The Road to Transition - why it was harder than I expected
The Road to Transition - why it was harder than I expected?
(and what unexpected behaviours slowed me down)
When we imagine a career change we actually imagine what happens after the change - we visualise ourselves successfully in our new role. doing whatever it is we think that role entails. But if you scrutinise the fantasy carefully its astonishingly low on detail - in fact there is very little detail of the content of our new role, and more the trappings - the kind of cubicle, or office we will sit in, the kind of conversations we will have, people we meet, travel destinations, meetings, etc.
We don't really know what the minutes will feel like, or what we will actually do in those roles.
I think that is part of being human, but also the very part that make career changes so difficult and, indeed, perilous; we aren't choosing a new career as much as we are choosing a new environment and context. Of course, that is just how the brain works; how we feel about things influences our decisions much more than what we know, or think or plan. Most of our decision making is emotional, and arguably irrational (in the sense that it may not be based on objective views of factual reality but on the subjective feelings that are born out of our perceptions of reality).
What people say
So when I started on my journey to move into roles outside the law, I was absolutely convinced that I had the right skills, personality, drive and talent. I lacked direct experience. But everything is learnable, given time, training, and the right people around you. And everyone will agree with you on this point, unless you're not very good at what you do. People are always supportive and sanguine about people they like and respect. The "you can do anything" myth gets perpetuated because people genuinely want you to be able to do anything, and believe you can. My career change planning took about 18 months, partly because I was also quite busy on some once-in-a-lifetime legal transactions overseas. But in that time, I reached out to dozens of people in my company, and elsewhere, and over coffees, strolls, skype calls, phone calls and videoconferencing, quizzed them on what they considered to be the key ingredients for success in myriad roles. it always boiled down to the following:
- energy and passion
- talent and intelligence
- drive, dedication, work ethic
- skill and expertise
- the ability to work with people, influence them, and collaborate to align outcomes
When i consider this list, it becomes clear to me that almost everything i learned growing up is wrong (just like honesty is the best policy, hard work guarantees success etc). Apart from the undeniable need for luck, what really matters is attitude, aptitude and personality.
What people do
Well, that was all well then! i figured I had all three - certainly more than many of my peers, and definitely more than many of my erstwhile managers. And what i lacked in direct experience, i could learn, by dint of my attitude and aptitude, and work ethic. It would just be a question of putting my hand up and asking for a role that wasn't too ambitious, but one that I could "grow" into in 4-6 months.
So, I conducted a little experiment. I picked 6 of the many people I'd spoken to, all people whom i admired and liked and would have liked to work for. I then asked each of them (separately, of course) whether I had what it takes to eventually do their roles. It was an audacious question, but one that is implicit in anyone having career ambitions. Each of them said yes, of course, I could aspire to their roles. Of course I could lead teams, and manage a P&L (though I should be careful what I wish for!). There is no doubt that I could step up the corporate ladder steadily. adding value and growing as I ascended.
And then I asked them my second question: would they give me a job that I knew was going in their teams. All but one immediately back peddled and seemed slightly flustered. The one exception calmly said no, that isn't the right role for me, because it took someone with a heavy finance background,and is simply me moving to another technical role, for which I would need to have specific finance-related qualifications.
A fair answer.
All the others though were just simply unsure of how to react to a lawyer wanting to do a business development role, or a sales role, or a alliance manager role. Even for a certain role where the JD was express that it required working with legal, finance, and sales teams and most of the role would be to exercise stakeholder management skills and work cross functionally with teams to drive certain project outcomes, they were unwilling to consider a "lawyer" for a non-legal role.
And this was a huge eye opener - people absolutely believe you have what it takes, but they wont back you most of the time because its such an unorthodox decision, that they would need to explain their reasoning and the basis for their confidence. And no hiring manager wants to hire someone that they have to explain, especially when there are many other candidates who may be unknown quantities, but whose CVs are more aligned with the sort of work that needs doing.
In other words, people hire for experience, not potential. Curiously, there appears to be plenty of research that suggests that this is a myopic approach to recruiting (see, for eg, a particularly well written HBR piece.
This is something every lawyer must be prepared for. Unless you're receiving an offer to change careers, this is something you're probably going to face a lot of. People will genuinely wish you well, and be absolutely convinced that you're a great person to have on the team, until the point they're asked to demonstrate by action.
It is disheartening, but life is full of little disappointments, so don't let it get you down. By expecting it you can anticipate the objections, and perhaps develop a better approach than I did.
What can you do about it
In hindsight, I would have spent less time going by what people said, and what they were not saying, but were afraid of: gambling with a decision that is unorthodox. It takes a courageous executive to tell a mid career lawyer to join his team and do a job that the lawyer has not really done before.
So let's accept that most people will lack that courage, conviction, or influence in their organisations. How then can you make the switch? Well two ways:
(i) find someone who is looking for your skills to be applied outside the law; and
(ii) remove some of the objections - by going back to school.
I was lucky - I was approached by someone and I had already resolved to go to business school. I fully recognise that both are a function of luck and circumstance.
Not everyone will have either circumstance within grasp in their lives, and I wish I had another idea for you, but I don't.
The difficulty with option (i) is that it may be a role you dislike, don't want, is beneath you, is unsatisfying etc. I absolutely empathise.
But, a month into my current role (about 19 months after the quest commenced) i read the following:
"We like to think that the key to a successful career change is knowing what we want to do next, then using that knowledge to guide our actions. But studying people in the throes of the career change process (as opposed to afterward, when hindsight is always 20/20) led me to a startling conclusion: Change actually happens the other way around. Doing comes first, knowing second."
This is from a great HBR article called "How to stay stuck in the wrong career"
Had I read this article early on in my search for non-legal roles I would have approached it very differently. I would have done first, and planned second. I think there is a lot to be said about sideways moves, lateral shifts that grow your confidence, skill and profile, and can yield unexpectedly rewarding careers. It doesn't always have to be vertical. The path to career success is a deeply personal one.
See also the following thought provoking perspectives (yep, on HBR):
Now, let me be clear, lest I accused of hypocrisy; I definitely want to move up. Moving across is not my ultimate ambition. It is definitely a means to an end. But 5 months into this role and I've learned and seen things that have opened up vistas of possibility, new avenues of thought and exploration, new ideas and perspectives that I am enriched by, and which I can think about as real, plausible alternatives for my next career step. When you want to leave a place, the first step could be in any direction but it is always the one that takes you somewhere else. After the first step, you achieve momentum, and "escape velocity" and you can then modulate your approach from "moving away" to "moving towards".
Let me then conclude, by circling back to point (ii): going back to school. This is not for the faint hearted. But there really are many more options today than ever before. Part time, distance learning courses abound. Depending on how senior you are, and the quality of your CV experience, you may not have to chase after an overpriced, elite school. In fact, unless you have less than 7 years experience, my view is that the ranking of the school is a secondary consideration. What matters is that you're studying, and adding to your skills base, networking with other students and developing yourself. I guarantee that someone who has worked for over 10 years in industry will extract more value out of a reputable, middle ranking school, than someone with 3 years work experience at a top ranking school that daddy paid for.
Since schools now have flexible delivery formats, distance learning, virtual classrooms, etc more and more working people are going back to school, part time. Most have families and universities are at pains to accommodate the demands of their lives and work. You can absolutely do it. It will be hard, but what achievement in your life came without effort?
Think about that. And then take that first step.