Career paths are changing. The career ladder has been replaced by something that looks more like a game of basketball. Players move forwards, backwards, laterally, or take time out as demarcations between employees, temps, contractors, casuals and clients blur.
The career for life, or having at least one career shift has been replaced by the importance of multi-career paths. We are now in a world where job opportunities and whole sectors are vanishing, where landlines, emails and mobile phones have been replaced with data overload and a plethora of input channels, where work-life balance issues have been replaced by the realization that there are no guarantees. There is now more focus on being flexible and having the capacity for constant reinvention.
The conventional system of rewarding strong performance has been overtaken by the idea that the employee or contractor is their own brand and, in effect, running their own business, making sure their brand is on track.
Then again, there is nothing new in career change. There’s no shortage of stories of accountants who became wine growers, lawyers opening cafes and managers becoming massage therapists. Indeed, there are plenty of lawyers who went on to bigger and better things. The list includes writers like Franz Kafka and Jules Verne, politicians like Fidel Castro, Mahatma Ghandi and Vladimir Lenin, and composers like Hoagy Carmichael and Peter Tchaikovsky.
Jerry Springer started out as a politician, Kevin Rudd was a bureaucrat and Barack Obama was community organiser before going into law school. Gaughin was a stockbroker before he ran away to Tahiti to paint, Sigmund Freud was a neurobiologist before he discovered new ways to use a couch.
People change careers for a number of reasons. Some want to get a better work- life balance and spend more time with their families; they want to get off the treadmill. Others want to follow their passion, to get creative or make more money. But it’s not easy and in many cases it might mean a drop in income, at least initially.
Remaking your future takes a lot of discipline and focus.
Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD, the prestigious French business school in Fontainebleu, says that career change is a messy process that can take three to five years. In her book, Working Identity (Harvard Business School Press 2003), she dismisses the notions that change comes about through knowing what we want to do or that careers can be planned in logical steps. And in contrast to what is often said, it is not about finding yourself.
The self, she says, is changing all the time because our identities are made up of many different facets. Nobody simply trades in the old self for a new one. Nobody simply upgrades to version 2.0. The answer, she says, is to flirt with different aspects of oneself, to experiment with different fields that could include board positions, consulting, side projects, temporary assignments, voluntary work, even changing relationships and networks. Instead of embarking on a massive change, she recommends people use a strategy of small wins to create more profound shifts. Her model is more the Nike approach to career change.
Not think then do, but the other way around.
Just do it.
She recommends potential career changers expand their networks beyond their usual circle of contacts. One rarely has it all figured out, she says. Instead it is better to take an experimental approach.
Other specialists recommend doing your research first. Find out as much as you can about the industry you are planning to enter. What do you need to do? What’s the money like? What new skills might you need to have? You might even want to consider exploring the landscape and doing a bit of volunteer work there first.
Then you need to uncover which of your skills are transferable. If you work in sales, for example, you’re likely to have good relationship building skills that might work running your own business or working as a consultant. This is why some accountants wanting to move into IT might switch over to accounting software outfits and why many chefs set up catering businesses or end up running hotels. Also, if you plan to set up a business, it might be an idea to start while you’re still working.
Career shifts can happen at any time. With people in the workforce now for a lot longer, it can happen to anyone. As the writer George Eliot famously said, it is never too late to be what you might have been.