In transition? 6 lessons from successful career changes.


Change happens fast. Transitions take time. That's because with each new career change, if you're thoughtful about it, you take a step closer to becoming your true self. This can't be rushed.

What will it take for the next five years to be your best ever? By linking what you do to who you are, your career becomes your vocation.

Over the years, I have witnessed hundreds of executives make job changes, mostly involving a bigger title, more money, or greater responsibilities. Few of these executives quit to move into entirely new careers. Fewer still describe their new career as their vocation. Maybe it's because most executives are too damn busy to reflect on what makes them truly effective or happy; or maybe the easy pay raises have seduced them into careers defined by money or power. Or tunnel vision. It doesn't have to be that way.

What will it take for the next five years to be your best ever?

Changing your career is not the same thing as changing jobs. A truly successful career transition requires a redefinition, or reinvention, of who you are. In my experience, executives who have succeeded in single or multiple career transitions -- and I don't mean job changes -- and who love what they do, have five critical qualities in common:

  1. Self-Awareness. The starting point is understanding what drives us. 75 members of Stanford Graduate School of Business’ Advisory Council, mostly made up of senior executives, were asked to recommend the most important capability for leaders to develop. Their answer was nearly unanimous: self-awareness. Self awareness gives executives the power to spot the disconnects between their chosen career path, their income potential, and the joy they get out of life. Self-awareness gives people the power to recognize when "something's missing" in their career. By reflecting on what's important and experimenting with different choices, they learn from their experiences. In our coaching, we routinely use self-assessments to flesh out motivations. We help executives find meaning from their career successes and failures, their values and passions.
  2. Autonomy. Successful career-changers self-author their careers and lives. They, not their employers, take responsibility for their own development and the fulfillment they get out of their work. Thirty years in the making, a self-determined career is now a reality, thanks to LinkedIn and the slow death of the social contract. Like it or not, we are all contractors now. Successful career-changers know that theirs is the start-up that matters most. Their livelihood is determined by how effectively they discover, nurture, and sell their inspired vision for the future.
  3. Pursuing Mastery. Good things happen when we are at our best. This takes conscious effort. When executives strive to attain higher levels of mastery over their mindsets, ideas, and behaviors, opportunities come their way. People are eager to work with us because of who we are, not just because of what we know. And we, in turn, want to work with people we can learn from and who challenge us to be better. Mastery is a journey that takes time, experimentation, effort, and discovery. My coaching clients describe this journey as the hardest thing they have ever done -- and the most rewarding. With each new level of mastery, higher mountains stand before them.
  4. Purpose. All of us are drawn to an activity that is meaningful for us. If we are lucky, our purpose or 'calling' grabs us, shakes us, and doesn't let us go. Succumbing to our purpose can and should dedicate us to something bigger than ourselves. Our energy, engagement, tenacity, and confidence stems from our purpose. Life takes on a sense of urgency. But relatively few of us are committed to a purpose, according to research published in HBR (see my prior post).
  5. Identity. In your transition, who is the new you? By stepping into the future of your own design, you become the person or leader you aspire to be. Your identity, the way you show up in the world, shifts, and there is no turning back. Have you felt this way? There are many examples of accomplished people who have consciously reinvented themselves, driven by a clarifying and renewable sense of purpose: Winston Churchill, Leopold Stokowski, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Gates, to name a few. Without exception, every successful career shift coincides with a shift, or reinvention, of identity.
  6. Experimentation. Successful career-changers have a learning mindset. Reflection can take you only so far. It is often a good strategy to experiment or act your way into a new way of thinking or being. This involves testing your career ideas on others, attaining certifications or new skills, building new social networks, and trying out new jobs or volunteer roles where your passions can be tested.

How do you score on the above list?

The most successful people find creative ways to express their inner selves through work. If something's missing, they change their work. They stretch themselves, accept their strengths and weaknesses without judgment, and are relentless in pursuing the thing they love to do.

If you are in the second half of your career, you know that most careers don't always follow linear upward paths to success. Careers are journeys filled with ups and downs, pain and joy. Changing your career deliberately and consciously is not the same thing as changing your job. A successful career change takes reflection, hard work, a personal support system, and the courage to experiment. I'd like to hear about your experience.

Remarkable careers don’t happen by accident. Careers, like the leaders who create them, are made, not born.