As we settle into the new year, are you contemplating a change in your job or career? Perhaps the prospect of a new challenge has you itching to make a move. Or maybe you see a window of opportunity, now that year-end reviews are over and bonuses are paid. Or possibly, you’d simply like to discover a greater sense of purpose at work.
You’re not alone.
I’ve been pivoting—or “repotting,” as others like to call it—for over twenty years: first from Physics into Public Policy, then from academia into financial services, next from Wall St. to Silicon Valley, and most recently, from an operating role into my current portfolio career.
As I look back, an informal pattern has emerged in how I orchestrated these various turns in my professional life. Along the way, I’ve been the beneficiary of some great advice and learned some valuable lessons, which I hope by sharing will help others successfully navigate their next chapter in life.
While it’s easy to want a change, it’s an entirely different beast to actually make a change. Getting the fundamentals right at the outset of the process makes all the difference.
My most recent change came at a time when my life felt a bit broken. I was emerging from a struggle with Lyme disease, had experienced a disastrous few years romantically, and was working in a place where I never felt like I belonged. Depleted physically, emotionally, and mentally, I decided to stage an intervention in my own life (which in a very “Where’d you go Bernadette” move, ended with me in Antarctica – but that’s a story for another day!) How could I create my next chapter and leave behind everything I felt had gone wrong, especially when I felt like it followed me around like a dark cloud?
I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors whose advice at key moments has performed miraculous reversals on my thinking. At this crucial time, Dan Schulman, the CEO of PayPal, offered some simple yet ferociously important advice: your past doesn’t have to define your future. These liberating words are absolutely key for those looking to make a bigger change. All too often, people (and recruiters in particular) pigeon-hole you into what you’ve already done. It’s crucial that you remain true to your real intent for change and not be deterred from the path you’d like to pursue.
There’s a lot of material out there that talks about how the universe conspires to make something happen once a decision is made. I believe that’s true, but the killer secret here is that the decision has to actually be made.
I’ve had so many conversations with people about how much they want to make a change but then talk themselves out of it a minute later, usually because of the obstacles they’ll run into when executing upon it. For instance, they’re fretting about the length of their new commute before deciding that changing jobs is what they actually want.
The thing to remember is: you must never mix the crystal clear waters of the decision with the muddiness of execution. Decoupling these into two distinct stages is the first step to getting change off the ground.
The next step is to come out of your decision making process with complete clarity around “what you’re solving for”. It’s extremely difficult to solve for everything at once when making career decisions, so you must be ruthless in prioritizing what’s most important to you and equally ruthless in the level of honesty you bring to that process.
Of course, what matters to you most can (and should) change at various ages and stages of your life, so don’t be surprised if what you’re solving for today is very different from five or ten years ago. I’ll never forget another mentor’s words: “Pick the one or two things that really matter to you at this juncture of your life and let the rest go. When I say ‘let the rest go,’ it’s not some linear scale. Think of it as a logarithmic scale with the top two things way at the top and the rest sliding all the way down the curve to the bottom—not even close.”
Honing in on what really matters brings tremendous clarity to what you do next.
My latest pivot involved a lot of changing variables: I had decided to leave NYC and move to San Francisco, and I was exiting Financial Services and pursuing a career in tech. As much as I was clear about what I wanted to do, I was less clear on what kind of role my skill set would translate into and what avenues might be open to me. As I started to confuse the decision with the complications of moving cross-country, I found myself spinning.
In his typical effective bluntness, Frank Slootman (then CEO of ServiceNow) said to me, “It’s simple: geography, industry, role.” I gave him a perplexed look, and he explained, “Most people try to make career changes starting the other way around. They fret about what’s the right role for them.” Of course, that’s exactly what I was doing. Frank’s brutal clarity made me realize that if I had decided on geography (San Francisco) and was resolute on the industry I wanted to be in (tech), then the exact role wasn’t a deal breaker if I got the first two things right.
With your fundamentals aligned and mind focused, you can make the best decision possible for your objectives, but it’s also important to keep the following points in mind.
Central to every change is a strong and extensive network. As networking expert Kingsley Aikins puts it, the important thing about networking isn’t who you know, it’s “who knows you.” Kingsley believes that “opportunities don’t float around on clouds; they’re attached to people.” This advice has never left my mind.
