‘It’s a process that starts with simmering dissatisfaction…'

Ingrid Covington meets Professor Herminia Ibarra to talk identity and transition across our working lives.

I talked with Professor Herminia Ibarra following her keynote presentation at the Division of Occupational Psychology’s annual conference in January 2021. Herminia asserts that today, more than ever, career paths will be circuitous. Increasing longevity, accelerated technological change, organisational transformation, and unexpected shocks that disrupt our habitual routines… all join together to make for more frequent and more radical transitions across our working lives. 

I was keen to discuss the relationship between identity and work, the nature of liminal periods in which identities are destabilised, and the processes of reworking identity by way of activities, relationships and narratives.

Your keynote focused on the changing of direction mid-career. Is this a luxury for the educated and well off? If people have to work to survive and don’t have resources, then do they have any possibility of change in the same way?
So, that’s the question that I always get. I have always studied people like my students who are privileged and have had a lot of education. The research sample for my ‘Working Identity’ book, for example, was people who had at least a university degree and often a graduate education. But, as far as I can tell from reading and talking to people, the process of experimenting your way into something new, having something on the side, and growing it and cultivating it into something feasible enough or attractive enough to be the next thing, seems to be the standard way most people change careers. There’s really no other way to do it, whether you are well off or not.

And why mid-career specifically?
Mid-career is so interesting and important. As my colleagues Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott point out, as we live longer, soon to 100, the traditional three-stage life consisting of learning when you’re young, working for about 40 years and then pausing… with 262,000 more hours of life, we can’t just stretch out the middle part in which we ‘hold a good steady job’ ad infinitum. We have to reinvent when and how we learn and pause, and how we transition back and forth in between.

Do you have advice for individuals struggling with their career identity – any tips for how they can connect to it? You spoke about exploring ‘possible selves’, which is great for developing hope and multiple pathways to a goal.
The main practical tips that I give are the three levers I spoke about:

  • Using side projects to explore possibilities
  • Working your network – not just to give you leads but to give you inspiration and connect you to kindred spirits and peer groups
  • Taking advantage of any and all occasions to practice and refine your story, about why and how your career change makes sense


All my advice is founded on the idea of getting out of your head and trying things out as actively as possible.

Do you think that is accessible to everybody?
I talk to lots of young people early in their career who have been very entrepreneurial in generating other things that they do alongside their day job, as a way of growing their skill set and as a way of growing their network and exploring other things. So I think yes, that is accessible to everybody.

One of the most frequent questions that I get is how do I move into something without having experience in it? The answer is that you don’t, you can’t! But temporary and side projects can help you learn, have experiences that you can put on your CV, and acquire the skills that you need in order to enter a new occupation in a more permanent way. It is also important to shift connections and networks. So much of who we are – our identity – is the company we keep, our professional reference group. Individuals don’t realise how much it shapes their identity… our network of friends and family tends to favour the status quo. I call these the ties the ‘bind and blind’. We need to shift connections in order to explore new possible selves.

Your research on transitions is based on the mid-career over 40 demographic. How can individuals grapple with their transitions whilst still ‘performing’?
Just about everybody has to do it this way. The only real exception is the person who loses their job and then has more time on their hands. But most people are in full on jobs and are exploring other things on the side, and that is part of what makes the transition period so difficult. There is no other way out either. I’ve seen people save up money and quit so that they can dedicate themselves more full-time to something to explore things, but that has its own problems. It’s easier to get certain types of jobs by having a job. And it’s very difficult to be disconnected from the work world. So, most of the time you’re just going to be working two jobs when you’re in transition. You’re doing your day job and looking for the next thing.

I think that it’s helpful if individuals have in mind a general time frame for successfully making a career transition – is there one?
What I have found, and people have confirmed, is that we’re usually talking about at least a three-year period.

What do you see as the greatest challenge in that career change process?
The career change process makes for an interesting conundrum. I define the transition process as moving away from something without yet having left it, while moving towards something without yet knowing what it is, and it is in this definition that you see both the challenge and the opportunity.

The headline from my research is that it is messier and harder than anticipated. It’s hard to know what path you should be on, especially when the destination is unclear. The biggest finding is that at that stage people can articulate very clearly what it is that they no longer want, what it is that doesn’t suit them about what they’re doing, but they have a harder time understanding or identifying what it is that they want to move into instead. And, the destination can often be a moving target for people as they start to explore things. They may figure out that what they were initially exploring is not quite right for them, and, as a result, pivot and adapt as they go along.

