You Can Change Paths Mid-Career


Many of the people I work with are in the middle of their working lives, in careers they no longer find fulfilling or they are working for a company going downhill fast. They are bored. Maybe they are all of the above. Meet David.

Years ago, David took a part-time job as a bank teller while still in college. He majored in business administration. He was a hard worker and after graduation, the bank asked him to remain full-time. He was offered extensive training and had regular job advancements and salary boosts.

David is now 55 years old and a middle manager at the bank where he started. Banking wasn’t David’s dream career back when he was in school. He’ll candidly admit he doesn’t know if he ever even thought about what kind of career he wanted. He simply followed the path of least resistance. Banking still isn’t his dream job, but it’s what defines him now. He doesn’t know any other kind of work.

In 2009, during the Great Recession and economic meltdown, a lot of banks shrunk, failed and merged. That resulted in an overabundance of branches and a redundancy of jobs. Neither boded well for David. Through no fault of his own, David found himself laid off and out of work.

Worse, David was not alone. Twenty of his colleagues, managers at other branches in the community, were let go at the same time. David confronted a tough and shrinking job market for his specific skills with 20 other peers, all pretty much boasting the same talents and experience. And those were just people laid off from his bank. Competing banks had done much the same thing. The ranks of the newly unemployed were flooded with bank branch managers just like David, competing for zero bank openings.

David had a couple of obvious choices. He could go home, curl up in a ball and whine about the gross unfairness of it all. Or he could step back, assess the situation and get back in the game. I knew David from past community involvement projects. I considered him a good friend. Unfortunately, David was one of those people who answered my question, “What do you want to do?” with “I don’t know.”

Because he was a friend, I didn’t suggest he come back later when he had figured out what he wanted to do. Instead, I cleared my next appointment, took a deep breath and we dug in.

We talked about what David liked and what, if he let himself dream, would be his ideal job. What did he see himself doing if he could do anything, which interestingly enough, was exactly his situation. After much discussion his four career paths emerged:

  • Anything in sports
  • Chief financial officer (CFO) of a small- to middle-sized company
  • Leader of a non-profit group
  • Founder of a new business

David had his career yanked out from under him. He hadn’t planned on re-inventing himself at age 55.

When I asked David how he would distinguish himself from the other unemployed bank branch managers, he stared back blankly. He couldn’t answer me. Many of these other branch managers were, in fact, friends of David’s. If he sought work similar to his old job, he would be directly competing against some of his best friends and that would be difficult.

But here is the real issue: Let’s say he did get the job offer to be a bank branch manager again. It would pretty much mirror his old position. “Would you be more than just relieved?” I asked him. “Would you be genuinely excited? Would bells ring, fireworks explode?”

After pondering the question for a moment, David shook his head. No bells, no fireworks. It would be a job, just a job. In that moment, David realized something: He was sick and tired of banking. It bored him. It was the “same old, same old.” And it had been that way for years. David had stayed in the job and career because it was easy. He had taken the promotions and better pay and convinced himself that this was the way it should be.

But if, by chance, a suitable bank branch manager job opened up in David’s community, and if David wanted to stay in banking, the person who got the job would be the person who had clearly risen above the competition, who had set himself or herself apart. Would that person be David?

David didn’t know. He said that with a few tweaks and nuances, many of his peers were just as good at doing the job as he was. That’s not what I wanted to hear. That’s not what an HR person or employer wants to know. I want you to tell me why you are the best person for the job, not tell me you are as good as many other people for the job. If I hear that, I figure there are others out there better suited for the job. Think about what you are doing for a living right now. What distinguishes you from all the other people doing your job? If you can’t tell me what makes you indispensable, then your path may be very similar to David’s. If you are currently working, then start right now thinking about how you are going to set yourself apart and above anyone else competing with you for your job. And then make it happen.

Few jobs constitute one’s life mission, but they should be something you can enjoy and be passionate about. Helping people find that passion is part of what makes my job so fulfilling.

