating the never-ending networking opportunities that are instrumental and necessary in this field. Additionally, product and service design elements, including the Web site, branding and all marketing materials, need constant attention. Then there are the real surprises. Things I once held true based primarily on the chair I occupied for more than 30 years look different from today's perspective. Now I sit in a different chair, look through a different lens and see things anew. Old truisms fade away. Context is everything.

As a CEO, I always thought my door was open. What I realize now is how protected and isolated I was, and most CEOs are, by well-intentioned staff, and perhaps even by staff trained and instructed to shield their top executives. As a consultant, I have found it difficult to share an idea, offer a service or even simply address an issue with a CEO. Someone is always screening those phone calls, e-mails or letters. I wonder now what I might have missed.

Another surprise has centered around decisionmaking. I always believed I made decisions rapidly as a CEO. My consultant experience reveals a much different reality. The time between our first contact with an organization and our final contract with the CEO can stretch as long as nine to 12 months. That's a lot of time consumed, more time than I ever thought possible. The definition of speed is relative.

In prior times, consultants I have known who have come out of the institutionally based operating world have often been able to secure engagements from their former colleagues. While that still sometimes happens, it's much rarer, and is always contingent on the results of a competitive bidding process. I've learned that business always trumps friendship. And it should.

I find that new lessons are delivered daily, and in the midst of it all, we do our best to stay ahead of the field and on top of all the hot issues that impact our work. We strive to exceed our client's expectations, and we work hard to exceed our own. But by far the greatest and most valuable lesson I've learned is this: Build your team with partners and colleagues who share your vision, values and work ethic. This is the life I lead today. It is real, fast and personal. It is filled with something different and new each day. Security is an illusion and leaping into the unknown is just as exciting as it is scary. I've learned that living your life the way you want to, surrounded by the people who matter most and in whom you trust absolutely, is something one chooses to do.

Could I have predicted this change in my career? Honestly, no. But finally, the "What will I do next?" question has been answered.

Don Sibery is president and managing partner of the Sibery Group, Carol Stream, Ill.

Survival tips

* Work with people you trust completely.

* Understand the decisionmaking process and have patience.

* Business trumps friendship.

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