Was that failure?

3 key lessons from a mid-career pivot

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Photo by Ian Kim on Unsplash
Photo by Ian Kim on Unsplash

This weekend my son ripped open his fortune cookie which read: “Failure is a dress rehearsal for success.”  He immediately tossed it in the ‘bad fortune’ column because of the F word.  Failure.  I suppose all of our embrace your mistakes, it’s not about how hard you get knocked down but how quickly you get back up talk was not powerful enough to overcome societal fear.  Even for a 7-year-old.

But I immediately grabbed it and told him he got the wrong cookie this round. This one was definitely for me.

Pre-pandemic I landed a professional pivot from the public sector to management consulting. I’m not sure if I truly grasped the magnitude of the shift, mid-career, middle-aged, with two young kids.  (I can hear the gasps now, what was I thinking?)  The move seemingly embraced what job market trends validate: That unteachable soft-skill superpowers — complex problem solving and managing ambiguity, consensus-driven communication, good judgment and empathy, combined with mad adaptability and a bit of grit — are significant magnifiers to what can be learned on the job.  According to McKinsey, HR leaders report “difficulty recruiting candidates who have the necessary soft skills for an automating world.”  There’s also a strong business case for diverse teams across gender, ethnicity and culture for better problem-solving, agility, creativity, and resilience to unleash innovation and growth. At least that’s what the research says. But I’ve learned the big deal part of this was not executing the pivot itself but its degree of authenticity and scale.

Not much of a spoiler alert here: I leaned into the discomfort and did the best I could with the tools I had and the standard training provided.  I let myself swim upstream until exhaustion. My superpowers had limited value and most importantly, I found no joy. And now I ask, was it me, the job, or the pivot itself? Was I simply not good enough to tackle the steep learning curve?  Was that failure?

As many of us navigate career loss and transition in the wake of COVID-19, either forced or in a larger search for re-aligning and defining purpose in the Great Resignation, professional pivots are absolutely possible and even necessary. Here are some lessons from my own journey to help others not only make the leap, but also do it right: 

Lesson #1: Focus on the difficult work upfront. Be crystal clear on your values, strengths, and organizational culture must-haves over executing the jump itself.  Do the inner work to confirm your destination is crafted out of abundance versus scarcity, and find a tribe to hold you accountable.  The clearer you are on the why, the easier it will be to pitch, and for your network to help you get there.  More importantly, the downside of a pivot in the wrong direction can be costly, landing a role that is defined by your ‘shoulds’ versus an environment where you thrive.  We all have the power to pivot, but successful ones are executed in alignment with your core values. If you can afford it, consider hiring a career coach, and if not there are plenty of free assessments and podcasts. I like the PrinciplesYou Assessment by Ray Dalio and Adam Grant and the ZigZag Project by Manoush Zomorodi.

Lesson #2: Own your superpowers. The pivot is most successful in a culture that embraces the potential of your core strengths in action. A 2015 study from the American Institute of Economic Research still resonates: Particularly for those making a switch over 45, successful career changers used at least seven skills from their prior job, and those who were disappointed used only two.  In this study they cite those same magic soft skills as key:  In some cases these can lead to an offer but not to success on the job.  If a non-traditional hire is left to rely on new skill adoption alone, the leap may be too great. Not failure, just an oversized step with unfortunate consequences…mostly fear to attempt the transition again. So ask the right questions of hiring managers upfront. Level-set what success looks like at the 3-6-9 month mark and even better, gauge the organizational tolerance fast fails and on-the-job learning.

Lesson #3:  A business case for grace. Just as there needs to be a conscious rethink around the tools sector switchers require to succeed, such as formal shadowing and mentorship, there must also be a conscious culture shift to bring equity into action.  There is an economic case to be made for reassessing risk tolerance when it comes to embracing career pivoters.  Mistakes will be made…are business leaders ready to embrace them? I keep returning to Terina Allen’s 2019 Forbes piece The Guilt-Free Way to Talk about Professional Failure.  In it she writes, “how many of you have been told to take a chance and try new things while being bound by old rules? Old rules about risk, old rules about change; old rules about careers; old rules about success and old rules about failure.” Implications here will be even more interesting when the millions of women who dropped out of the workforce in the last year (hopefully) return.  

So was my pivot a failure?  I’m going with yes, but the kind I hope we can all rally around. Overall I can’t say definitively that my mid-career switch would have gone any better had I followed all the lessons above. Sometimes things just aren’t a good fit or don’t work out and nothing more.  Returning again to Ms. Allen, “don’t ever let anyone make you feel guilty about failing at something you had the courage to try in the first place.”  Which is why we all need to embrace failure a little more, as avoiding the fall is much worse than not having tried.

About the Author

Melissa Mann is a life-long storyteller, translator and fixer, great at breaking down and selling complex ideas, writing for impact and anticipating problems before they occur. She has led strategic and crisis communications in a variety of roles from government affairs to international cybersecurity partnerships. Melissa is overall motivated by health and wellness, the spark from making unexpected connections in the world, and the need to re-think notions of personal and professional success throughout the many stages of our lives.  

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