Calls for flexible working practices are often in the context of women who want to balance work and family.
And I’m increasingly meeting fathers who have taken a step off the corporate ladder. They go part time or self-employed so that they can take a bigger part in bringing up their children, and pursue work that feels meaningful and interesting. Often they have a partner or spouse who is committed to their own career, and find a more balanced approach works for the family.
Here is the story of a father in this situation. Paul Coverdale is a former Naval officer who now has a portfolio of professional projects, voluntary work and active fatherhood. All these are linked to his passion for sustainability.
A linear career
Paul initially followed what he described as a linear career”. After school he took a degree in meteorology at Reading University.
Armed with his degree, Paul felt he had: “two choices as I saw it at the time.” One was at the Met office, the other was a forecasting role in the Royal Navy. Forecasting had traditionally been a teaching role within the Navy, but changes meant that this role would involve going to sea. “It sounded exciting!” So Paul joined the Navy at 22.
Paul became a naval officer and learned to be good at leadership. “I wasn’t hugely confident and they brought it out.” Paul describes his first eight years as pretty successful. “I was cherry-picked to augment naval staff at sea, and involved in the second Gulf War. It was hard work but incredibly rewarding. I was entrusted with a lot of responsibility.” Paul was promoted at an early stage and send to Iraq, where he spent 6 months in 2006 in Basra. “It gave me more confidence. Opened my eyes to the world.”
Downsides of military life
As time went on, Paul became increasingly aware of the downsides to not being at home. He wasn’t able to put down roots: “I bought a flat which I never saw.” And it was difficult to maintain relationships: “I couldn’t countenance being a father under these circumstances.”
Paul compares this to being on a see-saw. Over time, the balance tipped and Paul felt increasingly that the hierarchical nature of a military organisation was no longer a good fit. “I realised I wasn’t well suited. I became aware of becoming insitutionalised and turned into a person I wasn’t.”
Paul was pragmatic and didn’t leave in a hurry after this realisation, but he negotiated a posting at home for the last part of his service and left after 16 years. This was a natural break point, and meant that he left with a pension.
Although not everyone will be able to gather a pension by this stage of their careers, there is much to be said for a sensible planned career change. (When I work with people who are considering a big leap, I help them think through the options, and recommend people build up a financial buffer if they can.)
Back to study
Returning to university or other forms of study can provide a transition into a new career. After leaving the Navy, Paul took at full time “Environmental Techology” MSc at Imperial College London, writing a thesis on intrinsic value in business.
“I knew I wanted to do something connected with the environment. I knew about weather and climate change. I knew that we need to do something about it.
“The degree helped me broaden myself and explore sustainability more widely. Part of me had an interest in business too, and my degree looked at what is a sustainable business. This was fantastic. I loved studying again. Enjoyed the challenge.”
Knowing what you don’t want
After his Masters, Paul faced a dilemma. At his stage of life he wouldn’t be going into a graduate scheme or internship. So he took time out to work out what he wanted to do.
Like many career changes, Paul knew what he didn’t want: to work with one company, 9-5. “I wanted to pursue lots of things and have time with my daughter. I wanted to blur work and life. “
So Paul decided to pursue his curiosities. He volunteered for the National Trust, starting writing, set up a website, and set about talking to people and collaborating. Initially he did this alongside apply for jobs, but then he made a decision to cease job applications and focus on setting up new projects and participating in a range of voluntary local activities, such as donating blood platelets, organising events for Parkrun, and as Secretary for the Royal British Legion.
Another priority was spending time with his daughter “we were in the garden all day Monday”. Paul’s wife works in London, and this arrangement brings benefits for the whole family.
Paul is full of ideas and enthusiasm, and one of his current portfolio projects is Future Debates.
The idea was sparked by Paul’s MSc studies. “My group focused on business and the environment. We would get together on Friday and choose a topic that had been covered by one of our visiting lecturers. We’d each have a go at facilitating a debate and choosing questions. It was really interesting, and part of the course that I missed the most.”
After university, the group wanted to carry on, but found the opportunities to meet limited. But a spark has been lit: “the idea of setting something up was rattling in my head. “
Paul decided to trial a debate a co-working space in London in August 2016. He went to the space to co-work, and run a series of Future Debates as an experiment in the lunch hour. The format is up to 12 people, round a table, discussing a theme such as the future of work, technology and happiness, or dealing with plastic waste.
“I did about a dozen. People loved it.! It gave people an opportunity to talk about something that matters. “ After his success in running groups in London, Paul decided to set Future Debates up in Winchester, where he now lives.
Inspiration for action
The inspiration behind Future Debates is to achieve more than a talking shop. “I’m hoping action will follow on from words. We’re looking for ways to solve problems, though small groups coming together.”
Having attended a Future Debate, I can recommend them as a way to refresh your thinking, learning something new, and clarify your ideas.
Paul accepts that no everyone is in a financial position to take a break from earning, and points out there are lots of ways you can fund a career change or follow a passion, for example by funding a change through part time or freelance work.
“It is a big step, but not something to be frightened of. I don’t regret it at all, I’m a lot happier”.
You can find out more about Future Debates here.