Navigating the Emotional Side of a Career Transition

This article is authored by Ron Ashkenas and is originally published by Harvard Business Review.

Let me begin this post with a personal confession: Although I’ve talked with many managers about career transitions over the years, I’ve never had a career transition myself until now.

For the past 37 years I’ve worked as a management consultant at the same firm I started in straight out of graduate school. I went from junior associate to partner to managing partner and eventually to senior partner. But several years ago, I started thinking about what comes next, and when next should come. All things considered (interests, age, health, finances), early 2016 seemed like the right time.

Staying with one firm for an entire career is unusual amid today’s serial job progressions and longer life spans. The emotional journey that I’ve been going through during this transition, however, is one that many people experience when they voluntarily move from one job to another, shift professions, or begin a new phase of their career. Having worked with hundreds of people over the years who have gone through this process, and now experiencing it myself, I’ve noticed three key emotional issues to address in order to succeed.

The first hurdle is the sense of guilt about leaving a previous employer or career. If you’ve formed strong relationships with people and if the company has invested in your development, then leaving can feel like betrayal. Dozens of managers have told me they turned down exploring new opportunities because they didn’t want to leave their current employer and co-workers in the lurch. Over the past few months, I’ve felt this too – worrying about how the firm would do without me, and whether I was putting long-time colleagues into a difficult position by leaving. And even if your old job wasn’t all that satisfying, or if you were treated poorly, you might have still had a connection with colleagues and customers that can make it hard to leave.

The reality, though, is that you have to be a bit selfish when it comes to decisions about career transitions. It’s natural to care about others or to feel indebted to people and institutions that have been helpful to you. But they shouldn’t stop you from making career shifts that are right for you.

The second emotional challenge is adjusting your personal identity and sense of self. According to Gallup research, 55% of people in the U.S. define themselves by their job, instead of considering work as simply what they do to earn a living. If your job or career changes, then you’ll likely need to adjust your self-image too.

People want to be respected and honored for who they are, and one’s chosen career is a big part of that. They also want to feel that their work has meaning and positive impact. That’s one of the reasons, for example, that 4.5 million people between the ages of 50 and 70 have moved into what are called “encore careers,” which leverage skills from a first career into a way of helping others during a second stint at working. One long-time United Way executive, for example, parlayed his social service experience into becoming a police officer and then detective at the age of 50. Similarly, a retiring physician set up a telemedicine project that would allow her, and other senior physicians, to contribute their medical skills to under-served communities.

In my case, I’ve always referred to myself as a “management consultant” or a “senior partner” in the firm, both of which convey professional expertise and a kind of status. Now I need a different way to not only describe what I’m doing, but also how I feel about it. For the moment, I’m telling people that I’m excited to become an “emeritus partner,” which leads me into a conversation about the fact that I’m leaving my firm to focus on some areas of social impact (such as healthcare and innovation) – but that I’m not (“heaven forbid”) retiring.

The third emotional obstacle is letting go of old patterns and habits that worked well in your previous phase but might not in the next one. We all learn how to cope in particular work environments – how to relate to people, how to dress, how to act, what can be questioned, what should be accepted, and so on. When we switch to a new environment, however, all bets are off. We have to figure out how to behave all over again.

This can be trying. Everyone gets attached to their personal habits and routines because they provide a certain amount of psychological comfort and relief. Some of these may seem trivial (e.g., having time to pick up coffee on the way to work), while others are weightier (e.g., being part of a small team that meets every day). In either case, breaking with well-worn traditions as you adjust to your new reality can feel like mourning the loss of a loved one. In my case, I’m intentionally trying to work from home, instead of using my old office, as a way of signaling to myself and colleagues that a new era has begun.

Managing the emotional baggage that comes with a career transition is no easy feat, no matter where you are in your career. But if you want to ensure that you’ll succeed at the other end, here are two steps that you can take:

First, think carefully and intentionally about what will satisfy you in your next job or career stage. Consider financials, quality of work life, opportunities to find meaning, latitude for personal growth, flexibility for family time and non-work pursuits, and whatever else matters to you. You basically want to put together your own balanced scorecard for career satisfaction and use it to help you make decisions and shape your next phase.

Second, before jumping to your next thing, consider what else you can do to prepare for a career transition — what might possibly make the transition as smooth as possible? In my case, when I began to think about doing something other than being a full-time consultant, I spent several months as an “executive in residence” at a business school as a way of testing what it would be like to do something else.

The point is that a career transition is not necessarily a “leap” — it can be a considered series of steps during which you deal with not only the practical issues but also the emotional ones.

Help your employees land on their feet. Book a demo now or contact us to learn more about our individualised Career Transition Programs.

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