Navigating the 7 stages of career change
I’ve been through three major career changes in my life. I quit medical school after two weeks because I was unhappy. I left my marketing job in the Bay Area to restart my career in the UK. Then, I said farewell to my stable corporate job in London to start my own business.
One thing I learned is that making a career change is an extremely lonely journey. When you’re actually in the midst of it, your colleagues may begin to distance themselves from you. Your family and friends may not “get” what you’re trying to do. During these moments, it’s hard not to feel like the “odd one out.” It’s hard not to feel like something is wrong with you, like you’re the one who just can’t cut it or hang in there long enough to make it to the next rung of the ladder you’re climbing.
Trust me, you’re not the odd one out.
If you’re feeling unhappy at work, you’re not alone. 87% of people are not fully engaged in their jobs.* While everyone on the surface may seem content with their jobs, but when you dig a little deeper, you’ll find the majority of people are yearning for something else.
After going through a few major career pivots myself and coaching hundreds of professionals navigating career change, I started noticing common patterns and stages that people go through during this journey, especially amongst those who have managed to successfully reinvent themselves. After spending the past 2 years talking through these stages in-depth with clients, friends, and colleagues, and looking carefully at these patterns, I noticed 7 clear stages emerged when someone’s navigating a career change.
I started informally sharing these stages with people, and many of them said just knowing where they are in their careers is incredibly comforting and useful. So I decided to turn these stages into a roadmap that captures the common characteristics, emotions, and importance of each stage. I thought the best way to illustrate the 7 Stages of Career Change is to share my own personal story of how I went through this journey myself when I left the corporate world to launch my own business.
Stage 0- Status Quo
In 2006, I began my first stint in Consumer Packaged Goods Marketing at The Clorox Company in the Bay Area. I was an intern at the time, and post-MBA, I eventually went onto become a full-time Associate Marketing Manager. I was reasonably happy. It marked the first time I was working at a large, blue-chip company, and I felt like my career was going really well. I didn’t even mind the fact that I was marketing trash bags and drain opener :). I was learning a ton, enjoying the camaraderie of being surrounded by smart colleagues, earning a good salary, living comfortably in downtown San Francisco, and feeling proud of working for a top company with #1 brands in the marketplace. I was also working on stimulating projects, learning about corporate life, and on track to be one of the first people in my cohort to be promoted.
This stage set my career foundation, and I felt content.
Stage 1- Doubt
I left just before getting promoted. I decided to prioritise my personal life over my professional life to move to the UK in 2010 and be with my girlfriend (now wife). Luckily, my professional trajectory just picked up where I left off. I landed at an exciting company called Gü, a start-up in London, which had quickly rocketed to be the #1 chilled desserts brand in the UK. When I initially landed there, I loved it. I got a chance to work on some fantastic brand campaigns. The marketing was brave. The culture was hip. The events were cool. The small-company feel was refreshing. I loved the culture of working in a casual environment full of young, ambitious people.
At least initially.
The lack of order, long hours, and intensity of it the start-up environment began to wear me out. The pace was nonstop. The marketing discussions became repetitive. Over time, I started to wonder if I truly enjoyed what I did or if I had been more enamoured by the allure of working for a cool brand. I wondered if I was doing “good” for the world. If I was really making the most of my talents.
Something felt off, and I started to feel disenchanted with my work.
Stage 2- Dismay
I eventually switched companies, making a decision to resign before I had another job lined up to force my own hand in making a change after listening to this famous Steve Jobs speech at Stanford on how you shouldn’t waste your limited time in this world living someone else’s life. I decided to shift back to a large, American company, one known for its positive organisational culture, thinking the change of scenery could help reengage me with marketing. I quickly picked up where I left off, working in a parallel marketing role at a wonderful company, General Mills, working on Häagen-Dazs. I loved the people there, and my manager, Cathy, was incredible. But I really struggled to genuinely “care” about selling more ice cream. I found myself feeling uninterested in meetings when we were talking about how to drive profit or create the next game-changing marketing campaign. I got married that year, and I remember working some weekends in the office, wondering why I was spending so much more time at work than at home with my wife. I was unhappy during a year in my life when I should have felt happy as a newlywed.
I realized I was unhappy with not only my job, but also my career in general.
Stage 3- Mitigation
I actually think I went through two rounds of trying to “mitigate” things to offset some of the negativity I was feeling at work. Round 1 was changing companies from Gü to General Mills. Round 2 involved doing things outside of work to feed my true interests. In 2012, my wife actually convinced me to pursue a long-held interest of mine: professional coaching. So I enrolled in an accredited weekend coaching program, eventually getting my full ICF certification. I began spending my evenings & weekends coaching private clients on issues related to career change. With the help of my manager, I led a coaching project for our team. I also got sign-off to become an in-house mentor for a couple marketers on other teams on the UK business. I was basically trying to insert my true passions into any gaps that my day job didn’t already fill.
In spite of how unhappy I was, I was trying to find ways to make this work.
Stage 4- Exhaustion
In 2013, I was quickly promoted to join the Global Häagen-Dazs team, and I went from managing people and marketing campaigns to suddenly ending up near the “bottom” of a complex global organizational hierarchy. I lost my decision-making power, and I spent most of my energy managing and trying to influence the views of “real” decision-makers on the business. It was not fun. And boy, did it drain me. To complicate things, the coaching practice I had started outside of work began to gain some traction. I was gaining more clients, charging more, feeling more confident.
Having more clients meant I was basically rushing home after work, saying a quick hello to my wife, then jumping on to coaching calls with clients. Often skipping meals, working late into the night. Sometimes hopping back on calls with those on our Häagen-Dazs team working in different time zones, including my Director based in Minneapolis. So I had a situation where work was depleting me and I was trying to salvage whatever remaining energy I had at the end of each day to focus on the coaching work I was truly passionate about.
