Updated: Jun 26, 2022
One of the driving forces in our lives is the need to remain consistent with our ideal concept of self: an image constructed from self-knowledge, who we were in the past, who we are in the present and what we aspire to be in the future. We identify with it as our identity. This force pushes forward world-class athletes, business leaders, and entrepreneurs. They don't see the principles and routines that make them achieve world records separate from themselves. Instead, they see everything as part of who they are.
For most people, a significant part of this identity is related to their work. So, what happens when either planned or unplanned change leads to a transition that is shifting our identity?
We are talking about significant career shifts to an entirely new path or promotions to an executive position, the transition from individual contributor to management, and the transition from one function to cross-functional roles, like HR to general management. They all change, to some extent, who we are and how we see ourselves.
From exploring transitions, the first instinct is to resist them. We try to remain consistent with who we are. We try to make the same choices, repeat the same behaviours, use the same principles. The only challenge is that the old ways are not working anymore. Our organization needs different things from us. When the realization surfaces, there is a high probability that our self-worth will take a hit. We believe that what we are is no longer sufficient because we don't get results the same way. Successful people who have experienced a high level of recognition before are now an apprentice and an expert at the same time.
When one part of the system changes, the other parts will need to adapt to make it even more complex. Organizations, families, teams, and relationships are all systems. When we transition, so will our families, teams, and close circles. Unspoken agreements that have worked well until this point, as our role and contribution to the family now require reassessment and new contracts in place. As a result of transitions, relationships will change, some settling in new forms and others ending.
All these moving parts are now shaping a new working identity. We will collect the puzzle pieces through new experiences and people, connected by meaning, forming the bigger picture of our new identity.
Building this puzzle can be done through plan-and-implement methodologies, which are systematic and provide a linear plan to get to a result. However, there are more innovative ways to build our way forward through multiple iterations anchored in our working life experiences. Linear approaches require the end goal to be known, and, most times, in career transitions, we are yet to discover the end goal. Systematic approaches also imply a single and optimal path to progress, leading to significant pressure and fear of making the wrong choice. In reality, there are many possibilities and multiple pathways ahead of us.
Career transitions will answer two questions: What to? And How to?. Test-and-learn models will reveal the puzzle pieces from real-life interactions. The process of change and transitions adds value by surfacing this essential information. As a bonus, experiments will drive new levels of enthusiasm, a new understanding of our self-worth, and confidence in our new direction and capabilities.
1. Get curious and do small experiments.
With the route forward yet to be discovered, the mindset that creates the most growth and builds the way forward is curiosity. While in business as usual times, the outcome-focused philosophy works well, applied here can create high pressure on identifying "the best" solution. That is what gets us stuck. The truth is, there are multiple solutions and multiple paths to explore.
Curiosity opens up possibilities. Experimentation of small prototypes, designed to give us more data related to a real problem, moves us forward even when the destination is a work in progress.
During my transition, I didn't know my new career goal. A life decision was now requiring a new career path. However, I did see that I wanted to work with people on their development and support organizations with their transformation. I loved learning and travelling. I was inspired when I saw people sharing from their heart who they are, realizing they were enough even when they were insecure.
To move forward, I made coaching experiments one-on-one and in groups. I talked to people who went through similar transitions and learned what they like and dislike about their new working life. I attended training courses and certifications in areas of high interest, confident that I will gain new insights. I worked for a few months from foreign places to learn what culture serves me best at this point. All these experiments helped me define and shape my next chapter.
The purpose of curiosity and experimentation is to gather critical data for decision-making and test possible selves that may become our new identity.
"The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others." - Mahatma Gandhi
2. Connect to new circles and networks.
We define ourselves by the image that we have about ourselves. The people around us also validate the picture we have about ourselves. The same people are invested in our current path because they contribute to the common goals we defined together along that path.
Major identity evolutions require us to expand our immediate circles. They can connect us to new environments and networks. They are also less invested in our current path, so they will share new ideas worth exploring.
The networks we connect to now have a significant role in the transition. For example, we could meet people we are inspired by: potential mentors or coaches who walked the same path. Once we see the future possibilities, we are more enthusiastic and open to moving forward with our transition. New networks open up new possibilities in new industries, areas of expertise, and, most importantly, new ways of thinking and working.
The people we meet now offer a safe space for experimentation because they are more objective, more willing to support the new journey, and more open to a path different from our current one. In addition, engaging with this space for experimentation gives us the confidence and validation that we are valuable in other settings, further than our current ones.
I was lucky to have the same mentor before and throughout my transition. He guided me on my path rather than asking me to walk his. He pushed me forward, even when I resisted. New people, role modelling new choices of working and living, showed up in the most unexpected places. They connected me to futures I could not imagine before. They made me feel safe even when I felt vulnerable. Without these amazing people and mentors, my transition would have been more extended and, without a doubt, much more difficult.
"We know what we are, but not what we may be." ― William Shakespeare.
3. Rewrite your story.
Every time we meet someone, we introduce ourselves: who we are and what is important to us. The same story we also tell ourselves when we are not talking. It becomes our identity.
Identity shifts can become very painful in transitions if we are attached to an old definition. That old definition, to remain consistent, will try to prove itself repeatedly, even if the situation or the environment has changed.
We share our stories and hear other people's stories doing new experiments and engaging with new networks. We see the past similarities of the turning points and trigger new similar possibilities for our future. We learn through each interaction about what we could become. These interactions are the opportunities to rewrite our stories. We process and integrate what we believe we could be at each new conversation and test our potential selves with others for input and validation.
"Sometimes we have to inspire and encourage ourselves, through our narrative. And we start with what we know." -Deborah L. Parker.
I struggled with the transition from corporate leader to supporting leaders with transformations. Being in charge and accountable was part of whom I was for 15+ years, so giving it up overnight was impossible. Instead, it took many months to experiment and shape my new story, coming to terms with my new identity. All this was painful because I felt I did not belong anywhere: an identity in progress, no tribe, no anchors.
We do get support on our transitions. However, reflective learning and my clients helped me define and shape this new identity. The results we created together, the relationships we were forming, and the seeds we planted for the future led me to see that I am a partner in transformation.
My essence never changed, just the form in which I was contributing to the world. This form integrated a more coherent, authentic and resilient self to reflect my identity.
There will be some defining moments changing our course throughout our lives and careers. Sometimes it's a friend asking us to support them in their professional and personal development, triggering a new possibility in mind. Other times it's a burnout that tells us that the route forward can't remain the same, forcing us to take different actions. Or it comes with an organizational structure reshape, making our previous role no longer appealing.
These are the very moments when we start the journey to becoming our new selves, triggering a complete reinvention process into the next chapter of our careers and lives.
Have you recognized your defining moment yet?