Are You Considering a Career Change?

Originally published on the Zealify blogGone are the days when a job was for life.

No longer is it the norm to find an employer post-education, and serve them faithfully until retirement. According to an article in Forbes, 91% of Millennials expect to stay in a job for less than three years.  It isn’t just Millennials, either. According to figures cited in the Wall Street Journal, changing jobs every few years has become the norm.

But are we just changing jobs more, or changing our whole career direction, too?

During the first two years of my own professional life, I worked recruiting software developers. When going through applications to my roles, I saw many people with little or no previous experience looking to get into programming, or change direction within the field.

Suddenly, it seems acceptable, possible, and even encouraged, to embrace change in your career. According to the above article in the Wall Street Journal, the figure often floated around is that the average person will have seven different careers in their lifetime. It sounds like a lot, but I’m already on my third.

Then there are the people who aren’t having a ‘career’ at all, but using freelancing sites, and the on-demand economy, to build a kind of portfolio career made up of many different jobs. Perhaps your Uber driver also works in hospitality during the week and designs websites in his free time?

If you’re floating the idea of changing your career path, then there are some things you should bear in mind.

Is it good or bad to ‘career hop’? Will changing careers limit your potential to achieve?

Or will such moves give you a much needed morale and skills boost?

As somebody with a recruitment background, a keen interest in startup culture, and having just made my second ‘career change’, I want to explore a few common statements related to employment, and suggest why they’re worth considering in your own career.


Statement #1

“Hire for Attitude, Train for Skills” (or vice versa?)

Learning, or lack of it, is a big reason people leave or join companies.

Perhaps you feel stagnant in your current role – you’re not learning enough, you’re not learning the right things, or you’re not learning from the right people.

If you’re in this position then the above mantra is relevant because it helps you both to assess what might be wrong in your current position, and to evaluate potential career change opportunities if you do decide to take the plunge.

Statement 1 is a common mantra of employers who consider themselves more forward thinking, and you can check out this book by Mark Murphy if you want to learn more about it.

Essentially the theory is that hiring somebody intelligent who has passion is the best way to grow your team, as opposed to hiring somebody who has the skills alone, but might be lacking in enthusiasm or work ethic.

If you’re looking to make a career change, the ‘hire for attitude, train for skills’ mantra is your best friend, but you need to be sure that the environment you’re moving into can support your development. Your attitude may be great, but will their training be there? In practice, this approach may be the reason that you end up learning very little, or working alongside people not capable of teaching you what you need to learn.

I believe the success or failure of a career change comes down to the size of the skills gaps involved, and the resources your employer has available to close these gaps.

If the skills you need to develop are soft skills, then you are more likely to catch up quickly. If, however, the role involves technical learning, or any strategic element, then it’s important for you to be properly supported when you make the transition. It is often assumed that enthusiasm and good researching skills will be enough, but that is not always the case.

Bill Fischer makes some great points in this post by Forbes, and one I want to highlight is:

Attitudes will only get you so far, and when real change is needed — innovation, for example — then attitudes are not likely to be enough to get you to where you want to go. In such situations, you need skills, and lots of them.

He’s right, and what this means for employers is thinking very realistically about which skills can be taught quickly, how much time and resource it take to teach them, and if you or your team can commit enough time to doing that. Do you have enough time? Or will the nature of your organisation mean you need those skills from the employee’s first day on the job? 

As somebody assessing potential job moves, be very aware that employers are not always realistic about learning potential and training opportunities. Some see the ‘hire for attitude, train for skills’ mantra as making it easier to hire by ruling out a rigid ‘technical’ requirement, and then letting the new hires press on and seeing who sinks and who swims. The level of training an employer can afford to, and is able/willing to, offer, varies massively. This doesn’t just vary according to size of the company, but also according to its culture, funding status and corporate structure (if everybody is onsite with clients, who will train you?).

I went into my most recent job hunt telling interviewers very pointedly that I was not the finished article, highlighting the gaps in my CV that I’d need to make up, and always asked the question, “how do you foresee that I will get up to speed?”.

If their answer was vague, I told them I didn’t think I was the right fit for the job.

This isn’t because I wasn’t motivated to get the job – I was. I just know what it feels like when you’re not on the same page as your employer in this regard, and it’s not worth it.


Statement #2

“Have you got ten years’ experience? Or one year repeated ten times?”

If you’re not considering a career change, perhaps you should be. Whilst changing careers too often can mean that you don’t develop truly deep skills in any one area, doing the same thing for too long can cause you to stagnate. 

A friend recently expressed surprise at the idea of job hopping every few years, saying they settled into work quite slowly, and took a while to ‘get comfortable’ in the role. I strongly believe that becoming too settled in any role – feeling like you have completely nailed it! – is actually the kiss of death for your career! That awkwardness and discomfort of not understanding something, or getting something wrong, pushes you to develop yourself and keep achieving things which will give you an edge as a candidate.

