How to Think Strategically About a Career Transition

For most of us, reinvention—of our careers and ourselves—is an extremely tall order. As London Business School professor Herminia Ibarra notes, you might know what you don’t want to do any more but be unsure what you actually do want to do next. People “don’t know how to search when they don’t know exactly what they’re searching for,” she says.

Much more important than trying to figure out the next career step is thinking more broadly about your possible selves, and then exploring several of those possible selves simultaneously. This is where having a diverse network helps a lot. And while most of us hate networking, Ibarra has tips on how to become better at that too.

For this episode of our video series “The New World of Work”, HBR editor in chief Adi Ignatius sat down with Ibarra, a prolific author who is an expert on career transitions, to discuss:

·       How to transition smoothly and successfully from one career to another

·       Being authentic in the workplace without limiting your own growth and evolution

·       How to break out of insular networks to truly connect with those who can link you to new opportunities.

Two of Ibarra’s books are coming out next month in updated editions: Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career and Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader.


Herminia, welcome.


Thank you so much.


I want to talk a lot about career transitions, but I want to give a little context first, and I know your view is that this is an era of constant career reinvention. Why do you think that’s so?


I’ve been studying career reinvention for over 20 years now. The first edition of Working Identity was 20 years ago, and the trends just keep accelerating. If anything, we are reinventing ourselves and reinventing our careers more.

There’s four things that are contributing to this. We’re living longer and longer, and as we live longer, we don’t want to have a long slide from age 40, because we could easily be working another 40 years. We want to make the most of it. That’s one.

Two is technology. I don’t have to say much about that, but it is changing everything. It is disrupting jobs. It is creating new jobs. It’s allowing us to work from anywhere. It creates a very interesting context for being able to reinvent yourself.

The third one is our companies, organizations, our workplaces: they are constantly disrupted too. That creates opportunities, but also creates challenges. We’ve seen a huge wave of layoffs recently in the tech world for example. Now people in the financial sector are struggling with high interest rates and what that means for their products, and the list goes on. We don’t stay in jobs as long as we used to, either by choice or by necessity as we are asked to leave them.

And the fourth of the trends, and this one’s been going a long time, is that what we expect out of a job has changed a lot. It used to be providing a stable living. [Now] we want everything from our jobs. We want passion, we want purpose. We want self-fulfillment. We want flexibility. We want so much from them, and we are increasingly impatient, and wanting to move on if we don’t get those things.


If career reinvention, if the need for reinvention, is such a standard aspect of the contemporary business world, why are we having so much trouble still trying to carry it out?


That’s the one thing I’ve learned, it’s really hard. It’s really hard, it takes longer than people think. A couple of things. One is that most people know what they don’t want to do anymore, but they don’t know exactly what they want to do instead. And since they don’t have the answer, and I’m going to come back to this, they don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to search when they don’t know exactly what they’re searching for. So that’s one.

Another one is, what we do is who we are. It’s such an important sense, it’s a part of our identity. And even losing a job that we didn’t like is a huge loss, because it was what we did, it was the people we spent time with, it was what structured our time. We built up to that. We invested in that. The sense of psychological loss is a big barrier.

The last is that increasingly, particularly from mid-career on, when we change careers we’re moving into something different. It’s not a linear, more-of-the-same at a higher level. It’s something different. And those transitions, I call them under-institutionalized. What I mean by that is that the steps are not clear, you don’t know how long it’s going to take. You’re not doing it with other people in lock step. It’s not clear who the role models are.

If you want to be a partner in a law firm, you know what the steps are. It might be hard, but you know what the steps are and the timeframes. If you’re a lawyer who wants to be, say, an entrepreneur in the arts, that’s under-institutionalized. There isn’t particularly an educational program that you go to. Different people move into that in very different ways. It’s not clear. It’s more uncharted. It’s unclear how to go about it.


