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Is It Time to “Repot” Your Career?

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Is It Time to “Repot” Your Career?

How changing your trajectory can lead to greater innovation, success, and meaning in your work.
People sitting on benches in between flower pots
Reuters/Toru Hanai

Fifty years ago, in his book Self-Renewal, John Gardner, the late former cabinet secretary and founder of Common Cause, the nonpartisan public-interest lobby for greater political transparency and accountability, first described a career strategy he referred to as “repotting” as a way to stay engaged and innovative. The idea is that a career reboot not only helps prevent managers from staying in one position too long, being lulled into complacency or leadership fatigue, but that it also pushes leaders to keep learning, to see new challenges with a fresh perspective and ultimately find meaningful work that leaves a lasting legacy.

The concept took root. A few years later, as dean of Stanford GSB, Ernie Arbuckle told a reporter: “Repotting, that’s how you get new bloom … you should have a plan of accomplishment and when that is achieved you should be willing to start off again.”

Arbuckle mentored Stanford GSB students, graduates and colleagues in the repotting philosophy, including his successor as dean, Arjay Miller, who said “it’s time to repot” when he resigned, and Donald E. Petersen, who told The New York Times when he stepped down as head of Ford Motor in 1989 that he was "struck with the philosophy of Ernie Arbuckle," who said one should change occupations every 10 years. "Well, 10 years are up," he said, “and it's time to repot myself.”

Among Arbuckle’s many other mentees is Peter Hero, who worked at a Madison Avenue ad agency during the Mad Men era, shortly after earning his MBA at Stanford in 1966. “It was creative and fun, but I after a time I began to think, ‘What difference does this make?’” he says. One day, sitting in a very smoky room with five other grown men in ties, heatedly debating whether Sugar Bear would say that Sugar Crisp cereal gave him energy or made him stronger, Hero hit his limit. “I stood up and said, ‘I have to get out of here.’” He never went back to advertising. Instead, he repotted.

He moved to San Francisco and managed Spice Islands, a spice company, to significant growth; completed a graduate degree in art history; ran the Oregon Arts Commission; was appointed president of the Maine College of Art; and then returned to the Bay Area as CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, where he’s credited with transforming philanthropy from old-world, end-of-life giving to an active engagement with newly wealthy tech entrepreneurs. “The real benefit of repotting is that you’re designing your life instead of having someone else or society define it for you,” Hero says.

Here is some advice he gleaned from Arbuckle, as well as from his own experience.

1. Know When it’s Time to Change

Arbuckle suggested that a decade is long enough to dig into a project and see your vision through to completion, but not so long that you experience leadership fatigue. Having a timeline sets a horizon, but individual experiences can vary greatly, says Hero, who himself repotted after periods from less than five years to nearly 20. The most important thing is to periodically check in with yourself. “If you think, ‘Wow, this is too cool to leave — I still can have more of an impact,’” then you’re probably in the right place for now, he says. But if you feel like you’re on autopilot or aren’t fully invested in the future trajectory of your organization, it’s probably time to move on.

2. Seek Support and Commit to a New Direction

Hero is careful to note that one can’t repot in isolation. He shared ideas and received encouragement from trusted advisers like Arbuckle. “And having a supportive partner is probably the most important key to repotting,” he says, particularly for larger transformations that involve relocating or income fluctuation.

Sometimes people don’t even know what they want to do next. It’s OK to begin repotting without fully realizing what the next pot will look like. “When you start off in a new direction in anything, you never really know the ultimate destination,” says Hero. The important thing is to commit to a new direction that interests you.

3. Embrace Uncertainty and Tune Out Noise

A big repotting may mean going back to school or starting at a lower level in a different field. Hero remembers one particular time, in art history graduate school in Massachusetts, thinking it had been nine years since he earned his MBA, his furniture was in storage, he’d moved his wife and young twins across the country, and he’d given up a large salary. “My wife is trying to find a job to support us, and I’m tending bar on the side, thinking, maybe selling spices wasn’t so bad — maybe they’ll take me back,” says Hero. Periods of self-doubt are common, especially when coupled with comments from friends and family questioning why you’d leave something stable for the unknown. “This is when you have to just steel yourself and trust that where you end up will ultimately be better than where you were,” says Hero.

4. Network Broadly and Tap Those Networks

When Hero meets fellow Stanford alumni at events and retreats, he’s impressed with their robust attitude toward making professional connections. “They network like crazy, but it’s usually on behalf of a very narrow vision that they have,” he says. Over time, though, it’s helpful to build and maintain a broad base of contacts. Those people help you learn about different possibilities and what fields you might be interested in next. But they also may be helpful in future endeavors. Hero notes that his contacts in the business, government, arts and education fields served him well once he began working in philanthropy.

5. Synthesize Your Experience to Make a Difference

Some may believe that a more wandering career trajectory reveals a lack of focus, or that being a generalist means one doesn’t have deep expertise in anything. Hero sees the opposite as true. Rather than climbing a single corporate ladder with blinders on, he says, people with a repotting mindset stay engaged with the world around them, “keeping the radar on,” and bring a wealth of experience to the next challenge that may allow them to design innovative solutions.

For Hero, he brought his perspectives from marketing, business, and academic leadership and fundraising to rebrand charitable giving in Silicon Valley. He engaged entrepreneurs like eBay co-founder Jeff Skoll and software developer Steve Kirsch to establish and grow in their own charitable funds. In the process, he led the growth of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation from $9 million to more than $1.2 billion in assets, giving away a million dollars per week to community development and other charitable organizations. “I realized later on that the whole time I was exploring new paths, I was moving toward a job that for me was far more than a way to earn money,” says Hero. “And deciding that the values, impact and the measurable consequences of what I did for work were critically important to me.”

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