How to Approach a Career Pivot


The latest survey by GOBankingRates, involving over 1,000 US adults, revealed that 57.65% are considering a career shift in the coming year [1]. Meanwhile City & Guilds Group research revealed a third of British people want to change their job. [2]

This desire for change is in part generational, with the same GOBankingRates poll finding that 83% of Gen Z consider themselves to be “job hoppers” [3]. But as Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University, writes in Harvard Business Review: “Contrary to what people think, career pivots are far less dependent on age than on other, organisational, psychological, and contextual factors. In other words, there is no such thing as the “ideal age” for a change; instead, other factors should be considered.” [4]

According to the US Department of Labor, the average person will change careers 5-7 times during their working life. Approximately 30% of the total workforce will change jobs every 12 months. [5].

So, what is the best approach to handling a career pivot? This article will help explain how you should decide whether you want to change careers, what might drive that change, and offer advice for how to best position yourself to transition smoothly.

Why change?

Herminia Ibarra of the London Business School divides the causes for change into two key categories: Situational drivers and personal drivers. [6]

Situational drivers, which also can be thought of as external drivers, are market forces such as the economy, the state of your industry, a restructuring in your company or emerging opportunities elsewhere. An example might be people who sense that AI will soon nullify the need for their existing job. As such, they are choosing to pivot careers now in order to not become collateral damage later.

Personal drivers, which can also be thought of as internal drivers, involve your personal experiences and preferences or network. An example might be people who chose to transition during the pandemic. While the pandemic was obviously an external event, for a lot of people it served as a wake-up call and inspired them to start pursuing a path that better aligned with their skills and passions.

Whatever your reason for pivoting, it’s first worth considering whether doing so is the right move.

Should you pivot?

Before pivoting, you should ensure that you’re certain it’s what you want to do. In Harvard Business Review, Dorie Clark, a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, suggests some easy ways to do that. [7]

First, you could transfer internally or reinvent your existing job. Turnover has been found to cost the employer up to 2x the employee’s annual salary and the number of resignations spiked in 2021 to a record 47 million voluntary departures. As such, companies are increasingly desperate to retain their talent. Before quitting for good, why not explore an internal transfer? Perhaps that will be sufficient to sate your desire for something new.

Second, be sure to validate your interests before doing anything drastic. Clark writes of a woman who always dreamed of quitting her job to become a florist. Except after spending a day shadowing a florist, she discovered that a large part of the job consisted of working in cold temperatures, which was a no-go for her. Oftentimes our grass-is-always-greener mentality means we’re assessing our idea of a job not its reality. Before pivoting, be sure to do your homework so you have a full picture of your day-to-day requirements.

Third, speak to those close to you. Your loved ones want what’s best for you. Obviously you would hope they support you, but they may be able to offer some third-party perspective that you are missing. If they raise doubts, think about those doubts and come up with a response that either nullifies them or shows that you have at least considered them, even if you’re willing to take a risk all the same.

The final suggestion Clark makes is to “stretch your time horizon.” In practice, that means asking yourself whether your pivot requires you to quit your job right away. If you’re going to another industry, perhaps you would be better placed if you dedicated a certain amount of time to bolstering your skills in that new industry around your current work first. You could undertake an evening or weekend course, network, or study on your own time. That way you won’t take a financial hit but can still move on when you’re good and ready. If doing so, be sure to make a schedule for your new learning that you can stick to, be it two hours twice a week, all day Saturday, whatever. Without a rigidly adhered to schedule, it could recede into just another dream.

Professional identities

We’ve already mentioned Herminia Ibarra’s notion of personal drivers. Chamorro-Premuzic expands on that idea. To him, these pivots all boil down to our ‘professional identity’.

“Our identity is influenced not just by our past work experiences,” he writes, “but also by our projected ones. When we feel that we are headed in a direction that is not congruent with our self-concept, such that our perceived “actual self” is out of sync with our “ideal self,” we are motivated to take action and change.” [8]

We can offer practical advice for how to handle a pivot but realistically whether you should or not comes down to your own intuition, that feeling in your gut. Most of us have experienced it at some point or other, be it in work or a personal relationship. If you’re feeling deep down that you’re on the wrong path, it probably is time for a change.