So I want to come back to the first point you talked about, which is that we’re not that good at figuring out what our possibilities are. I identify with that. Most of the jobs I’ve had, somebody has come to me and said, would you like to do X? And even when it’s a career shift, it’s like, I didn’t think of it, somebody else did. It’s worked out fine, I love my job. But there’s a lack of agency that I think a lot of people feel in terms of getting control what I want to do with my work life, with my career. Is there advice on how to think clearly about possible next steps?


I’ve got loads of it. One of the things is, we’ve got to get away from thinking that if you don’t know the answer, if you don’t know the goal or the target career, you should just wait and reflect until you’ve figured it out in your head. That’s actually not how we figure it out.

It’s great when people come to you with propositions. It can be dangerous too because sometimes those things are too close to what you were doing already. And if you do want to make a change, they may not be the best fit.

Much more important than trying to figure it out is to experiment. And instead of thinking, “What’s the one ideal job for me?”, [ask], “What might be 10, or what might be six organizations, or what might be five different pathways I could take?” And start exploring them in parallel, simultaneously.

You learn as you go along. Sometimes the things you thought you wanted don’t pan out to be. Or you dream them to be, for example. Sometimes it’s harder and it takes longer. You’ve got to do something else in parallel.

The first clear bit of advice and way of doing this successfully is to come up with a list of possibilities. I call them your possible selves. And start exploring one, two, ideally more than one, in parallel.


I had a conversation with a headhunter at one point, and they were asking me about my job. I told them it ticks all my boxes. I feel good about it. I feel like I’m doing something important. And I said, “Everyone feels that, right?” And the person said nobody feels that.

If you’re in a situation like that, you’re very lucky. I’m interested about the extent to which people feel satisfied in their work. How much satisfaction can we expect from our work? It’s work and it’s not necessarily our life, although it’s a part of it.

From your experience and research, how many of us feel generally satisfied in our jobs? Is it the norm or do we have to accept something less?


The general surveys show a lot of dissatisfaction. That comes and goes, there’s periods of that and there’s sectors. It’s important to think that a job is not monolithic. I love my job, it ticks all my boxes too, but there’s parts of my job I really don’t like, that feel like grunt work. There’s parts I love, and every job is like that. It is a matter of proportion. It’s by and large, are you mostly doing the things that you find fulfilling?

There are lots of people out there who are not satisfied. They may have been, but over time, either they have changed or their organization has changed, or the people with whom they work have changed, and they’re no longer happy about those elements. They don’t feel as challenged. They don’t like and respect the people they work with. They don’t align with the organization’s mission. All of those things create a dissatisfaction. And my sense, from talking to my students, from doing my research, is that there’s a lot of people who are dissatisfied out there today.


I want to build on that with a question that’s come in from Hassam in Rotterdam. How do you envision the evolution of the “employee experience” in a world increasingly dominated by hybrid work models?


I do not have a crystal ball. I don’t know. All I know is that organizations are still trying to figure it out. They’re still playing with different ways and trying to understand the employee experience. But that’s a question I can’t answer.


Alright, here’s another question, this is from Ellie from Switzerland. How should we think about the balance? If you switch careers, you jeopardize some of the seniority you’ve built up, and the benefits and positives that you’ve accrued. How can we avoid that or how can we think about that trade off?


That’s another big question, am I going to have to start at the bottom? Or is there a way not to do that? It depends on what you go on to do next, right?

One person I’ve been interviewing extensively over the last couple years was chief compliance officer at her organization, and she’s become a documentary filmmaker. She had to start at the bottom, as an apprentice. It depends.

Other people move into something that’s more adjacent, maybe doing it more entrepreneurially. And they don’t have to, they can really leverage the skillset and the experience that they’ve had, albeit in a very different role and setting. It depends a lot.

People try to solve this by going back to school, and that can help a lot by rounding you out. But what everyone forgets is that it’s not always up and up. So you’re seeing, “Okay, I’m here. If I make a change, I’m going to be here. Whereas I can continue moving up,” and that may well not be the case.

