Career Transitions: Exponential Strategies for High-Performers
“You’d better be damn sure when you wake up that you’re doing what you want to be doing as opposed to what you feel you ought to be doing or what somebody else thinks you ought to be doing.”
What’s your next big leap forward for your career or business?
Perhaps you’re highly motivated by your current role - but aren’t quite sure what the next step is.
Or perhaps there’s a dissatisfaction:
I had this feeling myself at several points in my career. When I hit Partner after 9 years of consulting experience, I suddenly realised that the challenge had gone and the work had become repetitive.
And towards the end of my time at Cisco, I started to realised that I had an incredible job on the outside, but that things were starting to go stale and I knew I needed to make a career change before getting trapped in the golden handcuffs of being “old, well paid and bored to death”.
When you want exponential, not incremental, progress
Now there are plenty of vanilla ’job change’ articles on the web. But if you’re reading this, you’re probably a high-performer: an accomplished and ambitious leader. You’re not content with ‘more of the same’; you’re looking to maximise your potential and your impact.
Put it another way, you’re seeking an ‘exponential life’. You’re not interested in making an incremental step (additive) - you want something that takes you up a whole new level (multiplicative).
So the traditional linear and incremental job-search approach isn’t going to cut it for you. You know:
Headhunters aren’t likely to be a lot of help either. They don’t tend to create dramatic or non-linear opportunities. Hermina Ibarra, in her book Working Identity, quotes Susan Fontaine who left her role as head of the strategy practice at a top management consultancy: “I found headhunters unhelpful. I would ask, “Here are my skills; what else might I do?” And they kept saying, “Why don’t you move to Andersen” or “Why don’t you try Bain?”” I’ve found the same conservatism in headhunters that I’ve spoken with. They’ve a role to fill and are looking for someone who’s ticked all the boxes before.
In this article I’m going to propose a different approach; one that’s based on a different set of assumptions and that creates an order-of-magnitude change in your career and impact.
We are going to look at four key steps you need to take.
Step I. Acknowledge the mindset issues likely to hold you back in your career transition
High performers make career transition mistakes too.
Most people think that career transitions come easy for high achievers. After all, they’ve been flying at high levels and tend to impress those around them quite easily. But the reality is that high achieving leaders actually have a unique set of challenges when it comes to making bold career leaps.
In fact, as we’ll see, success in the corporate world or in building your own business does not necessarily translate into ease in making an exponential or lateral professional leap or career transition.
Here are six inner game challenges that I’ve observed in my clients - and in myself - that have held them back at times from making the bold move they’re capable of.
Which are relevant to you right now?
You can read the descriptions below, or check out this brief LinkedIn video I made on the topic.
A silk-lined comfort zone
You’re drawing down an impressive income - at least six figures - from your business or your executive role. Despite the downsides - the stress or the inner dissatisfaction it’s still, “objectively”, a great gig!
Your comfort zone is very comfortable, and its tempting to continue to enjoy the benefits of yesterday for just a little too long. Thoughts of change can be pushed out another quarter, or another year.
And time passes by … you’re bored and stagnating but convince yourself that it’s still a good place to be, at least for another eight years until the kids have finished their studies.
If this is you, I want to remind you how incredibly talented and resourceful you are, and that fear is no way to live a life.
Over-reliance on your super skill
High performers often got to their current level by proficient use of a key skill. There’s a real danger that you will try to drive future success by applying the same skill that got you to where you are, but in greater quantities.
In other words, you think that success will come from doing more of what you’re good at.
For example, one time I stagnated in my own career was when I over-relied on my analytical problem-solving and presentational skills, at a moment where the real impact was to be had through coalition-building skills. But what had got me here wasn’t going to get me there! It took me a while to diagnose and remedy this issue.
In most careers, there’s often natural transitions as we move from expert delivery to managing a team; then from managing a team to influencing and leading a multi-tier organisation; and so on. More subtly, the transition is often one from “being a star” to “being a leader capable of raising other stars” to “being a leader capable of building other leaders”, a move from “push” behaviours (‘driving success’) to “pull” behaviours (‘creating ownership’).
Living in the echo-chamber
When you hit senior levels in an organisation, it’s incredibly easy to find yourself without true challenge to your perspective. People in your organisation tell you what they think you want to hear, and your friends and family see a successful business leader and assume you don’t need their input.
This can result in complacency and stagnation over time as your perceptions are reinforced by those around you. The killer thing is that it’s incredibly hard to notice. So let me ask you: how many conversations have you had recently where your fundamental perspective was deeply challenged? When you significantly changed your behaviour or your understanding?
