How to Switch Careers... Like You Mean It

Ready for a new path? Four strategic tips for how to prepare to make the jump, including squirreling away some cash and shoring up those all-important networks

By Barbara Fowler


{Barbara Fowler is a partner and CMO with the Southeast Team at Chief Outsiders. Fowler’s specialties lie in sales and marketing synchronization, global business strategies, and family business turnaround techniques. A frequent speaker and writer on topics such as leadership, cultural diversity, and developing an environment of success, she has effectively led culturally diverse organizations and written and implemented training programs for CMOs worldwide.}




For most of us, there comes a time when we need to find a new career path. Whether it's because we no longer find satisfaction in our present one, or the income potential is not there or the change has been imposed on us by a downsizing or re-engineering, the truth is that in today’s world, it is very rare for someone to start and end their career in the same profession.


Unfortunately, for many of us, this happens when we are in our late 40s or 50s, and it is not so easy to start down a new path. It can be very frightening.


I know because it happened to me.


Before joining Chief Outsiders, I was with Prudential for 30 years, switching careers several times. I started as a tax lawyer, went to marketing, training, sales, and management, and then was asked to start field operations in Argentina, Poland, and Asia. I loved it.  However, after those 30 years, it became obvious to me that my opportunities to make a further contribution there were limited. It was depressing, but that was the reality of the situation. I had to leave. The change was tough.


But with every change, you have the opportunity to reinvent yourself. I don’t mean you change everything, but you have the chance to think about what went right, what went wrong, what you could have done differently, and what you want to do better in the future.


For instance, I knew I liked marketing and sales. I enjoy the challenge of developing and implementing a plan to grow revenue. I enjoyed developing team performance and aligning sales and marketing teams. So when I was looking for my next career, joining a company that provided fractional and part-time CMO services to a variety of different companies fit my needs. 


But it’s totally different. When you are a VP and CMO with a big company like Prudential, you have lots of help, lots of benefits, and your title lends you immediate credibility. Starting over with a new company, developing my contacts, handling the administrative side, and finding health insurance was new. It’s a transition! One of my favorite quotes is by Benjamin Disraeli: 


“The secret of success is to be ready when your opportunity comes.” 


So many people I’ve met want guarantees that they will be successful if they do certain things, like get an MBA or take on a new position. There are no guarantees. But every time you take a risk, you gain new perspective and new insights, and you are prepared for more. Failure—and getting up from it—teaches you so much.


So what do I recommend? First and foremost, PIA: Prepare in Advance. Never take for granted that you won’t have a change in your work. Always have a Plan B. Prepare yourself to have choices.  Some of the saddest people I have encountered are people who feel they don’t have choices, they are stuck and cannot or will not leave a career until they are forced.


To have those choices, here are my four best tips:


Save Your Money: From the time you start working, save some money. Get in the habit of saving a certain percentage of your income for a “rainy day.” Maybe you start out with only 1% but then promise yourself that whenever you get  a raise, you spend half of it and save the rest. It might take a couple of years, there will be setbacks, but over time, you will be saving 10-15% of your income. Money does not mean you will be happy, but it does give you choices. Without money, choices are greatly reduced.


Keep Current: Take courses, read, research what is happening in the marketplace. There are some great, free courses now on the Internet. Look at Coursera, the Khan Academy and other MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) classes available. More and more are being offered every day. Here is a link to universities offering these. Here is another great post from LifeHacker. 

Take Risks: In general, women tend to be more risk-averse than men. You see this when you look at things like stock ownership; women are more conservative investors. In our careers, we also limit ourselves by sometimes making what we perceive to be the “safe choice” rather than what could be the right one. This can come back to haunt us.


Develop Networks: Especially networks outside of your current job. Use LinkedIn effectively. If you don’t know how, read up on it. Participate in  groups. One I recommend is Connect. You can ask questions and get advice from some great people. In addition, help others. So many of us don't reach out when we are approached by someone who has lost a job or is in career distress. Whenever you have the opportunity, reach out. When you help other people get what they need, they help you.