My Personal Great (Un)Resignation

HPA Stories: As we celebrate our 20th anniversary, HPA team members share their personal stories and how they have impacted them professionally at HPA. We look forward to sharing these stories with you as part of our celebration of the people at the core of our business.

By VP of Talent Theo Song

HighPoint Associates has been around for 20 years – that’s quite an achievement for a professional services firm. You don’t make it to your twentieth year without consistently delivering value to your clients. But in addition to our successful and engaging client partnership, there’s another side of the equation people don’t see. That is how HPA interacts with our network of independent consultants (ICs). It’s a group of professionals that is as talented and diverse as anywhere in the corporate world.

The relationship is symbiotic: our ICs help drive the company, and we enable our ICs to do what they do best: help companies solve their business problems. But we also help our ICs achieve better work-life balance, to the extent that’s feasible these days. And that is something I know about personally.

Early in my career, I worked in consulting at Bain and then in the corporate world, for companies like Vans, VIZIO, Mattel, and Billabong. I worked a lot of hours and traveled quite a bit. Not just LA to New York, but also places like London, Barcelona, Istanbul, Shanghai, Sydney. Frequent flyer miles and hotel points were actively managed. Excel and PowerPoint were second languages. The Blackberry, and then the iPhone, were my corporate umbilical cords.

And not just for me, but it seemed like my entire cohort. We analyzed industries and looked for white space to grow. We studied categories and launched new products and services. We entered new territories and acquired distributors. Incremental growth, EBITDA, return on investment.

But then, to paraphrase the great pugilist Mike Tyson, “Life decided to punch me in the face.” Suddenly things like platinum status or upgrades weren’t that important. Life changed. And as the great philosopher William Murray once said, “It just didn’t matter.”

So, in 2016, I took some time off. Or rather, Life put me in a “time out.” Headhunters told me it was a mistake – these were the prime years of my career. Interest rates were low, financial markets were high, corporate and startup jobs were easy to find. But despite the macro environment, I had my own personal Great Resignation, just as corporate tailwinds were at their peak.

Following in the footsteps of Jules Winnfield, I quit the life, grabbed a backpack and walked the earth. No real plans, just embracing the uncertainty of life. One year turned into two, then three, and so on. Interesting times as the country seemed to be splitting apart. I met many characters and got into adventures. And then Covid hit, and the world turned into a Cormac McCarthy novel. Nothing was normal. Nothing was going according to plan. And all of my priorities changed.

Five years into my time out, I ran into somebody I had known for over a decade. I was working as a soccer referee when I bumped into HPA COO Justin Moser (turns out his daughter was playing in that game – fortunately I did not give her a yellow card). After getting past the whole, “Wow, you’re still alive, so exactly what have you been up to?”, we caught up on Life and how the corporate world had changed. He thought I might have an interesting perspective on things, and he convinced me to un-resign.

Specifically, he thought I might be able to relate well to that other side of the HPA equation: our ICs. What I’ve come to learn over the years is: work-life balance is an art. And it’s a core value for many of our ICs. And my job is to help them out.

For example, some of our consultants like to work nine months out of the year and travel for three. That often works well when they have children who are in school. Others like to work throughout the year, but only want to work three days per week. Whatever their personal situation, we try to match them with clients who need that level of support. It’s a bit like trying to solve a puzzle: finding the right consultant who fits the project (not just skills and experience, but work schedule).

When it works, it allows our ICs to achieve a better work-life balance for their individual set of circumstances. One of our ICs skied 50 days last year. Another lives in Hawaii and surfs. Quite a few teach classes, and some have become actors. Many are raising children (some of them as single parents). And others have their own successful entrepreneurial businesses.

Looking back on the past ten years, if you took the average of my work and personal life, it would appear there was balance. But in truth, the data would look like a Min Max function with extreme volatility. And that didn’t serve me well. So now, I try to help our ICs get closer to having that elusive work-life balance, feeling some sense of agency in their lives, and hopefully avoiding the Min Max.

For those considering their own Great Resignation, I would offer the following advice (for what it’s worth). If you can (and it’s worth acknowledging, being able to do so is a privilege), take some time off, call it a sabbatical, or a gap year. Unplug your phone, grab a book or two, travel and meet up with old friends. Learn to paint, or snowboard, or speak a new language. Volunteer and teach if that’s what was missing. Spend time with loved ones.

But then, depending on how much time you take off, be prepared to tell a story if you decide to re-enter the workforce. Headhunters love to ask, “So why are you choosing to return now?” For me, it was a feeling that my personal life was more stable. And I still had something to offer. Let’s be real, I’m not an artist, or a creator, or a doctor, but whatever small talents I had been given, I knew it would be a shame not to at least try to utilize them.

And on a personal level, I realized that I missed being part of a team. Having played team sports all my life (albeit poorly) I missed the camaraderie, the hallway conversations, the goofy celebrations when a project goes well – the whole Jane Goodall, “Humans are social animals” thing. As the late Taylor Hawkins once said, “I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself, and that’s why I joined a band.” No amount of FaceTime can replace the human need to connect.

But re-entering the workforce, for sure there was an adjustment period. You don’t want it to go like Brooks in Shawshank Redemption. So if you do come back, be prepared to acclimate in a big way. Not just to the shifts in technology (“Why do I need a LinkedIn profile?”). But the relentless speed and pace of the markets and the corporate world. It used to be Europe in the morning, and Asia in the evening. Now it’s 24/7, and everything is continuous staccato bursts of information. Optimistically, until Skynet and AI can truly synthesize disparate pieces of information, I think I can still help out.

Which brings us back to our ICs, and how I aspire to help them. In a very small way, I would like to think that I help them with balance, which may enable them to avoid their own Great Resignation. “Jennifer wants to work in Q2, and then go to Europe this summer – Tres bien! Peter just got funding for his startup – Super rad! Lisa wants to take her middle-school daughter to a concert this Wednesday – Slay!” You do you. And I will try to help them avoid the Min Max.

Of course, HPA is here first and foremost to serve our clients, and we do that very well. But in addition, if we can also help our ICs find some balance along the way, that’s not a bad thing either.

Theo Song is the Vice President of Talent with HighPoint Associates. As the VP of Talent, he recruits top-tier independent consultants into the HighPoint network, identifying areas of expertise and determining relevant client opportunities. He also leads the project staffing function for the Firm, ensuring each project is set up for success from the start.

Prior to joining HighPoint, Theo worked in strategy consulting with Bain & Company, plus a variety of industries including consumer products, electronics, footwear and apparel. He has served private-equity clients in their portfolio companies and also worked directly for a Fortune 500 company. During his career, Theo has had the opportunity to work internationally in Europe, Asia and Latin America.

Theo holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BS from the Wharton School of Business.

Theo is based in Los Angeles where he enjoys spending time with his daughters, volunteering as a coach and referee for their sports teams. On the weekends you can usually find him at the beach, or at the dog park trying to teach his puppy new tricks.