Harvard Business Review's OnPoint (a volume that gathers selected articles from HBR, published four times a year) has its summer issue on "Your Next Move: How to Make a Successful Career Change." The issue reprints "How to Stay Stuck in the Wrong Career" by Herminia Ibarra, which I blogged about here (in fact when you Google how to stay stuck in the wrong career, my blog post is the second result after the HBR article itself! I was so happy to make that discovery), and another very interesting article by Ibarra and co-author Kent Lineback, on "What's your Story?", about the importance of crafting a compelling, coherent personal story to "generat[e] the listener's trust and helps convince your audience that you're a stable, trustworthy person."
The article "A Second Career: The Possible Dream" by Harry Levinson would be a good starting point for someone trying to explore his options. The article, first published in 1983, has now become an HBR Classic. From the perspective of someone writing in 2015, given the personal and professional growth literature available today, it comes across a bit basic, although it remains highly valuable. (The reader is urged to answer questions such as "What few experiences in your lifetime have been the most gratifying?", "Of all the things you've done, at which were you the most successful?" and of course the self-help favorite, "What would you like your epitaph or obituary to say?")
Since the issue is about career change, we are treated to the unavoidable "Reinventing your Personal Brand" by Dorie Clark, although if you are older than thirty-five and need Clark to tell you that you have to focus on "leverag[ing] your points of differences" and "develop[ing] a narrative", you have bigger problems on your hands than finding a more fulfilling second career. Perhaps there is a reason the first one did not work out.
Then, Robert Steven Kaplan provides in "Reaching your Potential" advice such as "tak[e] a very personal look at how you define success in your heart of hearts and then fin[d] your path to get there." But the examples show that some executives lose sight of that during their career, and so Kaplan's advice can be helpful for some, I suppose. Some of his other recommendations include: "Identify the 3-4 activities essential for success in your desired or current role. Then develop a plan for excelling in these activities." This article reminded me that we often know intellectually what we have to do to prepare for the next step but we don't do it unless someone sits us down and asks us those questions. So while the questions in this article may not be earth-shattering, there is great value in answering them.
My favorite article by far in the HBR OnPoint issue was "Firing Back: How Great Leaders Rebound After Career Disasters" by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Andrew Ward (who happens to now be Associate Dean in the College of Business at Lehigh University where I work). If you only read an article, make it this one. (If you read two, read as second one the Warren Bennis article I mention in "Further readings" at the bottom of the post.) It is full of insightful examples of leaders who fell from grace, some who rebounded and some who didn't. The wisdom shared in its pages is grounded in the analysis of more than 450 CEO successions, and the authors avoid the truisms of other articles, providing instead a clear process illustrated by many anecdotes about real-life CEOs (cited by name). Jamie Dimon, ousted as president of Citigroup and later to become JPMorgan's CEO, is an excellent case in point, which the authors discuss in some detail. I also enjoyed the narrative about Bernie Marcus, fired as CEO of Handy Dan, who later launched Home Depot. The article is full of backstories I didn't know about, and in these days where relaunching one's career is supposed to be as easy as "crafting a compelling personal narrative", the examples the authors provide serve as a highly valuable reminder that things aren't always so simple, and the career of the best-intentioned, most competent people can run aground through no fault of their own. (Not every CEO ousted is ousted for things he did wrong.) In fact, the most valuable piece of advice in the article was that deposed leaders should not sign non-disparagement agreements so that they can "engage instead in a multitiered campaign to clear [their] reputation and restore [their] stature." A sobering statistic: "In [the authors'] research, 35% of ousted CEOs returned to an active executive role within two years of departure, but 43% effectively ended their careers." Read. This. Article.
And for those of you who are now making a successful transition to a different path, you might find my blog post "In Praise of the Career Pre-Mortem", inspired of HBR's article on performing a project pre-mortem, of value to you.
Further readings (both excellent, and more thoughtful than some of the articles in the OnPoint issue):
- Warren Bennis on "The Seven Ages of the Leader" describes seven stages for the leader, paralleling Shakespeare's seven ages of man in As You Like It (infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, general, statesman and sage). Bennis's counterparts are:
- the infant executive ("Recruit a team to back you up; you may feel lonely in your first top job, but you won’t be totally unsupported."),
- the schoolboy, with shining face ("Your first acts will win people over or they will turn people against you, sometimes permanently."),
- the lover with a woeful ballad ("For the leader who has come up through the ranks, one of the toughest is how to relate to former peers who now report to you." with the unescapable reference to Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and "Leaders new to an organization are swamped with claims on their time and attention. Often, the person who makes the most noise is the neediest person in the group and the one you have to be most wary of... [Renowned psychiatrist Wilfred Bion] warned his students: Focusing your attention on the most clamorous of your followers will not only anger and alienate the healthier among them."),
- the bearded soldier ("Over time, leaders grow comfortable with the role... Two things can happen as a result: Leaders may forget the true impact of their words and actions, and they may assume that what they are hearing from followers is what needs to be heard.")
- the general, full of wise saws ("One of the greatest challenges a leader faces at the height of his or her career is not simply allowing people to speak the truth but actually being able to hear it." with the example of Julius Caesar)
- the statesman, with spectacles on nose ("One of the gratifying roles that people in late career can play is the leadership equivalent of a pinch hitter.")
- the sage, second childishness (" Mentoring is one of the great joys of a mature career.")
- Robert Steven Kaplan on "What to Ask the Person in the Mirror." ("Over a 22-year career at Goldman Sachs... I have observed that even outstanding leaders invariably struggle through stretches of their careers where they get off track for some period of time." The author explains: "[A] key characteristic of highly successful leaders is... that they develop techniques to help them recognize a deteriorating situation and get back on track as quickly as possible. In my experience, the best way to do that is to step back regularly, say every three to six months... and honestly ask yourself some questions about how you’re doing and what you may need to do differently. As simple as this process sounds, people are often shocked by their own answers to basic management and leadership questions". You will have to read the article to learn the seven types of questions Kaplan recommends asking oneself.)