How to Change Careers (Big, Medium, Small) - Issue #277
A professional pivot is always possible, but it isn’t easy
You don’t always recognize opportunity when it knocks. That’s especially true when you answer the door only to discover that more work is waiting for you.
Many years ago, I was a designer at eBay. During one particularly challenging project, my product manager got called away for jury duty. Unfortunately, there weren’t any other PMs available to take over.
Now, if you’re not familiar with what it is like to work at eBay, you may think that this meant the project would be delayed. We could simply wait until the PM returned from jury duty.
However, the standard operating procedure at eBay was that you never slipped dates on a project. You might cut scope and features to get a product update out on time. But you never ever pushed out a release date.
The PM’s manager came to me and asked if I could take over as the product manager and keep the project on schedule. So, in addition to the design work for the project, I took over writing the product requirements document (PRD) and working with engineering.
By the way, thank you for believing in me, DJ! Looking back, I consider myself lucky to get that PM experience while I was a designer.
Little did I know that it would later give me the confidence to throw my hat in the ring for a Product leadership role at Yahoo. I was the VP of Design for Yahoo! Search and Marketplace organization when our VP of Product left the company.
Rather than waiting to find out who my new partner would be when they hired his replacement, I created a proposal for how I could lead both the Product and Design teams for Search. My boss agreed, and that decision changed my career trajectory forever. It put me on a new path that opened doors for me later.
Reinvention isn’t easy
It is a ton of work to change professions, make a career pivot, and start down a new path. Some people consider it but give up because they can’t stomach the idea of starting their careers over.
Many fear ending up at the bottom of a new career ladder after they’ve already spent so many years climbing that first ladder. Who would want to do that?
Yes, it can happen that way if you try to abruptly exit one profession and start over again in a completely new profession. But, one of the most effective ways to ease into a career change is to do it from within the company while you still have your job.
The first question is, how significant will this change of career be? What’s the size of the pivot?
Big: Changing both industry and profession.
Medium: Changing profession, but not industry.
Small: Slight change of profession or industry.
I would say that my first career pivot was a medium-sized change. I stayed in the same industry and even the same company. But, I changed professions from Design to Product.
My second career pivot was definitely a big one. I left the tech industry entirely and my past professions as a designer, design leader, and product leader.
My friends told me that I was crazy. It was such a significant change that I had to start my own business (to work around gatekeepers) and make a large lifestyle change as well.
Some of my friends have also made rather large career changes and pivoted into entirely different industries and professions. In each case, they felt like they found their calling, were more fulfilled, and become more successful.
From working in the tech industry to becoming a restaurant owner.
From managing a supermarket to becoming a real estate agent.
From being a physical therapist to becoming a spine surgeon.
Other friends have made smaller pivots, which weren’t quite as drastic. Nonetheless, the change made them happier and more successful.
From designer to engineer.
From engineer to product manager.
From product manager to startup founder.
It is much easier to move into an adjacent profession within the same company with the full support of your manager. I was lucky enough to have that, plus mentors and coaches who educated and advised me.
If you don’t have that type of opportunity and support, you’ll have to educate yourself on your own time. You’ll have to find ways to earn the credibility that will convince someone to hire you in your new profession.
I’ve never known a hiring manager that was willing to hire someone who had zero working experience in a profession (e.g., a designer who wanted to be hired as a product manager in a new company). So, the burden will fall on you to create the proof that will persuade an employer to give you a chance. Or, you may have to start your own business as I did.
There are three things that you will need to navigate a significant career change successfully:
You may have the potential to pivot into an entirely new career path, but you have to develop the ability. Depending on the profession you’re pursuing, you may also need additional training, education, certifications, licensing, etc.
“Pivot to something you LOVE. Get the credentials. Make sure you can make $. If dropping $ then adjust lifestyle by the same measures.” — Michelle Caira
For example, my brother started his career as a physical therapist. But, he soon discovered that he wanted to go beyond the care he could provide as one. He decided to go back to school to become an orthopedic surgeon.
