The Secrets of a Successful Career Change

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When I decided to change career six years ago, I met a wall of suspicion from friends and colleagues and downright disbelief from my family. “You must be mad,” said my work colleagues. “You’re always changing your mind,” said a friend who’d been in the same company for 17 years. “You have a good job, why on earth do you want to leave it?” asked my father, who just completed 40 years of government service.

They all had a point. I did have a good job and I enjoyed it. It was a big risk to throw it all in and change direction. In truth, there was no logical answer, just an overwhelming feeling that it was time to make a change. So that is what I did. It was tough going. I had to go back to university, master new skills, and build contacts in a new industry. My belief in myself was tested to the limit. I persevered and eventually had a breakthrough. From small steps I established myself and built a business. If you were to ask me now whether I’d do it again, it would be hard to give an unequivocal yes. Am I glad I did it? Definitely. Why? Because now I am in charge of my work and my life.

Many of the people I am now coaching are struggling with questions I asked myself six years ago. Is there another career out there for me? Should I make the change? If I change, what impact will it have on my life? What impact will there be if I don’t make the change? These are all difficult questions. So what to do? You could ask a career coach or read a book such as What Color is your Parachute?, but would that help you make the decision? Too often coaches and development books offer idealized visions of what might happen if you make a big mid-career shift. There are lots of uplifting stories out there — hear NPR’s Take Two: Life Changes series, which featured executives who became teachers or community workers and a rancher who became a doctor. It encourages people to give up their corporate role and follow their dream or purpose.

Far less is written about those who fail to make the transition. In a rare study of executive career changes that have not worked, Herminia Ibarra, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD, the French business school, explains just how hard it is to use conventional career planning to change direction mid-career. Professor Ibarra argues that despite all the rhetoric, a true change of direction is very hard to swing. This isn’t because managers are unwilling to change, rather that they are taking the wrong approach by looking outwards at career steps they might take rather inwards at their sense of self. She suggests the best way to make the transition is to take stock of your working identity. That’s your sense of self in your professional role: what you convey about yourself to others and, ultimately, how you live your working lives. She says successful transitioners reshape their working identity for their new role. So in my own case, that meant shifting my identity as a journalist to learn new behaviors that matched my role as executive coach. I had to put aside certain behaviors and introduce new ones, although I was still able to draw on my core skills of listening, reflecting and communicating stories.

Of course, it is not just the mid-career executives who are changing direction these days. Members of Generation X and Generation Y are considering career changes in their late twenties and early thirties. Last year I coached a 29-year old student who announced that his MBA was the gateway to his third career, having already turned around his father’s business and sold his own start-up at a profit. It is not unusual to hear of plans for second, vocational careers from smart young graduates, such as the English language graduate I coached who, by the age of 26, had left behind careers in investment banking and management consulting to train as a hospital doctor.

I am not the best qualified person to advise these bright young things. But I would offer a couple of words of advice based on my own experience to anyone who might be thinking of changing career:

1. Take some time to consider the impact on your life (and those around you) if you don’t make a successful change
2. Make sure you have adequate support (both emotional and financial)
3. If you are still sure you want to change, go for it with all your drive and energy!

What are your thoughts on career change? Have you changed careers and succeeded or have things not worked out as you expected? Do you have any advice for people contemplating a similar change?

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