What Leads to Transition

“If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

  • Yogi Berra

Change is inevitable. It is a given. How you prepare for and cope with change, however, ultimately determines how successful you will be in transitioning from one life situation to another. That is true whether change is occurring in a personal relationship, in a physical location – moving from one home to another, or at work with respect to your career. Change is constant.

However, change and transition are two different things, argues William Bridges in his book, Transitions. Change, he says, is what is occurring externally with respect to life circumstances – the new job responsibilities, the new baby, or the new doctor-mandated exercise routine. Transition, however, is the “psychological process” you go through as you process the outward changes. Transitions are “inner reorientation and self-redefinition that you have to go through in order to incorporate any of those changes into your life.” I like that definition. To be successful in coping with and adjusting to change, you need to mentally shift how you view the change in order to transition to your new reality.

A transition is a pivotal period of growth and development that is sparked by a change in some aspect of your life. That change is usually a major opportunity, even if it does not appear that way at first. At work especially, if you view change in a positive light, it can lead to fulfilment, personal satisfaction, and new career or personal growth opportunities you could never have imagined.

In your lifetime, you will likely change jobs as many as 15 times, with the average being 11 times by the age of 44, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unlike our parents and grandparents, who were likely to work for one employer their entire career and then retire with pension benefits, professionals today do not stay in one place for long. In fact, switching jobs every five to seven years is now typical. Today, career change is the new normal. So whether you are starting to proactively consider where to head next or you are reacting to news that a change to your current employment status is coming whether you like it or not, the key to a successful transition is preparation. Even in reactive mode, there are things you can do to ready yourself for a career or job shift.

Self-discovery is Key

Career transition is more a journey of self-discovery than anything else. It is a process of exploring personal strengths and interests, discovering new opportunities, and pursuing a career that is more aligned with each individual’s needs and wants. The career goals you may have set for yourself five years ago or even last year, may need to be updated or even overhauled today. As you stop to assess where to go next, you may realise that the path you were on no longer fits you. That is good news.

Realising that another career path will provide you with increased job satisfaction, personal fulfilment, joy, professional challenge, and more, is one of the major benefits of a career transition. Stopping to consider where you are heading, and whether you still like your destination, is wise because it is so much easier to alter course while you are flying than to try and do it once you have landed.

Of course, change and transition are scary. The unknown is scary and, even when you think you know what you want, deciding to take action to pursue it may require a leap of faith. There are generally seven stages that most executives experience as part of a career transition. Some overlap and some do not occur if the transition is forced and not voluntary, but most professionals experience some or all of the following:

Seven Steps of Career Transition

Change often begins with the seeds of discontent. A certain level of dissatisfaction may begin to emerge that leads to self-reflection, information-gathering and evaluating new challenges and opportunities. Once a better situation is discovered and negotiated, a career transition is completed. But the process starts with a sense that there might be something better out there – something more fulfilling or challenging that you are passionate about.

1. Discontent. Discontent can actually be a two-way street where your employer is concerned. You may be feeling that something is missing, or that things could be better, just as the organisation you are currently working for may be having its own issues of dissatisfaction. Perhaps sales are down, or the company’s expansion is not going as planned, or there are lawsuits looming to be dealt with, introducing a sneaking suspicion that change at the top may be needed. Maybe the service values no longer fit with your core beliefs and values.

Either way, the process of questioning what could be starts seeping into your psyche. You may be well-paid, you may have a fabulous office and terrific staff, the work you do may be fulfilling, and yet you may still wonder, “Is this all there is?”

When the discontent is felt by the organisation paying you a salary, you may start to perceive that all is not well. Corporate performance is one gauge, as is employee morale, public news reports and online rumour mills, but board discussions in particular about cutbacks or recent crises can shed light on whether your tenure within an organisation or sector will be short-term or long-term. The signs of an impending parting of the ways usually begin to appear long before the actual event occurs. So watch for them, so that you are not caught off-guard.

The additional challenge with getting fired, sacked, or being made redundant – whatever you prefer to call it – is that you are left feeling that you have no control over your livelihood. You do, of course, have control but, when the decision to leave an employer is not entirely yours, there is a process of grieving that needs to occur before you can move on to subsequent stages in the transition process.

2. Fear. What you feel next as you transition is fear – fear of the unknown, fear of what comes next, fear of what may or may not happen and where that will lead you. Change is scary, like I said and, even if you initiate it, moving from the comfortable and familiar to the completely unfamiliar can feel like you are free-falling from a plane. In fact, it is simply turbulence. It is wise to remember that turbulence, while unsettling, is not dangerous as long as you are strapped in well; you are safe.

While you probably do not enjoy being afraid, fear is an important emotion because it can become your propeller to push you forward. When you are afraid, you are also your most creative. If you did not have your current job, what would you do? While your initial instinctive reaction to that question may be fear, you probably moved excitedly on to thoughts of how else you could fill your time. You feel the fear and you move on; you do not let the fear stop you from exploring the future. Do avoid getting stuck.

Once you have control of your fear and put it aside, you can begin to brainstorm all your options, and explore all the alternatives to your current job that are now wide open to you. What a freeing thought. You do not have to land at Heathrow airport or at Gatwick; you can head on to Hamburg or even Helsinki airport, or maybe Paris-Charles de Gaulle. The opportunities are nearly endless. Once you realise that and are ready to truly consider your many options, you have started to move into the next phase.

3. Disconnection. Part of considering the future and where you might be headed – maybe a relocation, a promotion, a year of volunteer work, starting a family, retiring, a sabbatical, the start of a being an entrepreneur – requires that you separate yourself from your former identity. What you were, or what you have left, is your old identity. You are no longer CEO or CFO or director or president or chairman of your organisation. You are now a private citizen with no alliances to contend with – at least for the moment.

In order to move on, you first have to leave behind your former title and role and expectations. You are on your own and, while that may be disconcerting at first, you will quickly get used to it. There are many benefits to being you, an individual, the perfect you.

4. Self-assessment. Having pushed past your former self and your former employer, it is time to take a step back – to take a 35,000 kilometre view of your life and what you want out of it. This is the time to be honest with yourself and with others about:

  • your interests and desires
  • those life goals you have put off pursuing
  • what drives you, what excites you
  • what you want to accomplish
  • who you want to help
  • how you want to help
  • where you want to live
  • how you want to spend your days?

These are important questions to which you may not have given enough thought.

During the hustle and bustle of daily life you were probably more focused on preparing for meetings or contemplating how to deal with the complex issues within your organisation than with what you are really good at, or what you truly love to do. Fortunately, now that you have decided it is time to move on, to do what you are meant to do, it is time to zero in on what you are passionate about.

Take a moment to reflect on your childhood dreams and desires, what you enjoyed doing at school, or maybe what you excelled at in college or university. What were your thoughts on how you expected to earn a living? What did you love to do? This is the starting point for the direction you should consider taking now. This period of self-reflection and self-assessment is perhaps the most important phase in the entire process of transition. Spend ample time on your reflection; refrain from being rushed.

5. Exploration. Having created a list of types of challenges that excite you, or entrepreneurial interest or organisations you would like to be part of, now is the time to look at the viability of those paths in regard to your next job or role. Even if your next position is not a suitable employment position, as you consider all the possibilities available to you, you will want to assess what is possible. That is the focus of this phase – what is out there and what might be right for you.

You may discover that the job you had always pictured as being perfect for you, head of a FTSE 100 or a 250 company, for example, may no longer fit your personal needs. In the same way you may find that becoming a year-long volunteer for Greenpeace, which looked so exciting in your 20s, is not quite as appealing or realistic now in your 40s or beyond. That is the value of exploring all of the areas that interest you. You can find out what new situations might be a perfect fit for the person you are now, and you can lay to rest thoughts of employment positions that you have always wondered about, but now see are not as glamorous or high-powered as you had hoped.

By the same token, you may come across opportunities you had not considered or even known were available. Perhaps, in your last role, you were frustrated at your company’s unwillingness to invest more in social media, and yet as part of exploring different organisations and openings, you come across a newly-created director of social media at a company that has held your interest, and one in which you would like to work. Or maybe your thoughts of leaving the corporate world to become a coach, develop a business interest or maybe be a full-time writer become more real as you discover writers groups and communal workspaces right in your own backyard.

It is amazing what you may find when you really open your eyes to what is out there. Take the time to explore, to research, to gather information so that you can cull through all that is possible and narrow your focus on what most interests you.

6. Planning. When you reach a point where you have narrowed your career options to a handful of opportunities or experiences, it is time to prioritize them. Which one excites you the most? Is it doable? What is your second choice? How do you feel about abandoning your first choice to pursue it? Does it feel right? Which would you regret not going after?

After zeroing in on your next possible path or at least what options you might more fully explore, it is time to start planning. What can you do to more fully investigate or to pursue your top interests? With whom might you network? What events may be of benefit for you to attend? How might you make contact with people who can assist you in transitioning to your next role?

All of those steps or action items are elements of your transition plan. During this phase, you’ll begin organising and strategizing how best to pursue your next career opportunity. What are the steps that will get you there most efficiently?

While methodically laying out your path to your next career position is one element of this phase, even more important is your mental and emotional status. Are you feeling optimistic and positive about where you are headed? Are you looking forward to the next stage of your career? Seeing the possibilities and making progress in achieving your goal of a new position is what should be happening here. If you are not feeling good about what comes next, you need to reassess where you are. Maybe the path you are on is not the right one for you.

7. Transformation. Although career transition is transformational, that transformation occurs gradually, beginning at your last job and ending when you land a new job that is an even better, more satisfying use of your time and talents. When you reach this phase, you have managed to disconnect from your last position, found a new-and-better role, and are immersing yourself in your career or pursuit. That is the goal for everyone.

Of course, this process of transition does not occur in a matter of hours or days. Disengaging from your former employer and searching for a position that leverages your passion and experience takes time. It also requires support from those around you. Simply switching from one job to another that is quite similar does not qualify as a transition. It takes little thought or soul-searching to accept a promotion or lateral move.

Fortunately, transition is a process that does have a beginning and an end. At the beginning you may be feeling anxious or fearful, but by the end you will be energised, excited, and on a path to a career that is a much better fit for who you are today.

Dr Neslyn Watson-Druee CBE, FRCN, FCGI

email Neslyn@Neslyn.com for the six-step-purpose-system