Deciding to switch career paths can feel daunting. Where do you even begin? In this piece, the author offers four concrete ways to ease the transition: 1) Start by mapping the terrain. Read the bios and LinkedIn profiles of senior leaders or fast-rising colleagues and reverse-engineer the path they followed. This will enable you — if you wish — to craft a similar roadmap. 2) Recognize that you’ll need to take the lead. 3) Network to give yourself optionality. As a new entrant in your field, it’s possible you may have landed at a suboptimal company (for instance, one with a toxic work environment or declining fortunes) without realizing it, because it’s likely easier for outsiders to break into an industry at a firm that insiders are avoiding. So network widely, because if your initial landing pad isn’t a fit, you’ll want to change quickly. 4) Identify emerging opportunities. If you can become the “go-to” person around an area that’s growing in importance, you can often build a career path around it.
When professionals reinvent themselves, they often feel they have to start from scratch and that their previous connections and experience don’t count in their new realm. Your skills and your network are probably more transferable than you think. But it’s also true that you may feel confused for a while as you orient yourself to the way things work in your new career.
As I discovered through researching my book Reinventing You, here are four strategies to build a career path for yourself in your new endeavor, even if you’re still figuring things out.
Map the terrain.
In the early days of building a career in a new field, you may be unsure of key questions: Which skills or behaviors get rewarded, and which lead to career stagnation? How long does it typically take to move up to a leadership position? What should you expect? Even if it’s an arduous process, things will feel more in control once you have a sense of typical patterns, such as “Senior leaders almost always have a finance background,” or “It typically takes X years to get a promotion to VP.” Conduct informational interviews and don’t be afraid to ask your manager or colleagues what traits the most successful people in your company or your industry share. You can also read the bios and LinkedIn profiles of senior leaders or fast-rising colleagues and reverse-engineer the path they followed. This will enable you to craft a similar roadmap if you wish.
Recognize that you’ll need to take the lead.
In the past, companies often had clear career paths for their employees: You stepped on the escalator after college, and — assuming you performed adequately — would simply step off 30 years later, carried along seamlessly to a higher rung and salary range. For better and worse, that uniform, standardized experience has almost entirely disappeared from contemporary corporate life — though many employees don’t quite realize this.
A frequent theme in my speaking work is companies bringing me in during their “career month” activities to help explain to employees that they need to proactively raise their hands to seek out the opportunities they want, and that there will likely be many more lateral moves (to new geographies, functional roles, and more), rather than a steep and semi-guaranteed ascent in one narrow area. As a new entrant in a field, you’ll be ahead of the competition if you recognize from the outset that you’ll have to plan for, and work for, your advancement, rather than having things proceed in lockstep without your active participation.
Network to give yourself optionality.
If you’re entering a new field, it’s likely that your network isn’t yet very developed in this area. Double down to correct this, for three reasons. First, in the early days of a new career, you may not yet have a sense of exactly where you fit. For instance, you might enter the marketing field with a job focused on social media, but later discover you prefer to focus on long-form content. Networking widely enables you to discover facets of your new field you may not even have been aware of — and where you might ultimately excel.
Second, it’s important to note that you should consciously cultivate your network both inside and outside your company. As a new entrant in your field, it’s possible you may have landed at a suboptimal company (for instance, one with a toxic work environment or declining fortunes) without realizing it, because it’s likely easier for outsiders to break into an industry at a firm that insiders are avoiding. So network widely, because if your initial landing pad isn’t a fit, you’ll want to change quickly.
Finally, most jobs are found through “weak tie” connections. Especially if you’ll be in this field for the long haul, the compound value of building relationships early on is substantial, because these are the people that will be pinging you about job openings 10 years from now.
Identify emerging opportunities.
One of the best ways to build a career path for yourself is to invent one. In my book Stand Out, I profile Mike Lydon, a young urban planner who successfully launched his own firm — amidst the economic tumult of the Great Recession — on the back of his expertise in tactical urbanism, a new development in his field. Because it was an emerging trend, no other firm had yet cornered the market on it, and Mike was able — through extensively curating case studies and sharing them widely — to become a recognized expert quickly, and without directly taking on the giants in the industry. If you can become the “go-to” person around an area that’s growing in importance, you can often build a career path around it.
Life, admittedly, would be much simpler if we could just step into predetermined career paths. But these days, that’s generally not an option. We need to identify or create them — and pursue them aggressively. It may sound exhausting — like one more task we have to take on — but it’s also an opportunity to craft a career path that better reflects our own interests and talents. By following these four strategies, you’ll be far more likely to end up with the long-term career you want.