Time for a Career Change? Prepare Yourself to Excel

Five skills that'll help make the (right) career jump and proceed with confidence

The average person changes jobs a dozen times in their lives, which loosely translates to 5-7 career changes. It looks like I’m destined to remain below average on this front, because the fourth time’s the charm.

Ten years ago, I started working in the engineering and construction industry, and I’ve never looked back.

Reflecting on the decisions that have shaped my career path, I wanted to share my thoughts on how to recognize when it's time to make a career jump and how to proceed with confidence.

My Leap of Faith

With a seven-year hiatus to work with primary school kids (more on this later) I’ve spent the majority of my career in male-dominated fields, IT and construction engineering. If anything, being under-represented motived me to work harder and stay longer in those positions, to prove my abilities (to myself and others). Still, if you’re like the 60% of employees who are open to leaving their jobs, the reasons I ultimately left may resonate with you.

Burned (Out) to a Crisp

My first decision to make my first career jump was a no-brainer. I’d been working long hours as a systems analyst and IT manager for twelve years, and I was burned out. Between two young kids at home starting school, a killer commute, and multiple corporate takeovers, I was exhausted.

Job burnout directly impacts dissatisfaction, absenteeism, and inefficient decision making, but it also can contribute to severe health-related issues such as increased depression, heart disease, and pain. The bottom line—if your job is making you physically ill, you need to get out.

Test Your Mettle

If I thought 2 am phone calls to work out program bugs were tough, I never expected the feeling of standing in front of 32 fourth graders trying to teach them Microsoft Excel. My next career change as a Technology Coordinator for a K-8 private school yanked me right out of my comfort zone. If you’re considering a move, don’t ignore that voice in your head asking, “what if I tried something totally different?”

I jumped into a new field eager to pursue a passion for technology education. The unexpected lessons I learned have served me well as I’ve built my own business. Here’s a tip: adults have just as short an attention span as do 12-year old kids; hence the more things change, the more things stay the same.

Move Out to Move Up

According to Harvey Nash’s Women in Technology survey, 43% of women in IT cite lack of advancement opportunity as one of their greatest work challenges. However, the frustration of a stalled career progression just may be the kick in the pants you need to get to the next level. Don’t sell yourself short; another firm (or even starting your own firm) may be required to get the promotion you’ve earned.

Regardless of why you seek out a new position, building portable, cross-functional skills gives you the confidence to succeed in brand new settings. Here are five attributes I’ve worked hard to develop that have translated across diverse sectors:

  1. Don’t Wing It.
    Conventional wisdom states you shouldn’t try to be the smartest one in the room. I disagree. It’s precisely when you excel unexpectedly—when you make a connection others fail to identify—that your credibility rises. This requires doing your business homework and stepping up when no one else is able or willing.
  2. Know Your Position and Everyone Else’s.
    It’s your job to be a subject matter expert on the roles of everyone you work with. What are their priorities, struggles, and thought processes? Becoming a global thinker gives you insights into how others operate in their positions, which helps you maneuver and make better connections.
  3. Network Incessantly.
    How do you develop institutional knowledge? By absorbing as much information as possible from as many different people as possible. It’s one thing if you just want to do your job well. But if you want to build a career, you need to understand intrinsically where you fit in and how you can add value.
  4. Give to Get.
    Finally, I operate with a personal philosophy of giving respect to get respect. In most of my executive meetings, I’m sitting at the table with only men. While I’ve never personally experienced a hostile environment, I have had to learn to vocalize more often to ensure my voice gets heard and present myself as an equal.
  5. Never Stop Learning.
    I decided to get my Master of Information Systems graduate degree to refresh my skills and see what I’d been missing in the tech world. Although I did learn about new technology, I also reinforced my analytical and critical thinking skills, which are so desperately needed in the workplace. I am constantly reading articles and books, listening to others in my industry, and researching construction and technology trends to become a more effective leader.

Because I’ve challenged myself to build up these transferable skills, making the decision to start a software business (my fourth career jump) came easier, just as it did when I decided to take earlier detours. Whether you’re starting from scratch or picking up where you left off earlier, insatiable curiosity plus a willingness to take risks will help you prepare for your next career.