When Sher Downing, an education and technology strategist in Columbia, S.C., wanted to pursue an entrepreneurial career path after 30 years of academic employment, she knew it would require detailed planning.
“I have a comfortable lifestyle that I didn't want to give up, so I decided to take 18 to 24 months to make the transition," said Downing.
Her timeline and careful planning are smart ways to set herself up for success. And while it can be scary to make a mid-life pivot, it is possible to shift careers successfully at any age - whether you're following your passion or just because it's time to try something new.
“A big myth about entrepreneurship is that you're taking a huge risk," said Dorie Clark, a marketing consultant, adjunct professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and the author of several books on self-reinvention. "If you're thoughtful about the process, you can reduce the risk."
Some self-analysis is essential before taking steps toward a career pivot, said Mary Helmich, personal banking strategy manager at City National Bank in Los Angeles.
“You need to know what's motivating you and what's the underlying factor to your plan to change jobs," said Helmich. “Don't go off on a whim just because someone you know is successful at something that looks like more fun than what you're doing."
Sometimes career pivots take place almost by accident. But even then there are ways to prepare to make those changes easier.
Patricia Hausknost, a wealth planner at City National Bank, was headed toward a career as a teacher. She took a job at a bank while waiting for her first semester to begin. When her husband at the time applied to graduate school to get an MBA, she did the same and was accepted.
“My bank paid for the program, which led me to stay in banking," said Hausknost. “Twenty years later, City National Bank started an in-house financial planning program with UCLA. That's when I found my passion and shifted career paths again."
Ideally, preparations for a professional pivot are made at least six months to one year in advance. But planning can take up to a decade, depending on the circumstances.
Whether you know exactly what you hope to do or just know that you want a change, the following steps can ease the way to a new profession.
It's important to look at your strengths and your experience when deciding to make a viable career change. If you're not sure, think about what you enjoy doing that could also be lucrative.
“You have to be honest with yourself about where you want to be in three to 10 years and decide if you're willing to take a step back in order to step forward in the future," Clark said. “Make sure you're willing to work hard while making the transition and to commit to definitive goals."
Sometimes people know they want to leave their job but they don't know what they want to do next. And others think they know what they want to do but they don't have any first-hand experience in the industry they're targeting.
“One woman was convinced she wanted to be a floral designer and consulted a career coach about how to make the transition," said Clark. “Thankfully, the career coach recommended that she shadow someone for a day. The woman left by lunchtime because she hadn't realized that floral designers work in a very cold room to keep the flowers fresh, and she hates being cold."
Volunteering for an organization in your preferred field can also help you make connections and learn more about potential paid roles in the profession.
“You really need to understand how someone achieved their success, how long it took them, exactly what they did and whether it's something you can do," said Helmich.
At the same time, said Downing, you'd be smart to be quiet about your plans.
"You don't want someone else to take your idea," she said. You also need to be careful not to jeopardize your current job by not following the rules about moonlighting. "You need to check your contract at your job to be certain you're allowed to do outside work and whether there are limits on what you can do," she said.
One of the most valuable steps Downing took was joining a mastermind group that she found through Clark's recommendation.
“The entire group supports each other and we give each other honest feedback even though we're all in different phases of developing our businesses and in different industries," said Downing. “They helped me see my business through other people's eyes and to come up with how to explain it, how to monetize it and how to make a plan for what to do if doesn't work."
Whether you need a certification or hands-on training for your new field, you need to find out where to get it, said Hausknost.
“Volunteering or joining professional organizations in a field you want to be in can help you make connections and understand what you need to learn," said Downing.
Be realistic about your financial commitments and think about whether you can afford a drop in salary if one is necessary, said Hausknost.
“You need to look at your financial position and determine how much money you need and how you'll manage that," said Hausknost.
Some people save a year's salary or more to support themselves while they launch a new career, said Downing, who researched options and discussed financial preparation with members of her mastermind group. Some people must cut back drastically on expenses when making a career change.
Unless you're single, said Helmich, you must discuss your career aspirations with your spouse and kids. “Maybe you can keep your career going for a while, but you need to make sure you can handle both your current job and starting a new job while not disrupting your family too much," she said.
“I met a hairdresser who wanted to be a professional speaker," said Clark. “She had a 10-year lease on her hair salon, so she took those 10 years and invested in training as a speaker, created videos and a website, taking a very methodical approach to her career pivot. After 10 years, she shut down her salon and started her new career with no drop in income because she had done so much preparation."
Downing developed a calendar in July 2016 with steps to take each month through July 2018 as she managed her career transition, which is now on track to launch in January.
“You need to be nimble and flexible enough to readjust your timeline but still continue to take steps to reach your goal," said Downing.
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