How can women from minority ethnic backgrounds better prepare for transitions? What are the key determining factors that define such transitions?
I didn’t do the kind of study that allows me to compare and contrast men vs. women or people from majority vs. minority groups. My original research suffered from a lack of racial diversity. But, we know that people in the minority, whether in terms of gender or race or whatever it might be, struggle more to build networks that connect them to powerful influential people, and face implicit biases that affect how they are viewed when they are postulating for jobs – in general. Those obstacles are only going to be stronger when you are moving into a new area. So I can speculate that the networking aspect may be even more important, or more challenging for people from minority groups.

But let me stress that my focus has been on what people changing careers have in common, not how they differ. The common ground is that it’s a process that starts with simmering dissatisfaction eventually leading to an increase in urgency to explore doing something different. But, dissatisfaction isn’t enough… along with the ‘push’ there needs to be a ‘pull’… ideas, possibilities that might be attractive enough to lead to action steps. Once you start to take action you move into the second, middle stage of the transition process – liminality. In this betwixt and between stage people often bounce back and forth between holding on to the old and letting go. The third and last stage begins as your story starts to crystallise into something that makes sense to you and to your audience. Throughout the process the key levers available to you are the experiments you craft, the network connections you make and shift, and the practice in telling your story and making sense of it during your interactions with other people. And that is true whether you are rich or poor, black or white, young or old, or whatever. 

Broadcaster Claudia Hammond who compered the conference, was struck by the power of your advice to vocalise your story, and surprised by how closely connected it is to a person’s sense of identity. Identity as you postulate is closely tied to what you do and who you do it with and can only be changed by doing something differently with different people… triggered by self-urgency. What do you believe are the future challenges in developing your approach?
I’m interested in how this plays out in later career. As I get older, I tend to look at the experiences of people who are in my age cohort. I think the basic process of transitioning is the same but I am quite interested in how the drivers that influence it evolve over the life cycle, and how going through that process might be different when you are older, especially now that so many people are not looking to retire, but rather to continue a working life that is somewhat different.

I’ve never studied the kind of career shifting that people do in their 20s because they haven’t had a career yet… but the whole idea of how do you focus on and build a career identity early on, would be something interesting to look at as well.  

There’s also a lot to be said on the relationship between career transition and adult development, how people grow and develop as they go through the life cycle. 
One thing I’ve been interested in is how we make what I call ‘under-institutionalised transitions’, meaning transitions that are ‘do-it-yourself’ in the sense that the steps that take you from A to D are not mapped out, and you don’t take them in lockstep with others. Today people go back to school, get married, have kids, take gap years, change careers at all different ages and stages. 

What consultancy do you engage in? How do business people feel about your ideas?
I do a lot of speaking for companies but it’s not on career change, as that’s not typically a topic companies want their employees to learn more about! I’m more likely to be brought in to speak about leadership development and the process of stepping up into bigger leadership roles, along with the identity shifts that that entails, whether it’s stepping up into bigger roles or side stepping into different styles or areas of leadership. That resonates a lot. I also speak quite a bit on the diversity angle, the barriers women and ethnic minorities face as they are moving up in organisations and how to alleviate them.

If you had one key piece of advice for leaders striving to engage their followers/employees throughout this pandemic – especially those with large numbers working from home – what would it be?
I think those big overarching advice statements don’t really say that much. I could say be empathetic, connect to people, be human and all that… I think those things are true… but they are enduring values, not just qualities that happen to be fashionable this year.

Ingrid Covington (CPsychol) is Co-Founder of the Centre for Psychology at Work (centpsychwork.com) and winner of The British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology Practitioner of the Year. She has over two decades of experience building teams and advising leaders and organisations on leadership and culture, wellbeing, gender equality and future of work.

Herminia Ibarra is the Charles Handy Professor of Organizational Behavior at London Business School. Prior to joining LBS, she served on the INSEAD and Harvard Business School faculties. An authority on leadership and career development, Thinkers 50 ranks Ibarra among the top management thinkers in the world. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Expert Network, one of Apolitica’s 100 most influential people in gender policy, a Fellow of the British Academy, and the 2018 recipient of the Academy of Management’s Scholar-Practitioner Award. She is the author of Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader and Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career.  

See herminiaibarra.com and follow on Twitter @herminiaibarra

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