A career full of reboots and a lifetime of reinvention – with a flourish
John is a retired business executive who discovered an artistic talent late in life – creating clay portraits from photographs and live models.
His journey from human resources manager to consultant to artist has several overlapping reinventions. Over these years he also had to deal with serious personal health problems, plus the challenges and sadness of being a full-time caregiver to his wife, who ultimately passed on after a marriage of 55 years.
His discovery of the art of clay portraits came as part of his healing process from grief over the death of his wife. But well before that, John had to reinvent himself several times to stay on top of his profession.
John (not his real name – he wishes to remain anonymous, but his story is well worth telling) began his business career after military service with a large financial institution as a human resources manager– back in the day when it was still called the Personnel Department.
“That company was an exceptionally well-organized, well-managed organization with a cohesive culture,” John said. “It was a white-collar, professional, non-adversarial environment, where people did what they said they would do – follow-ups were not needed.”
Rebooting to the other end of the business spectrum
When John was in his late 30s, looking for a new challenge, he made his first reboot. He accepted a position with a much smaller branded apparel manufacturer as the top HR executive, part of a new management team brought in by new ownership to turn an unprofitable, stagnant business into a fully competitive, growing, profitable enterprise. The new owners made it quite plain that as Jack Aubrey said in addressing his many challenges, “There is not a moment to lose!”
“It was a totally different working environment from what I had been used to,” John said. “It was a switch from finance to manufacturing, from white-collar to largely blue-collar, from a buttoned-down, open management style, a highly effective culture and excellent financial results to a poorly organized business lacking executive controls at every level, a CYA culture generating deodorized upward communications, poor morale and poor results – in other words, a business where almost everything had to change – there was not a moment to lose.
“Putting aside the stresses and strains involved in relocating a family (since, in reality, the success of such moves is determined by the wife and mother), I had to learn many new skills and reinvent myself into a totally new kind of manager. I had to learn – actually become an expert in all HR functions, most of which I had only a partial knowledge of. I had to learn manufacturing jobs and processes, engineering, QC, R&D, wage employee jobs, pay systems and benefit structure, etc. Just as important, I had to learn the different skills necessary to force and support change at a ‘turnaround’ pace where ‘improvement’ is the strategy and ‘the best, the ideal’ must sit on the sidelines until later when the game is under control. I had to question everything – in depth – every report, the assumptions underlying every recommendation. It was exhilarating, frustrating, exhausting and ultimately life-changing.
Implementing Total Quality Management
“After the business had been stabilized and major growth in revenues and profitability achieved, it became time and competitively necessary to bring in the ‘best’ from the bench. Our choice to achieve the ‘best’ was to convert the company to the Total Quality Management process – a version of Japanese manufacturing methods adapted to U.S. business culture, through which we would radically change all operating processes throughout the company.”
Together with the senior manufacturing executive and a senior marketing executive, John was responsible for the highly successful implementation of the TQM process throughout the company, resulting in major improvements in costs, profitability, and competitiveness. Over two decades in the apparel business, John developed close relationships with many outstanding business executives and ultimately decided to leave the company and form a consulting business with several of them – his second reboot.
John makes it clear that the change from management in a mid-to-large business to entrepreneur in a partnership with others of the same background, none of whom had any direct entrepreneurial or consulting experience, was a radical change in mindset, managing skills, daily runtime, support, uncertainty, tolerance, flexibility, financial commitment and risk, and maybe most of all, the speed from “think” to “do.” As John said, “Its challenges are really different from big business management but personally very rewarding if you make the transition.
John’s wife died shortly after their 55th wedding anniversary, and a difficult grieving period began for him. On the recommendation of his hospice counselor, he took up journaling as therapy and found that it was a major help.
Shaping a new passion
Some months into what proved to be a grieving process lasting well beyond a year, John happened to see a church flyer with a notice about openings in a beginning class in clay portraiture taught by the area’s most prominent sculptor. He decided to give it a try. He found it greatly appealing, worked at it, and soon was able to create sculptures that looked reasonably as intended. Reboot No. 3.
Clay portraits as John does them are three-dimensional sculptures made from photographs and live models. They are meticulously and painstakingly built up on a form to closely resemble a person’s face and head, using strips of a special kind of clay, molding, and shaping and molding some more, baking the finished product in a kiln and finally finishing the sculpture with paint or wax.
“It has been an amazing pursuit for me,” John said. “I find that I can get completely absorbed in the process and the hours just melt away. I do not consider myself an artist, but I’ve been able to do this with enough success to continue my instruction and productivity. And I just love getting lost in a portrait and working on it for hours and hours. I’m slow so it has taken me more than 150 hours to complete each of the last three.”
The second time around
Oh, and there’s one more rebooting that John has done – not one that you’ll read about every day. Some months after John’s wife died, his brother became terminally ill, dying a year later. Among friends and family visiting his brother during his illness was Sarah, a long-time family friend who had been John’s girlfriend in college. They had parted ways midway through school. Both married, moved to different parts of the country, lost contact and half a century later lost their spouses in the same year. When John and Sarah met again at John’s brother’s bedside, they found that they were still friends. Over the next year and a half, they got together several more times. They shared their experiences in struggling through the grieving process. Their reconnection became stronger, rekindling an attraction that had ended 50 years earlier, and the “get-togethers” became a courtship.
“Courtship at an advanced age is definitely different,” John said. “You can’t just put your best foot forward – you have to tell the truth about who you really are. You’ve both had lives. But that’s a good thing. When you can do that and still come back together, the end result is stronger.”
Finally, John and Sarah got married on April 1, 2016, “both for the fun of it and to celebrate our own private spring equinox.“
John’s best clay portrait to date is one of Sarah’s daughter. “Our marriage has produced a remarkable level of joy for both of us,” John said. This year (2020) John and Sarah celebrated their fourth anniversary.
Now that’s rebooting — with a flourish.