Experimenting with new roles in search of identity

People make career transitions throughout their lives; practical guidance and effective sponsorship can ease their path to the next stage

1140x346_Herminia Ibarra

Herminia Ibarra always wanted to be an academic. Where many teenagers wonder what the future may hold, Herminia, now the Charles Handy Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, set her sights on academia from a precariously young age. “I was your typical good student; a real library rat,” she says. “My interest in psychology started at about the age of 13 or 14. I always liked the idea of research, so the idea of doing a PhD was there from the start.” But how does a teenager stumble upon organisational behaviour? “My family immigrated to the US from Cuba when I was a child and a lot of my parents’ cohort were retraining,” she explains. “A friend of my mother was doing a PhD in psychology and she did psychometric tests on me. I researched psychology and found there was this subset related to business called organisational behaviour. I decided that was what I’d like to look at.”

Barriers to change

Frequently ranked among the world’s top management thinkers, Herminia’s work ranges from leadership development and the challenges women face when moving into senior roles to career transitions and the barriers to professional change – psychological, societal or institutional – and strategies to make change happen. The irony is not lost on her that, while her research explores the shifts people make between jobs and professional fields, she has always stuck to academia. 

Having studied psychology at the University of Miami, she completed her Master’s and Doctorate at Yale. Tenure at Harvard Business School followed and, after 13 years in Boston, she moved to a professorship at INSEAD in France, where she served for a further 15 years. She came to London and joined LBS in 2017. “You could say the moves I’ve made between the places I’ve taught have sometimes been similar to the transitions I describe in others,” Herminia says with a wry smile. 

She has also spoken about how her evolution as a teacher reflects “the authenticity paradox”; her theory laid out in the 2015 book Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, which argues that individuals can use “out-sight” (redefining their role, their networks and themselves) and operate outside areas of expertise and comfort to alter their self-identity. Put simply, one gains confidence by doing a thing, however unfamiliar. The paradox comes from the feelings of awkwardness and inauthenticity such actions can yield.

Applying her own theory

Herminia relates in her lectures how she had to apply her own theory to improve as a teacher, describing her early efforts as “dismal”. Through experimentation and a degree of personal discomfort, she developed a different style to engage effectively with her students. She explains: “By nature, I’m a classic introverted researcher. Teaching didn’t come naturally to me. Relaying information about the results of my research was easy, but to be an effective teacher I had to ‘own the room’, bringing in humour and citing examples of business experience that I didn’t personally have. Those were things I had to experiment with and learn.”

Her efforts clearly paid off. As well as being a popular teacher at LBS, she can be found on platforms around the world speaking on leadership and organisational transformation. Elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2019, her interest in identity inspired her first book, Working Identity: Unconditional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career, which highlights the ways in which our sense of who we are often becomes bound up in what we do for a living and how this can be challenged by career transitions.

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‘Women are likely to have two different networks – a work one and a separate social network’

The new book

Her next book will focus on career transitions more commonly taking place later in life. She says: “In the past, I’ve looked at how our sense of who we are can hold us back, the idea that what got you here won’t get you there. Now, I’m exploring the career transitions that people are increasingly making later in their lives. We no longer retire as we used to; lots of people are making big career changes post the age of 50 and that poses its own challenges. “We’re all living longer. More people are making mid-career transitions either because they have or want to. Some feel what they’ve been doing isn’t meaningful enough. Whatever the reason, they still need guidance, but there’s not a lot of institutional support at that stage.

Someone older may decide they want to work differently, so they look around and there are a lot more options. “But there’s also a lot of confusion about how to do it. Transitions aren’t codified. I say they’re ‘under-institutionalised’. Making a shift at the age of 50 from one field to something very different – say, from law to the arts – you don’t know how long it’s going to take or who to turn to for guidance. The good news is, when you make the change, you’re more likely to find something that’s a tailored fit.” Herminia is proud of her role in the LBS Women in Leadership programme, which she co founded. What happens to women when they are trying to transition into senior positions has always been a point of interest. She says: “What do women need to make it to those senior roles?

My interest in sponsorship is an offshoot of that. I started my career looking at social networks and how they relate to career development. Women in large organisations were not seeing people like them in senior jobs. Similarity is the basis of connection. People look for someone they have something in common with and who they hope will promote them. But my research showed that women are likely to have two different networks – a work one and a separate social network. 

Typically, men had one network across their work and social lives. When you’re working across differences it’s easy to feel less authentic, uncomfortable, perhaps a bit self-interested and crummy about yourself. That applies to sponsorship, too.”

Herminia believes the LBS programme is very effective at developing future female leaders and has introduced training for women’s sponsors to improve their effectiveness. Her research into the progression of alumni from top business schools revealed that having a mentor made a significant difference to someone’s likelihood of being promoted, but also showed this was more true for men than for women. 

Why? Because those in power who were acting as mentors were still more likely to be men. She also discovered that the kinds of conversations happening between mentors and male mentees were different to those happening with women. Men were more likely to be told who the gatekeepers were in organisations and given introductions to key people.

Female mentees tended to be given advice but less tangible support. In effect, women were more likely to be mentored in the traditional sense, whereas men were being sponsored. “Sponsorship is fundamentally different to mentoring. It is strategically helping someone from A to B,” Herminia explains. “Women are often over-mentored and under-sponsored. Organisations have tried to fix this, but too often you end up with a tick-box approach and attempts to systematise the process. The truth is, you can’t mandate it. It’s about having more strategic conversations. What really matters is developing a relationship that is authentic, and to be a real relationship it must develop in the direction of advocacy.” Between teaching, writing and research, both on campus and from home, no two days look the same for Herminia. Her home, which she shares with her teenage son, is a short walk to the LBS buildings on the edge of Regents Park. When possible, she makes the most of the city’s cultural life, indulging her love of contemporary art – she is a keen collector – and opera. Reading is another passion. She recently finished Trust by Booker Prize long-listed author Hernan Diaz.

A long reading list

Finding time to read fiction, however, can be a challenge. For some years, she has been a judge in the Financial Times/ McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award. This ensures that summer holidays, often spent with family either in Europe or Miami, inevitably involve a reading list of 15 of the latest business publications. As a business author herself, she sees no reason to complain. Both Working Identity (first published in 2003) and Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader are being reissued this October in updated editions, reflecting their continued popularity. Speaking of the enduring appeal of her books – and the relevance of her work – she says, “Transitions are a fact of life, but they’re difficult when you’re going through them. My research acknowledges what people find hard is going against the grain of who they have been. “I hope to give them practical ideas about how to experiment with new roles and behaviours until they’ve figured out who they want to be next.”