Over the course of their careers professionals come across many opportunities to transition their careers. For example, moving from one area of technical specialisation to another within their profession, shifting from one business sector to another and making a move into management all involve career transitions.
Career ‘transition’ is distinct from a career ‘change’ in which a person decides to retrain in a field that is different from the one for which they are currently qualified. In contrast, career transition usually involves a fresh environment and learning new skills but also drawing extensively on accumulated knowledge and experience in your professional field.
Ideally, career transitions are initiated and driven by the professional herself or himself though there are times in many professionals’ working lives when a career transition is externally imposed; for example, downsizing and restructuring as well as mergers and acquisitions generally prompt a career transition of some sort for affected people, whether they welcome it or not.
Most career transitions involve a ‘choice point’ – a moment when the professional concerned makes a final choice between two or more options. Choices might involve whether to relinquish career upside potential in favour of a better work-life balance – or not, whether to move into management or stay on the technical specialisation career ladder and whether to seize a retrenchment opportunity – or not.
Whatever the driving force, a career transition tends to be more successful and satisfying for professionals who have a well thought through basis for dealing with their personal choice point and a robust support mechanism in place well ahead of embarking on their transition.
Career transition and decision making
When you reach a fork in the road along your career path, the decision about which way to go can seem daunting. For example professionals in many fields have been drawn to the idea of moving into management because of the perceived financial rewards but have experienced trepidation about the prospect of losing their technical edge. Similarly, a call for voluntary retrenchment when employers are downsizing can be tempting for long serving employees with a lot to gain financially but unattractive when they consider continuing outgoings and the possibility of a long delay before there will be any more income.
Making decisions like these is rarely easy but can be significantly easier for professionals who are clear about what’s important to them about their work and what they are prepared to give up, at least in the short term, in order to transition their career. For example, how big a pay cut would you take in order to make a sideways move that would ultimately take your career to a higher level? Would you relinquish technical specialisation in order to take on management responsibilities? Would you work longer hours for no more pay in the short term but the prospect of increased status further down the track?
As a quick check of what’s most important to you about your work and where your priorities lie, try ranking the following factors in terms of their importance to you personally:
v Financial rewards
v Job satisfaction
v Following your interests
v Being passionate about a cause
v Using your skills and talents
v Making a difference
Once you’ve ranked these factors and possibly added others give each of them further thought to the point where you are clear about what each means to you.
For example if you have ranked ‘status’ high on your list what does status mean to you? Is it about moving up an organisational hierarchy taking on increasing responsibility? Or is status for you about the reputation you develop in your profession? If ‘financial rewards’ is an important factor aim to be clear about what counts as rewarding to YOU. Is it about earning enough to maintain a certain standard of living? Is there something about relativity with others’ financial rewards?
Being clear about the meaning of your work in this way gives you a firmer decision making basis when opportunities to transition your career present themselves. For example a highly qualified nurse practitioner eventually went to work in state government developing health policy. She had become passionate about improving the primary health system overall though earlier in her career she had been primarily driven by making a difference for individual patients. In another example an experienced lawyer let go the opportunity for partnership in a large legal firm in favour of taking up a role as CEO of a legal aid service. His passion for human rights gave far more meaning to his work than the prospect of seniority in a large firm.
When the transition you are contemplating is a move into management it’s particularly important to be clear about what appeals to you other than higher rates of pay and status in the hierarchy. For example if a prospective management role involves managing others’ performance be sure that you have sufficient genuine interest in achieving objectives though the efforts of others managing their performance and generally supporting them to do their best work.
Support for your career transition
Career transitions are demanding and can be stressful – not only for the professional going through the transition but for those around them. We are all creatures of habit comfortable with familiar routines and challenged when we need to change them. Career transition inevitably involves gaining new knowledge and skills making adaptations and dealing with a range of emotions along the way. Resistance to change surfaces often when professionals make career transitions and it might not be their own!
Each of the following activities can help ensure your transition is successful especially if you do the groundwork well ahead of when you need help and support with a career transition:
v Find a mentor and work with them regularly. As far as career transition is concerned your mentor’s background might be in a different professional entirely but they should understand the challenges of career transition.
v Build a strong professional network. This should include people you trust and respect who can be called on to provide well-informed advice and guidance relating to your career transition.
v Develop and maintain robust relationships at work. Whether your career transition is within one workplace or involves moving to another your relationships with the people around you can make or break your transition. Your manager staff reporting to you your peers and external parties can all be sources of support in a career transition; for example when you need to solicit feedback about how you are going.
v Have a credible ‘career narrative’. When you make a career transition other people are likely to be curious about why you are doing it. In the absence of an acceptable explanation from you people will make their own assumptions. It helps to be able to explain your career trajectory to others in terms of the value you bring to others rather than what’s in it for you.
v Reflect regularly on how you are going with adapting to your changing work arrangements. If necessary enlist the help of a supportive colleague or professional coach to help make sense of your experience during your career transition. Their feedback can be an invaluable source of support to your career transition.
About the Author
Janet Fitzell is an organisation development consultant and facilitator providing consulting services through FourLeaf Consulting Pty Ltd.