As a mid-career professional there comes a time when you ask “Am I doing what really aligns with how I want to contribute?” “Should I change direction, and if so, where should I go?” After all, Herminia Ibarra’s seminal work on crafting career transitions does reveal that during our working lives most of us will work in an average of three different organisations and will navigate at least one major career shift. For mid-career professionals a career shift is more than a job change. Her research reveals that on the outside what appears as a significant career shift for a professional, actually involves a fundamental reinventing of self. And all this happens during the ‘transition period’ towards a successful career shift.
Invest in the ‘Transition Period’
This realisation eluded me. I am so fortunate to have encountered Ibarra’s research in her book ‘Working Identity’ when I was unknowingly sitting on a seismic shift in directing my career. With the clients I work with who seeking the what next in their leadership and careers, I reinforce that the period of being ‘in-between careers’ requires the most investment and has the most impact. I wish someone had said this so clearly to me at the outset!
‘Transition’ the word always captures the space of the unknown – the in-between moments and experiences between the departing point and the destination station. For me the years preceding a career change had a schizophrenic sense. I was subject to the adhoc workings of emotion and intellect – moments of great uncertainty, clarity, anxiety, excitement, turmoil. Understandably, you don’t want to give up a career path in which you have invested so much of yourself without having a good and fitting sense of the alternative. Ibarra’s work magnifies the importance of what mindset and behaviours during the ‘transition period’ are important to dabble with in order to make a successful breakthrough in pivoting such a career change.
If you haven’t read it yet, Ibarra’s book profiles 39 mid-career professionals in the age group of 32-51 years from disparate professions and industries and how they ultimately landed the opportunity that aligned with exactly what they wanted. On the outside it may look like serendipity worked for these professionals, but the case studies reveal the simple strategies, tactics and undoing they engaged in during the ‘transition period’. Every page of the book has nuggets of insight and tips so it is hard to do it justice by summarising just the top take-aways. I’d recommend the reading the book – cover to cover, page by page.
However, the following three insights really stood out for me and resonate deeply because they marry the psychological battle and behavioural overhaul that comes with recognising the inflection point in your career and making choices that hit outside the park. That was in-fact, my story.
Explore three strategies during this time
A remarkably elusive insight is that when you contemplate a career transition, it is the perfect start to your process of reinvention and changing your story. If like me, you are looking for more in your career, rather than just a job change – the process of discovering what next requires moving away from some ingrained ways of relying on what I already know about my career and professional life and excessively planning based on that. Also, I learned to embrace the test-and-learn phase – dabble in a new way of thinking and doing, while not being 100% sure it would lead to the eureka moment/opportunity I was seeking. Just following that process allowed me to unearth so much than what a straitjacketed approach would have.
- Craft Experiments
Move away from: Inordinate planning, analyses/pros-cons approach towards implementing a career change – what I call the ‘check-list’ approach. It also involves moving away from diagnostics, psychometric, self-assessment tests and career counsellors. The answer most likely does not lie there. At the same time, only deep introspection and self-reflection will not lead to the discovery you are seeking.
Embrace: The starting point for a career change is to act your way into a new way of thinking and being. The transition period has to have bias for action. This involves crafting small experiments – side projects, temporary assignments, courses, volunteering – exploring different paths. Identify and implement small projects that will allow you to try out a new professional role in a tangible yet limited way. This allows you to explore without committing completely and will allow you to process the known and unforeseen aspects of where you think might be the right fit. It will help confirm and discard your hunch about what may seem appealing but may not be feasible.
2. Shift connections
Move away from: The networks you have cultivated in your established job and perhaps rely on, will rarely lead you to something new and different. Existing contacts and networks hardly support us in reinventing ourselves. Who we know – co-workers, supervisors, mentors, professional peers may actually serve as traps, and barriers to experimentation. Our closest contacts – friends, family, colleagues are a great source of comfort during times of change and the uncertainty we confront when making that huge leap in a career choice. However, they may also be a potential source that binds us to our outdated identities. Your itch to experiment with future possibilities and selves at times may be resisted by several of them and for all good reason and intent. Some of them may also be heavily invested in you staying where you are and may mirror your insecurity of not being well-placed to take the leap you are itching to take. So be cautious about an insidious influence.
Embrace: Be extra-ordinarily curious about learning from those who have almost a six degree separation from your work life/industry. Tap into a peer group, outside of your area of work – practice finding people who can help you meet your future self, people you admire, would like to emulate, or have a shared values and connect with. You may not encounter these people through your existing social set up – don’t look for them through your work. Be open to absorbing the stories of others and you will find the connect. However, don’t also lose sight of the guiding figures in your life. Those mentors or guideposts who unconditionally believe in your potential, and offer a space to help you process and endure the ambiguity of the transition period. At times, conversations with them may serve as a reality check as well.
3. Manage the ebbs and flows
During the transition period know that it is okay to oscillate between holding on to what you know, where you are and moments of letting it go. Dabbling with experiments and connections will help you live out and explore the contradictions rather than made a premature decision to get somewhere faster. You may land up making the wrong choice if don’t manage your restlessness. Watch out for decisions made in haste or just because something unsolicited lands in your lap. At times, you just need to do the work. If you short circuit, the whole career change and reinvention may take longer than you like.
However, while you step back, don’t let it last too long. Stay the course of figuring it out – but also seize the opportunity before it slides away.