Five Steps to Making a Career Change

A leap into the deep end.

A leap into the deep end.

Over the years, I have witnessed hundreds of executives make job changes, mostly involving a bigger title, more money, or greater responsibilities. Relatively few of these executives quit to move into entirely new careers. When we see a true career shift, we tend to marvel at the executive’s courage. In fact, most executives who make the move are not thinking in terms of courage. They are making a rational decision to get more out of their lives and careers, albeit with more risk. The key is having the self-awareness to know what you want and taking the bold steps to get it.

Daniel, once a successful banker and now an award-wining film composer, is a case study in how to do it right. After meeting Daniel over lunch in Los Angeles, I thought that others might like to hear his practical insights on how to deal with the challenges of making the big change.

When Daniel took his career leap he was 35, married, had an MBA from UCLA and was already a successful investment banker on Wall Street. He knew something was missing and his gut told him to do something that was meaningful and enjoyable. He made the leap. Daniel left the prestige and trappings of investment banking to start a new career in music, his first love.

He explains his life change this way. “It wasn’t as big a step, or as courageous a step, as you might think. I had always loved playing music. I had a bachelor’s degree in composition from UC Berkeley. Obviously I also knew the business world. So I decided to put the two together.”

Here is his advice:

  1. Listen to your passions but be honest with yourself. Daniel made the practical connection between his love for music and his business experience. He took a leap but beneath him there was no dark and mysterious abyss. He was honest about what he knew and what he needed to learn. He calculated the leap.
  2. Prepare a financial cushion. How much is up to you and depends on what you value. Daniel felt motivated to live a more authentic and simpler life, to live his values. Daniel wanted to be freed of trappings and his costs were low. He had enough to live through the transition. Beyond that, he put trust in his capabilities.
  3. Write a business plan. Daniel’s first action after leaving the bank was to write a business plan. “I didn’t know the business like I know it today, but I knew I first needed to write down my goals.” This, he says, creates intent. When the plan gets on paper, it gets done.
  4. Re-tool. The next thing Daniel did was to learn the new business. He enrolled in UCLA to study composing for film. He took as many courses as he could find, including movie-making and screen-writing. According to Daniel, “if I was going to write for movies, I wanted to understand storytelling–how to convey the emotional side of a story through music.”
  5. Build a network. It was also through the courses at UCLA that he began to develop a network. Looking back, Daniel found that building his new network–in the days before LinkedIn–was slow and time-consuming. “I made cold calls and asked for endless introductions. I was shameless in asking for help and made lots of mistakes. I assumed that because I had a pedigree in banking studio executives would see me. These were totally different worlds, different cultures. I needed to adjust.” It was through this active engagement process that Daniel came to understand and adjust his style.
  6. Look up, look often. Daniel sought feedback at every step along the way. He measured his successes against his plan and make course corrections as needed.

After Daniel walked me through these learnings, I asked him what the hard part was. He says he underestimated the work involved and the impact on his identity. “Hard or painful, I don’t know the right word. The secret for me has been to act with intent–to know what I want more of and what I want less of. The hard part for me was to bore down into the fundamental questions of what I want and then to act on it. I had to do a lot of work on myself.”

I also asked him what he meant about identity. “After making the change, I slowly woke up to the fact that I needed to revise my identity. I wasn’t a successful banker any more. When I sat in the chair talking to a potential customer, I wasn’t a success. The other guy didn’t care about my past. He only wanted to know if and how I could help him now.”

Daniel summed it up his journey this way. “Even after I made my career change, I defined my success in terms of others. I wanted to be accepted by my industry, to win awards. Now I define success according to three things that matter most to me: doing good work, making enough money to live, and feeling personally happy and whole. I’m glad I didn’t wait until later in my career to make the change. This business is my life’s work.” Daniel turned his calling into his career.

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