I was having dinner with a group of mid-career professionals, when the conversation shifted to future plans. What are our big dreams and key priorities for the upcoming year? Where would we be this time next year? Most of the people in the group wanted a career change—i.e., to be doing something different than they were doing now.
One finance professional (let’s call her Jane) was particularly vocal about her desired career change from the sales role she had to a training & development role. Jane felt she was already doing this as an additional responsibility to her main job. She had been running these two tracks in parallel for over a year now, but nothing officially had changed. As the rest of the group peppered her with questions about how she might make her career change official, I noticed a pattern in Jane’s behavior that suggested her career change would never happen.
Jane was doing things I had seen in other aspiring, but not yet successful career changers—actions and beliefs that prevent even talented professionals from ever making a career change. Do you feel like you’re spinning your wheels on that career change you say you want? Here are five warning signs your career change will not happen:
1 – You are unwilling to make any changes
The first telltale sign that Jane was stuck was that she stopped making any changes. Initially, she took on projects in her new interest (training & development) and got so much traction that she became known in that area. She did ask for an internal job change, but nothing official happened to her title, compensation or day-to-day responsibilities. At this point, she could have continued to lobby internally for a change, looked at other organizations where she could move into the new role outright, or focused on side gigs to satisfy her stated desire to do more. The group made these suggestions, and she said she had considered all of them, but acted on none of them.
Career change, like job search, has its ups and downs. I don’t know anyone who has landed in a new role without encountering any adversity. You will propose something and hear No. You will reach out to someone who doesn’t respond. You will send a resume or business pitch and may not hear anything back at all. It is prudent to reflect on what you’re doing to see if you need to change your strategy or tactics. But you still need to do something. If you are unwilling to make any changes, nothing will change.
2 – You are waiting for employers or recruiters to “get” you
One of the reasons Jane gave for not doing more on her career change was that she felt she already tried with her current employer and several outside inquiries, and it didn’t work. Her employer wanted her in her current role. Other banks saw her as sales (she did have over 10 years here). Recruiters in other industries saw her as a bank person and as a salesperson.
Your current employer may not support your career change because it’s inconvenient for them. It’s disruptive to move you over, integrate you into something new and then have to back-fill what you used to do. Outside employers and recruiters will be even harder to convince because they don’t know you at all (at least your current employer knows the overall quality of your work). You may think your background is obviously transferrable, but it’s not obvious. Don’t expect employers or recruiters to “get” you and help you. When you are changing careers, you are asking employers to take a risk on you (versus someone else already experienced in that role), and employers always try to minimize risk.
3 – You are too invested in your old career
In addition to encouraging Jane to renegotiate for an internal move or leave for another company, we suggested smaller changes. For example, Jane could change her current schedule to focus on the responsibilities she wanted and delegate the rest. She could shift her networking from sales contacts to trainers, HR professionals and other connections that would be more relevant to her new career. She could dial back at her current job to free up time for side gigs in her new career. However, Jane had sales growth targets in mind and wanted to stay a top performer.
You don’t want to burn bridges at your current employer, risk your reputation or lose your job. You have to keep your performance to acceptable standards, but at this stage, you have the experience in your old career that you can probably maintain the status quo with average effort. If you want a new career, stop investing in your old career to free up the time, mental bandwidth and emotional energy to build something else. If you keep investing in the old, that’s where you will see results. You have a huge running lead in your old career, so your new career will never catch up unless you deliberately shift your attention there. Yes, it means that you won’t grow in your old career—but you’re supposed to be leaving it!
4 – You think paid, full-time experience is the only experience that matters
I once had a client (let’s call him John) who, unlike Jane, did shift his focus from his old career (big company logistics) to his new target (start-up strategy). John focused his internal efforts on anything strategy-related he could line up. He set his schedule to maximize flexibility and autonomy to pursue side projects with start-ups and attend innovation and entrepreneurship events. He practiced talking about himself and presenting himself as more strategic and entrepreneurial.
John has notched some key wins, including advisory roles with several start-ups, but not yet a full-time role. His current stumbling block is fully valuing and selling the changes he has already made. When John is considered for full-time roles in his new career (and he has gotten to late-stage interviews) he is still uncomfortable that the experience he has is with side projects and self-learning. This shows up in lack of confidence during these competitive final interviews. While it’s true that paid, full-time experience is more competitive than side gigs, volunteering or self-study, the very definition of career change is that you land a role working at something or somewhere new—i.e., without that paid, full-time experience. Don’t lose confidence so close to the finish. Keep plugging away at alternative experience, however you can get it.
5 – You don’t really believe you can make a change
At the end of our dinner, Jane acknowledged there were still more things she could try, and her career change was not as hopeless as she thought. This is an important and positive sign because you have to see the goal before you can reach it. If you don’t really believe you can make a change, you will find reasons that it won’t work and will give up too easily.
This is what happened to another finance client I worked with who, like Jane, was trying to move out of sales into something else (actually a more related function, so arguably a smaller career change than Jane’s). We set up a strategy and series of tactics to fine-tune her targets, change her branding, grow her network and prepare for a proactive job search. This client disappeared for over two years, and when we reconnected, she was at the same company, insisting that she did indeed still want a change, but it was impossible. Did she try any of the tactics in the interim? No, she had not because no tactics would work—nobody hires women, late 40’s, going from big company to small start-up.
Career change is possible
I have posted before about successful career changes, including a 50-year old media professional (female!) who was laid off from a big company and hired by a small company, in a new role, and for more money and a higher title. Melinda, the media professional, laid the foundation for change while working her old job, with side projects and a varied, robust network. She didn’t wait for recruiters to place her—her network came through. She didn’t second-guess her abilities—she looked at roles outside what she had always been doing and was willing to try something new. How about you?