The art of reinvention

The first three people I bumped into were all in transition.  One was a corporate client who just landed at a new company, months after Wall Street blew up his company.  Next was a former consulting colleague who left ERM for another consulting firm – which has now been taken over by yet another firm.  The third was a corporate person now looking to reinvent herself, thanks to corporate takeovers and downsizing.

I’d walked into a reception at the Auditing Roundtable (“the professional organization for EHS auditors”), not a job fair or transition support group. This is not a group of wild and crazy adventure seekers in their professional lives.  Even here, though, the art of reinvention was a popular topic, though often discussed in hushed tones and euphemisms.  After I delivered my presentation the next day, other people I’d never met came up to talk about how to make transitions within their own companies and careers.

Each conversation brought me back to the times I’ve reinvented myself, and the lessons I learned along the way.  My most recent change was among my most challenging, when I fired myself from senior management 2+ years ago and reentered the day-to-day consulting world.  But there have been others, including going from government to industry and industry to consulting; and equally big shifts within companies, like going from marketing to real estate to environmental functions in industry, or local to global roles in consulting.

When I talked about some of my own lessons-learned in those conversations, I was asked if I could share them. So here they are.  This is an art not a science, so this isn’t a cookbook or formula, just insights. This is based on my own experience and coaching friends, colleagues and clients, not on any academic theory or rigorous research. But interestingly, many of these lessons seem to apply to a lot of situations: people out of work, people in new jobs, people promoted or making lateral moves into new areas.  They seem to apply regardless of cause.  Whether reinvention is done by you voluntarily or “encouraged” by outside forces or events, it’s still up to you to make it work.  So here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned:

  1. Accept the reality of your situation. Your past role – or in some cases your present role – is dead.  Go through the first four stages of grief if you need to: denial, anger, bargaining and depression.  But get to the final stage of acceptance awfully fast. Denial is fantasy, anger is a luxury you can’t afford, bargaining is way too late, and depression is the trap to avoid at all costs.  Just get on with acceptance.
  2. Design your network; don’t let it happen by default.  You can bet that the network you had is not the network you’ll need.  It may just hold you back.  In my latest reinvention, I found that I needed to change my organizational chart from vertical to horizontal.  I needed to stop focusing upward to the CEO and Senior Leadership Team, shifting instead to a focus on my relevant working Partners. And I needed to rebuild my whole client network.  Sure, there may be one or two individuals from your prior role who are truly friends, part of your support network and a real help.  But spending a lot of time hanging around with your old friends from your prior role is a waste of valuable time. And after a while it just gets creepy for them, kind of like the old boyfriend hanging around at his ex-girlfriend’s wedding.
  3. Define your day-to-day life; don’t let it happen by default.  It’s all too easy to keep spending 80%, 90% even 100% of some days “finishing up” or “following through” or “keeping your hand in”.  Forget it.  That’s an excuse to stay in the comfort zone rather than diving in to your new role.  (That’s certainly one that applies equally whether you’re trying to find a new job or do a new job.)
  4. Experiment.  Whatever you plan, that’s not how it’s going to work.  Try some different things and see what works.  Then go with it.
  5. Toolbox not template:  Use your great experience, but use it wisely.  Everything you’ve done will help you in your new role– especially your failures, probably more than your successes.  But understand, your new situation is not your old one.  Your prior experience is not the one right way, the template to which your new situation has to be force-fit.  Any prior success you had showed that you know how to discover the right answer; it is not the right answer, to be cut-and-pasted from your past role or organization to your new one.
  6. Seek out coaching – from lots of sources.  For me, coaching was not readily available at first inside the organization; no one had made this same move.  I then received some great coaching from the two people above me.   Both of them had been lower than me in the hierarchy until my change, and neither had made a similar change himself.  But they had powerful insight into my new role and how I could make that work.  They coached me into my new role, and didn’t really need to know or care about my old one. (And that coaching continues.) The best coaching, though, came from my clients.  I called a half-dozen clients, each of whom I’d coached in the past.  I told them the shoe was on the other foot now, and I needed their coaching.  I asked them to tell me how they viewed me, my “brand”, what made them want to use me for some things rather than other consultants.  Then I shut up and listened. Their responses were honest, insightful, and incredibly helpful.
  7. Build your support system.  Don’t confuse this with your network or coaching.  This is people who actually care about you.  Their first job is to listen to you, not talk.  When they do talk, they may be the only ones who can tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear.  They may be your spouse/partner, grown child, sibling, best friend who can’t spell EHS, boss and mentor from five jobs back.  They’re with you through the whole process, come what may.  Invite them in, don’t freeze them out.  And be honest with them, don’t pretend it’s all working wonderfully.  They already know that’s not true.  They’re just waiting for you to say it.
  8. Have patience.  As my old college job counselor wrote in a booklet decades ago: “Everything takes longer than everyone thinks.”

Actually, the very last line of that job-counseling booklet may have been the most important one.  After 64 pages, the booklet ended with guidance that still applies to everyone in transition today – and I’d argue that we’re all in transition, just some are still stuck in denial.  That last line: “Develop back-ups as appropriate.”

Many – maybe most – of the readers of this blog have gone through their own reinventions.  I’m interested in your experiences and lessons.  After all, the only certainty is that we all know – and many of us will be – people who find themselves in this situation and may need this advice in the future.

One comment

  1. I’m one of the ones who never made it to the top because, quite honestly, I’ve never lusted enough for the corner office to stomach performance reviews and budgets and climbing over the pack to be seen and heard. I’ve had enough of it to know that it would be an uncomfortable life for me.

    I’m getting close to full acceptance of my situation. What I struggle with is making the definition of success a personal one. I’ve reached a high level of competency in my field, I’ve travelled widely, presented in multiple languages, met lots of people and formed great relationships. But how do you put that on a resume? It’s not the sort of thing the world recognizes as success. And it’s not a sound byte like “CTO” or “Director of Product Development.”

    Good advice to refuse to get depressed. Just move forward and leverage your skills.

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