The world is in lockdown and so, to some extent, are our working lives. For many, this is frustrating. For others, this hiatus offers an opportunity to reflect on new career paths and directions. This is potentially a moment to refresh, even reinvent, ourselves.
Herminia Ibarra, Charles Handy Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, has been studying career transitions for two decades. In the latest webinar in the ‘Leading through a pandemic’ series, she explains how we might approach this moment of potential change and make the most of it.
First, it’s necessary to understand why the possibility of career transition exists and also why it might appeal.
We have been working in the context of four big trends affecting career change: increased longevity (more time to transition in and out of careers), changes in the way we work (e.g., people change jobs more often and often hold jobs at the same time), technological change (we can do more remotely), and changing social expectations (people want to find meaning in their work, greater work/life balance, and have greater impact).
Meanwhile, the corporate drive for efficiency has increased pressure to reduce costs and the number of full-time equivalent employees. People have more job changes and may hold those jobs in shorter stints.
The data tell(s) the story. People born between 1957 and 1964 held an average of 11.9 jobs between the ages of 18 and 50, according to US Bureau of Labor statistics. Among jobs started by 35-44 year olds, 36% ended in less than a year, and 75% ended in fewer than five years. There has been an increase in shorter-term contract work. And now in the wake of the pandemic there will be significant increased unemployment.
The other significant employment trend has of course been the growth of self-employment and the emergence of the so-called “gig economy”. Forty-five percent of all UK employment growth since 2008 has come from self-employment. Professionals form the biggest part of the gig economy – 55% of 1.1m workers. And younger workers figure prominently too – under 30s are the most rapidly growing sector – 66% since 2008, followed by the over 60s, according to the RSA. Some, especially younger people, may take up gig roles as fill-in jobs before a permanent one, but more are choosing it positively.
But this current crisis may have halted the momentum. Other familiar aspects of business life have been curtailed. Travel plans have been cut, and conferences cancelled. This moment of professional stasis may be only a temporary interruption to the longer-term trend, succinctly summarised as the shift from “one job for life to five jobs over a career, five jobs at the same time.”
But the Covid-19 crisis has surely hit, and allows us to ask ourselves bigger existential questions: who am I, and what do I want to do with the rest of my life? There is an immediate obstacle to coming up with a good answer. The shock of today’s distorted working patterns may not encourage us to think creatively. Under threat, research shows, we become more rigid in our thinking and more conservative. This pandemic has caught us unprepared — psychologically, financially, and infrastructurally. The situation may feel threatening.
Career change (not a job change)
Big professional changes have a significant psychological impact on us, Professor Ibarra says. It’s not just like a promotion or normal career progression; this is about a change of identity. Examples could be leaving an investment bank to start your own business, or leaving an executive role in a corporation to be a screenwriter.
Transition is both a psychological and a social process. You might be moving away from something without yet having left it, while moving towards something without yet knowing what it is.
“Possible selves are the ideas we all have about who we might want to become”
The transition process is likely to take longer than you anticipate, Professor Ibarra says. It is a messy, non-linear process – in the jargon it is an “underinstitutionalised transition” – an informal, unstructured move.
“It takes time to work out what it is you are becoming,” Professor Ibarra says. This takes longer than a simple job move – it is a process of discovery.
“You know what you don’t want to do,” she adds. “But figuring out if this new thing is what you want – this is the hard part. Your view changes as you get more information. It might take six months, or even three years.”
Normally when you change jobs it is “answer-driven”: you plan and implement it. With a transition it is an experiment, or “process driven”: you experiment and learn. It is much more iterative.
How to make a start? Perhaps your own sense of urgency will start to increase. There will be push and pull factors, what you currently do and don’t like about your situation. If you ask your current network, the people who know you best, what to do they may well favour the status quo.
Some people hope for a stroke of luck – a call out of the blue from a headhunter, perhaps. “Such jolts and triggers can play a key role but are insufficient without having a range of alternatives and other possibilities materialising,” Professor Ibarra says.
