By Dorie Clark
These days, it’s rare to spend your entire career at one company – or even in one career. But every time we make a professional move, it’s necessary to reinvent ourselves. Sometimes it’s a matter of developing new skills; what worked for you at a large multinational may not work in a small boutique firm. And sometimes it’s a matter of telling your story effectively because - faced with new colleagues unfamiliar with your skills and background – it’s essential to explain the value you bring to the table.
Reinvention can be incredibly stressful, especially for mid-career professionals. If you change jobs or industries, will you lose the benefit of your years of experience? Will you have to take a step backwards in terms of pay or prestige? Do you really have to start from scratch?
But as I discovered through writing my book Reinventing You and developing the short course How to Reinvent Yourself Mid-Career in partnership with The Economist Group, reinvention can also be a powerful opportunity to take control of your professional life, align your work with your values, and live out your full potential. Here are three strategies I discuss in the course that I’ve found to be particularly helpful to mid-career professionals in the midst of their reinvention.
Understand your current brand. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to reinvent yourself if you don’t really know where you’re starting. Most of us assume we know how we’re viewed by others. But all of us have blind spots, and getting clear on how others truly see you can enable to you pick up on hidden strengths you’re not leveraging (or weaknesses you’ll need to address before you can transition to your next big thing). One activity I suggest in the course is the “three word exercise,” in which you ask about half a dozen people, “If you only had three words to describe me, what would they be?” This forces them to prioritize and cite only the most important, memorable things about you – a revealing exercise. (One entrepreneur who did the exercise recently learned that seven out of the 10 people he asked used the word “creative” to describe him – a strong finding he wouldn’t have necessarily guessed.)
Join a board. Many professionals view charitable board service as a good way to give back, and a pleasant ‘nice to have’ activity. But I’ll suggest it’s actually far more important than that. Of course, there are the warm-and-fuzzy benefits of helping a good cause. But it’s also an invaluable tool both for networking and professional development. Joining a board now, even if you’re not quite ready to launch your reinvention, is a great way to meet other successful professionals who could be critical to your efforts – a CEO who could hire you for consulting services, or an entrepreneur who might want to partner with you. Additionally, it’s a powerful training ground where you have the opportunity to develop new skills. Even if you have limited experience with social media, it’s unlikely they’ll say no if you volunteer to serve on the committee overseeing the new website overhaul – and you may learn a great deal in the process.
Build your narrative. You’ve gotten a sense of your current brand, and have begun to hone the skills you need for your next chapter. Now it’s time to craft a narrative that explains your transition to the outside world. The truth is, most professionals receive more than 100 emails per day – and that number is growing by about 15% per year. People are overwhelmed and, as a consequence, they aren’t likely to be paying very close attention to you and your transition. That’s why you need to be able to explain succinctly where you’re going in your professional life and how your past adds value to your new activity. Otherwise, they’ll either overlook your reinvention (and continue to think of you in the same old way) or they’ll make up their own explanation, which often isn’t flattering (I wonder why he’s doing that? Must be a mid-life crisis.) Instead, take the reins by creating a short narrative that answers those questions. It could be something like:
- As a military commander, I was responsible for the lives and well-being of my soldiers. Now I’m planning to apply those same leadership skills to build the highest-performing team at Acme Corp.
- As a former political spokesperson, I learned how to stay on message even when our opponents and the news media tried to throw us off. I’m using those same skills today to help my private PR clients get noticed and heard in a noisy media environment.
Take a few moments and try to craft your own narrative; it’s useful to ask trusted friends for their ideas and feedback.
Getting a new job or career isn’t just a change of scenery or a chance to acquire a different set of coworkers. Done right, it’s an opportunity to challenge yourself, do meaningful work, and change your life for the better. By getting clear on your current brand, building your skills and network, and telling your story so that others understand your journey, you’re well on your way to launching your next chapter.