Stressed in the City: how I learned to start up again

Employment & Skills | Food & Drink | National | Start-up

Paul Turton

Written by Paul Turton, MD at Pact Coffee

Burnout has been a term bounced around without real meaning, until now. The condition has been added to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) International Classification of Diseases and will be a globally recognised medical condition from 2020.

With a boarding school upbringing and a misguided and naive perception that stress was only for the weak, I really struggled to come to terms with my own experience of burnout. In hindsight, the last two years of my 20-year corporate career were a pivotal moment, and where things took a turn for the worse.

Whilst at a conference in Brussels, I noticed an unsightly rash all over my body. This set alarm bells ringing, and after a visit to the doctor, the rash was diagnosed as a symptom of stress. Feeling trapped in a highly toxic work environment whilst trying to balance a challenging period in my personal life, I knew I needed to plan my exit. Having always wanted to do something smaller and more entrepreneurial, this was the perfect moment to make that leap.

After two stints at cool, small to medium-sized businesses, I found a new lease of life. I relished the fact that the companies were doing something innovative and purposeful so could apply my skills from my corporate background to help them grow. However, it was in the summer of 2017 when the founder of Pact Coffee approached me to run the business, saying he wanted to step aside. So why did I jump at the chance and why should other corporate leaders looking to join startups and SMEs make the leap?

Company culture and environment

The culture in a startup is very different from the corporate world, one that I have learned to adapt to. Many more young people today are choosing to sidestep the traditional 9-5 and follow a more entrepreneurial and flexible path. Coming in as MD with a corporate background, it was important to provide leadership, structure and discipline without extinguishing any of that passion and spirit.

Working with a young and consistently optimistic team is genuinely empowering and has been fundamental in helping me settle down in a startup. It’s great that my team shares the same vision and outlook as I do and refreshing that they are genuinely in love with the company, what we stand for and the good that we do. This is the complete opposite to my experience of corporate life, where there is often intense top-down organisational pressure, together with behaviours I am no longer prepared to tolerate such self-projection, self protectionism and even bullying.

To me, the joy and privilege at being at the helm of a startup is to be able to shape its culture, especially the values and behaviours you expect the team to operate and live by.

Be a chameleon

As a corporate leader, it can seem daunting to ever consider leaving the industry you know inside out and start afresh. However, for some people, there’s no other option – whether that’s a personal change that necessitates flexible working hours, or like me, experiencing a wake-up call.

Whilst startup life seems like a lifetime away from big business, it’s no less of a challenge due to the varied nature of the role. Corporate leaders have so much to offer, in particular team leadership expertise, together with a well-developed ability for planning and decision making. Often at startups, the structure might not be 100% perfect to optimise growth or profit, but it’s important not to over obsess about this and sometimes just go with the flow.

The most valuable piece of advice I’ve learnt since starting at Pact Coffee, and that I cannot share enough, is that new leaders need to find their place within the company and refine their leadership style – almost chameleon-like. This needs to be done with high levels of emotional intelligence, to avoid suppressing the positivity and energy of individuals and the organisation, whilst gently introducing discipline below the surface.

Find a company with a meaningful ethos

It can be enticing to join an already successful SME but is that company right for you? You’ve left the corporate world to seek change and a new challenge but ultimately, can you thrive if you don’t believe in the brand? Ask any leader and I can guarantee they’ll tell you that this is an important factor when working for a startup.

I was stressed in the City and eventually burnt out because I was unhappy in my corporate job. I knew I wanted to find a role and startup with meaning, and I couldn’t have found a better fit. Pact Coffee is making a real difference to the coffee industry – delivering the best quality and most flavoursome coffees to people’s doors each day, and ensuring coffee farmers are paid fairer than Fairtrade prices for their beans. I’m delighted to be part of this change.

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