The Sensational Shift with Susan Bernstein, MBA, PhD
What shift do you want to make in your career? Let's get you moving!

Six Keys to a Successful Career Change

New DirectionWhile leading a career reinvention workshop last weekend at the Esalen Institute, a participant asked me a juicy, deep question about career change:

“In your 10 years of experience coaching people in career change, what patterns do you see in the people who are most successful in making the transition?”

After 10 years of coaching over 2,500 professionals to shift their work, here are the six factors I’ve seen make the difference between moving ahead into a new career, versus staying stuck.

(1) Be a risk-taker

The people who are best at making career changes have positive experiences of taking risks. Their career change isn’t the first time they’ve dared in a big way. Maybe they’ve trained for and run their first marathon. Or gone back to school to complete an advanced degree. Or even stood up for themselves in a relationship gone sour and initiated a divorce.

When you know that you can take a chance on yourself, you plant the seeds of faith in your heart that things will work out. These seeds of faith simply can’t help growing.

(2) Create a strong support network

Whether you’re just starting to contemplate a career move, you’re getting ready to leave your awful job, or you’re moving to a new city to take a totally new role, it’s vital to have people around you who believe in you, encourage you, and lend you a hand.

I suggest you create an advisory group to guide you. Enlist a comforting cheerleader who believes in you to celebrate your successes with you, and comfort you in your setbacks and disappointments. Have a strategic advisor to help you map out your journey of change, and get you moving again if you become stuck or blocked. Finally, get an accountability partner to keep you true to your commitments to yourself.

(3) Take small steps

One of the biggest distortions I hear when talking to people about career shifts is that you’ve got to take a big leap — like going from being an accountant to becoming a marine biologist. Actually, that rarely happens. It’s easier on your mind, body, and spirit to make change gradually.

For example, I didn’t go from being a management to a career coach overnight. It took seven years to make the shift.

In between, I worked in an HR capacity for the management consulting firm where I’d worked. Then I explored the world of online learning and used my pre-MBA background in marketing for a startup in the corporate education space. On the side, I took lots of psychology classes. In the same month, my dot-com folded and so did my marriage. I chose to go back to school for a PhD in mind/body psychology. To help fund my education, I took a part-time role at the Berkeley Business School, where I’d earned my MBA a decade earlier. I started off preparing students for interviews in management consulting. Over time, I started doing more career advising, especially with students pursuing non-traditional careers. As more and more students asked me, “Can you coach my girlfriend?” or “Can I send my sister to see you?” I hung out my own shingle as a career coach. Then, after they’d taken new jobs, clients often contacted me to ask, “Can you help me be successful in this new role?” Their nudge moved me into the world of leadership coaching.

You’re more likely to succeed in career change if you allow it to be an evolution, rather than a revolution.

(4) Challenge your doubts and fears 

It’s normal and natural for doubts and fears to rise to the surface when you’re planning and executing any significant transition. Your ego wants to keep you safe, so it keeps your mind busy with all sorts of thoughts that it sees as beneficial. But typically, most of those thoughts are detrimental instead.

On your journey of change, start to recognize when you’re feeling doubtful or fearful. Write down the thoughts that arise like, “Can I really do this?” “Am I good enough?” and “What if things go wrong?” Just getting them out of your head can be a relief. If you need further easing of your anxiety, talk through your doubts and fears with one of your advisors, a psychotherapist, or a sensitive career coach (this is one of my specialties). You don’t necessarily need to “conquer” the fears, or make them “go away.” It’s more important to recognize that they’re normal, and defuse them so they lose their stronghold over you.

(5) Be willing to do weird wacky things to land new work

Making a significant career change does require stepping out of your comfort zone. If you always do things the same way, well, you’ll tend to get the same results. This is a time to break out of the box.

For example, a client of mine recently asked how to appeal to a political organization with hip activists in Washington, DC to secure a coveted role in marketing at a progressive non-profit. Instead of sending a resume, we strategized that she’d send a FedEx to the Executive Director with a colorful sign that said, “You’ve got real world challenges getting new funding sources. I’m a PR wizard with 15 years experience directing leading brands. I have three brilliant ideas to share with you to get you $100,000 in the next 30 days. No, I’m not a Nigerian scam artist. Call me now. I’ll give you 30 minutes of my time. And you’ll come away with at least one actionable idea. I guarantee it.”

She also enclosed a copy of her LinkedIn profile, and three brief samples of PR campaigns she’d designed. He did call her. They spoke. And now, she has a month-long paid project that’s very likely to lead to a full-time job.

(6) Let go of the toxicity of old jobs 

If you’re holding on to anger, resentment, or sadness towards a former employer, that can hold you back from making positive change. It’s time to make peace with the past and move on. If you have a narcissistic or sociopathic manager, your self-esteem may be shot. If your company culture conflicts with your most closely held values, you may ironically feel stuck at a crappy job. Or if you got passed over for promotion laid off, especially without warning, you may wonder about your employability.

Many career changers have survived toxic work. Those who shift most successfully make peace with the situation. They talk it out, journal it out, or otherwise get support to transform their feelings so that what happened in the past stays in the past, rather than coloring an otherwise positive future.

Which of these success factors do you need to adopt to be successful at your upcoming career shift? 

Take the time to review this list. What factors do you need to develop? Be honest with yourself. That will make your career transition truly sensational.

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