All of this was draining me physically & mentally. I was exhausted.
Stage 5- Departure
Over time, I became a very unpleasant person to be around, mostly because I was overwhelmed juggling too many things in my career. I was not able to give 100% to my work, my personal interests, the people in my life, and my physical health. I remember even being secretly happy when coaching clients cancelled on me because I just didn’t have the energy for those calls.
I eventually hit rock bottom in terms of motivation and mood.
I went for a long walk on my own one day, through a big, empty park in Uxbridge. I remember sitting on a bench by myself in the middle of that big open park, wondering how long I could really continue doing this to myself. How long I could reasonably tolerate doing work I didn’t truly care about at the expense of my true interests?
What tipped the scales was stumbling across a satirical article in The Onion about how you should cram your passions into your evenings & weekends. The article was meant to be funny, but it actually made me incredibly sad because I was doing exactly this.
I eventually decided enough was enough, that something had to give, that I had to let go of one part of my life to make room for the pursuit of something greater. A few weeks later, I put in my resignation.
I decided enough was enough. That the time had come to choose the pursuit of happiness over the tolerance of stability.
Stage 6- Reflection
After I served out my notice period, I did not immediately jump into working on my business. Instead, I decided to go back to visit the United States. To reconnect with some friends in Washington, DC and the Bay Area, and most importantly, get back home to spend time with my mother in Sacramento, California. My father had passed away of the year before, and I wanted to be there with her to help her get re-situated in her life — something I struggled to do while maintaining a full-time job in London. I gave myself a full month back in the US. Then, after I returned to the UK, I went on a trip with my wife to spend some quality time with her. Money was tight, and I was eager to get the business going. But I was also eager to have some time to just stop, relax, and collect my thoughts. Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m rarely idle, that I tend to jam as much as I can into every single day. So giving myself permission to just stop for a while was uncomfortable. But looking back on it, I’m glad I did. It gave me a chance to reconnect with important people in my life. To gather the energy I needed for the next chapter of my career. To create a clear vision, set of goals, and plans for how I wanted to take my life forward . . . at least where to start.
I gave myself permission to recuperate, reground myself, and recalibrate what I wanted for the future.
Stage 7- Relaunch
In October 2013, I began treating the coaching work I had started on the side as my full-time job. After looking carefully at our finances, my wife and I agreed I would give it one solid year of effort to see if I could make this plane fly. And if I wasn’t consistently earning a profit after this year, I would revert to returning to full-time employment, not only for the sake of our finances, but also for the sake of job continuity.
I gave that first-year everything I had. 110% every single day. And I mean every, single, day. I worked harder than I have in my entire life. I desperately wanted this to work.
I tried a lot of different things come approach to a lot of different people, partially to see what clients I could get, and partially to see what I found interesting. I started small, diversifying my efforts amongst working with individual clients, corporate clients, business schools. A mix of coaching, brand consultancy, workshops, and speaking. I also had the privilege of giving a TEDx Talk. Fortunately, I managed to gain more and more traction with each passing day. Deep down, I had no idea what I was doing. But I decided to go for it. And I’m glad I did.
I started down a path that felt broadly right, just figuring things out along the way.
Where I am now
So that’s the story of my journey to relaunch my career. I now work on helping other people relaunch theirs. I’m now just over 2 years into running my business. Work no longer feels like work. It just feels like an extension of who I am. This work fills me with excitement, energy, in fulfilment every single day. I’m happier. I feel more balanced. I have more time to spend with the people I love in my life. I’m also happy to report that after 2 years of self-employment, my annual net income now exceeds the after-tax salary I earned in my last corporate marketing job. More importantly, I look forward to each and every day. I feel like I’m spending my time doing things that make the most of who I am and what I can offer. I hope to continue down this path for many years to come.
The importance of going through each stage
Looking back on things, I don’t know if I could have “skipped” any one of these stages. I don’t know if there’s a shortcut to relaunching your career. Because each stage serves its own unique purpose. Some stages gave me the clarity needed to know I was in the wrong place. Others helps me gain confidence to try something new. Still others helped me gather the courage needed to make a leap. You really need all 3 — clarity, confidence, AND courage — to make a brave leap that takes your career in a new direction.
What about you?
Which stage are you at in your career? Are you feeling content (Status Quo)? Hints of dissatisfaction (Doubt)? Depleted (Exhaustion)? If you’re feeling lost & want to clarify where you are on your journey, you can download my 7 Stages of Career Change Roadmap to get started. The Roadmap gives you the major characteristics and behaviours associated with each stage along with an exercise to help you get the most out of every step along the way. You can also watch this short animated film I created to illustrate each stage.
With enough tenacity, patience, and hard work, you absolutely can relaunch your career. You just have to hang on tight through all the ups and downs, dig deep during the tough moments, and give yourself permission to eventually make the brave leap to let go of one part of your life to make room for the pursuit of something greater.
Joseph Liu is a Career & Personal Branding Strategist and host of the Career Relaunch Podcast based in London with a passion for helping people gain the clarity, confidence, and courage to pursue truly meaningful careers. Having gone through three major career changes himself, he now shares insights from building & relaunching global consumer brands to empower professionals and business owners to build & relaunch their personal brands at josephpliu.com. His unique approach is informed by 10 years of blue-chip marketing experience in the US & UK managing brands including Glad, Liquid-Plumr, Gü Desserts, and Häagen-Dazs combined with 500+ hours of professional career consulting. Check out Joseph’s TEDx Talk on Reshaping the Story of Your Career.
Source: 2013 State of the Global Workplace report, