Supporting People Making Significant Career Changes

  • Ezra
  • June 17th, 2021

Dan White, the director of Ezra's Impact Lab, discusses the need for businesses to embrace the idea of supporting career transitions, especially for top talent undergoing a major re-pivot.

Supporting Career Changes

I’m just back from a week off, seeing family and friends in the North of England, during which time I’ve been dipping in and out of Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land. It’s interesting, if perhaps a little long, and I suspect reflects the man pretty well: at home with detail, optimistic, and idealistic.

What hit me the most (beyond the fact that being POTUS sounds like just about the most horrific job imaginable) was the extraordinariness of his progression. Obama went from relative political obscurity to a Senate post, and then straight into the White House. It was a meteoric rise and a series of very daunting transitions.

The change that perhaps struck me as most jarring, although he seems to have taken it in his stride, is from having almost no discernible military experience to being the Commander-in-Chief of the most potent military force on the planet.

That Obama made these changes effectively at all speaks to the transferable nature of many leadership skills. I suspect it would have been harder for him to have stepped into the role of a toxicologist for example. Or a chef.

It set me to thinking that what we’ve talked about in the last few blogs has been the need to support people reinventing themselves throughout longer careers, more fraught with technical obsolescence than ever before. These are super significant changes. Not a promotion, or a change of company, or a refocusing of capability. There is a strong sensation of the need to step at least sideways, but more probably back, in order to move forward.  

What Obama experienced was not all that different perhaps; a series of sideways steps through law, teaching, community action, and then finally politics. It was only after that set of sideways moves that he experienced rapid promotion.

He seems to have had an extraordinary amount of support from friends, family and colleagues. He was well connected, not only professionally, but personally.

Several of my friends are currently trying to achieve this level of reinvention. A good friend from University started out life in banking, had children, took some time out and has recently re-embarked on a graduate scheme at a property firm in her 40s. She is not the only one, even if the average age of her colleagues on the scheme is closer to that of her children’s than her own! 

Again, she is well supported by a husband who has switched to a more flexible role to do more of the childcare, and by family who she has moved closer to.

Perhaps this framework or network of support will be a defining part of the conversation about career changes in the future. As people take those steps backwards and sideways, it will inevitably affect pay. Taking a significant pay cut is no insignificant decision, and doing so may require a degree of forbearance from those around us. There may be longer hours too as we learn to master a new skill, or study at the weekends, not to mention the trials and insecurities of launching into a new and unfamiliar area.

Organizations will need to do everything they can to support these moves – but it seems unlikely, and perhaps even undesirable to keep people on a pre-achieved salary band as they venture into a new area that they have little or no experience of, in the face of potential obsolescence. If you pay someone too much for a role, you create tension, resentment and an awful lot of pressure on the incumbent.   

My friend will almost certainly move ahead very quickly in her new role in property, as she has already mastered many of the transferable skills of her 20-something-year-old colleagues – I’ve no doubt it will balance out in the end – but this has to be a natural process. 

Organizations can encourage these moves, be supportive of them, and ensure people feel good about them – and leaders may need to learn to talk to their people seriously about ensuring that they have a resilient support network around them that are bought into the move too. Because these super significant changes are just going to become more common, and we are all going to have to learn how to make them.

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