Changing Gear

Transitioning from your main career to a new phase of life is a major psychological challenge. Changing Gear, by Jan Hall and Jon Stokes, helps you prepare for what you may face.

Life throws up a few major discontinuities. Being born, having your first child, a bereavement. Overnight everything changes and nothing is ever the same again. Moving on from your main career is another such moment and can have similar psychological and emotional impacts. The change can be a shock and you can find yourself grieving for the part of your identity that you’ve lost.

One day you’re sought after, with a full diary and a dozen emails an hour. The next, there’s nothing to do and no-one wants to speak to you. Change can be brutal. Some defer the day of reckoning by taking on non-executive careers. These can be rewarding, but aren’t open to everyone. Even successful professionals may find they don’t have quite the right executive experience to land the best non-executive positions. And in any event, it may just be delaying the inevitable. I’ve seen some people pursue NED roles in a desperate attempt to delay the decline of relevance and self-importance and to enable them to still turn left on the plane. At some point the pursuit of status needs to stop and then we’re just left with ourselves.

This is where Changing Gear comes in. Jan Hall, an experienced headhunter and board adviser, has teamed up with Jon Stokes, a clinical psychologist and leadership coach. It’s a good combination. In some ways it’s quite a gloomy book with seemingly more stories of failure than success. It doesn’t sugar the pill about the problems many senior executives face when moving on from their main career. But a falsely rosy picture helps no-one. And if their book persuades more people to spend more time preparing for one of the biggest life transitions then that can only be a good thing.

The book lays out clearly the challenges faced for successful professionals in changing gear. These often have, at their root, the outsize role that many of us allow work to play in our lives: feeding our sense of worth, fulfilling our need for love and approval, giving structure to our lives, providing a social network. People may dream of drinking piña coladas on the beach. But science tells us that we quickly become habituated to these new pleasures and may find that the loss of work has left a bigger hole than we expected.

Paradoxes of career success

The book’s rhythm involves case studies followed by a view from the psychologist’s chair. The rhythm works. It’s an engaging format that draws out many of the challenges faced in moving on. I particularly enjoyed the section on the paradoxes of career success, which I’ve seen time and again on my travels:

  • The paradox of knowledge: the fear of ignorance.
  • The paradox of excellence: the fear of incompetence.
  • The paradox of busy-ness: the fear of stillness.
  • The paradox of indispensability: the fear of irrelevance.
  • The paradox of invulnerability: the fear of weakness.
  • The paradox of perfectionism: the fear of mistakes.
  • The paradox of control: the fear of helplessness.
  • The paradox of power: the fear of powerlessness.
  • The paradox of confidence: the fear of ineffectiveness.
  • The paradox of expectation: imposter syndrome.

The things that made us successful as professionals may act against our best interests as we get to the stage of moving on. I recognise some of these from my own transition: the paradoxes of incompetence, excellence, indispensability and perfectionism all resonated for me. I worked through variations of these with my coach as part of my transition plan over the years prior to leaving PwC.

The eight-step transition process

The book is slightly stronger on identifying problems than solutions. But the authors do offer a transition process that will not come as a surprise to those of you who’ve read Herminia Ibarra’s Working Identity:

  1. Losing your balance.
  2. Taking stock.
  3. Being open to the new.
  4. Time to try out some new things.
  5. Letting go and endings.
  6. Becoming your new self.
  7. Enjoying a new sense of poise and balance.
  8. Reviewing your progress.

Central to both books are the concepts of living with uncertainty, experimenting and trying on things for size, and allowing new identities to develop through action rather than thought. From my personal experience these three dimensions get to the heart of the issue when it comes to transition. We can’t think our way to it, we have to act our way to it. And that need for experimentation, possible failure and iteration mean that we mustn’t underestimate the time required. Accepting our vulnerability and getting used to feeling unstable are essential parts of moving on.

Although the approaches are similar, it’s always useful to get different perspectives on the same issue. And where Hall and Stokes probably have the edge over Ibarra is in the number and depth of the case studies. There’s also a smorgasbord of tools at the end of the book to help you along the way (albeit with limited guidance on how best to use them).

Read this book three years before your planned transition

This book is newly published and so didn’t form part of my transition toolkit. But it would’ve been a helpful addition. Ibarra’s Working Identity remains my favourite book on transition, but this is a powerful complement. Its particular strength is how it opens your eyes to potential problems ahead. Problems that you’re likely to deny. So I’d recommend reading this book at least three years before your planned transition.

There’s a good chance that Changing Gear will persuade you to take serious steps to address the psychological aspects of moving on and to get appropriate support to do so.

If so, it will have paid for itself many thousands of times over.