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Brave New Beginnings: Midlife Woman’s Guide to Fearless Career Change

A single yellow canoe waiting for its next adventure

We all come to a point where we need to make a decision about our career and what lies ahead.

The trigger is different for all of us. 

The fear however is the same. It’s terrifying and no one is talking about it.

For so many high performing female executives, the early stages of our careers came pretty easy. People recognised our talents and wanted us on their teams. We worked hard and our efforts were rewarded with promotions and significant increases in responsibility. Often, we didn't need to think too hard about it. We were growing, being challenged and confident that there would always be new projects to take on. This continued for years until something changed. Until the path ahead wasn’t as clear or as linear as before.

Just like in white water rafting, the rapids in our early career are fast paced, thrilling and somehow guided by the force of the water. Then the rapids stop, and we find ourselves at a critical juncture. It’s here, in this stillness, that the real challenge begins.  

 

It’s time to start paddling.

 

In those moments we wish we could see into the future, grab a crystal ball and know that everything will be ok.  Often, we hope someone else will have the answer we need. I’ve been there a few times now and from experience I can share that you don’t need to see into the future. What you need is to start taking purposeful action. 

But why is this stage so daunting, particularly for women? For many leaders the hardest part is understanding who am I if I am not a lawyer, a CEO, a Chief People Officer. Our role has become so closely associated with our identity that we can’t imagine who we are without it. Or we look around and don’t know where to start. Earlier in the year we asked why women feel stuck and 35% shared it was because they couldn't see anything else they wanted to do. It’s hard to start searching when we don’t know where to start. 

One of the things is, we’ve got to get away from thinking that if you don’t know the answer, if you don’t know the goal or the target career, you should just wait and reflect until you’ve figured it out in your head. 

London Business School professor Herminia Ibarra 

 

Research shared by Emily McCrary Ruiz highlighted a “staggering 73% of women are considering a career change, driven by a quest for greater fulfillment, better work-life balance, and escaping environments that are not conducive to their growth." 

I wonder what the trigger is for you.

 Is it that you can’t face another day in a place or with a leader where your values are not aligned? Is it that you are being overlooked for more senior roles and know you need to change things up? Or was the decision taken out of your hands and the transition is happening far too fast and feels out of control?

 

 73% of women are considering a career change.

 Research:  https://www.inhersight.com/blog/research/why-women-want-to-change-careers-stats-2019

Interestingly the biggest perceived obstacle identified was the lack of connections.

 

This is exactly what I hear. During the head down phase of our career we haven’t had the time or inclination to network. Many of us don't see the point, don't like it and tell ourselves it adds no value. Just like we haven’t made the time to keep our resume up to date.  What are all the other things we know we should do but haven’t got around to them?

I recall a pivotal moment in my career where I needed a crystal ball.

For me that pivotal moment came after a life changing health diagnosis. After 8 wonderful years leading an organisation of 5,000 people, this diagnosis was the trigger for me to consider change.

Being intentional here meant being really honest with myself that my time as CEO was done.

I loved my role and am very comfortable to say I was good at it. I also knew that like most organisations, the company was ready for the next phase. Did I have the energy & passion necessary to take that on? If I stayed, was I clinging to the familiar and comfortable? To the safety of what I knew. Stepping away meant I needed to really think about where to go next. The answer was not obvious. I was 46. Far from ready to hang up my boots. 

I had also made myself a promise, that after years of traveling, when the kids were teenagers, I wanted to be closer to home more often. For me that meant an exit from corporate life. It was an empty promise that was easy to kick down the road until life happened and the choice arrived.

Initially I looked externally for all of the answers. Maybe Board roles were the answer. Isn’t that what “people” do when they have finished an Executive career, especially former CEOs. Everyone told me they did. What about consulting? “Your skills will be in hot demand”, I heard. Initially they were. So, I said yes to everything that came up. I didn’t pause. I didn’t reflect. My modus operandi had always been action, energy, keep moving. Part of that was the answer because it stopped the agony of overthinking. Partly it wasn’t as I didn’t stop for long enough to really think about what I wanted. What I needed to feel fulfilled.

That took longer, it took different questions, and it was hard work.

What motivated me 20 years earlier didn’t motivate me anymore.

I recall a wise man advising me to have 500 coffees.

My network was pretty good, but I had not been disciplined about maintaining it and I never anticipated needing it. We never do.

