“I was in paradise, but I wasn't fulfilled.”
What was your previous career?
I was with Foreign Affairs for six years as a diplomat. In many respects it was ticking the boxes, but there was a creative side of me that just felt really restless in diplomacy. I’d also been writing poetry, and I’d started to build up a bit of a public profile as a poet. I was getting published in some prominent New Zealand books and magazines, so I was almost living a dual life.
What do you do now?
I’m an independent contractor and consultant for social and health issues in the Pacific region, and also a creative writer.
I find projects where I can undertake research and write reports that help to inform policy or strategy in the region. What’s really important to me is that I have a lot more say in terms of what I do and what I don’t do. It means I’m making a contribution on my own terms. I’m actually earning at least twice, often three times more than I was when I was on salary. And I’ve got a lot more flexibility.
I’ve just been offered a full scholarship in the USA for three months — a paid opportunity for a residency at the University of Hawaii in September. If I had stuck with foreign affairs there’d be no way I could pursue something like this, and there’s no way I could write in a way that’s real and independent. The residency is to work on my second book of poetry, which ironically is going to be called ‘Cultural Diplomacy’. It’s the pinnacle of what this is all about for me — three months getting paid to do what I love, which is write. It shows that the decision I took was the right one.
When did you decide to make the change?
1st January 2012. I woke up New Years morning in Tonga. I was on a posting, on this beautiful compound with a swimming pool and tennis courts, it was amazing. I went outside and I just felt so depressed. And I thought, I’m basically in paradise, getting paid well, in a relatively prestigious position, but I’m not happy and I’m not fulfilled. And that was the point in which I decided: 'I’m going to take control of my life'.
I thought I’d wait it out and see what would happen with an upcoming restructure. So I waited six months, and in the end they didn’t offer redundancy for my position. They were really generous with me as they didn’t want me to leave. They offered me leave without pay for two years, which was nice as at least I had something in my back pocket for a short time. But as soon as I moved back to New Zealand, I found all these other opportunities coming my way.
My book of poetry got accepted for publication. That was the first big thing where my reputation as a creative writer was being recognised. Then I was also offered the opportunity to write for quite a prominent New Zealand magazine, and I had my own column. With both of those opportunities, it just became really clear to me that I needed to be fully independent to really capitalise on them. So it was at that point that I decided to completely cut my ties with the foreign office. Even though I had the 'leave without pay' option, I decided it was in their interests and my interests to resign.
How did you decide on the route you were going to take?
Early on in the process I used an online resource in New Zealand called Career Analyst, which has an online career centre. You spend $300 to use online assessment tools which help you understand your personal values, motivations, and career preferences. Every time I was wavering about the change I’d look at the assessment document, and use it as a signpost to remind me that this is the right decision. Although the old career path was ticking say half of the boxes, there were a heap of others that were completely unfulfilled, or secondary. So since I’ve taken on this more entrepreneurial route, whenever I refer back to that document almost all the key things that matter to me (my values, skills and motivations) are now covered.
Did you have a plan of what you wanted to do instead, if and when you left the foreign office?
Originally, as I knew that I had a creative streak and I collect a lot of art work wherever I go, I was thinking about going back to New Zealand to set up an art gallery. I started the market research, and realised oh hell — this is the worst time possible to be opening a brick and mortar gallery. It’s highly competitive, and also because of the nature of the art market, if you really want to make money then you have to be in that elitist space. That conflicted with my values and career motivations. I’m very much more wanting to connect with everyday people. So it became clear to me that that pipe dream and early thinking wasn’t quite the right fit.
I got back to the basics, and that’s when I realised that actually my key strength and earning capacity was one and the same thing — writing. It was right in front of my face. But because it was right in front of my face, I had taken it for granted.
How did you find these writing opportunities?
As soon as I knew I was seriously thinking about leaving, I looked at who within my network worked in the spaces where I potentially might want to be.
I had a holiday trip back to New Zealand, and during that time I had several coffee meetings with key people. It was as much to listen and learn, as to let them know that I may potentially be available. Some of these contacts told me to get in touch when I moved back to New Zealand as they would then introduce me to useful people they knew.
Over the first three-four weeks of moving back, it was all go. Those contacts were my priority. I very much took the approach that I wasn’t going to go through the normal job market. I knew that I wanted to take a more entrepreneurial path, and I didn’t feel like I had the time to waste to go through the recruitment sites.
I had a short stint where I took an employed role for a few months because my husband had stopped work. As soon as my husband got work, we decided that was a good time for me to transition. Then within a week of me submitting my resignation, I got my first major contract offer, and now I think I’m onto my sixth.
What was the most difficult thing about changing?
Trying to convince my husband that this was the right path to take. I would be going from my job, with the huge allowances when we were overseas, to contract work, without having any proof that it would work. Because I’m a mum and a wife, whilst wanting to be an entrepreneur in the fullest sense, I can’t throw myself into it fully without taking into account those other roles. Trying to find that balance — to do what I felt was right, and at the same time protect my family from that short term period of instability.
Did you get any external support?
The Career Analyst website had an option to get a coach, so I had two phone sessions with one. That was useful, but actually overall I found that trusting my own instincts and having the written material from the test results was probably of much more value. The coach was a good sounding board but I probably would have ended up where I am without that guidance anyway.
Did you have any resistance to your decision?
Within the Foreign Office my boss, the high commissioner, really advocated for me to stay. He told me that I could be a future ambassador, and that they really didn’t want to lose me. That was the first big hurdle.
Then once I’d got past that, the next thing was my family. My mum was a policewoman for twenty years so for her it was really difficult to comprehend why I would want to give up a career that was well paid, well regarded, and relatively secure. But I think she’s gotten over it! Although even now, every other week she still says to me, with a concerned look on her face, ‘You are OK aren’t you? You don’t need any help financially?’. It’s one of those things where you can’t talk them around, you have to show them it can be done, just by doing it. They’re starting to see that now.
I’ve had some of my former senior colleagues in the diplomatic core sending me private messages saying they read my magazine column and appreciate what I write. They’re so pleased to have someone like me out there talking independently, which has been a big affirmation as they’re people I really respected in a professional sense.
Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
When I had that short-term employment role, sometimes I think maybe I should have just bitten the bullet and gone straight into the writing contract work. After taking the big risk of leaving the Foreign Office, I can see how, if I hadn’t been so determined, it would have been easy to have been back in that safe and secure career mode.
What have you learnt about yourself in the process?
I’ve learnt that while my skills and perspectives were of value in the foreign service, their value is greater than any one career. By being an independent writer, I’m aligned to touch a lot more peoples lives and make more of a contribution, which is what’s important to me.
What would you advise other career changers to do?
Be really honest with yourself. Don’t beat around the bush. Deal with the fact that you aren’t happy. Grieve if you need to. Especially if you’ve been in a career for while and it’s relatively secure, you do need to go through a grieving period. Be kind to yourself and accept that it’s ok to want to move on. Someone said to me once that it’s almost like breaking up a relationship.
The next step is to really strategise and map it out in a thoughtful, considered way. For me, that meant I got the expertise from a career consultant. You’re going to need to do a bit of work in the outset that will pay off later.
A lot of people get hung up on thinking they’ll have to study or start from the bottom, but I think all those things need to go out the window. Think creatively about different ways in which you can tackle the issue. You’re likely to come up with something that will get you on the pathway. I could have gone back to university for three years, but I didn’t have the time or money to do so. So I found a way to write and create opportunities out of that.
What lessons could you take from Leilani's story to use in your own career change? Let us know in the comments below.