Develop a list, a divergent set of possibilities, she suggests. Create a portfolio of options. You will get a better solution if you have more choices. Movement out of the beginning phase means trying things out, bringing those possible selves to life.
“Possible selves are the ideas we all have about who we might want to become,” Professor Ibarra says.“Some are concrete and well-informed by experience; others are vague and fuzzy, nascent and untested. Some are realistic; others are pure fantasy. And, naturally, some appeal more to us than others.”
In the difficult period in between old and new, you might be feeling in mid-air, neither here nor there, at a loose end, unmoored. “I don’t know who I am any more” is a common complaint. You are oscillating between holding on a bit longer and letting go. This can be a difficult period for significant others, living with someone who seems confused and is apparently about to take a possibly reckless step.
But this miserable middle is potentially a “fertile emptiness”, Professor Ibarra says, what the experts call a state of “liminality” – neither here nor there. This is part of the process. It avoids premature closure, making the potential mistake of taking the first thing that comes up. You may need more time for reflection and experimentation.
As the writer William Bridges put it in his book “Transitions”: “We need not feel defensive about this apparently unproductive time-out at turning points in our lives, for the neutral zone is meant to be a moratorium from the conventional activity of our everyday existence. In the apparently aimless activity of our time alone we are doing important inner business.”
With luck you will reach an end phase where you achieve some clarity and you start to crystalise a story that makes sense.
Develop some side projects
How can you make this final step? Professor Ibarra has some ideas.
First, you may need to develop some side projects, ways of exploring other potential avenues and acquiring new skills and insights. Internally you could join task forces or take on other temporary assignments inside your firm. Or outside the business it could be possible to take on some advisory or freelance work. You can join boards or professional associations, or maybe begin some charity or community involvement. New skills could be gained by going on a course or even giving a class in a specialist subject.
“Don’t be impatient or too hard on yourself for not moving faster”
A second step is to shift and expand your networks. New networks expose us to new people, ideas and influences. And third, it is worth self-reflecting out loud with others (more on this below).
Shift your network
Who are the people with whom you have discussed important matters relating to your career over the past few months? What kind of relationships do you have with them?
This raises the question of strong and weak ties, the core and extended network. Close friends and family form the core, the people who know you best. Weak ties form the extended network, people you don’t see so frequently.
And yet the “strength of weak ties” is that possibilities lie here. Strong ties do help, but these are the people who have always known you. And they may pigeonhole you. These people also have the same information that you do. You won’t learn anything new there.
The discovery process requires you to meet new people and learn new things. So you are going to have to mobilise your extended network. At a time of crisis, like now, people go back to core, strong ties. But we need the weak ties to get ideas about career changes, to get leads. These are the people who can help and inspire us.
A recent article in the Sloan Management Review found that reawakening so-called dormant ties can be powerful. Dormant ties - the relationships with people who you were once close to but now haven’t been in contact with for some time, perhaps three years or more - provide valuable and novel information. They are in different places talking to different people bringing a different perspective. In one study, more than 200 executives were asked to reconnect with dormant ties. The executives reported that the advice they received was on average more useful than what they obtained from their more active relationships.
Self-reflect out loud
It’s hard to self-reflect in isolation, Professor Ibarra says. It is fine to make a list of possible selves, but then share that list. Say it out loud with others.
The moment you have to say something out loud it changes things. You have to articulate it a bit better. It makes you consider what is more appealing, and less appealing. And it helps to talk with other people going through something similar. Take any and all opportunities to talk about where you are now and where you might want to go. What are you thinking?
Take your time
Making a big change in life is not easy. It may take some time – we are all different, and we will require the time and the space to think things through. But don’t be impatient or too hard on yourself for not moving faster, Professor Ibarra says:
When we’re at rest we are not idle. Neurological things are happening. We are consolidating views and memories, we are integrating what we have learned,we are crunching the data. We are not lazy – we need to be still, and think.”