Once David realized he didn’t ever want to go back into banking, his next step was to begin investigating new career paths. This is a take-home assignment, but not necessarily one that requires you to sit down at a desk or computer screen. You can and should explore all your options, anything that pops into your mind during any waking moment. In fact, let your dreams do some exploring for you too. The subconscious is a wonderful thing.

Allow your mind to use free association. Let your subconscious do some of the heavy lifting. This might mean noodling ideas while showering, mowing the lawn, doing the dishes. I like to tackle tough subjects while walking the dog, when I’m free of most distractions.

In my conversation with David, we talked about his ideal job. It turned out to be professional baseball umpiring. We soon both realized such a goal was impractical. David was too old. It takes years of working the minor leagues before one even gets a sniff of “the show.” And, David wasn’t really keen on the travel aspects of the job.

What aspects of umpiring did David find attractive? Could they be found in other jobs?

More digging and dissecting revealed that David was a big Chargers and Padres fan. Almost anything in those organizations seemed attractive. He jettisoned the CFO idea after concluding it might be too much like banking. Non-profit work was interesting, particularly since David’s existing savings and retirement and pension plans meant he didn’t need to find a job with major benefits. He turned out to be lukewarm about starting a business. He was afraid about putting his capital at risk. He couldn’t think of a specific kind of business that aroused his passions. And he liked working with lots of people, not necessarily owning a small business.

One obvious career path seemed to emerge: David should pursue something with a sports team. Since he lived in San Diego, the Chargers or Padres were where he should start. He had contacts with both teams. A few calls, however, persuaded David that this was a dead-end. Neither organization had any current open positions that were attractive to him. He realized that while he loved the teams, both of them were corporations—and all that that implied. Most team employees worked behind the scenes doing jobs not unlike what David did in banking. His boyhood notions of umpiring or becoming a player in the sports business were just that, boyhood notions. Maybe if he had approached working in the sports industry 30 years ago, David might have successfully pursued sports, but not at this stage in his career and his life. We all need to dream, but we need to be pragmatic too.

Still, David kept his career radar turned on full blast. When the president of the San Diego United Way called to get David’s advice on resigning to run for mayor of San Diego, David realized their conversation might be talking about two careers changes.

San Diego’s future mayor did resign as president of the local United Way, ran for mayor and won. David, meanwhile, revamped his résumé, customizing it to highlight why he would make an excellent successor CEO of the local United Way chapter. He noted his extensive financial management experience and public involvement. All of those years as a bank manager had given David a fantastic list of personal and business contacts, an invaluable resource for an enterprise like the United Way. David got the job! He paid me back by convincing me to serve as his first chairman of the board. No good deed goes unpunished.

David followed four basic steps; you can too:

  1. Identify two to four potential career paths.
  2. Identify companies or organizations that hire people with the skills you have in these career paths.
  3. Find out if these companies or organizations have relevant job openings.
  4. Learn who to contact for an informational interview.

For David, the thinking went sort of like this: okay, I wanted to be a baseball umpire, but that’s not going to happen. So now, I’m looking for an opportunity to use my financial and management experience to lead a non-profit group in San Diego. I’ve got deep community contacts. The three organizations that I’m interested in are the United Way, the Urban League and The MAAC Project (an effort to bring self-sufficiency to low- and moderate-income families). The CEO is quitting to run for mayor of San Diego, creating an opportunity at the United Way. I can do this job. Now I need to convince the committee that I can do it.

David did, and he’s now doing a great job in a position he really is passionate about.

I tell all of my clients to write their career paths in pencil. It’s symbolic, of course, intended merely to emphasize that all careers are in constant flux. Almost anything can alter one’s plans, from big, external forces like economic demographics to a single meeting attended or article read in a magazine.

I’ve had countless conversations in which a client, after spending years in a career, has plaintively exclaimed, “What was I thinking?” Their job and career has turned out nothing like they imagined it would be, and they’re at a loss to explain why they’ve kept at it for so long. Plot a course, pursue it, but don’t hesitate to change if a new and better opportunity comes along.

Have you ever changed career paths? Any tips for picking a new direction?