Overcoming the Growth Trap in Career Management!

As a career coach I specialize in reinvention. What does that mean? It means that when clients feel that their career (not just their job) is tanking they need to find other careers to keep their résumé in good stead and their momentum in check. What are some examples of these reinventions? Here is a partial list: From software developer to product manager; from a strategic consultant to a corporate executive; from a Development Head to a Program Manager; from a physician (internal medicine) to a Chief Medical Officer (CMO) in a Pharma company, etc. My own career has involved four previous reinventions and I am now in my fifth career in as many industries.

The growth trap is a phenomenon that results when your career (not just your job) tanks because of factors such as evolving technology, economic conditions (labor arbitrage), automation, and changing customer expectations cause traditional careers to tank. For example, many job losses in the manufacturing sector in the US are not only due to outsourcing, as is commonly believed, but are due to rapid automation of jobs where fewer people are required to do the same jobs. Such advances also often eliminate rework and other labor-intensive burdens on companies, which forces them to move to automation at an accelerated pace. It is estimated that if driverless cars/trucks are fully made operational it will affect more than six million driver jobs in the US alone.

Although I do not deal with clients worried about their driver or construction jobs, the situation is all too real for those where technology advances, coupled with global forces, have rapidly eliminated thousands of white-collar jobs. One example that comes to mind is in the area of chip design. During the past decade, particularly in the past five years, many jobs from companies such as Intel, AMD, and others have gone away. Instead Apple, Google, and Amazon are making customized chips for their own highly specific applications. This eliminates the need for many generic chips, which are now replaced by highly customized chips that have specific applications in the context of a company’s own product lines.

A similar situation is happening with the consulting and staffing companies (IT Outsourcing). With major shifts happening in the IT industry due to cloud, mobility, AI, and other advances the locus of control has shifted from the CIO to the individual businesses or functional organizations. In the past massive ERP installations consumed large resources for installations, operations, and maintenance. Now with the web-based applications end users are directly plugging into the services (SaaS) provided by the cloud vendors, drastically diminishing the role of the traditional IT staff.

All of these factors are forcing professionals caught in these careers to rethink their future and consider non-linear career progression plans for them to stay employed and productively create value. Having worked with many clients with their re-inventions the following strategies are recommended to launch your own reinvention and to put your career on a new growth path:

1. Shifting your Mindset: When changing careers it is important to understand your current mindset and also the mindset required to convey to the decision-makers that you have not only shifted your original mindset, but are already living in the new mindset.

Let me give an example. During he past several years I have had a few clients in partner-level positions in well-established strategic consulting firms. They had spent much of their adult careers in strategic consulting and had risen to the partnership roles. They feared continued consolidation in the consulting industry and wanted to protect their employment. They yearned to go into the corporate world as senior executives, but had no experience running organizations or businesses. I call this the “Greek-Roman dichotomy.” Why? Because strategic consultants are like Greek philosophers who are good at conceptualizing ideas, uncovering problems, and writing reports about how to solve them.

What corporations need, on the other hand, in their executive ranks are Romans who know how to fight a battle and get things done. Each segment uses different language (see # 2 below) in how they communicate their experiences and how they play out their roles. So, for the “Greeks” to make their foray into the corporate executive suites where “Romans” are respected, it required us to work together to change their DNA to instinctively know how to use the right “Roman” lexicon. We did not just do this sitting with a glossary or a dictionary, but by forcing them to undertake internal initiatives in their current firms to execute a major change in how their business operated. This included changing the status quo and showing the result of their change as successful. Although in each case this took about 9-12 months to achieve the DNA change we wanted each of the career changes to be successful. These executives have now gone on to become C-level players in their respective corporations in a few years after their corporate migration.
2. Using the right Language: Although mindset shift is a major undertaking when making a career change, knowing how to use the right language is also equally important. Although it is less taxing than shifting your mindset, knowing the right language can make the difference between success and failure.

Let me give an example: A Senior Development Manager saw no growth opportunities in his own company or even outside. So, he decided to purse Program Management roles to head the Program Management office as a career path for growth. Although he learned the project management skills by getting certified he continued to think like a line manager with responsibility for 10-20 engineers, as he previously had. In going through the interview practice sessions his responses to typical project management challenges focused on people (as a manager he knew how to manage them) and not the process (as a Project Manager is required). It took many hours of interview practice for him to change his language from people-focused responses to process-focuses responses, because as project managers your focus is to manage the process. In a metrixed organization people are managed by the respective section managers (as he once was), who loan these resources to project managers.
3. Understanding Use Cases: One of the key elements of success in making a career change is the deep knowledge of the right use cases and user stories. This requires venturing out first-hand in the domain that you want to penetrate and having first-hand conversations with thought leaders, customers, and those who work with customers. Merely talking to these communities is not enough to understand the use cases, but probing deeply into their mindsets, challenging their view points, and offering what-if scenarios in a dialog format can help deepen your customer understanding and framing of the use-cases. It is the articulation of these use-cases and customer stories that will carry you to the checkered flag in your race to change your career.
4. Showing the Evidence: This step involves that you have actually provided leadership to drive an initative to success. Without this actual evidence you may come across as someone who bring bookish knowledge to the interview and has no actual experience to make your role produce the outcomes they are looking for. In the case of the strategic consultants above, who wanted to migrate to corporate executive jobs what won the day for them was showcasing both their clients’ consulting engagements where they initiated major changes and succeeded in implementing those changes with clients’ resources AND showcasing the changes they made in their own company as they ran their consulting business.
5. Resetting Expectations: When making a career change, especially at a senior level, it is tempting to expect to land at or above your current level and salary. This may NOT always be possible. Especially, when you are making a change in a technology space where you are pursuing new technology and where what you learned using your previous technology simply does not translate (an example may be going from licensed software business to subscription-based SaaS business). In such cases, sometimes, you may have to accept a lower station to re-establish yourself and then reclaim your lost momentum, once you get the hang of your new station. Although this is not always required, but being open to such a possibility can make the transition into a new career much more stress-free.
In a rapidly changing world of the job market making preemptive career changes is a skill that will protect you from becoming obsolete and having to retire when you are neither prepared nor ready. Using some of the strategies outlined in this blog with real examples of career changes may help you prepare to make such a change on your own!

Good luck!

Begin the journey to your new career today.