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After more than a decade of rising in the ranks of the public service, I began to question my career path. It was a career like many that had taken time to build. As a Canadian diplomat, I looked to a potential future with a great salary, a pension, international travel, and most of all, the prestige of representing Canada on the world stage.

But following my second diplomatic assignment and the birth of my first daughter, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Where is my career and life taking me?” I wanted the freedom to make my own decisions, take risks and be accountable, be creative, and be my own boss. I wanted to be in total control of where in the world I worked, and what time I got on a plane to get there. I wasn’t headed in that direction.

Initially I set out to change ‘jobs.’ I began to search for an employer or a corporate culture where I felt the opportunities would grow with my skills, and my work ethic would be met with room to be innovative and creative.

But nothing quite fit. So I stopped looking for a job, and started looking to create the career I wanted for myself. In the three years since I quit the public service, I’ve helped build the foundation for four different startups in multiple sectors across the globe, one of which became the “fit” I was looking for.

Handing in my diplomatic ID six days before my 33rd birthday was one of the hardest and most emotional decisions of my life. With most people I know who have been successful in business, it’s been because they’ve been willing to take on risky challenges to which other people would say, “I’m not so sure I’d have the courage to do that.” Deciding to leave was a risky decision to some people, but to me it was, “This is an opportunity I can’t pass up—it’s allowing me to learn new things, take on a new challenge, and build a new global company.” The reaction from people wasn’t always favorable. “Are you crazy? What about the pension you left, and the benefits?” they asked. “What about your goal of being the youngest Canadian ambassador?” they wondered.

To this day, I have no regrets—nor am I likely to. And I’m hardly the only person of my generation to strike out on my own in this way. In Canada, the landscape of employment is changing. A growing number of young people are seeking to escape the pull of the economic cycle by starting their own companies. The nature of the relationship between employers and employees has undergone a fundamental change—today’s workers are likely to show more loyalty to career than company.

In 2014, I founded the Allam Advisory Group, an Ottawa-based global business, strategy and commercial diplomacy consulting firm that helps clients expand their businesses and manage risks worldwide. The idea was to improve on the traditional business consulting and freelancing models, and to power them with technology and collaborative tools. The idea was to create a new, virtual model for a global company.

Two years ago, this company wasn’t much more than a concept, a blueprint I had sketched out in a few meetings at local coffee shops in Ottawa. The team was ambitious, relentless and overworked. We believed that we could build a culture where people could actually be happy during the day, doing something that other people thought of as “work.” Egos and politics wouldn’t be allowed; integrity, passion and determination would be mandatory.

I wasn’t showing up every day to build an empire. The company culture was—and is—the end game. On a daily basis, we’re creating the careers we want by producing the kind of work we’ve always envied. Here are four things I’ve learned about entrepreneurship over the last few years.

1. It’s not a dress rehearsal

Grasp every opportunity that comes your way, and go out and find it if one doesn’t come along. It’s good advice for every aspect of your life, but it’s particularly important when starting a business, contemplating entrepreneurship, or thinking about where you want your career to go. The best leaders take every opportunity and inspire their followers to do the same.

2. Listen carefully

McGill University professor and leadership management expert Dr. Karl Moore likes to remind people that the best leaders are great listeners. It’s important to listen carefully to everyone involved in your organization, from executives to interns to investors.

Remember that people who challenge your ideas may be wearing different lenses, but they’re looking towards the same goals and vision as you are. Listening encourages healthy relationships and allows everyone to feel like they are shaping the growth and future of the business. Richard Branson said it best: Most people make the mistake of listening too little and talking too much.” The better approach is “say less, contribute more.”

3. Have fun with it

With so many challenges facing entrepreneurs and startups, and the endless stream of uncertainties in today’s global economy, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Entrepreneurs need to make lots of serious decisions when building their company and brand. But no matter how serious your work is, it’s important to keep a sense of humour and have fun.

4. Take calculated risks

Try to solve problems that present themselves, and don’t shy away from the biggest challenges. Big dreams draw a crowd and invite new challenges. By daring to be different, entrepreneurs can set their business apart from more established competitors.

• • • • •

If becoming the next Richard Branson isn’t your thing, it’s vital to, at the very least, think like an entrepreneur. In our evolving economy, many people are learning the hard way that you can’t count on your 9-to-5. My roles in public service, the corporate sector and civil society has been invaluable preparation for the world of startups.

On Sunday nights, will you look forward to going back to the office on Monday? In three to five years, will you want to be at the same organization you are today? They’re existential, important questions. When you love what you do, work doesn’t seem like work and your quality of life skyrockets. It did for me.

Omar Allam is a former Canadian diplomat and global entrepreneur with private sector, UN, and World Bank experience in international trade and foreign policy. He currently serves as CEO of the Allam Advisory Group, an integrated global trade and commercial diplomacy consulting firm. Based in Ottawa, he counsels business executives and senior government officials on global strategy, market expansion, global operations, international business development, risk management, and government relations across the world. His work includes developing “go-to-market” strategies, value-creation, new business development, marketing & sales support, identifying trade financing solutions, mapping out strategic partnerships, and providing government relations support.

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