The Case for Making a Career Pivot…Now
Research I recently conducted confirms that professionals wanting to make a career pivot should not be afraid to make a change. In a nutshell, my study found that workers who were determined to pivot were mostly successful within one year, although some took longer. These individuals also invested time to building their job skills, expanding their network, pursuing advanced degrees, and experimenting with different industries and functions by reading job descriptions and making lists of what they liked – and didn’t like – about it.
I conducted the research as part of the Directed Study elective while an Emory Executive MBA student. As someone who works in the career services field with graduate students, it was of keen interest to me and highly relevant to my work. My study was sponsored by Peter Topping, a Professor in the Practice of Organization and Management, who is renowned for his expertise in the areas of leadership development, organizational culture, and organizational change. The study contained two parts, a robust survey with 101 respondents and five case studies.
Takeaways from the research include knowing why you want to make a pivot, examining potential new work options, and trying to plan and be diligent about reaching goals before taking the leap. This would be the ideal best practice. However, as the study also reveals, sometimes circumstances happen outside of one’s control, and there is a sudden change in employment status that could prompt a pivot. People in these circumstances have found success as well. My study shows that while most people did not have an employment gap on their resume (i.e., unemployed for 6 months or longer), some do and that is not always a barrier if you can network effectively and tell a compelling story about your experience and skills and the unique value you can bring to the company.
The research also shows that investment in education produces ROI for students. The number one reason pivoters were successful was job skills, and over half of our survey respondents are currently enrolled in a masters, graduate, or executive education program. Of these, the top reason they are continuing their education is for career advancement at a different company. In addition, all our case study subjects cite education as a driver for their career pivot success.
Survey respondents shared advice for others contemplating making a career pivot:
- Grow your network and start letting others know you are interested in a pivot so they can listen for opportunities
- Create a plan similar to a business plan, including KPIs and milestones and hold yourself accountable to those KPIs and metrics. Make sure the milestones have dates associated with
- Study up on both the field and the industry that you’d like to pivot into. Study for field/skills should be formal; study for the industry can be formal or informal. Use that study to determine if your passion lies within the intersection of that field and that industry
- Know your “why” extraordinarily well. Your story has to be compelling, because you’ll be competing with others who have experience in the industry that you are trying to gain entrance into. If you want an organization to take a risk on you, that’s the bare minimum you have to knock out of the park
- Be able to speak to your current experience base and how it relates to the necessary skills and requirements for the career pivot position, and your plan for filling in any skill gaps for the career pivot position
Adding stories from the field helps to make the subject matter come alive, and we included five short case studies of professionals selected from the pool of survey respondents who opted into being contacted. Each of the case study subjects is from different industries and backgrounds, to illustrate different journeys. One goal of this study is to help others on their quest to pivot their careers to a different function or industry. These stories offer different perspectives that we hope will resonate with a broad professional population. There is no one path to reaching career pivot success, and what we found is that our case study subjects are still growing and changing, and some might pivot again.
The one constant of our cases is this: Career Pivoters are curious, enjoy being challenged, have a growth mindset, take calculated risks, and are lifelong learners.
Below are samples from the case studies:
Case Study – David:
“If you don’t view it correctly, you could view these changes as a failure. But, getting laid off was an opportunity to try something big. Consulting was an expensive experiment; however, I learned a lot about myself. It made me more resilient. My next job in consumer products, it was to turn around the worst-performing plant, and we did it. Having gone through the prior failure, it built up some toughness. It has helped me. These experiences also made me check in on my market value. I found out what the market was willing to pay for my skills and ended up making more.
Case Study – Julie:
Getting her MBA is enabling her to become fluent in the language of business. One of the benefits of graduate school, Julie shared, is thought diversity and the opportunity to meet people that her path wouldn’t otherwise cross. People with experience in different industries, environments, and perspectives have made her a better professional, she said.
Case Study – Frank:
As he transitioned out of the military, Frank finished his bachelor’s degree in computer science and then realized he had a passion for product management. He said his path was unconventional for landing his first software PM role. “People use education to pivot into product management, investment banking, or management consulting, and if you want upward mobility, an MBA is essential,” he said.
Case Study – Christopher:
“Your story was important when trying to get into b-school (on the essays and interviews) and it’s even more important for a career switcher. Because you’re asking someone to take a risk. There is no way that there is not someone waiting in the cue with 5-7 years of work experience that looks perfect on paper. When going for a competitive job, you must sound like you’re competent, you’re passionate, and that they’d like working with you because they are going to have to re-tell your story to others in the company to vouch for you. They will have to go to bat for you,” he said.
Case Study – Rose:
Rose recommends career pivoters take full advantage of LinkedIn. She said that LinkedIn was how she was able to identify contacts at the company she wanted to work with. She recommends that job seekers should be polite, curious, and not afraid to reach out to top decision-makers to connect on LinkedIn. Best practices are to only ask busy decision-makers for one thing at a time (connecting is one, seeing if someone has a moment to chat is another, and letting someone know you applied to a position on their team is another). She said to use the filters–ranging from company, geography, job title, and education–to best identify people to connect with on LinkedIn. While LinkedIn Premium has its advantages and InMail (which is only available to Premium users) might be the only way to message certain users, Rose also said that she was able to have effective connections and message communication on the free version of the platform.
Career pivoters provide an exciting look into the current professional landscape in the U.S. Their stories are unique and inspiring. Their advice is as diverse as it is useful. Simply put, it appears to be a great time to be in the workforce in the U.S., and there are a plethora of options to suit every skill level and lifestyle. As my research suggests, if you are determined enough, keep your skills sharp, network, and do your homework, a career pivot to a new function or industry is possible.