If you’re looking to change careers, or you might in the future, then what you’ll be bringing are transferrable skills, so you should realistically assess how much experience you have, and what you have achieved. You want to be in a position where you are achieving as much as possible as quickly as you can. Unless you work in a role where projects are diverse and change frequently, it may be difficult to find the challenges you need to stretch you in the same role for more than a few years.

If you want more context on statement 2, check out this podcast by Sam Polimeni, a founding Director and Strategist (though it’s a commonly cited concept whose origin is speculated but unknown).

What it boils down to is experience versus achievement. If you have a role where you essentially go through the motions doing the same things each year, then yes you gain more and more experience doing those things, but you are no longer truly achieving anything. It’s achievement which is transferrable to a new role, and simply having done something a number of times, is not a huge advantage. Of course, achievement could come in the form of repeating an activity until you have optimised performance at it, but it’s worth considering what new skills you may be missing out on by doing the same thing each month or year. I’ve frequently heard people say that they feel they “wasted” a period of time in their career, treading water in a job, before making a change.

This excruciating planning may seem a little extreme, but I think we owe it to ourselves to care for our careers, and I’m not alone. Today, the list of rewards people expect their from their jobs has gone far beyond simply a wage on which to live. 

Londoners, in particular, work longer hours than anybody else in the UK, and expect more extra benefits than other parts of the UK, including a good culture and travel opportunities. It seems unsurprising, given how much of our time is consumed by work, that we demand more from our career and ourselves. If your job is no longer allowing you to achieve, do everything you can to change that including, if need be, changing the job.


Statement #3

“Follow your Passion” Or let your Passion grow?

A common reason people change careers is lack of passion, or belief that another career path might allow them to align more closely with their passion.

I’d like to consider two points of view here. The first is from a guy called Alexander Heyne, whose blog for those feeling ‘lost’ in their lives and careers really spoke to me when I discovered it a couple of years ago. This is what he has to say about passion:

I’ve been obsessed with finding […] my ‘passion’ and all that […] it’s mostly because having found ‘your work’ entirely changes the quality of your life.

The second is from Cal Newport, an assistant Computer Science professor who writes for professionals and believes “follow your passion” is bad advice. In a recent speech, he said:

You cannot expect a really good working life until you’re really good at something.

Heyne, though he encourages everyone to think deeply about the things in life they’re naturally drawn to, is also a huge advocate of trying lots of new things until you discover one you really want to pursue. Perhaps you only discover your true passion in work by discovering new career paths and never settling for something that doesn’t feel perfect. In this sense, he and Newport actually agree about passion – it’s highly important for enjoyable work, but often must be discovered through hard work.

Where they differ is their beliefs about passion – is it something innate (as Heyne would suggest) or something that grows as your ability at a certain thing grows (Newport)? I would say that it can be both, and both men make some thought provoking comments which are well worth looking into.

When I was eighteen and deciding how to get my career started, I decided on an English degree because I loved to read and write – it was the closest thing I could find to my ‘passion’. Three uninspiring years passed, and I learned that for an activity to be enjoyable, the context in which it is done is almost more important than the activity itself.

When people make career changes, often they are trying to come closer to their ‘ideal’ role, and I think it’s important to realise it’s made up of both activities you naturally enjoy, and the environment you work in. A wider appreciation of what motivates and fulfils you is hugely important.

I still love writing, but that alone is not enough to make me happy in my working life. I enjoy being busy, I need to be surrounded by intelligent people whom I respect, I require high amounts of autonomy, but also clear and logical leadership. If these environmental criteria are met, I feel fulfilled and motivated doing a vast range of tasks and, conversely, an ill-fitting environment can make even the most interesting jobs miserable.

Perhaps the key to a happy working life is not finding what you love, but finding how you love, the cultural conditions required to make you feel happy at work.

I am so glad I worked as a recruiter, because it meant I got to have deep conversations with people who absolutely adored their jobs, and it pushed me to find an environment that really suited me, rather than feel it was my own fault, or that I should put up with being unhappy. 

A successful ex-colleague recently commented this on Twitter:

This comes so close to my own recent advice on changing careers: pursue things in your job that genuinely make you happy, and actively seek out as many interesting conversations as you can (and then nurture those relationships). The career changes I’ve made have depended on my previous record of hard work, and the strong relationships I’ve developed with people in my professional network.


In Conclusion

  1. When you’re thinking about career change, consider not just the actual activities you enjoy, but also the environment and culture you need to thrive. Don’t make a career change for a skills change alone; the supporting culture can be as, if not more, important.
  2. For your long term career, building achievements is more important than increasing experience.
  3. Build your professional network. Put the same amount of effort into this as you would your personal social network. If you want to make a career change, your network will prove invaluable, so put time and effort into connecting with smart, talented and wise people.
  4. Be realistic: some people fall easily into their dream job, but most people do not. Building a working lifestyle you are happy with takes time, trial and error, and you have to remain positive through evaluating bad situations and making practical steps to move further towards a better one.

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