The last time I wrote about lighting I was sailing the high seas on cruise ships for Royal Caribbean International. Ironically enough, this time I am writing to tell you how I left that world, specifically how I went from sailing the high seas to managing the lighting department of a production company back home in Nashville, TN.

About a year ago, I was in Florida helping a friend with the load-in for a show being handled by The Mitchell Group Production Services in Nashville, a company that I had done a bit of freelance work for in my younger years. The owner of the production company happened to be at the show and pulled me aside during the load in and said four of my favorite words in this industry, “I want you back.” I was quite happy working for Royal Caribbean at the time and told him thanks but no thanks. But then he told me was interested in moving me into a position where I could manage and grow the lighting department of his production company.

That got my attention. We discussed compensation, and then I told him I'd have to think about the benefits of moving back to land versus staying on ships, not to mention my career path. After objectively looking at the situation and speaking with my father (yes, dad's advice does tend to become valuable later in life, especially when he's an accountant!), I decided it was time to try something new, which is what inevitably led me back to Nashville.

Now that I've made the change, it occurs to me that many people spend all of their time thinking about the new job itself but not about all of the other things that you have to deal with after you take the plunge. I'd like to offer a few tips (along with my dad's input) to others in a similar situation, all designed to ensure a smooth and successful career transition.

  1. Financial planning

    Make sure you know what you are getting into financially, and know exactly what you have before you decide to make a transition. Know what your current living expenses are, and try to research and decide what it is going to cost you to live in your new location. Having this information at hand will give you a good perspective to know just exactly how much more you are going to need to ask for in order to make it profitable for you.

  2. Save up!

    I highly recommend that everyone keep a savings account or some sort of non-volatile investment they can use as a backup, something you can easily deposit a portion of every paycheck into for unexpected expenses or an “unexpected interruption in employment,” as the euphemism goes. My stepmother has an excellent system with her bank (it's direct-deposit), where a percentage out of every paycheck automatically gets routed to her savings account, and the rest goes to her checking — the old “if you never had it to begin with, you won't miss it” scenario. In general, if you are voluntarily planning to leave your current job, have no less than three month's wages saved up for moving/startup expenses.

  3. Set up your new deal before leaving your old one

    Make sure you know what you are getting into, and nail down your new deal in writing before you leave your old one. This was one area I was weak on and learned from in my transition. While I still came out okay at the end, I ended up backing down a bit from my original asking price because I never got it in writing before I left my old job.

  4. Leave gracefully

    While sometimes this is not always possible, you should always try to leave your previous employer on good terms. Give as much notice as humanly possible. Once you are sure your new deal is the real thing and right for you, let your employer know. If the employer is worth working for, they will either be happy for your chance to move up or potentially make a counter-offer (it's a bit of a curveball, but there are worse situations to find yourself in). One other thing I learned is if you are in a contract currently, explain this to your potential employer from the start. If they are truly interested in you, they will be willing to wait for you or make it worth it to you to break the contract early, if possible.

  5. Plan your move

    I moved back to my hometown and moved in with my best friend from high school (who happened to work at the production company as well). This made my transition extremely easy, since I not only had a place to live but also transportation to and from work until I got a car (being at sea for nearly eight years, I had long since sold my last car). For others, you may be moving into an area in which you are unfamiliar. Make sure to research the area and establish yourself in the best location to suit your situation. This will also help you in establishing your deal with your new employer by finding out just how expensive it will be to live where you are planning to move.

  6. Understand your new operating environment

    This was one area I particularly struggled with in my transition, and something I'm still working through. I moved from a very stable industry where the operating environment was essentially the same to one that is in constant flux. From a financial aspect, I moved from a multi-billion dollar company where I knew exactly what my annual budget was and was free to operate within that, to a smaller production company where expenses are budgeted and justified on a show-to-show basis. In addition, I've transitioned from an environment of designing/programming/operating a show on a nightly basis under the same parameters with the same objectives to an environment where each show is its own entity and environment. Plus, I have to interpret the client's needs and desires, and turn it into a show that will fit their budget. It all adds up to an equation that makes me glad I paid attention to math in school.

  7. Stay on good terms with your former employer

    Beyond not burning the bridge when you leave, remember to stay in touch and on good terms after you go. To me, this is one of the most important factors in any transition. Since I left Royal Caribbean, I have been asked back several times to assist with projects and training as a contractor at a significantly higher day rate than I was making as a full time employee. Keep yourself in the good books, and it can help keep you in the black.

Just remember that every transition can be a successful one; you just have to prepare for it, do your homework, and be open to the change. I'm enjoying my transition back to land after nearly eight years at sea. It's nice to come home at night and cook dinner, shop for groceries, and various other things that just don't translate into cruising. Hopefully, your next career transition will be equally smooth sailing.

Chuck Dillingham is currently the director of lighting operations at The Mitchell Group Production Services, LLC in Nashville. His last article appeared in the May 2004 issue of Lighting Dimensions. He can be reached at chuck@tmgnashville.com.