The echo-chamber shows up in a unique way in large corporations. Successful corporate executives may well have built incredible networks, organisational understanding and political savvy in the context of their current firm, but despite being highly skilled in this one corporate context they are unknowingly out of touch with the broader market.
In other words, the risk of leaping outside of the familiar organisation can rise over time - making once-ambitious executives rather cautious in their career moves.
Highly successful leaders can simply feel they have more to lose, and this can cripple their ability to make bold and inspiring professional leaps.
Often, our self-esteem and self-image can be tied up in our title, our prestigious firm, our paycheque. There can be concerns about maintaining the level of monthly income needed to satisfy family expectations or mortgage payments.
This factors can push leaders into playing it safe and looking for incremental opportunities rather than exponential growth.
Addiction to speed
Many high performers are driven, quick to decide and action-orientated. These characteristics have often been key to their success.
I see these characteristics in myself, but know their dark side. When it comes to an exponential career transition, success is less about moving fast, and more about slowing down, creating space and moving from execution to exploration.
This change of pace can feel excruciatingly difficult - it doesn’t feel like things are happening fast enough - and the tendency is to direct our energies into activities with more immediate pay back - like our existing role or other distractions.
In my experience, around half of leaders ‘live in the future’. They’re visionary, conceptual, and strategic - and love anticipating the next horizon. For them, this kind of ‘exponential exercise’ is exciting and fun.
The other half of leaders live in the present. They’re pragmatic, hands-on and robustly realistic. For them, the idea of a bold non-linear career jump may set off alarm bells: Is this realistic? Am I deluded? This seems far-fetched! And so on.
If you are the second type of leader, you’ll need to be aware of those alarm bells and decide, for now, to live with them. It’s not your natural inclination, but there’s no reason why you can’t explore some possibilities before assessing risk and reward and making your decision.
Step II. Get the timing right: create a career transition strategy based on your current trajectory
As you know, technology has ushered in an incredible rate of change in practically every industry. This means that every business needs to constantly refine and update its product and value proposition, and launch new businesses as legacy offerings decline in relevance.
When companies fail to make the leap from one growth curve to another, they plateau and fall into gradual decline, where cost-cutting becomes the name of the game. I’ve seen this close up in years of working with telecoms operators - they enjoyed the rise of mobile and broadband but failed to jump to the next curve of cloud services and applications.
The same logic of “finding the next growth curve” applies to “the business of you”: your skill set and professional value proposition!
Whereas 50 years ago you could expect to ride one professional growth curve, quite probably with one firm, over the 40 years of your career, those days have long gone.
We need to reinvent ourselves, and leap to different “S curves” at the right moment if we are to have the professional impact we are capable of, and avoid irrelevance and downsizing.
This “new career” was defined by Michael Arthur and Douglas Hall in their research by:
This idea of “exponential career transition” is really all about reinventing yourself at the right time to leap to the next S-curve.
In order to do this, then, you need to know where you are on your current curve and what your key action should be.
Characteristics: High excitement, high learning curve, plenty of growth ahead
Biggest risk: Failing to ‘level up’
Early stage is the ‘spring time’ in a professional season. There is growth and opportunity and increasing acceleration. It’s normally the RESULT of a career leap, it’s marked by excitement, and there’s plenty of opportunity ahead.
The biggest risk in this phase is failing to take this opportunity to “level up” the kind of leadership and influence that you can command. It’s far too easy to fall back on the habits that made you successful on your previous curve, and thereby fail to truly raise your game.
I will be writing about a practical “exponential plan” for new leaders in future article.
IF YOU’RE AT THIS STAGE: Who are you being coached by to take your leadership up a level?
Characteristics: Medium excitement, increasing sense of mastery
Biggest risk: Failing to take advantage of the momentum
Mid-stage is where things are coming together; you’re established in your activity and there’s real momentum in the business. It’s the “summer time” of productivity and results.
It’s counterintuitive, but this is actually the ideal time to leap to the next S curve. You’re at maximum speed on the previous curve so that provides the shortest jump and the most momentum. If you wait until you’re far down the growth plateau, you’ve lost momentum, and the gap is enormous.
An acquaintance of mine, Albert, mastered this art. When I met him he was a manager in a consultancy firm operating in the telecoms sector. He detected that his career in consultancy was slowing, and moved to a management role in a telco challenger that he had consulted in. This challenger started to struggle, and layoffs were imminent, so he moved to a smaller but higher growth telco challenger where media and advertising were a big part of their business model. Armed with this new expertise, he landed an executive role in one of Europe’s most exciting Internet advertising startups, which has since gone to IPO and become a huge player internationally. In just a few years he leapt from consulting to telecoms to advertising to a dream role at a “unicorn”.
