Outside the Box: 3 questions to answer before you make a career change


As we navigate the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that many Americans are reimagining their future and rethinking their career paths. Many are giving serious consideration to a potentially life-changing revision to their career goals.

The pandemic simply seems to have accelerated people’s natural inclination to consider moving to a career that’s more rewarding for them.

This is not unlike the process I went through when I decided to retire early from my position as the president of New York Life Insurance Company, a Fortune 100 company, to pursue an encore career. Even though I was 59 and could remain at the company until the typical retirement age of 65, I had been reimagining my own future following a couple of life-altering experiences. Those experiences caused me to seriously consider retiring and attending divinity school to enhance my spiritual education and development in preparation for the career that would follow.

The thought process and planning I went through could be useful to many who find themselves thoughtfully considering a career change following the pandemic.

Read: If you’re fed up with your job and want to quit, don’t do it this way

Contemplate the financial and other consequences of a career change

Who among us hasn’t at times considered a major change in our vocational pursuits? Such thoughts can be frightening, and that’s why not everyone acts on these impulses. But considering such a change can also be stimulating. Perhaps the pandemic has given you time and the inspiration to reconsider your current career and reimagine what could be a beneficial change to your future.

As you consider a career change, it is important to carefully assess the potential financial consequences of such a change, particularly in the near term. Make sure you have the resources to withstand a temporary shortfall in your initial earning capacity and if necessary, adjust your budgeted expenses accordingly.

My own early retirement and pursuit of a career as an author has proven to be a magnificent liberating experience. I feel happier, healthier and younger than I’ve felt in decades. While being prepared financially certainly was important, I have found it even more important to attend to all the other non financial aspects of a post-pandemic career lifestyle.

Read: When you should — and shouldn’t — invest in a Roth 401(k)

Important questions for you to answer

As you start the nonfinancial planning process, ask, and honestly answer, these three questions:

1. The passion question: What type of work has made you happiest and provided the greatest gratification in your pre-pandemic years, either in your existing career or in your activities outside the workplace? In short, what are your greatest passions?

2. The gifts and skills question: What are your unique gifts and skills that you can use to generate the most satisfaction in your next career?

3. The preparation question: What can you do now to position yourself for greatest impact when you decide to make the transition to a reimagined career?

The answers to questions like these are unique to every individual. Seeking the answers will force you to wrestle with elusive concepts like “success,” “satisfaction” and “happiness”. Nonetheless, I think you’ll find it thought-provoking and enjoyable to go through the exercise of contemplation and discernment.

Answering the passion question

Most of us are happiest when we are pursuing our passions. So step one for me was to clearly identify those activities and pursuits that left me with the greatest sense of accomplishment, self-worth, and therefore, happiness.

I asked myself, “What makes me tick?” I considered many possibilities, but what clearly makes me most happy is positively touching and impacting the lives of other human beings. So as I thoughtfully contemplated how writing could help me accomplish that in my future, I began to envision a new beginning — a period of significance and impact.

Think about those activities that give you the greatest joy and sense of fulfillment. Then articulate your passions in a sentence or two.

Answering the gifts and skills question

It’s almost a certainty that there will be a high correlation between what you do well and what makes you happy. Start there, and then expand your thought process by reflecting on all kinds of moments in your life — beyond your work activities — when you have felt truly happy and fulfilled.

What made time stand still? What were you doing just before you felt that tremendous sense of accomplishment and well-being? As you recall those moments, ask yourself what value you added in the process.

I believe my biggest contribution and value added was in my ability to impact people’s lives through my use of my own personal gifts and skills — my strong faith, my financial acumen, my storytelling and writing skills, and my teaching and mentoring abilities.

Answering the preparation question

Once you’ve identified your passions and your unique gifts and skills, consider how you will prepare for the next phase of your life.

My preparation involved several steps I initiated before making the final transition. I decided to attend divinity school to enhance my spiritual education and development. I developed a business school course on strategy and leadership that I taught as an adjunct professor at Fairfield University. I researched both the nonprofit and for-profit organizations in which I felt I could add value using my business and financial acumen. As a result, I began serving on five nonprofit and two for-profit boards.

The peace of mind that has come from following my passions and impacting the lives of other people has left me far happier than I have been in many years.

Tips for fast-starting your new career

When I was considering a career change, my daughter, Dena, had recently graduated from college and felt she was languishing in an entry-level position at a large global company. She came to me with an urgent request: she wanted advice on how she could get noticed as someone of high potential and begin to develop a meaningful new career path.

The tips I gave to Dena launched and supercharged her new career. Here is a brief summary of the five tips I gave her. These can apply whether you join a large company, a small company or even if you start an entrepreneurial venture with a small support team.

1. Demonstrate commitment

Demonstrate your commitment to your company. An easy way to do this is to get to work early, leave late and remain fully engaged in everything you do. In other words, put in the time. Even an extra 30 to 60 minutes per day will get noticed by your superiors, your peers and by the members of your team.

2. Memorize your company’s mission statement

Commit the corporate mission statement to memory. If you are an employee of a larger firm, you don’t want to go around reciting the mission statement; that would appear arrogant. Instead, as you consider difficult decisions (or observe decisions made by others), you can readily test them against the stated mission of the organization.

It’s important for the decisions and actions of a company to align well with its stated mission.

3. Develop organizational awareness

Develop a network of contacts across departments. Show an eagerness to learn and understand the culture, how the company operates, who does what, who has what authority and how things get accomplished.

4. Demonstrate strategic capability

Become familiar with your company’s products, services, customer base and target markets. Identify your company’s marketplace strengths and competitive advantages. What is your company’s edge over the competition? Can the company sustain it?

Strategy is about beating the competition, so identify and learn as much as you can about the competition and the strategies they follow. Is your company losing its “competitive advantage” or building on it? What can it do even better?

5. Understand the financial underpinnings of the business

This tip may seem to be the most difficult, but it really is quite simple. My daughter had no background or training in accounting or finance but found the following advice to be powerful and easy to implement.

Ask someone in the finance or accounting department to give you a basic understanding of how the results of the company’s income statement flow into the balance sheet. Once you have that understanding, start a quarterly tracking (on a spreadsheet) of the following six numbers:

·       From the income statement: revenues, expenses and net profit

·       From the balance sheet: assets, liabilities and net equity

It is safe to say none of your peers (and few among your superiors) will track these six key metrics over time.

For my daughter, implementing these five tips launched a rapidly expanding set of responsibilities that provided innumerable future career growth opportunities and financial rewards. As you make a career change, they can do the same for you.

Fred Sievert is the retired president of New York Life Insurance Company and the author of three books, the most recent of which is titled, Fast-Starting a Career of Consequence.

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