How to reinvent your career

Would you like to reinvent your career and wonder what the secret formula is to do so? If you are looking to use your skills and personal qualities in different directions to reinvent yourself and your career then that’s the topic of “Working Identity – Unconventional strategies for Reinventing your Career” by Herminia Ibarra, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD. I was recommended this excellent book by a NetExpat colleague and have passed it to a number of career coaching clients already. All come back finding it to be a very helpful read. I’ll try to “crunch” the key suggestions here and hopefully whet your appetite to read further!

This is a book for those of you in mid-career who are questioning your career path. This might dovetail with a midlife transition like a special birthday or hinge on a turning point at work such as a restructuring activity resulting in heightened political in-fighting.

One of the most common concerns I hear expressed by my career change clients is that things are not moving as quickly as they expected. We like to think we can leap directly from a desire for change to a single decision that will complete this reinvention. As I said to someone yesterday this process may be more like a marathon than a sprint. The whole premise of Ibarra’s book is that there is a long, essential testing period when your actions transform (or fail to transform) fuzzy, undefined possibilities into concrete choices that you can evaluate. We need to be patient.

Step 1: Re-think your working identity

Rather than thinking you can plan your route to reinvention in a number of linear, compartmentalised steps (think simple road map going from A to B), instead recognise that we learn in iterative, multi-layered ways (think multiple parallel tracks, some with dead-ends, some circling around in spiral and so on). As you search for your new direction the information you stumble across influences your choices and opens up new possibilities that you could not have planned for originally. This is a back and forth process. It is one which needs direct involvement rather than lots of planning.

The idea that there is one “right” career for us, one working identity  we need to find, often paralyses us. Instead Ibarra emphasises that we each have a range of “possible selves” and you should ask yourself which one is to the most intriguing to me right now, which is easiest to test out now? I am working with a client right now who shared a list of 10 different possible selves which included continuing to work in financial services (which was at the top of the list), becoming an entrepreneur, to a university lecturer or working for a charity (at the bottom). Some of the possibilities will be sensible, practical, safe ones and others will be fantasy selves. A possible-selves list always has a favourite (and it is always near the bottom of the list, as if we are afraid of even exposing it).

Step 2: Between identities

From here you need to start quickly to test out possibilities. It’s important to recognise that there will probably a long and often difficult middle period when your identity is in flux. During this in-between period which can last months or years, you oscillate between holding on to the past and embracing the future.  It is a time rife with anticipation, confusion, fear and lots of mixed feelings. Try out different activities via volunteering or taking on short-term projects or interim roles. Build new relationships during this phase to find people you want to emulate and places where you want to belong. Take courses and build your credentials in a new area is another way of experimenting. Keep asking yourself “Can I see myself in this? Does it FEEL right?”. In addition when making your future choices, seek feedback from those around you.

This section of the book really resonated with my own career experience. Fairly early in my corporate HR career I started to feel this wasn’t the best fit for my skills or personality but had no idea what the alternatives might be. It was all just a fuzzy unsettling feeling at that point. Then I worked closely with a career transition firm and met my “heroes” – people who made me think, “I would love to do what they do”. Rather than jumping straight away into the career consulting world I did two things. I tested it out informally, took holiday to sit in on career related seminars, went to networking events, met other consultants. Rather than standing still in HR, I moved organisation to double check whether I really did want to leave that identity behind. Sure enough, although the international environment was totally different that sense of not fitting, not using my strengths came back again. In total I was at least 5 years “in transition” from one self to the next before I snapped and resigned to finally become a career consultant.

Ibarra describes this middle period as the “incubator” in which our possible identities are brought tentatively into the world. Living with uncertain identity can be really tough, but if you try to close things off too quickly that might prevent the deep change you are seeking.

  1. Deep change

To make significant changes to your career, you might need to abandon the idea of making one huge change and instead take a series of small steps to see where they might lead. This might include working on a portfolio of projects – some to pay the bills, some to explore new directions, and some, like not-for-profit work, simply to invest time in something you enjoy doing.

You might also need to be really honest with yourself about what you value and expect from your working life. You might be worried about what your peers or family might say if you suggest you want to downshift or reinvent yourself.

Stepping back at certain points during this process is also invaluable. Whether it’s going for a long walk or drive for a few hours, having a weekend away or a year off to travel – you make room for insights that your brain has been incubating but hasn’t yet articulated.

If you would like help to reinvent yourself and your career, then do get in touch with

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