The biggest risk in this phase is failing to take advantage of the momentum, or being so ‘heads down’ on execution that you fail to consider what the next step might look like.
IF YOU’RE AT THIS STAGE: Slow down to speed up! Be ruthless in carving out time to plan your next curve, despite the whirlwind of daily responsibilities in your current curve.
Characteristics: Slowing growth, fewer opportunities, waning excitement
Biggest risk: Stagnation and fear
In the late stage of the curve, it starts to feel like autumn (fall). Growth is starting to drop off a little, you don’t feel you’re learning as much as you used to, and excitement is waning. Your remuneration is good, but your heart isn’t in it like it used to be.
This is the moment when the external market starts to change a lot faster than your own professional world! There’s a risk that your relevance and potential for impact will start to decline, and this situation will get worse over time. In other words: exit barriers are getting higher, and there’s a risk of complacency and fear creating professional stagnation.
Some people try to address this by “going defensive” and playing politics to maintain their acquired position. Some decide to make an incremental move to a similar role in a different firm (perhaps a smaller but faster-growing one).
The risk then, is that fear takes over and we start to play small, secretly upset that our once high-flying career seems doomed to a long, slow decline.
IF YOU’RE AT THIS STAGE: Be bold! Refuse to buy in to fear or defensiveness and remember how much experience, expertise and wisdom you bring to the table. Commit to reinventing yourself - and take action fast.
In the Gap
Characteristics: Left previous curve - not yet in next curve
Biggest risk: Flight to presumed safety of previous curve
“In the Gap” is the winter season: we’re caught off guard perhaps and a shift in the political landscape occurs and we find ourselves moved on, laid off, or set aside. Suddenly the question of “WHAT’S NEXT” looms urgently as our #1 priority.
Although it can be a time of questioning and sometimes self-doubt, the good news is that the golden handcuffs have been broken; we’re actually freer than before to reimagine a more satisfying next wave.
But of course there’s financial pressure, and a real risk we decide to run back to the presumed safety of the previous curve: to get a job very similar to the role we’ve just left.
IF YOU’RE AT THIS STAGE: Keep calm and carry on. Get clear on your financial situation so you know how much ‘runway’ you have. Then take some time simply to ‘detox’ - you’ll probably need it more than you think. Refuse to run towards the safety of the familiar.
Step III. Answer some powerful questions to expand your sense of the possible for your career transition
Making a bold, non-linear career move is a mixture of reflection and action. It’s an iterative process of “imagining and testing” - “reflecting and doing” - rather than the kind of linear “analyse -> decide -> act” process we discussed above.
However, imagining and reflecting comes first. Here are 3 key activities:
ACTIVITY 1. Ask yourself some powerful long-term questions.
So often we’ve been running so fast and been so focused on our goals that we’ve developed a certain tunnel-vision. If you want to make a meaningful shift in your work, your impact or your lifestyle, this needs to start with asking yourself some powerful questions.
So I’ve put together five powerful questions that you can use to open yourself up to more impactful and exciting professional next-steps than you’ve currently been imagining.
I’ve used all of these myself at different stages, and they’ve been incredibly helpful. For example, here’s question #4 -
4/ THE GRANDCHILDREN: Imagine you’re 89 years old and have your grandchildren (or great- grandchildren) on your lap. They ask what you did in your career...and nothing was ever the same again for me. What are you most proud to tell them about?
When I asked myself this, I had a revelation: “I don’t want to be telling my grandchildren about how I helped AT&T increase their EBITDA margin by 0.5%”. There’s nothing wrong with that as a career goal, of course, but I realised that that wasn’t the primary story I wanted to tell my grandchildren about my professional life. And nothing was the never the same again for me…
You don’t need to use them all at once - think of them as different angles to look at the same issue. But I believe you will find them an invaluable resource in your own journey of imagination and reflection.
CLICK HERE to discover 5 powerful questions that will raise the game on your professional ambitions.
ACTIVITY 2. List your ‘possible selves’
We often get stuck when we label ourselves. “I’m a sales leader”, “I’m a general manager”, “I’m a strategist”. The truth is, we all have wonderful and multi-faceted personalities, interest areas and skill sets and there are a number of possible “selves” to choose from.
As I was exploring my own career transition, I wrote a list of possible selves. Some felt comfortable and familiar (strategic consultant, business development expert,…) whilst others took great effort to even dare to write down (author? entrepreneur? church leader?).
