Career change without the fear of the unknown

Whether your change in career is by choice or forced upon you, it is natural to worry about the unstable world that you’re about to enter, says Rob Kerr. But it doesn’t have to mean being fearful of entering the unknown

Chalk and cheese. Apples and oranges. Night and day. 

Career change is much less contrasted than those things, and the deeper you think about it, much more nuanced.

To jump headfirst into the unknown of a new career without utilising your previous experience or skills is a big risk, but it’s also a missed opportunity.

Starting from the beginning can result in a significant amount of time, money and energy spent retraining. It can also result in a lack of clarity of how your expectations meet reality and the risk of committing to something that doesn’t provide the satisfaction you’re seeking.

Staying too close to what you’ve known before, on the other hand, isn’t really career change at all. This too can result in dissatisfaction and the feeling of a missed opportunity.

So where is the balance, and how can you find the right answer?

In many ways, the most important part of a house is the foundations. They are ugly, come together using many different materials and machinery, and when complete, are covered and forgotten about. But without them, the house wouldn’t last long before you need to start again. It’s also much easier to redecorate or change the front door than to replace the foundations.

Exactly the same applies when considering a career change. The greater depth you put into understanding what you want to do, and how you can pivot from where you are, the more successful the outcome is likely to be. 

More so, it’s likely that some of those foundations of the right next step for you have already been built.

Even in a different field, successful career change is an expansion of what you’ve done before and allows you to build on the knowledge you’ve built up. It’s your opportunity to leverage everything you enjoyed about your previous career, and dispel the aspects that have made you consider a change in the first place.

It’s not just reutilising skills you’ve gained, but rather getting clarity about what problems you personally enjoy solving, and for whom you wish to solve them. By getting clarity on this, you’re more likely to create something the right people want and will be willing to pay for. They need to see you and you alone as the solution to the problem they wish to solve.

Career change is also an exciting opportunity to align more towards the lifestyle you aspire to, and to enable a better balance by meeting the needs of the key people in your life. This can often be providing your time as much as financial support. 

When I became senior enough to justify a three-month notice period I hated it. Instead of feeling secure in my role, I felt trapped. I felt that if any external opportunities came along that interested me, I wouldn’t be in a position to be nimble enough to seize them. 

So, before making a decision on whether to change my career, I developed what I now call the INPUTS Framework and sat down with my wife to analyse our situation.

The INPUTS Framework consists of the following six factors:

  • Impact – recognition of what impact your decision will have on key people in your life
  • Numbers – an assessment of your personal finances and what your proposed career change or new business (the project) will require initially, and what it will provide as a return on your investment
  • Personal – to determine whether the project is suitably aligned to your personal characteristics and circumstances
  • Useful – a review of the skills and support you’ll need to source externally to support the successful delivery of your project
  • Timing – an appraisal of your own commitments and likely commitments
  • Sales – a review of the market you propose to go into, and where you fit in

Armed with this framework, look to find options that may be the right fit for you. What foundations do you want to build on? Consider all of your options and explore all of your ideas before whittling them down to two or three candidate projects.

Then, look to understand why it could be the right fit. What are your values? What do you aspire to achieve? Who can you talk to this is already in that space to help you understand it? 

If the theory feels right and you still think it’s something you’d like to pursue, the next step is to trial at least one of your candidates in the real world via a low-risk pilot to provide or disprove your thinking. How can you gain this confidence before committing to your career change?

Following this process enabled us to determine that it was the right time for me to exchange employment for life as my own boss, specifically as a contractor. 

The critical factor for us that required immediate action was timing. We were expecting our first child so the window where we had two salaries coming in, making the financial risk low, was closing rapidly.

Your circumstances may be very different, but even if you complete a detailed analysis and have clarity on what the right decision is, it won’t materialise unless your mindset is in a place where you’re open to change, have a clear vision of what success looks like, and are tenacious in taking action to make it happen. 

Taking steps to success

It can be easy to put off making a decision to make a change, but consider that deciding to ‘do nothing’ and continue on your current path is also a decision not to seek and engage with new opportunities. 

Set a goal and work towards it to help make your career change happen, even in your spare time initially. Pick a date of when you’ll make the change. Define what objectives (or milestones) you’ll need to achieve along the way. Regularly review progress to assess whether you’re on track to meet your goal, and indeed, whether you’re still aiming for the right goal.

When you’re going in a new direction, your competition just got significantly tougher. Whether as an employee or as your own boss, you’ll be up against people with more obvious experience in the space you’re looking to enter. You’ll need to mitigate this competitive disadvantage.

When I was looking to become a project manager, I focused my CV and pitch on my relevant experience within that aspect alone. In doing so, I overlooked some of my more significant achievements that didn’t fit the mould, and I got the attention of the right person.

Later, when I decided to focus on mergers and acquisitions, although I hadn’t officially worked in that space before, I reviewed my experience and found several examples of pre-and post-merger integrations I had worked on and was able, legitimately, to frame my experience accordingly and, again, develop a strong CV and pitch. This showed I understood what was expected whilst in that role and helped convince the decision-maker to say yes.

Experience can often be subtle. Linking what you have to the problem you want to solve in a way that will appeal to the decision-maker will be key to your success.

The results of this can be extraordinary, and your new dawn may trigger a bright future for you and your family.

Rob Kerr is the author of the new book Project Future: 6 Steps to Success as Your Own Boss

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