Finding Balance in Retirement: Tom’s Story – on Empathy, Leadership & Passion for your Vocation

Work-Life Balance Profile #15: Tom McLaughlan

Introduction to Tom’s Profile

When interviewing people for my blog, I make every effort to set aside any preconceptions or judgements as I listen to their stories and write up my observations. I’m afraid to say that when I interviewed the latest subject of my “Work-Life Balance Profiles “series, Tom McLaughlan, I failed at the first hurdle.

Tom is the first retired person I’ve interviewed for my blog. And subconsciously, I suppose, I approached our conversation with the assumption that it would focus on his past career, how he had balanced work and life over the years, the lessons he learned along the way, and the insights he could share with the workforce’s next generation.

Which it did. But our conversation also followed a different trajectory. Rather than the onus being on the retrospective, it centred on the present; on his evolving pursuit of balance in retirement. At this point in his life, he has had to re-evaluate and identify what his value is to society, spurred on by a determination not to be “useless”.

It is perhaps unsurprising that someone who thrived on the adrenaline of a busy work-life, would continue to think in terms of “work” and “life” in retirement. Or perhaps it is just human instinct to perpetually seek a sense of purpose, identity and self-worth.

Tom testifies that weighing up his work:life ratio is just as applicable now as it was before retirement: “There’s a point, there’s a journey, there’s a story”. I am so grateful that Tom decided to share that story with me, to take me on that journey with him, if you will.

Our conversation left me with lots of food for thought about the opportunities and challenges of balancing priorities during these two life stages: one’s career peak, and their career’s end – and all the “life” milestones that occur in between. I hope that readers will find it equally thought-provoking, and benefit from his reflections.

Work:Life Ratio

25:75

In January 2020, Tom, who’d been diagnosed as having epilepsy whilst at college, suffered an episode of convulsive status epilepticus – a sudden and extreme series of seizures. He spent time in Intensive Care on a ventilator and, after a period of treatment and convalescence, made a remarkably near-full physical recovery, though he continues to work on his cognitive and mental health. The experience was enough of a trigger to persuade him to bring forward his planned early retirement with almost immediate effect.

Before his stint in ICU, Tom was working full-time as Managing Director of European Government Relations for a global consultancy. Given the international nature of his role, he worked around the clock, often under stressful circumstances. He had also trained as a Gallup Strengths Coach for his firm, a role that involved him supporting his team to build their skills and resilience, or in his words, “helping people fly”.

Almost two years into his retirement, Tom now works in a pro bono capacity for a range of third sector organisations, for causes close to his heart – such as epilepsy, loneliness and crisis intervention. He brings to these charities his consultancy, coaching and public speaking skills, as well as his knowledge of governance and board-level management.

Despite Tom’s career ending so dramatically, and some ongoing health concerns, he only sees the positives: “I’m the luckiest chap on the planet. I have a wonderful family around me. I earned more than I thought I’d ever earn in my life. Now’s the chance to give back”.

Aside from his voluntary work, Tom, who is married with two grown-up sons, enjoys spending time with his family, and pursuing his passion for photography, which he writes about in his blog, www.ministract.com. His mother sadly passed away last year and, now that he has his driving licence back again, he enjoys spending a week or two a month with his father.

Looking back on the work-life balance he maintained during his working career, Tom recognises that the scales leaned far more in favour of “work” over “life”, but he reasons that this was mainly because he loved his work so much. Over the years, however, the pressure of a gruelling working pattern, the pain from a form of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis, and the side effects of medication, all took their toll, resulting in intermittent bouts of anxiety and depression. He didn’t seek help at the time, thinking that things would sort themselves out.

Tom is experiencing a kind of liberation in retirement: “I’m doing the stuff I love”, he says. “It’s a doddle. And it’s wonderful to be able to do it. He is still revelling from the freedom that comes with only taking on responsibility for the things that “matter” to him: “This is a reset for me”. Of his work:life ratio, Tom says that his current self-perceived figure of 25:75 is higher than it was when he first retired, but lower than he’d like it to be. As his strength builds up, he’d like to build up his workload too: “I imagine”, he initially told me, “that I’ll get to 40:60”. On further reflection, he considers that the distinction between work and life will erode in time completely: “Eventually it won’t matter. It will all become life”.

My heart beats for you

A familiar pain stabs Tom on the side of his chest as he recalls being called in to advise someone from the executive-level management of his company, one of the world’s largest global consultancies, on the impact that the latest political headlines have on the business.

The pressure Tom felt was both internally and externally driven. He was expected to perform; he was relied on to deliver information, analysis, advice that the firm would then use to take important decisions. And Tom, passionate about politics, and committed to his job, was keen to informatively convey the implications for the business, resolute not to let his team down.

What’s more, he could not afford to fail. “I was an overhead”, he explains, “my role had zero chargeability. I was, to all intents and purposes, part of the costs of a sale”. So he had to prove his value again and again. On top of this, he admits to being plagued with a deep sense of “Imposter Syndrome”.