A shift in mindset

Writing in the Financial Times, Elizabeth Uviebinene, author of The Reset: Ideas to Change How We Work and Live, writes of her pivot from a banker to a writer and brand strategist. She says the secret to a successful pivot is to adopt a student mindset and let go of ego.

Adopting a student mindset makes your pivot more exciting and less daunting. Uviebinene found that “starting from a place of, “what do you want to learn?”, allows you to consider opportunities you may not have thought of, in fields that do not immediately translate as a good fit.” [9] Maintaining that approach allows her to keep learning and growing rather than acting as if there is some grand end destination.

Making the pivot

Once you’ve decided that a pivot is what you want, there are a number of tips that can help you get ahead.

Elizabeth Grace Saunders, a time-management coach and author of How to Invest Your Time Like Money, advocates four key principles: (1) Accept the time commitment (2) Pick your focus (3) Layer in learning (4) Designate time. [10]

Accepting the time commitment is the start. Making a successful pivot will require sacrifices. You may see less of your friends and family, or lose your weekends. If you’re constantly battling the urge to maintain the life structure you had before with your new ambitions, you will find the process frustrating. It’s better to accept that, at least for a time, things will be different.

Once you’ve made the commitment, pick your focus. Research what is required to thrive in your new field. Do you need to go back to school or complete a certification course? If so, focus on that. Perhaps you can self-teach the necessary basics. If so, do that. If networking is key, put the time into finding out who could help you and reaching out, as well as finding networking events you can attend.

Layering in learning is the process of transforming activities you already undertake into opportunities for growth. If you always listen to a podcast on your hour-long commute, listen to a podcast or audiobook that is related to your new field.

Designating time is key. It’s also vital to ensuring the first step works. You don’t want your whole life to become a sacrificial act, never seeing friends, becoming isolated from your family. Designating time both helps ensure you have structure for learning and that you have a life outside of it. It could be two hours after work twice a week, or four hours on weekends; the specifics will depend on your requirements. But try to make sure it’s the same every week so that it becomes habit. That way you won’t feel guilty when you’re seeing friends or family outside of those structured hours.

Writing in Forbes, Cheryl Robinson, author of The Happy Habits Club, also suggests crafting a narrative for your pivot [11]. You will have transferable skills from whatever previous roles you’ve filled. And if you’re undertaking the steps above then you’re also on a path to developing the necessary new ones. But potential employers will want to know why they should choose you over someone whose experience already lies in this field. By crafting a narrative about your move –– why it matters to you, why this area is your passion –– you can help alleviate any doubts that this is just an impulsive decision. Your CV and Cover Letters are a great place to push this narrative.

Courses in Ireland

Ireland offers a number of adult learning services that can help workers make a transition. The Irish Times notes that, “Within the State sector, education and training boards (ETBs) have a dedicated adult education guidance service staffed by guidance counsellors and information officers, who offer support to those with the greatest need as well as those seeking support to change career direction.” [12]

The website provides a link to all adult guidance services offered throughout ETBs nationwide.

Meanwhile, last June, Taoiseach Simon Harris, then Minister for Further and Higher Education, launched more than 11,000 free or subsidised places on college courses “aimed at those who may have taken a degree in a specific discipline but who wish to change direction within their general area of expertise to one with very good employment potential.” [13] The government funds 90% of the course fee. The other 10% is paid by the participants.

How to approach a career pivot

Whether it’s down to situational drivers or personal drivers, career shifts are becoming increasingly normal. The advent of AI will no doubt create further need in the coming years, while the attitude of Gen Z and younger millennials suggest the trend is likely to continue.

Once you’ve decided that a career pivot is right for you, it’s time to adopt a shift in mindset. It may be difficult to return to a student attitude, especially for those who have already had a successful career in another field. But a desire to keep learning is necessary to maintain excitement about the switch and alleviate some of the more daunting aspects. It also allows one to continuously grow rather than getting complacent or stagnant.

A successful pivot comes from accepting the time commitment, picking your focus, layering in learning to your existing activities, and designating time so you have a solid schedule and can maintain a work-life balance. It can feel scary to start again. But the likelihood is you already know deep down whether it’s something you want to do.

More on Change

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