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  • Frank Fortner

Into The Great (Sticky) Wide Open

Updated: Jul 15, 2020

"Am I crazy?" Those were the first words I wrote on a blank notepad on May 28, 2019. It was day one. I stared at those words for a few moments as vivid memories of the people, places, and past projects of my career (thus far) danced erratically in my temporal lobe. After nearly 25 years as an executive with a well-known privately-held company that I had helped its founder grow from 2 to roughly 350 employees (at its peak), the company had been under new ownership for 10 months, and my role and responsibilities had changed dramatically. Therefore, I made the decision to step down in order to get back to doing more of the things that drew on my passions. So much history. So much of my life. At 49, I had been thinking about the second half of my life and what mattered most. So as those three little words stared back at me, one thing was sure, I was 100% in control of my future. I was free to pursue what I wanted and free to run my newly formed corporation however I wanted. I was also, for the first time in 30 years, temporarily "free" of income. Tom Petty's timeless lyrics about the fictional "Eddie" rang out in my head, "the future was wide open."

When I initially announced that I was stepping down, people asked what I would be doing in the following weeks/months/years. I candidly told them I wasn't entirely sure—this, from the guy who had been primarily responsible for planning and strategy at the corporate level. I mean, sure I had a lot of ideas (and still do), but I knew that I'd be throwing any number of things at the proverbial wall and then waiting to see what stuck. That was the best, most honest answer I could have given at the time. I remember that saying it out loud conjured both excitement and anxiety - but mostly excitement. Well, it's been just over a year now, and the update (for those who initially asked) is that, thankfully, things are sticking.

Change (more so the idea of change) is often scary, and crossing the mental point-of-no-return requires courage. Once solidly decided, however, making the actual change is relatively easy. That was one of several lessons I've learned in this first year. For example, I learned that while setting up a new company is quite easy, finding clients who value your time enough to pay for it takes a little more effort. Finding potential strategic partners is easy. Finding the right ones is more complicated. Passing on the wrong ones is every bit as important to your overall success and happiness as signing with the right ones. I found that it took time, diligence, and even prayer to weed through the wrong opportunities and focus my limited time on the right ones. Fortunately, I was blessed rather quickly with an exciting opportunity in Austin, TX, that came with a small team of dynamic business partners, lest you think I've been operating solo this entire time. It's only fair; "Eddie" had a team around him that included an "A&R man" and a "roadie named Bart!"

Today, through both The FortHaven Group and Strategic Healthcare Connections, I'm incredibly blessed to be working with a growing portfolio of clients as both a strategic partner and a strategic advisor, with new opportunities presenting weekly at this point. In one year, I've gone from thinking I might be crazy (which I still might be) to absolutely loving what I'm doing - especially the advisor part. Working with executive teams, all I have ever wanted to do was help build stronger, healthier organizations and leave everything I touched better than I found it in some way. For example, I love being able to offer additional perspectives and strategies, then watching the lightbulbs turn on. More than anything, I enjoy the creative aspect of working with talented executive teams and helping them raise the bar in terms of bringing their products to new and broader markets. However, none of this would have been possible if I didn't have the courage to admit and then act on the fact that something deep in my soul wasn't being fed.

Author John Eldredge wrote about a sea lion who had lost the sea and found himself living in a barren desert-like place. Unsure of how he even got there, he knew something was missing, because deep down, a part of him longed for the sea, but this dry place was somehow now his home. So rather than make his way back to the ocean where he would flourish in the ways he was made to, he settled for a tiny little water hole in the desert. It can be like that when your current job description doesn't match your DNA. In my case, I was fortunate to figure it out early enough to do something about it.

How about you? Are you doing what you were meant to do and loving it, or feeling a bit like the sea lion? I hope that your answer is the former because maybe it's just a few misplaced sea lions like me who need to work up the courage to make a change. On the other hand, perhaps you do find yourself having to continually silence that little voice that enjoys a small part of your job duties but loathes the major ones. Maybe you've already considered making a change countless times, but have never acted upon it. I get it - it's scary, and especially today with all the uncertainty. I gave up a lot of stability to pursue the unknown. Looking back, I'm SO GLAD I had no idea what 2020 would bring because I may not have had the courage to change. I guess we'll never truly know. Here's what I do know; if you're talented and passionate about something that provides enough value to people that they'll pay you for it, you'll most likely be fine. It may take a little time, but it's incredible how momentum begets momentum. Eventually, I believe things will begin to stick for you as well. From there, who knows where it all goes. Like Tom sang, the sky is the limit!

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