Tom’s hand instinctively touches on the point in his chest where the pain rises. He smiles as he refers to it, but his heartrate is clearly rising, his voice becoming distinctly breathless as he remembers the pressure-induced panic he would experience throughout his career.

You might think from this introduction to Tom’s story that he did not enjoy his work. But that was not the case at all. In fact, Tom loved his job; and he thrived on the pressure that came with it. The pressure that caused the stress-related twinges of pain, is the same pressure that came with the adrenalin-packed aspects of his job that gave him such a thrill. There was little respite from the pressure. It was natural for Tom to have his work phone switched on and by his side at all hours, including weekends and holidays. “It’s my clock”, he insists, “I never switch it off unless it’s updating”.

Attending Labour and Conservative Party Conferences in 1991

The word “workaholic” never came up in our conversation. But, Tom’s dedication to work went beyond his commitment to the business. He fed off its energy. He described not being able to switch off from the 24 hour culture of working for a global firm. “I wouldn’t have had the courage to switch off”, he says. It would have taken “courage”, he says, because switching off his phone would have meant potentially letting his boss down, risking becoming dispensable; and it would also have taken “courage” to purposely exclude himself from the buzz of getting caught up in any work-related action that would crop up out of hours.

On top of that, Tom lived with a strong sense of having to provide for his family, which – rightly or wrongly – meant that his job had a sort of protected status. That’s not to say that his personal life was any less important than work; but that these two things were “mutually” important.

I’ve come across this in my interviews before: Jhilmil, described a similar compulsion to work, describing how much it forms her identity; Sam, whose international-facing job also operates around the clock, likewise talked of his habit of keeping his work phone by his side at all hours, even when relaxing at home in the evenings; and, like Tom, self-proclaimed workaholic Darren described his dedication to working long hours, citing a passion for his job and likening it to doing his hobby for a living.

It’s difficult to differentiate between “work” and “life” when work is enjoyable, Tom argues. But he recognises that he overstepped the mark at times, effectively resulting in burnout. Interestingly, the three examples above – Jhilmil, Sam and Darren – also experienced a kind of burnout as a result of their work:life choices.

The pleasure and pain of looking back

When I interviewed Matthew, a surgeon who confronts life and death on nearly a daily basis, he shared his observation that “no one on their death bed wishes they’d spent more time at work”. Tom, on the other hand, expressed a longing to have been able to invest more on the “life” side of the equation, without forfeiting the “work” element: “I wish it hadn’t been a zero-sum game”, he says.

His eyes almost misted up as he talked about some of the personal highlights of his career. One of them was a secondment to the British Embassy in Tokyo in 1997, where he lived for over three years with his young family. Although he and his wife consciously agreed on the move, and the necessary division of responsibilities (he the breadwinner; she the primary carer of their children), neither of them could have anticipated how intense and all-consuming Tom’s work would be, and how little time he would spend with the family.

Making headline news in 2000 as Atomic Energy Counsellor in the British Embassy, Tokyo

Tom attests that his working lifestyle was propped up by societal expectations. He described holidays he missed, school runs he didn’t do, a lack of presence that was typical (though “not excusable!”) of fathers in his generation. This was a fatherhood style that was familiar to Tom, whose parents shared a similar dynamic when he was growing up: his father, the main breadwinner, worked in the nuclear industry, initially as a physicist, while his mother “was expected” to give up her nursing career until he and his sister were older.

Looking at the involvement that working dads are encouraged to have these days, Tom reflects on how times have changed. “I’d have loved to have had shared parental leave”, he muses. “It just wasn’t considered an option back then”.

Tom’s sons, Finn and Fabe – now all grown up

However, in the same breath, while reminiscing about some of the most high-pressured moments of his time working in the Embassy, his excitement is still palpable.

Would I have given that up? Do I wish I’d made other choices?”, he asks rhetorically. “I’d like to say yes, but it’s tough. I got such a buzz from the work I did. Could I honestly say I wouldn’t live through that again?“.

I feel relieved for Tom that he doesn’t actually have the option to travel back in time and do things differently, because he genuinely seems torn by the idea of this choice.

Love what you do

Devoting the majority of his time and attention to his career evidently had a detrimental impact on some aspects of Tom’s personal life and his relationships with those around him. But in terms of his personal ambition, passion and interest – it was utterly fulfilling. This left me thinking about how long-lasting and reparable such collateral damage can be in the pursuit of career ambition. Tom managed to salvage a personal life while remaining committed to his work. But he acknowledges that his family bore the brunt of much of this, which in turn had a personal impact too: “We all paid the price”, he remembers sombrely.  

You need to be aware of what you love and your obligations”, Tom attests, maintaining that having a passion for your discipline is essential to a person’s career success. He advises that a person should be passionate about 60% of their job; and if the passion is waning, find another angle within your career to ignite that within you. It’s a message Tom was keen to convey to my blog readers. The skill, he says, is to “manage the passion”:

“We hunt for jobs we love but, when we’ve found them, how often do we manage the passion? Chances are we lean on it rather than manage it. And when we don’t manage it, we discover that passion has a cost too. I saw it in my family who paid the price of me pursuing my passion at work;

I see the cost in the crisis charity work I do, with people who are seriously burnt out and might even be thinking of ending their lives; I see it in organisations who exploit an employee’s passion (“They’ll accept no pay rise – they love the job”). And on and on.

