When you can’t stand your current job, it’s totally natural for your thoughts to turn to alternative careers that are a million miles away from what you currently do.
Just think about a time when you were stuck in the middle of some never-ending litigation nightmare or pulling all-nighters to close a deal that you couldn’t really care less about.
I’ll bet your thoughts began to stray to ideas of setting up a diving school in Barbados, joining some kind of hipster internet start-up or running yoga retreats somewhere on the windswept Cornish coast.
We’ve all done it.
I even put it into practice at one point, when I left my in-house role to try to start a garden design business.
And whilst it is possible to pull off the big career change move successfully, unless you’ve really thought it through and absolutely satisfied yourself that, for example, pig farming in the Cumbrian mountains is going to meet all the diverse needs and desires you have for a career, it can be a big mistake.
I know, I’ve been there.
Therefore, before you set out on the path of engineering a major change of career, it is always worth considering whether some lesser version might be possible for you.
In other words, why not first consider what a minimum viable career change looks like.
A minimum viable change of career
In the world of software development, a minimum viable product is a product with just enough features to work successfully. It is launched to market so that its developers can gather customer feedback and then improve the product in the light of that feedback.
Thus, it is part of an iterative process that drives development of the product in line with validated evidence (rather than theoretical beliefs) about what works, what doesn’t work and which new features are needed.
Imagine if you could do the same thing with your career.
Imagine that instead of trying to take the giant leap from litigator to landscape architect, you could change some of the features of what you currently do to see whether your can get most, or at least more, of your needs met without all the upheaval, stress and potential loss of income involved in a total career change.
As I say, imagine it. Because it may well be something that is genuinely open to you.
The fact is that in most career situations (not all, I accept), there is likely to be a range of potential changes that you can make – some minor, some major – that will let you to test whether you can improve your current position enough to make it more satisfying for you, without taking the radical step jumping ship completely.
Changing the way you relate to your job
Yale School of Management Professor, Amy Wrzesniewski, coined the phrase “job crafting” for the idea that you can try to sculpt your current job to incorporate your particular strengths, passions and motives. If you do this then you can gain a greater sense of control over your work, which is a critical element for overall job-satisfaction and engagement.
Job crafting involves reviewing and changing one or more of three critical elements of your job – tasks, relationships and perceptions. Let’s look at these in turn.
You start by taking an inventory of what you do on a daily or weekly basis and working out what you like doing and what you don’t like doing. Then you can simply assess whether there are some adjustments that you can make to give you more of the former and less of the latter.
Of course, this is likely to be a gradual process and you’ll need the co-operation of your boss to some extent, but it is possible to bring about a shift in the emphasis in the work you do by putting your hand up for more of the kinds of work you like. There may be some overload at first but, in time, it may be possible for you to fill your capacity with preferred tasks, so that you are unavailable for those things you like less.
The reason this can work is that your motivation and productivity will increase substantially when you’re working on the things you like doing and your perceived value to the organisation will rise commensurately.
What’s more by taking control of your workload, rather than being the passive recipient of whatever is handed to you, your sense of autonomy increases.
There is no doubt that poor working relationships with bosses or colleagues can suck the life out of you. The problem is that the negativity that results can close off your thinking and shut down your willingness to interact positively with others.
Notwithstanding this, it is in your hands to change things. Seek out peers who think like you and share some of your frustrations, not so that you can have a whingeing fest, but so that you can provide some mutual support for each other.
Also, why not seek out a mentor in some other part of your firm or organisation? Senior people are obviously busy but if you can find somebody with whom you have some common ground (e.g. gender, interests or career path), you may find that they are willing to connect with you. If you are more senior yourself, put yourself out there to mentor others.
In my own career I’ve found that I’ve gained huge amounts of satisfaction (and distraction from the downsides of the job) by coaching and mentoring more junior colleagues, as well as huge benefits from being mentored by others.
This is potentially huge, but also pretty hard to do.
You can change the way you feel about your job by changing your perception of it, or at least your perception of certain parts of it.
Thus, for example, you might be able to overcome the deadening effects of spending weeks drafting and reviewing construction contracts for a new hospital by focusing on the importance of that hospital to the community or the innovative facilities that it will contain within it. Maybe you can innovate yourself and come up with a new precedent for hospital agreements, one which is more adaptable and user friendly.
Change can also come about by working on the way that you habitually think about the circumstances you face at work. Research shows that when we are under pressure or unhappy at work our focus narrows and we fail to thrive. By building more positivity into our lives we broaden our perspectives and are more resourceful in meeting the daily challenges we face.
