The Back Nine


A few years ago, while in Ottawa, my wife and I had dinner with a friend who’s about my age. In fact, he and I went to university together back when rock stars – and my friends and I – still had big hair.

During our dinner, my friend used the expression “the back nine” to describe the status of his career. Then in our early 50s, we were facing a new reality in the job market.

We were both gainfully and permanently employed at the time. He had a good job with the federal government, and I was a senior leader in the communication branch of the Ontario Ministry of Finance.

Even though I’m not a golfer, the idea of being on the back nine really resonated with me. It means you’re still in the game, you’ve got a little experience under your belt, and you’re closer to the end than to the beginning.

A year or two later, my permanent job at the Ministry of Finance suddenly ended. Well, perhaps not suddenly. As a member of the management team, I’d been involved in the early stages of planning our restructuring. Ultimately, when it became apparent that my own job was on the line – along with about 10-12 others, both unionized and management positions – my boss did the right thing and took me out of the discussions.

When the end came, in the spring of 2013, I felt ready. I’d been thinking about a move anyway, and on some level, I was welcoming what felt like a bit of a kick in the pants.

And yet, on the day I was given my surplus notice, I was devastated. Maybe I’d been in denial; maybe I wasn’t as ready as I thought; whatever it was, it hurt a lot, and in unexpected ways. It meant saying goodbye to a lot of long-time friends and giving up a role I really enjoyed. I had really come to identify myself with this particular part of the organization.

I had the choice of taking my payout and leaving immediately, or working out my notice period and remaining eligible for other job competitions. While the payout would have been generous – perhaps enough to carry me for a year or so – it really wasn’t much of a choice at all.

As part of my exit package, I was given access to an executive coach, who gave me all the support I needed to explore my interests, my needs, and my long-term goals.

One of her better bits of wisdom was, “Wherever you land, in the beginning, say yes to everything.”

That can be hard to do, especially when you’re experienced and feel like you have something substantial to offer. However, I took her advice, and it paid off in spades.

I’ve always been a good networker. In fact, my remaining posts in this series will give you a bit of insight into how I manage this part of my career.

In the weeks leading up to my departure, I focused on reaching out to as many people as I possibly could, more out of a need to market myself than desperation.

One morning, I found myself at a coffee meeting with a senior executive at another ministry. He’d previously worked at the Ministry of Finance as well, and we’d had several opportunities to collaborate.

“So what do you want to do?” he asked.

Well, I told him, you know that I’m a communications guy. It’s where the bulk of my experience lies, and it’s where I’ve had most of my best successes (“You’ve been part of some of those,” I reminded him). So I’m certainly looking at those types of roles. I’m also looking for ways to leverage those skills in other areas.

“Like what?”

I’d anticipated the question, so I had an answer ready. Public education, stakeholder outreach, community consultations – something with a strong communications component, for openers.

I watched the light come on in his eyes as he said, “I may have something for you.”

Two weeks later, I was in a brand new role, albeit a temporary one. It turned out to be one of the most engaging, enjoyable experiences of my career. While it, too, eventually ended (as everyone knew it would), it opened my eyes to an important reality of being on the back nine: as we get older, we know ourselves better – our strengths, our weaknesses, our interests, and our abilities.

We become more comfortable with who we are.

So even though the years ahead – like my hair – may be thinning, I’m in a good place. One of the real benefits of being on this side of things is that I can see things from a long-term perspective. I’d venture to say that makes me a more valuable employee.

Larry Till is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Nancy Copeland

I’ve just discovered your posts Larry and this one resonated with me. I went through a similar restructuring around the same time and I can fully appreciate the emotional impact you describe. LIke you, it was my network that helped me land a temporary position. I’ve found that embracing change, learning new skills and looking at circumstances from a different perspective are critical not only to my career, but also to my self esteem. I am skilled and have the ability to acquire new skills. The challenge is discovering where and how to use them. Looking forward to future posts!

Larry Till

Thanks, Nancy. I appreciate the kind words. It’s interesting to me how many people have been through similar experiences. As with so many things that we’re afraid to talk about, we only discover these connections when we share them.