Reimagining Post-Corporate Careers: An Executive Conversation Series
Wade Welborn spent almost a quarter of a century working with one company, moving around four continents and up the corporate ladder as the quintessential company man. His one regret about taking the leap of faith in leaving his corporate job and pursuing a portfolio career: “I wish I had done it sooner.”
For Welborn, the transition has proven to be a happy surprise. After finding himself back in the United States after leading teams and business units in eight countries, Welborn helped with the integration of former employer Baker Hughes into the GE family of businesses. The integration was successful, but he didn’t see a role for himself in the new structure.
After weighing his options, in January 2020, Welborn approached his boss about leaving. It wasn’t an easy decision, given how much he had always enjoyed his work and that it had been decades since he had had to look for a job. “It was a very trying time for me,” he admits. Personal circumstances necessitated a permanent move from Houston to Tulsa, where he currently lives with his blended family that he likens to “The Brady Bunch.”
Engineering a Career Shift
Though happy to be settled in Tulsa after several years of flying back and forth between Houston and Tulsa, Welborn initially found himself at a loss about his next move. “I was always bouncing from one country to the next, one position to the next level, always growing,” he recalls of his time at Baker Hughes. “And now here I am without any direction, and I felt like I was too young to retire.” As part of his separation package from Baker Hughes, Welborn received leadership transition services from ICEO. Starting from scratch was a new experience for Welborn, but not one he was completely unprepared for.
He graduated with a degree in petroleum engineering from Texas A&M University at a less than auspicious time in the energy business for new grads. Unable to find an engineering position, Welborn took a job as a truck driver. Such a humble start might have daunted others, but not Welborn. “If I reflect on my career, I was always willing to take that risk that many others might not have,” he says. “They might be thinking in the back of their mind, ‘Well, what if I fail?’ – I never really thought that.”
That confidence helped him grow a business he had started in 2002, Welborn Energy Management, an upstream production company focused on field development. When he moved back to Tulsa in 2020, he knew it was time to ramp up the business. “I was kind of burnt out on the corporate life,” he admits. “I made up my mind that we’re going to build up this company, and then COVID happened.” He took the opportunity to put together a successful longer-term strategy for the business, do consulting work in the area of upstream production, and open a franchise of Temperature Pro, a national HVAC company.
Welborn says he would not have been able to accomplish all that he has without support, which he points out can take many different forms – one’s family, spouse, kids, coworkers, and mentors who have left the company and can show you the way.
“I found, and continue to find, people are generally happy to help, especially if you have had any sort of relationship with them in the past.” He says he needed to be pushed to ask for help – which for him was one of the benefits of working with ICEO, though he was initially reluctant to engage. “I was kind of standoffish at first, thinking ‘what are you guys going to do for me?’” he remembers. “The more I got into it, the more beneficial I could see it was going to be, even if I just had to knock some things around, ‘Hey, here's what I'm thinking, here's where my head is,’ to help get me through that uncertainty.”
Of particular value to him was an assessment process to help him get a firmer grasp of his own mindset about his situation and moving forward. “It was not a straight line with an arrow. It was up and down, all around, until finally something went off and I was like, ‘Hey, this is it,’ without knowing if it was going to work, but being able to trust my own ability to make it work,” he remembers.
Strength in Humility
Welborn’s self-confidence and willingness to take risks have been tempered by a healthy dose of humility. “It can be humbling, when you go from a job where you walk into an auditorium and everyone's waiting to hear what you have to say, and then overnight no one really cares,” he acknowledges.
He says it was a huge shift to go from a large-corporation mentality, having 6,000 employees on his team, to having six employees, as he does now. But such a change in thinking is essential. “If you don't humble yourself and understand the respect that all of the others deserve, then you can’t really have success in anything.”
Humility also played a role as he was networking. “When you first dive into networking, it can be uncomfortable,” he admits. “You go from having a big position where people are asking for your help and guidance to being the one picking up the phone, looking to meet as many people as you can.”
Especially gratifying for him now is offering support to many of his former employees as they figure out their own next steps. “I meet with them on a regular basis. Some of them I'm lucky enough to be able to have face-to-face conversations, some it’s a phone call, a few via Zoom. They just like to kick ideas around and I'm not bashful, so I will let them know my thoughts.”
The “Sixth F”
Welborn says that he has always lived his life by what he calls “my five Fs” – which are faith, family, friends, fitness, and finance. During his transition, he relied heavily on faith. “I really leaned on that “F” where I literally took a leap of faith, and here I am,” he says. “I'm not where I want to be with everything that I'm building, but it's happening, which is very encouraging.”
While the first three are self-explanatory, he says he often gets asked about finance and fitness. “Finance can or cannot be lining your pockets. For me it’s how can I grow a business, or how can I build a business, to where financially we can do good things.” To him, that translates into hiring more people, allowing them to provide for their families, and being able to give more to charity. And fitness, for Welborn, is all-encompassing — physically, mentally, and emotionally – what he calls “the fitness of everything.”
He says that along the way he was encouraged by a member of his ICEO team to add a sixth “F” – fun. He cited a recent example of doing just that when the PGA Championship was in Tulsa. “At the last moment, I just decided — actually, when they announced Tiger Woods was going to be here — I bought four tickets and I went one day with three of my kids.
“One of the ‘a-ha moments’ for me was that day where I'm out there with three of my daughters, we're watching Tiger Woods hit the ball right in front of us. I would have never been able to do that on the spur of the moment in my prior life.”
Through Wade’s journey, he has built a new professional life with many advantages. Among these he counts being his own boss, doing pro bono work with the American Heart Association and an Oklahoma-based economic development board, and helping others through the same sort of self-discovery process he undertook. In fact, being a resource for former Baker Hughes employees inspired him to join ICEO’s practice as an advisor supporting executives like himself because “there's always something to do that's bigger than yourself.”
Wade Welborn shared his story as part of Reimagining Post-Corporate Careers: An Executive Conversation Series hosted by the International Center for Executive Options (ICEO)