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Lucy Ball is an executive coach, pairs coach and team coach.

Feb 2020

Career questions: What do I want next?

Some of my coaching clients are senior leaders wondering about what’s next for them. This could be because of a re-organisation or redundancy or a growing sense that they want to do something different. I want to talk about some of what I notice about mid-career/mid-life professionals who are wondering about how they want to spend the rest of their working lives and make some recommendations.

First of all let’s just look at some of what’s going on during this time of wondering.

Fuzzy yearnings

When a mid or late-career executive starts to think they might want a change of direction, they have some yearnings. These yearnings might be about what they want to move away from or what they want to move towards. For example:

  • I have a sense that I don’t want to be promoted to the job above me
  • I don’t want to be in a culture like this
  • I don’t see any role-models in my profession that I’d like to follow
  • I don’t want to follow the traditional career path.

Or

  • I do like the idea of being a Non-Exec Director
  • I’d like more of a portfolio career
  • I’ve always thought I might run my own business
  • I’d like to bring my passion for the environment/people/justice/politics/art etc more into line with my work.

What’s frustrating about these yearnings for many executives is that they are far from a clear role or plan. They are creating a sense of dissatisfaction but they are too unclear to act upon.

Lack of time

The reality of many of my clients is that they are in a current role that is extremely demanding. They may also be in a full-on phase of their domestic lives – perhaps caring for ageing parents, dealing with grief and loss and/or the administrative job of winding up the estate of parents. Perhaps they have children at demanding phases of their lives or with mental health issues. Maybe they are going through a painful divorce or a disruptive home improvement. The time available to consider what I want to do with the rest of my working life amounts to 5 minutes on a train here and there. The suggestion that they spend more time on shaping their future working self can often meet great inner resistance.

Lack of connection

Many of my clients also lack network. And I mean real, warm contacts not just 500+ Linked In connections. Having devoted their energies to the stakeholders they need to influence to do their current job well, they have not kept up the external networks that might help them to access something new. Opportunities for something new usually come through network in some form and often from the margins of our network and in unpredictable ways. Without connection to others in different fields it’s hard to imagine what else we might do and hard to access the support and communities that might help us to alter our course.

So what does an executive do when they find themselves in this scenario? Well often the path of least resistance is ‘do nothing’ or ‘wait to see what comes along’ but I believe there are some small steps, easy to fit around the rest of life, that can help accelerate the movement towards whatever is next.

1 Flesh out your yearnings

Our yearnings are messages from our depths about what we want and the beginnings of imagining something different. They are far from a plan about what to do next or a job-role to aim for, but the more in touch we are with our yearnings, the more open we can be to opportunity. Here are some ways to flesh out and stay in touch with our yearnings day to day. Keep a yearnings ‘box’ – digital or real – in which you dump your thoughts. These might include cuttings, lists or mind-maps including the following items:

  • People you admire and want to be like or those you fear you will become
  • People you want to hang around with or people you want to hang around with less
  • The physical environments you like to be in and the ones you want to be in less
  • The values that are becoming more important to you and those you are moving away from
  • The types of work that energise you and the types of work that drain you
  • Some conventional notions of ‘possible future jobs’ plus some less conventional/riskier options or dreams

You might also choose to draw up an Ikigai. This is a cool Venn diagram encompassing interests, passions and strengths. Search Google images “Ikigai” for a template.

2 Invest one hour a week in your future

Find one hour a week to take action on your yearnings for the future. It doesn’t really matter what these actions are as long as you are putting a bit of regular time in. What’s important about these actions is that they must not only be self-reflective. Some self-reflection is important and giving yourself time to go inwards is necessary. But some of these actions must also connect you with people and things outside of yourself. They might be very traditional ‘job-hunting’ activities like updating your CV, talking to head-hunters or looking at job ads but they might be less obvious baby steps such as:

  • Reading a book on a subject you are increasingly passionate about
  • Asking three friends to tell you what they think you are good at and what they imagine for your future
  • Finding a webinar you want to attend
  • Finding someone in your network to have a Zoom coffee with
  • Writing a short blog or article that expresses a growing interest or value of yours.

Herminia Ibarra in her excellent book Working Identity HBR Press 2003 calls these actions “Crafting Experiments”. Our future work self is far more likely to be created in a ‘test and learn’ way than in a ‘plan and implement’ way. It is forged in relationship to real people and by doing.

3 Connect your ‘transitioning self’ with others

While you are busy doing your current role your current working self is alive and well. However, the part of you that has an inkling for change is also real and growing. This part of you needs support, connection and to be heard. By fleshing out your yearnings you have started to give it a voice and get into conversation with it yourself. You also need to start letting others hear that part of you. This means finding people with who you can share your thinking and yearnings about change. The more we talk openly with others about our yearnings, the more we will get to know them ourselves and get the chance to evolve them with the influence, advice and input of others. In doing so we also open up the possibility of opportunity coming to us, because people have a sense of what we want. These other people might include:

  • Friends and partners
  • Coaches and mentors
  • People already doing roles or in communities and industries that you are drawn to
  • People doing stuff you think is cool in your own organisation or outside
  • People who know you well
  • People who have made transitions themselves and can reassure you that what you are going through is normal!

4 Relax into your stuckness

Finally I think it’s important to say that the yearning to do something different is fabulous, but if it comes with a sense of urgency and panic about changing something fast then it can be undermining. We can end up feeling hopeless and unresourceful. With my clients I try to honour and respect the stuckness and lack of clarity that often accompanies a desire to change. I get it. And I know it myself. We need to forgive ourselves for feeling stuck, we need to relax into and love our stuckness and confusion. Sometimes stuckness can last a long time. And transition to something new is often a slow, unpredictable path. No wonder it’s hard to make a start. We need to relax into our stuckness and give ourselves permission both to stay stuck and, when we have a bit more energy, to take some baby steps. Goethe’s quote below is often used about career change or transition:

What you can do, or dream you can, begin it: Boldness has genius, power and magic in it

I’d like to change it

What you can do, or dream you can, begin it: Tentative and tiny steps have genius, power and magic in them

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