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Is this all there is? What do you do when you’ve done what you want?

Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway announces her coming departure.
Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway announces her coming departure.

Recently I talked with a group of leaders who have built and run high-performing and very creative organizations. Several of them had been hired years ago to turn around those same organizations. In one case, the leader managed to rebuild the organization much faster than expected.

So here they were, top of their careers, known for the work they are doing. Then one of them asked the group, “Is this it?”

And they all knew what he meant.

They’re successful, have done what was expected and more, and now they are questioning what’s next. Some worry about becoming bored. Others fear complacency.

So now what? Do they go to larger, more complex organizations, which would mean leaving the community that they love? Do they shift careers altogether and start at the bottom? If they stay in their current positions, can they find ways to make them more interesting, push the organizations in new directions?

After I heard this question, I started asking other leaders how they stay motivated and what keeps them from getting bored.

One said that, when he worked in a large organization that was growing, there were always new projects to be done, so he was never bored.

Another said his industry is always changing, so the company is forced to reinvent itself, and that means leaders and employees all need to change.

One had left his former organization to become a consultant in the field. In consulting, this leader said, “the problems are basically the same, but the context, culture, and people are different so I’m always learning.”

Then I heard that one of my favorite journalists, Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times, has decided to leave her columnist post after 31 years. She is beginning training to become a “maths teacher” in England. A very new shift, and she says she is excited — and terrified. But it’s time to change and do something new.

In the end, what became clear is that these sharp leaders need to be in a situation where they are learning — whether that learning is imposed from the organization itself or whether they come up with a new task or challenge for themselves and the organization.

We should be thankful if we are in a position to ask the question, “Is this it?” But perhaps a final lesson is to ask it on a regular basis, rather than waiting till we need to make a shift.

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