We can do this by focusing on the positives in our work, for example by:
- looking at challenges as opportunities to grow and learn,
- by giving ourselves credit for the good work we have already done, rather than focusing on what is left to do,
- and by acknowledging and building on changes we make to the balance of tasks we are doing and the relationships we are developing.
I’m not suggesting any of this is easy and you might need some help to bring about these changes. But it is doable and the research shows that it works.
Consider a study that Amy Wrzesniewski did into the work of a group of hospital cleaners. On the face of it, you might think that if there was any job that was going to be hard to craft for the better, it might theirs. And, indeed, Wrzesniewski found that there was a group of cleaners who disliked their jobs, were disengaged and generally unhappy at work. These people considered their work to be low-skilled and unpleasant, interacted with as few others as possible in the course of the day and did not step outside the formal task boundaries of their role.
In contrast, she found that there was a group of cleaners – the job crafters – who enjoyed their work and found considerable purpose and meaning in it. What differentiated the job crafters from the rest was that:
- they redefined the boundaries of the work to include other tasks (such as talking to patients who had no visitors),
- they changed their perception of the importance of their role (for example by considering themselves as part of the overall patient-care team) and
- they had frequent interactions with others.
In short, by adjusting tasks they did, the relationships they built and their own perceptions of their work, the job crafters created a work experience for themselves that was very different to that of the their unhappy colleagues.
Changing the substance of your job
So, as we’ve seen, job crafting is a way to change your relationship to your job by shaping your role to be a better fit for you.
But it is also possible to take the minimum viable career change route by taking on a new role within your current organisation or department. For lawyers, there are quite real possibilities to do this, for example by moving from fee earning into training, development or knowledge management or perhaps into business development or practice management.
Getting the right fit
For this to work, however, there are a couple of critical points to you need to pay attention to.
First, you need to be comfortable that your organisation or firm is broadly a good fit for you, even if your current role within the organisation is not. This is a question of values. Does the organisation promote and, crucially, practice values that are congruent with your own?
If it doesn’t, then a different role in the same firm is unlikely to free you from your career dissatisfaction. It may be a useful stepping stone away from current work that you cannot stand. But it is unlikely to be the ultimate solution for you.
Second, the new role needs to fit with your strengths, talents and interests. It will do you no good moving to a business development role, for example, if you are not interested in promoting the firm to potential clients and you are not the kind of person who is comfortable pressing flesh and building business relationships.
Assuming there is a good fit between you and the organisation and you and the new role, this approach to minimum viable career change is effective because you can leverage the reputation, relationships and good-will you have already built in your firm to help persuade decision makers to give you a chance in a different role and to help you quickly gain traction in that role.
This contrasts greatly with the position you find yourself in when you are starting afresh elsewhere.
A career regret
In fact, one of the great career regrets that I have is my failure to do this before jumping off into my brief and ill-fated garden design career.
At that stage, I knew that people development work was a real strength of mine and something I was especially interested in. But my role at that time was mostly concerned with operational activities – leading regulatory investigations and litigation.
Had I carried out a proper inventory of my values, strengths, talents and interests, I might well have realised that my long term career satisfaction would depend upon me being able to work in a more people-focused role. And, because I already had a good track record in the organisation for mentoring, training and people management, I suspect that I could have persuaded the powers that be to let me transition into a coaching or training role.
This remains a big regret for me because it was an organisation with decent values and good people, which was overall a good fit for me.
There are all sorts of ways to bring about a change of career but there is little doubt that the more radical the change, the more challenging, stressful and uncertain the change can be.
It is therefore worth exploring the minimum viable career change option, both as a potential end in itself and as a stepping stone towards something more significantly different from your current role.
In any case, Whether it’s this kind of limited change that you need or if quitting the law entirely is a real possibility for you, I’ve got something for you that you’ll definitely find useful.
I’ve put together a free download – the 7 Step Career Change Roadmap for Lawyers – that can help you:
- Bring some order to your thinking and give you a framework that will help you work out what really matters for you.
- Identify where your true strengths and talents lie, so that you can focus your career aspirations on areas in which you can really thrive.
- Address the complexity of the decisions you need to make and bring some prioritisation to your decision-making.
- Understand the lifecycle of change, so that you can manage the hopes, fears, ups and downs that you are bound to encounter.
Just click on the button or image below to access this special career change resource for lawyers now.
Alternatively, if you’d like to discuss how I can help you work through your career change issues and concerns, either contact me through the form on this page, or book a free introductory coaching session, during which we can discuss your situation and work out whether one to one coaching might help you. Just click on the button below to book your session.