The world is changing, jobs are disappearing, and if you’re not happy and productive in what you’re doing, the curve could well be declining too, and you’ve got to take that into account.


The other topic that seems to be on everyone’s mind is AI. We’re always wondering if technology will take our jobs. And sometimes it does. With generative AI, we’re all asking about it with a heightened sense of concern.

Are you thinking about this, how this changes or accelerates everything you’re thinking about?


We’re thinking about it as an institution at London Business School. I’m trying to use it as much as I can. I’m interested in how it’s changing people’s jobs.

From my perspective, what I’m interested in is how it’s going to transform how people work together. Who does what? What organizations emerge? We don’t know the answers to those questions. We know we need to be asking big questions about alignment with values. We know, from the whole wave of digital transformation, that there’s the technological part, but then there’s the whole other part, which is how it’s used. Is the organization able to use it? Are people able to adapt and make the most of it? All of those things remain to be seen. But certainly, it is worth experimenting with, keeping an eye on it, studying, asking the good questions.


So here’s a question related to technology. This is from Bhaskaran in Bangalore. Bhaskaran says that after working for 21 years in HR they decided to move to a smaller organization, expecting it to be nimble, agile and all that. It turned out to be highly toxic. Bhaskaran longs for a new role and organization, but has this constant fear of uncertainty. How does one deal with this inevitable fear of uncertainty when one is thinking about making a move?


Completely understandable. Unfortunately, often the process of making a career change can be one step forward, two steps back. Now you’ve learned something, and I think part of what you’ve learned is that you need to really research much more carefully the context you’re going to, and get a flavor of them as much as you possibly can. Now you’ve learned to inquire much more about culture, to talk to the people, to research the organization. All of that is really important.

It’s one of the reasons why, in studies I’ve done, oftentimes the uncertainty of “I don’t know what I want, I don’t know how long this is going to take,” starts to get at people. And then all of a sudden an option comes up, an offer, with this smaller, more nimble firm, and it’s the savior. So they take it, because otherwise they’re still in the throes of “What am I going to do?”, without researching it as much as they might. Without really asking, “What matters to me?” It’s really important to make time for that.

In any case, you’re out of there. And so, by necessity, you’re going to deal with uncertainty, but maybe research a bit more carefully.


We’re talking about two things. One is how to think about a career transition moment, how to be proactive and smart about that. But then, alright, you’ve made the move. How do you transition successfully into this new role?

I’d love to hear you talk a little bit more about that. We’ve made the move from Company A to Company B. How long should we give ourselves? How tough should we be on ourselves? Should we read The First 90 Days? How do we transition successfully?


The First 90 days remains the Bible on that topic. What he says to start with, which also goes to the previous question, is the first 90 days actually starts way before, with doing your homework and talking to people and finding out the stakeholders. There’s this lovely idea about, I think it’s the five conversations that you need to be able to have with your boss or whoever your key stakeholders are about what the expectations are about how you’re going to be measured, about the key topics, so that you’re going in recognizing the interdependence between your success and that of other people in the organization.


Let’s shift gears to talk about authenticity, another topic that you have researched and written a lot about. Most conversations that I have about leadership at some point evolve into a conversation about the need for total authenticity at work. My sense is you have a more complicated take on all this. How should leaders think about the authenticity question?


This total authenticity stuff drives me nuts. What is total authenticity? Is it to say whatever crosses your mind? Is it to dress how you might dress at home on a Sunday to go take a walk in the park? What does that mean? I think there’s a lot of fluff in all of this. What’s the definition of authenticity? Is it a trait? Is it an outcome, a process of learning about yourself and trying to be as much yourself as possible?

I don’t think it’s a trait. I think it is a process of learning. We want to be authentic. Nobody likes a fake. Nobody follows a fake. It’s bad for your mental health. I’m all for it.

The question I ask is how can you define authenticity in a way that doesn’t condemn you to being as you always have been? We grow, we evolve. We’re multiple. We have different facets, different aspects of who we are that play out. And we need to be able to express that complexity and also ask, “What does it mean to be authentic when I’m learning?”