Write out your “long list” of possible future selves. Then consider it in the light of the following:
Action Point: Write out a list of at least 5-10 “possible future selves”
ACTIVITY 3. Question your assumptions to expand your list
In career transitions, the basic assumptions that typically prove most resistant to change concern our emotional relationships with institutions, our benchmarks for success, and our preconceived notions about viable work arrangements.
In other words, you are bound to have assumptions that are keeping things off the list or causing you to immediately discount them.
I recommend adding to your list items you’d like to consider, but don’t feel are realistic BY adding the key assumption you’d need to overcome.
Action Point: Expand your list of possible selves by questioning your assumptions.
'One key assumption we often unconsciously make is that a career leap moves us from being someone with “10 years experience” to someone with “zero years experience”.'
But you don’t leave things behind - old skills, existing relationships recombine. You build on your experiences, you don’t throw it away even in a totally different field, sector or profession. A corporate executive with 25 years of experience doesn’t become, say, a consultant or a small business owner with 0 years of experience!
For example, a a friend of mine secured a first-class degree from Oxford University then studied 7 years to become a Chartered Actuary. A highly lucrative gig, once you make it! However, with the challenge of his actuarial studies behind him, he realised the actual job of being an actuary didn’t interest him! He walked away into a graduate-level IT development role. But of course, he wasn’t a fresh graduate - he had 9 years of professional experience at this point - and the experience and skills he’d picked up meant he rocketed through his new company in no time.
Step IV. Remix your environment to accelerate your career transition
Now it’s time to move into action. As I mentioned before, exponential career moves come from an iterative process of reflection/action.
We learn who we are—in practice, not in theory—by testing reality, not by looking inside. We discover the true possibilities by doing—trying out new activities, reaching out to new groups, finding new role models, and reworking our story as we tell it to those around us. What we want clarifies with experience and validation from others along the way. We interpret and incorporate the new information, adding colours and contours, tinting and shading and shaping, as our choices help us create the portrait of who we are becoming. To launch ourselves anew, we need to get out of our heads. We need to act.
Here are steps you can take in three key areas:
1. Remix your content
I’ve found that changing our content consumption patterns makes a huge difference to our self-understanding. The books we read, the podcasts we listen to, the journals we subscribe to … these truly influence our sense of the possible.
The beauty is, it’s such an easy and inexpensive way of ‘playing around’ with possible selves:
If an attractive “possible self” is a Chief Marketing Officer but you feel can’t quite “own that label” yet, read CMO books.
If you think you might want to be an author, listen to podcasts by writers.
You can do this in a couple of minutes
Action Point: Grab at least one book, one new podcast and subscribe to one new blog that all reflect the ‘future self’ that scares you (and excites you) the most.
2. Remix your community
Remixing our content is effective because you change the voices that you’re listening to. Take that up a gear and remix the relationships in your life. Not abandoning friends and family of course, but simply bringing new people into your life who reflect the new circles that you might like to be moving in.
For example, if you’re a VP, moving in VP circles, you might consider how to start moving in CEO circles. If you’re an operations manager considering a move into data science, you might start to hang out with data scientists.
Here are four conversations to schedule:
#1 Existing contacts. Who do you know who’s already doing what you’d like to be doing? Reach out, meet up, ask them about their life and work.
#2. A coach. I personally found a coach incredibly helpful in my moments of career transition, and a key part of my “remixed community”. I now coach a number of high achievers in transition, and it's incredibly exciting to see their sense of what's truly possible expand.
#3. Friends of friends. You might not know many people who represent your possible “future self”, but ask your friends and contacts who they know:
“Bob, I’m exploring some future possibilities and would love to speak to a Chief Revenue Officer at a high-growth startup about their experiences. Do you know anyone like that?”
#4. LinkedIn informational interviews. This topic was taught to me by Ramit Sethi and it works a treat.
Action Point: Schedule a meeting or call with at least one person who is already playing the game that you’re considering.
3. Remix your calendar
Making a bold career move can be quite draining - there’s ambiguity, a sense of stretch/high challenge, high stakes - a classic recipe for procrastination.
So it’s important to manage your time and energy.
Action Point: Grab your calendar right now and set up a recurring event to work on your professional transition.
What to do with this “career transition” time?
In other words, take the pressure off yourself a bit, and get curious:
These things don’t sound like high-speed, high-achiever activities. But in fact they are. As the military say, “slow is smooth and smooth is fast”. Slow down a bit, play a bit, and see what the trail of breadcrumbs leads.
"Slow is smooth and smooth is fast."
Conclusion: 4 steps for an exponential career transition
In this article we’ve provided detailed insights into each of the four steps that will allow you to make a bold leap in your career transition: