Why career transition is so hard — and how to manage it better

The way we work is undergoing fundamental change. New technology is transforming organisations and the roles within them. Not only must we consider how to reinvent ourselves, the speed of these changes also means we must do so constantly.

But transiting to a new career is not easy, says Thinkers50 Ranked Thinker, Herminia Ibarra, in her recent article in the Harvard Business Review and in the re-release of her groundbreaking book, Working Identity (HBR Press, 2023). There are several obstacles that we are likely to face, which can make the process emotionally fraught.

We might be transitioning to a new role, or a new career, without institutional support, for example. Whereas once there were well-trodden steps for us to follow as we moved up the ranks – following those that had gone before us – today’s work environment is a lot less linear. Job markets are less structured. Jobs themselves are being replaced by “fluid, individual portfolios of gigs and part-time roles,” she explains.

We also risk losing our sense of professional identity, which makes it harder to secure new roles, especially given that application and interviewing processes have become longer. And many senior positions are not advertised publicly.

So we must search for new roles and new careers in a different way. “Career change,” argues Herminia, “is iterative. You can’t line everything up in advance. You have to figure things out over time and make adjustments as you go.”

While it makes sense to keep your options open in the search for a new career or a new role, this can also be emotionally challenging. We must “navigate between a past that is clearly over and a future that’s still uncertain.” One way to make this process easier is to embrace the liminal state that we necessarily find ourselves in between old and new. Accept that finding the next role will take longer than you expect. Use the time to explore your possible selves. Experiment with divergent possibilities. Mobilize your ‘weak ties’ – the relationships at the further reaches of your network – but also develop bonding relationships with people closer to you for support.

“Being in transition is like losing the plot of your professional life. You need to diverge and delay, exploit and explore, and bridge and bond to find a new narrative thread.”

Read the full article by Herminia at hbr.org or in the November-December issue of the Harvard Business Review.

Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career – updated version (HBR Press, October 2023) out now.

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