It’s great when it’s habitual behavior. You know how to do that. But when you’re learning, you haven’t figured it out yet. People tend to confuse habitual behavior with authenticity. The minute they’re out of the comfort zone, “Oh, that’s not really me. I’m not so authentic.” The comment usually is, “That’s not me.” Well, it’s not you now and you haven’t tried it. And sometimes trying these things that help you to learn, they feel inauthentic. And if that’s the price of learning, I think it’s well worth paying it.

When some people talk about being authentic at work, I think they want to be open about who they are, their personal life, maybe their sexual orientation. If they have a kooky sense of humor, they want to be able to bring that. On the one hand, absolutely, you need to learn new skills and soft skills and hard skills. But people feel they would derive a deep sense of happiness if they could be “authentic” at work in the ways that I was talking about.


For me, that’s much more about a sense of belonging and being able to figure out, “Do I belong here or do I have to hide what’s important about me in order to be effective here?”

Back to bringing your whole self to work: workplace relationships are relationships. And in relationships, people get to know each other. And the minute that you meet somebody, you do not tell them everything about you, your personal life, professional life, strengths, doubts, anguishes, all this. You don’t do that. You get to know people.

It’s very important that we treat authenticity in that way. We’re building relationships. And as we build relationships, we want to be able to disclose. Self-disclosure is what builds relationships. That’s really important, but it’s not about in every moment being able to broadcast everything about myself in a way that doesn’t respect the building of relationships at work.


I think some of it is generational. My generation tended not to broadcast everything. I think some of the subsequent generations are more comfortable with that, expect that, and are comfortable with that. And part of the intergenerational workplace dynamic is all of us being comfortable with that.


The other thing about the complexity is that in the workplace we’re also assessing each other for potential. Who’s going to do well, who’s going to advance? We talk a lot about authenticity in the context of being able to be vulnerable and to express vulnerability. But vulnerability doesn’t get coded the same way when it’s expressed by a man versus a woman, or assertiveness doesn’t get coded the same way when it’s expressed by a Black person versus a white person. All of these complexities come into play, which we really need to take into account because we each want to put our best foot forward and be able to accomplish our goals within the organizations where we work.


What is the ideal profile of a leader in 2023? What are the skills or experience you think matter most?


You guys at HBR have been putting out the headlines on this, and there’s a very common drumbeat, and it’s been on for a while, which is about the importance of soft skills and people skills. We’ve been talking about that for a long time. The pandemic accelerated that, and really all the complexity of leading today, because ultimately what we’ve seen in a really deep way is that the problems organizations face, they’re big problems. They’re adaptive problems. That means there isn’t a simple solution to them, and you need to harness everyone’s energy and brains and hearts in order to solve them.

You really have to be able to get people on board, get them to tell you what they think, get them to work outside their comfort zones, and all that requires a set of people skills that most managers today who are successful and who get to the top haven’t necessarily developed because they have been rewarded for delivering results in any which way.

Delivering results is still important. What ends up happening is as people get more senior and they start to look promising, they get a lot of nudges, which is, it’s really time now to think about how to cultivate this other side, which has more to do with how you connect with people, how you bring out the best in them, how you create a context in which there is psychological safety. All of that has become much more important, not because it’s nice to have, but because the requirements for learning in our organizations have become so much greater.


From your research, is your sense that many leaders have those skills or that very few do?


I’ve got a couple different bases of knowledge on this. One is the executives that I teach. They’ll all say, “I’m great at getting accountability and driving results, and I’m a bit of a micromanager and my coaching skills are not so great.” That’s my most common profile. As you probably know, we worked on this with a couple of colleagues from Spencer Stuart, which led to an article last year, “The Leadership Odyssey” in HBR, where we were able to use Spencer Stuart’s recruitment data for the C-Suite.

The way we framed it is most of the executives in succession processes, candidates, had plenty of developmental opportunities when it came to these people skills. We ended up having a look at how it is that they come to recognize that it will really stand in the way of what they want to accomplish if they don’t develop these skills and how they go about it.