The upside to a wonderful network is that opportunities do start to manifest, and here’s where being really clear about what you’re solving for comes into play. We’re all human, and it’s incredibly “flattering to be flattered” by someone telling you how great you’d be in such-and-such role. I confess: amidst my latest pivot, this is where I let things run awry.
Thankfully, right around that time, I was speaking at a conference in Toronto with Geoffrey Moore, the bestselling author of books such as Crossing the Chasm. As we chatted, he asked about my career, and I explained how I wanted to move into the tech industry but was struggling to decide between various opportunities. What Geoffrey said next was like the proverbial bolt of lightning: “Anita, you’re going to fit into a lot of people’s plans. The only question that matters is whether or not they fit into yours.”
Right there and then, the penny dropped. I realized that being crystal clear in my criteria and priorities was the only way I would avoid getting sloshed around by every conversation or getting distracted by the next shiny opportunity that came my way. In short, keep your eye on your ball, not on all the opportunities out there that others might have in mind for you.
Like everything in life, making a substantial career change can be greatly shaped by whether you bring a mindset of abundance or scarcity to the process. Most of us vacillate between the two. There are times when confidence is high and you feel that offers will materialize; however, there are likely many more moments when the scourge of scarcity sets in and you start to panic, believing you’ll never be employable again. We’ve all been there, which is why we need our anchors.
I rely greatly on the distilled wisdom of my remarkable executive life coach, Helen Mumford Sole. She’s been instrumental in reframing my thinking during times of self doubt, reminding me to stop letting emotions overrun the facts at hand and to think systematically about the opportunity cost of every decision. She would force me through the uncomfortable admission that, at certain times, I was less enamored by the prospect at hand than I was driven by the desire to get out of where I was.
It may be tempting to compare Opportunity A (today’s position) with Opportunity B (the new offer on the table) and debate the relative pros and cons of each. Instead, take a step back and define Opportunity C, which is the ideal opportunity.
Rather than examine the old versus the new, compare the old and new against what you would like to do the most. In other words, compare both Opportunity A and B to Opportunity C. After all, if you’re going to put yourself (and loved ones) through a huge change, then it should bring you closer to your dream job, right? Right.
For those early in their careers, I also encourage an extension of your peripheral vision beyond this immediate move. Before springing onto one lilly-pad versus another, think through what future doors might open to you should you opt for one role versus another at this given juncture.
Ultimately, the best role for you lies at the point where passion meets competence meets an organizational need. To illustrate:
For me, the hardest lessons learned, however, weren’t the result of any changes I made but rather the ones I didn’t make soon enough. Having now realized the powerful effect of “belonging” from Pat Wadors (CHRO at ServiceNow), I look back and realize that the times I was most miserable were in situations or cultures where I didn’t feel like I belonged.
Belonging is a fundamental human need and something we all understand. It means being able to bring your full, authentic self to work instead of showing up as the version you believe the corporation expects.
Find a workplace where everything that makes you “you” is seen as an asset rather than a liability and where you’ll be able to contribute more of what you uniquely do. Settling for anything less is a sure-fire recipe for misery and isn’t going to empower you to do your best work.
Jerry Seinfeld had a great answer when asked how he decided to pursue a career in comedy. He saw talent as a horse you happen to find yourself on. It’s up to you to decide how to ride it, guide it, or let it throw you. As anyone who’s ever ridden a horse knows, if you’re not clear in your intent, well, the horse has a mind of his own and will decide where you should end up!
What you do with the talent you’ve been given should be—and will be—largely determined by you and you alone. Gone are the days of working for a single company that outlines an enriching and varied career for you that spans the next three decades. As we move further toward the gig economy, the ability to determine your own career path becomes an essential professional skill.
Another way to consider your options is by heeding Dr. Brene Brown’s brilliant advice: “Before you climb, be sure your ladder is leaning against the right wall.” The best way to do that is to get your fundamentals right, be crystal-clear in your thinking, deliberate in your networking, and ensure you have the right mindset and framing to make the decision.
Change always involves risk, fear, discomfort, and uncertainty, but navigating it successfully depends on one thing: believing in yourself. When it comes to changing your life, knowing that something better awaits you and believing that you deserve it isn’t half the battle. It’s the entire war.
Anita Sands, PhD, is an independent board director, advisor and public speaker. She regularly comments on board-related issues, technology disruption, and gender equality. All comments personal.