He had the potential. He may even have had some of the knowledge and capabilities.
However, he sure as heck couldn’t see patients and operate on anyone until he finished med school, completed his residency, passed his license exam, got board-certified, and started working for a hospital.
In the best case, you can acquire knowledge, learn skills, and get the experience you need in a new profession while you’re on the job working in your old profession. Some companies are great about providing internal training and career mobility within the company.
“I would suggest people to keep a balance and then take action. You should not leave your full-time job! You should work simultaneously, that's my advice.” — Ankit Panda
However, some companies won’t provide you with the opportunity to prepare for your new career on the job. In the worst case, you’re on your own. You’ll have to find educational resources, training, and mentors outside of work.
A support system helps considerably when you are changing professions. A supportive manager can secure funds for your internal training, connect you with coaches and mentors, and give you time to learn new skills on the job.
“Do a self-inventory listing your strengths and weaknesses and develop your team, support group and resources accordingly. No one is the complete package so learn to cultivate those that help to cover your weaker areas and be ready to help in return. Both are truly necessary because it is amazing how often the teacher becomes the student.” — Doug Highland
If you have a significant other, it sure is helpful if they are supportive of a big career change that might impact your income for a while. Change is always a little risky. Failure is always possible.
Having support from friends and loved ones can give you more courage to move ahead. I’ve been fortunate that my wife has been incredibly supportive of all of my crazy career changes, educational pursuits, and business ventures. She’s made it possible for us to navigate the financial bumps in the road along the way.
Can you change professions without a support system? Yes, you can do it alone in some cases, especially if you’re making a small to medium pivot in your profession and/or industry.
However, in some situations, you’re going to have a tough time — maybe an impossible time — making a massive change without support. I would highly recommend looking for a community that can help provide guidance, feedback, support, and networking opportunities.
“Find your community. Joining a community of like-minded professionals was easily the best decision I made in my new career. Receiving advice, feedback, and expanding my network was invaluable. Also, always ask for feedback.” — Christopher Schutt
You have to learn to recognize opportunities when they present themselves. One way to fine-tune your “opportunity antenna” is to have a long-term career goal in mind and at least a rough plan that maps out how you will get there.
For example, I knew that I wanted more for my career than to be a Design executive. I had a goal of starting a business or founding my own startup.
My plan to achieve that goal included getting more product and business experience. So, when I found out that our Head of Product was leaving, I recognized and seized the opportunity to step up, take on that role, and get the experience I needed.
If the right opportunity doesn’t present itself, you’ll have to create your own. Construct the right conditions to set you up for success.
That means that you may need to look outside of your current employer for a chance to move onto a different path. You may need to start your own business. You may need to save up a financial cushion so that you can quit your job and go all-in on making your new career path work.
“It's OK to take a step backward in order to move forward on a new path.” — Tracy Ulin
What has always helped me remain confident during significant career changes is the knowledge that I have succeeded before. I know that I can always fall back on my previous education, skills, and experience to get a job to survive in my old profession if the new gig or business fails.
“I’d say to remember there’s not as much risk in TRYING something new, in most cases: if you’ve built a career already, you can always fall back on it if the new one doesn’t work out. So rather than be timid and move slowly into it, jump into it big and fast to see how you REALLY like it. Better to try and fail in 3-6 months than to let it drag on for years slowly with constant fear.” — Peter Michaels Allen
Life is too short to stay in a profession that is no longer fulfilling you. You don’t want to feel trapped on a career path with no end in sight.
The old days are over of choosing one profession for life. You shouldn’t feel forced to climb one career ladder for decades until you retire.
While it’s never easy, making a big career change is certainly not as hard as it used to be. You have a world of education, training, and relevant network connections at your fingertips.
Don’t be shy about reaching out for help!
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Larry Cornett is a leadership coach and business advisor who also runs a professional and supportive online community (join us!). He lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, and a gigantic Great Dane. He does his best to share advice that can help others take full control of their work and life. He’s also on Twitter @cornett.