Who could I possibly meet and what would we talk about?

Looking back now, those coffees were critical. The first step was getting over my fear of other people’s opinions.

The fear of other people’s opinions - or FOPO - is pervasive. It keeps us stuck and small.

Michael Gervais Ph.D, a psychologist and author of The First Rule of Mastery: Stop Worrying about What People Think of You.

For me, I had another hurdle, the fierce need to do it on my own. I grew up thinking I had to. I have always been independent. Flew 10,000kms by myself from the age of 9, attended boarding school from 12. I loved every minute, but for all the good it did, it also built in a strong need to make it look like I was handling everything. That everything was “perfect”, and I was in control. It was the same way that growing up we didn’t raise our voices when we argued in case the neighbours thought we were arguing! Oh, the freedom from working out that no one else is really that interested in you. Everyone is far more concerned about themselves. Even more importantly the people who matter are cheering you on.

My big lesson was I couldn’t do this on my own and I didn’t need to.

From coffees and being open to opportunities came ideas. From ideas came the chance to experiment. From experiments came the knowledge of what this phase of me loved, what lit me up. What fit with my current values and desires.

One coffee always led to another with a simple question of “Who else do you think I should meet?” This led to non-executive director roles, to mentoring and to the realisation that careers and particular flashpoints of our careers are really hard for women. This led to the seed of an idea that became Brave Feminine Leadership in all of its forms today, anchored by simple podcast conversations with leaders.

 Professor Herminia Ibarra suggests instead of focusing on the ideal ask:

 “What might be 10, or what might be six organizations, or what might be five different pathways I could take?” And start exploring them in parallel, simultaneously.

 

This advice paralleled my experience.

Explore.

 

The grit and resilience (and talent) that supported you throughout your success to date is still there. It is transferable and whilst there might be a few rocky moments along the way, you will come through this transition. Lean on my confidence for a moment of two if you can’t feel it yet.

Here are five actionable steps you can take immediately to prepare:

  1. Expand Your Professional Network:

    • Actively seek out and build connections into the fields you're interested in transitioning to Attend networking events, join relevant online communities, and reach out to individuals who are currently working in your desired field. Don't hesitate to ask for informational interviews to learn more about the industry and gain valuable insights. Book some coffees!
  2. Pursue Relevant Education or Training:

    • Identify any educational or skill gaps that may be hindering your transition and seek ways to fill them. Often this step is more about confidence and connections. That's OK. Enrolling in an online course could give you the edge you need to remain relevant and importantly demonstrate an ongoing active hunger for learning & growth.
  3. Establish your Unique Personal Brand and Advocate:

    • Advocate for yourself and your capabilities. Highlight your unique experiences and the diverse perspectives you bring. This can be challenging after a career based on selling a company or selling a product. It's time to sell you and craft a narrative that emphasizes the skills and insights you've gained during your career. Get clear and own your story. This includes updating your resume. Do it every 6 months while your achievements are fresh.
  4. Seek Emotional Support and Counselling:

    • Career transitions, especially midlife, can be emotionally taxing. Seek support from professional career coaches, mentors, or counsellors who can provide guidance, help you navigate challenges, and keep you motivated. Remember my key lesson, I couldn't and didn't' have to do it on my own. Thank you to all the people who I met for coffee!
  5. Develop a Strategic Plan:

    • Create a clear and realistic plan for your career transition. This should include setting specific goals, a timeline, financial planning (especially if a transition might involve a temporary pay cut or additional education costs), and strategies for balancing family responsibilities (in whatever shape or form they take). Regularly review and adjust your plan as needed to stay on track.

If you are seeking additional support, and think I could be part of the puzzle, book some time to connect with me here  or read more about a way to get support and build a plan here. 

Next week our Blog focuses on How to Get Unstuck in Your Career and provides a tool for you to do a short stocktake and work out where to focus first..

Summer Leadership Quiz and Access to our  free Summer Glow Magazine. Access here

Resources

https://hbr.org/2023/09/how-to-think-strategically-about-a-career-transition

https://www.fastcompany.com/90978054/how-stop-worrying-about-what-others-think#:~:text=The%20fear%20of%20other%20people's,potentially%20dangerous%2C%E2%80%9D%20he%20says.

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.777110/full

https://www.inhersight.com/blog/research/why-women-want-to-change-careers-stats-2019