“What makes people successful – or not – when they reinvent themselves?”
That’s what my friend Andrew, who was leaving his successful law practice to take a job in government, asked me as we were having coffee on one of his last days at the firm.
In the course of researching my new book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future, I interviewed dozens of executives who made career transitions, either dramatic ones (shifting industries, like Andrew) or more subtle but still significant (finally ascending to a top leadership role).
Professional reinvention can be daunting. For many of us, our sense of identity is wrapped up in our jobs; to change or shift (especially to a position with a lower salary or in a field that’s less lauded by society) can raise uncomfortable questions: Who am I, really? What’s my worth, beyond the paycheck I bring in? What am I actually interested in doing?
In Reinventing You, I profile an executive named Susan Leeds, who had a high-flying Wall Street career but took time off to have children. When she wanted to return to work with a more flexible schedule – and was rebuffed by her company – she decided to pursue a new direction, and took a fellowship with an environmental organization.
For two years, she made far less money and, at times, was viewed with suspicion by her new colleagues (“who is this MBA and what’s she doing at our nonprofit?”). At times, it could be lonely and dispiriting. You have to “accept the fact that sometimes you have to take one step back to take three or four steps forward,” she told me. “It would be incorrect if I said I made a lateral shift: I went backward.”
That could be a devastating blow to some people’s egos; many would quit or give up. But Susan persisted, and was rewarded handsomely. “Because of the benefit of my years of professional experience in a competitive field, even though I went back, I was able to move forward fast – to leapfrog forward.”
My advice for Andrew and others who are planning their own “launch” is that the most successful reinventers are able to hold two different, and sometimes contradictory, attitudes at the same time. They have to be open to learning something new, and being beginners again. You’ll no longer be the smartest person in the room; your expertise may not carry over perfectly to your new field. As Susan said, you have to be willing to take a step back.
But you also have to have enough confidence in your overall abilities that you know you can adapt quickly – that once you’ve learned the ropes, your years of previous experience will help you advance to new, exciting places you couldn’t have predicted. You have to have the fortitude not to give up midway through, when the transition seems most thankless or difficult.
Today, Susan runs a public-private partnership dedicated to spurring energy efficiency investments. “It’s a huge learning experience. I knew a lot about financial markets but it’s also now about government, policy, energy, utilities, regulation, and even the real estate industry,” she says. “People look to me for policy leadership in this field, and that’s a different thing than I would have done in a million years on Wall Street.”
How are you planning to launch your reinvention?