My antenna is always roaming to and fro seeking for new or disruptive ideas that seem to question well-worn methods or beliefs. Less than ten years ago I stumbled on this research published in the Harvard Business Review (HBR). It had the title, How to stay stuck in the wrong career and was the work by Herminia Ibara. Some few years ago I decided to buy her book, Working Identity, in which she expounded on the research. To aid assimilation of her concept, this article is a copious, largely unedited version of Herminia’s work as published in HBR.
Who needs to read this article?
All mid-career professionals. Everyone contemplating a career change or re-invention. “Of course people don’t want to stay stuck in the wrong-not-going-anywhere career. But the conventional career change methods are only helping professionals achieve one thing – staying stuck in the wrong career! Instead of the conventional method called the plan and implement model of change, Herminia says that people who truly want a change need to toe another path, the test–and–learn approach”.
Everyone knows a story about a smart and a talented professional who has lost his or her passion for work, who no longer looks forward to going to the office yet remains stuck without a visible way out. Most everyone knows a story, too, about a person who ditched a 10 year career to pursue something completely different- the lawyer who gave it all up to become a writer or the banker who quit her banking career to start her own toy company- and is the happier for it.
“Am I doing what is right for me, or should I change direction?” Is one of the most pressing questions in the mid-career professional’s mind today. The numbers of people making major career changes, not to mention those just thinking about it, have risen significantly over the last decade and continue to grow. But the difference between the person who yearns for change yet stays put and the person who takes the leap to find renewed fulfillment at mid-career is not what you might expect.
Herminia says we like to think that the key to a successful career change is knowing what we want to do next, and then using that knowledge to guide our actions. Conventional career change methods – the plan and implement model – goes like this: First, determine with as much clarity and certainty as possible what you really want to do. Next, use that knowledge to identify jobs or fields in which your passions can be coupled with your skills and experience. Seek advice from the people who know you best and from professionals in tune with the market. Then simply implement the resulting action steps. Change is seen as a one–shot deal: The plan and implement approach cautions us against making a move before we know exactly where we are going.
It all sounds reasonable, and it is a reassuring way to proceed. Yet Herminia and her team’s research suggests that proceeding this way will lead to the most disastrous of results, which is no result. So if your deepest desire is to remain indefinitely in a career that grates on your nerves or stifles your self-expression, simply adhere to that conventional wisdom. But studying people in the throes of the career change process leads one to a startling conclusion: Change actually happens the other way round. Doing comes first, knowing second. Why? Because changing careers means redefining our working identity. Career change follows a first–act–and-then–think sequence because who we are and what we do are tightly connected, the result of years of action; to change that connection, we must also resort to action – exactly what the conventional wisdom cautions us against.
The Alternative: The Test and Learn approach
Once we start questioning not just whether we are in the right job or organisation today but also what we thought we wanted for the future, the job search methods we have all been taught fail us. But that doesn’t mean we must resign ourselves to a random process governed by factors outside our control – a life crisis that forces us to reprioritize, an unexpected job offer. There is an alternative method that works according to a different logic than the plan-and-implement approach. The test-and-learn approach recognizes that the only way to counter uncertainty and resist the pull of the familiar is to make alternative futures more vivid, more tangible, and more doable. We acquired our old identities in practice. Likewise, we redefine them, in practice, by crafting experiments, shifting connections, and making sense of the changes we are going through.
Step One: Craft Experiments.
By far the biggest mistake people make when trying to change careers is delaying the first step until they have settled on a destination. This error is undermining because the only way we figure out what we really want to do is by giving it a try. Understandably, most people are reluctant to leap into the unknown. We must test our fantasies – otherwise, they remain just that. Many people create new working identities on the side at first, by getting involved in extracurricular ventures and weekend projects. Crafting experiments involves trying out new activities and professional roles on a small scale before making a major commitment to a different path. Their great advantage is that we can do this small scale testing without compromising our current jobs or having to leap into new positions too quickly.
Step Two: Shift or Extend connections.
Consider how common it is for employees to say of their companies, “There is no one here I want to be like.” At mid-career, our desire for change is rarely about only the work we do; it is perhaps more importantly about changing our working relationships so they are more satisfying and inspiring. Shifting connections refers to the practice of finding people who can help us see and grow into our new selves. For most successful career changes, a guiding figure or new professional community helped light the way and cushion the eventual leap. Finding a new job always requires networking outside our usual circles. We get ideas and job leads by branching out.
Step Three: Make sense of it all
In the middle of the confusion about which way to go, many of us hope for one event that will clarify everything into a coherent trajectory. These are triggers or catalysts that help us to rework our life story. Arranging life events into a coherent story is one of the subtlest, yet most demanding, challenges of career reinvention. To reinvent oneself is to rework one’s story. It disturbs us to find so many different options appealing and we worry that the same self who once chose what we no longer want to do might again make a bad choice. Without a story that explains why we must change, the external audience to whom we are selling our reinvention remains dubious, and we, too, feel unsettled and uncertain. Good stories develop in the telling and retelling, by being put into the public sphere even before they are fully formed.
The Road Now Taken
Herminia Ibara concludes thus, “most of us know what we are trying to escape: the lockstep of a narrowly defined career, inauthentic or unstimulating work, numbing corporate politics, a lack of time for life outside of work. Finding an alternative that truly fits, like finding one’s mission in life, cannot be accomplished overnight. It takes time, perseverance, and hard work. But effort isn’t enough; a sound method and the skill to put it into practice are also required. In the search for a career redirection we need to devote the greater part of our time and energy to action rather than reflection, to doing instead of planning. It tells us to give up the search for a ten-point plan and to accept instead a crooked path. But what appears to be a mysterious, road-to-Damascus process is actually a learning-by-doing practice that any of us can adopt. We start by taking action”.
Over time I have developed and continue to deepen an actionable model for career change and re-invention. About two years ago we deployed our first training programme in this regard, titled Changing a Job is a Job and would run more sessions next year. Our model is called The Four-Point Change model and it rides on Herminia’s philosophy which recommends much more action/going. Take a step closer towards your dream TODAY. Please take note, it is not what you don’t have that is limiting you but what you have but don’t know how to use. And what you don’t have is an opportunity to bring out what you have. SELAH!