May 5, 2024 | TNG Work | 0 comments

Navigating a Career Change

Written by Pam Moore

Career transitions are challenging at any point in the career lifecycle. This is the story of Anneke, a high-achieving woman in mid-career deciding whether or not to take up a new career challenge.

Anneke was not forced to move through a restructure or undervalued in her job. In fact, she was flying high in a senior position managing a business unit for an international consumer product company but she was starting to have twinges of restlessness. She had been overlooked for a promotion, which left her with some distasteful feelings bordering on betrayal. She was in the HIPO talent pool but would she get to the top of the tree? Were the long hours and extra investment going to pay off or had the organisation just become used to her commitment? On the other hand, she had been so long with the same company, how well would she fare in the open job market? These were questions that gnawed at her in the middle of the night. 

At her level of seniority, it was not just a matter of moving to the company down the road, a meaningful move would likely be to a whole new geography and involve uprooting the family for a third or fourth time. Better to put a lid on her misgivings and the stirrings of ambition, sit tight, and make the best of the devil she knew.

Unfortunately for Anneke, the lid would not stay on this pandora’s box and she found herself at the beginning of a year-long stage of “being in two minds and driving myself nuts so it was a great relief to engage with a business coach. Although it seemed expensive – maybe even a bit of an indulgence since I wasn’t looking for coaching around how to improve my leadership capacity in my role,

I nonetheless saved myself (and my family and my staff) so much anguish during that year whilst maintaining my performance in my present role, that I couldn’t have done without it.”

According to Frederic Hudson and Pamela McLean, the doyens of personal change mastery “there is a definite pattern to our experience of change”. Anneke was going through what they label as ‘the Doldrums’ where a stage of life that was previously perfectly satisfying unravels. It’s a very unsettling place to be with no clear direction or light at the end of the tunnel.

Shall I stay or shall I go?

Take Time to Figure It Out

Although for Anneke there were not the pressures to find an immediate solution as there are in the case of a job loss, there were different challenges and responsibilities to stay engaged and productive whilst going through this inner turmoil. Still, it gave Anneke the space to test out the job market, decide what the meaningful trade-offs would be in a new role, and work through the conflicting emotions of should I go or should I stay, which were only exacerbated when she found herself in the middle of a long recruiting process for a very attractive position.

In the end, Anneke was offered the new job, which she decided to take.

Unexpected Onboarding Challenges

We meet Anneke again in the critical 90 day onboarding phase of her new role. After a year of soul searching, job searching, and negotiating both her exit strategy from company A and her new contract in company B she finally took up her new position. Now she was in Hudson and McLean’s ‘Go For It’ phase – excitement, enthusiasm, new goals, and a new lease on life. Despite moving sectors into an entirely different consumer industry she managed to stay in the same geography so only one part of her life was uprooted. However, much to her dismay she found it wasn’t all plain sailing, and for reasons that took her by surprise.

When you uplevel to a new role or start a business, guess who comes along with you? The ‘grinch’ – also known as the inner critic or just that voice in your head that chatters away telling you all kinds of stories that have one objective – performance anxiety. “What were you thinking? Of course – your success was all luck, not ability/ your skills aren’t transferable/ you won’t meet the expectations in the new role” – and on, and on, and on. That voice gradually subsides as you come to grips with the new role but it’s energy-draining for quite some time. If you’re newly appointed to a senior role you will want to show vulnerability to your new colleagues so although this is almost a universal experience, it is not talked about.

Coming into a new company is also challenging in terms of getting to know and work within a different culture. Although Anneke stayed in the same city, the two companies’ motherships were in different countries with very different corporate cultures. Added to that she had been appointed to head up a new business unit servicing a different market segment from the rest of the company and almost everything about her business did not fit naturally into the existing corporate culture. That makes it very confusing. “You are not only finding your way in a new company, you are pioneering a new way for the company in your unit, so on a day-to-day basis it can be tricky to work out whether you are simply resisting assimilating into the culture or genuinely pointing out what needs to change for the unit to be successful. When you’re the new kid on the block there are plenty of people telling you ‘that’s not the way we do things here’.”

The group of people very prone to that criticism were the ones reporting to her who had been passed over for the role she was now occupying. This is always a difficult situation to manage and can be even trickier when one person is promoted internally over his or her peers. The best thing is to manage it head-on. Speak to the people involved, chat about their aspirations, and how they can position themselves for future opportunities. It takes energy and effort and understanding at a time when the new appointee has a lot on their plate but it’s well worth the effort. Anneke’s advice is, “Don’t let it become the elephant in the room. It can derail you so the quicker you can get the team on your side the better.”

I think if I had to move again now… I would get through it quicker – oh the benefits of hindsight!

Despite the anxieties to manage, this is not a doom and gloom scenario. There are a whole lot of pluses. “Once you realise that you are up to the job, it’s liberating. You then realise that you do have the skills and abilities, they are intrinsic to you, and that gives you confidence that spills over into feeling more in control of your career path and more inclined to take risks earlier to achieve ambitions or even to take business and investment risks outside the company.” Anneke goes on to say, “I’m also exposed to a whole new industry, exciting experiences, travel to different places, new clients, new challenges, different people to work with, and a new adventure to broaden my skills. I think if I had to move again now, I would probably face similar issues but I wouldn’t find it as difficult as the first three months here. I would get through it quicker – oh the benefits of hindsight!!”

Anneke’s experience of mid-life career change is not uncommon and can create enormous growth for the person financially, socially, and personally – in every possible way but organisationally it poses challenges when companies lose senior people in whom they have made a significant investment over a number of years. It’s an interesting dilemma in an era of talent scarcity.

If you’re figuring out what to do next in your career, and want to pre-empt onboarding challenges if you do make a move, we can assist you.

To connect with Pam, email her at pam@careerconversations.co.za.