One topic I want to make sure we speak about is networking. Networking seems simple enough, but a lot of us struggle to even start to build effective and meaningful networks. Do you have thoughts on how to do this better?


A quick ad: a brand new article on HBR yesterday on the challenges of networking as an executive. What is it that makes it particularly hard for senior people to network who have their own challenges?

Anyway, this topic is of endless fascination to me, Adi, because I started working on this in the 80s when I was doing my PhD research, and have been following it since.

The headline is most of us are bad at it. Most of us are bad at it. Some people are very good, but most of us are bad, and you can look to social psychology to explain a big share of the why. The big share of the why is that the way we are built, we are drawn to spontaneously build relationships with people who are like us and with whom we bump into on a regular basis because their office is next door.

The way I summarize it is the mechanisms are similarity and proximity. That’s what builds our networks. We’re narcissistic and lazy. We like people like us. It’s easier to talk to them, and since we don’t have a lot of time, we’re going to get to know the people who are easy to get to know because they’re next door.

That means our networks are insular. They’re not good. They don’t help us get new jobs. They don’t help us step up to bigger roles.

We’ve got to work on it, but working on it is really aversive too, and you’ve published some great research on how that works. It makes us feel a little bit dirty, a little bit disingenuous, a little bit utilitarian, using people when we approach building relationships in a more strategic way. It gets in the way of our sense of meritocracy. It gets in the way of our sense of self-reliance, but we know from my research and that lots of other people are vital for getting jobs, changing careers, and being effective and innovative as a leader in the roles which you have already.


Any tips on how to build a network that isn’t the person in the cubicle next to you?


The tips are all really simple. Make an effort, join a project, take a course, use an extracurricular activity, make referrals, connect to people, speak at events.

Don’t do all of it all at the same time, but pick a few things. The thing is we don’t make time for it because, just like in your example, you’re waiting for stuff to come to you. These are things that you need to take the initiative on, but it’s very easy.

A great one is to just pick a few people you’ve lost track of, connect to them, write to them, say, “Hey, I’m thinking about this. It’d be great to catch up with you and have a conversation about it. How about it?” Very easy to do. It’s just that we don’t.


I want to come back to one thing you talked about, which was constant learning, constant adaptation. I think a lot of us are trained to get that next job, and then we have it and we bring our old selves.

I thought it was interesting that you’re saying we need to continually evolve and that authenticity is an elastic concept in that sense.

OK, we’re in a role as a leader, middle manager, whatever. How do we adapt? How do we evolve? How do we not just get stuck in that routine that we bring from day one? How do we keep evolving?


There’s a life cycle to all of this. One thing I would say is you’ve just started a new role. I wouldn’t worry about reinventing yourself. You’ve been hired for who you are. Exploit that and make sure to connect to the stakeholders and everything else, but you’re not looking to reinvent yourself here. You’re really looking to leverage everything that you bring to that role.

What people forget is that expectations of you change quickly, and environments also change quickly. The danger point is really more like a year or two or three, depending on how fast-moving your situation is, when you think you’ve got it covered, but people have stepped up in their expectations of you or the environment has changed a lot.

What becomes really important here, the main thing I say to people is, think about how you’re defining your job, where you’re spending your time, what you’re allocating time to, and can you think of it more as a portfolio in which some slivers of your time you’re going to spend learning new things, exploring new things, getting involved in projects that give you a more strategic view of the organization, something adjacent to what you normally do, but something that really allows you to keep expanding the frontier as opposed to settling into a comfort zone that’s going to make you much more vulnerable to the what-got-you-here-won’t-get-you-there phenomenon.

Working your network, people get comfortable. There’s a set of usual suspects that you keep turning to, no fresh blood, and you become very insular in your views.


Herminia, we’re out of time, but I want to really thank you for being on the show. It’s great to see you again and great to connect.


Thank you so much, Adi.


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