In the wake of the pandemic, many people decided to rethink their lives, particularly as they applied to work. But, although this undoubtedly contributed to what became known as the Great Resignation, it was not the ultimate cause of this reassessment of priorities. The academic Herminia Ibarra saw enough evidence of people changing careers that 20 years ago she wrote a book designed to help them manage the transition. The book, Working Identity, was a huge success, being translated into 10 languages and forming the basis of many classes that Ibarra has taught as well as being the foundation of more than a few master’s and PhD theses. Now, in the wake of Covid-19 and the increasing desire among young professionals to find “work that matters,” she has republished it, with a new preface and various additions, including exercises designed to spur readers to act on their desire for change. To judge from the size and enthusiasm of the audience that crowded into London Business School earlier this month to hear Ibarra speak about her approach to career change, the updated book will at least emulate the success of the original.
One reason for that may be that Ibarra has widened her scope. As she relates in the new preface, she thought the original book’s lessons mainly applied to mid-career professionals who questioned their career paths after devoting much time, energy and education to them. “In one of the dumbest statements I have ever published, I said the book was not for people just starting their working life or for those nearing retirement age and exploring less than full-time work activities. I could not be more wrong.”
Today, she adds, people of all ages are asking themselves profound questions about what work they do, how much they do and the place of work — physically and psychologically — in their lives. With life expectancy growing, it is no longer reasonable to expect individuals to follow the familiar linear route of a period in education, followed by a lengthy career with a single employer or possibly just one or two more before retiring to a life of leisure. The “more logical thing,” she suggests, is to make more transitions between jobs, careers and periods of rest, restoration and education.
But if, as she suggests, managing such careers is difficult for individuals, it is perhaps even more so for the organizations they work for. Not least because they themselves are going through profound changes — slimming down, adjusting to hybrid or remote working and making themselves more inclusive.
These changes are especially challenging for one of those groups that Ibarra originally identified as outside her remit — older executives looking for new roles. Helpfully, she has turned her attention to them in a recent article for the Harvard Business Review that she co-authored with experienced executive coach Spish Rurak. They identify six hurdles that executives often struggle with when they start to do the networking that is a crucial part of achieving late-career transitions. These include being reluctant to ask for help on the basis that would make them look less powerful; prioritizing secrecy, which is likely to be counter-productive since it is difficult to be offered opportunities if people do not know you are looking; having unrealistic expectations of what they might be offered; not being prepared to do the work required too build a successful network; focusing too much on the narrative so that they emphasise their experience and reasons for seeking a new position at the expense of setting out what they might offer; and providing a “one size fits all” story for prospective employers.
Rurak apparently has extensive experience of assisting such candidates for career transitions. But there are presumably relatively few executive coaches with the skills and confidence to tell people who are not used to being countermanded that what has got them to where they are now will not necessarily get them to where they want to be.
A further obstacle lies in organizations themselves. As they adjust to the new highly competitive business environment they may not be overly concerned about the fates of particular executives. But the more enlightened ones could well see advantage in taking a more flexible and fluid approach to recruitment and employment so that, for example, executives looking for a new challenge or to work less hard can move sideways or to a mentoring role. Hitherto, all the attention around the future of the workplace has focused on hybrid working and its effects on culture and the use of office space. If employees, particularly more senior ones, adopt some of the approaches proposed by Ibarra then the revolution in the workplace could be far more profound and extend far wider.