We must manage the passion”.

He is enthusiastic about improvements in gender equality in the workplace and home. “Everything’s dumped on women”, he comments, acknowledging the sacrifices his wife made for his career. She is now experiencing an “Indian summer” in her career, which he celebrates, not least because he’s enjoying being a “kept man!”.

Tom, with his wife “the boss!”

He expresses an admiration for the women he sees climbing the ranks of his former industry, juggling careers with motherhood, and he recognises the impact and challenges that enforced home-working due to the pandemic has had on the division of childcare responsibilities at home:

To effect meaningful progress, male leaders need to make changes and live those changes, in order to signal to others that childcare is not just a woman’s domain. Men must walk the talk”.

In terms of securing a shift to remote working, it took the pandemic only weeks to do what the IT industry had been trying to achieve for years, Tom argues. It would be a waste not to capitalise on this opportunity to reap the lifestyle benefits it can bring.

Great Expectations

Growing up, Tom commanded attention by his very stature. Literally. By the age of twelve, he had shot to the height of six foot two. “Everyone knew who I was”, he told me. He was hard to miss.

He possessed a self-assurance that he would be near the top of his class because, well, he always was. It’s not that things came particularly easy to him. He was a good student and he excelled; but he had to work hard for it. Yet at the same time he certainly would not describe himself as competitive. It was just the way things were for him.

“Always the tallest at school”. Photo taken after Tom took his O-Levels, 1979

His first brush with failure came when his A-Level results came out and he learned that he had failed two out of four of them. “It was the first time I’d faced failure”, he remembers, and it hit him hard.

He proved resilient though, coming back from this blow to make a success of the path made available to him, despite his grades. Having at first chosen to study in his father’s scientific footsteps, he made the bold decision to change courses and follow his passions for politics and international relations. Tom threw himself into his studies and student life, living up to the potential he’d been brought up to believe he was capable of, even if it was at Oxford Polytechnic rather than his goal of York University.

Tom was sociable, but from what he describes, did not have the most active social life. He was personable, interested in people and hard-working when it came to the things that mattered to him. Such traits have sustained throughout adulthood and helped shape his career, developing his niche for coaching within his consultancy, as well as delivering on his day job.

Tom with his younger sister Sue. Photo taken circa 1966 on holiday in Benllech Bay, North Wales.

Tom’s near-death experience in 2020, shortly followed by his mother’s sudden death, crystallised Tom’s understanding of his inherent self-assuredness. It revealed a vulnerability, humility and ability to empathise that he had not consciously tapped into previously, and this has had a lasting and profound impact on him and his relationships with those closest to him. It is something that he feels immensely grateful for. He says:

Being vulnerable revealed what it means to be loved, as well as to love; how relationships you thought had been lost can be regained; and how acknowledging the need for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. The power of vulnerability is something that applies equally to both sides of the work:life equation“.

You’re never too big to say “thank you”

To this day, Tom carries a note in his wallet that was given to him in 1988 by the Chair of his first employer. The note was to thank him for a piece of work he had done, and it struck Tom as the kindest and most motivating gesture, and a leadership style that he sought to emulate: “You can never say thank you too much”.

In our discussion, Tom referred to numerous other role models in his life. For example, his mother’s approach to listening to, and supporting, others inspired him to incorporate listening into his leadership style. “She always put other people first, and I try to follow that example”, he says. He also told me about an Italian photographer that coached him in photography; “He taught me how to use a camera to liberate my eyes”.

Making time for the things he enjoys: Photograph taken from Tom’s Ministract collection

Tom’s generosity in seeing the value in others seems boundless and he gives credit abundantly to the people around him for his successes. “There is no greater compliment for me than if someone in my team is headhunted”, he says.

Interestingly, in our discussion on role models, there was no reference to working long hours, or career progression. All the strengths that Tom admires in his role models fall more into the “life” than “work” category.  He learned from them that the human aspects that orbit being a hard-working and capable professional really matter: “People are people”. And these are again the elements that inspired Tom’s leadership style.

Now that he has the freedom to dedicate his time exclusively to “the things that matter” to him, the pressure is off, and Tom seems to be enjoying a type of honeymoon period, adjusting to being a free agent. His desire for some structure and sense of productivity seem like hard-wired working habits, and without which his free time would feel meaningless.

Just as he did in the midst of his busy career, Tom thrives on the 25% of his time that he now devotes to “work”, and is keen to increase it when possible. His work makes him “useful”, and he is fulfilled by being able to “give back”. I have previously in my blog observed how powerful “work” is in providing individuals with a sense of value and identity. Tom’s story reinforces this theme, and moreover, it depicts that though the nature of “work” may change with the passage of years, the feelings it evokes do not necessarily diminish with age.

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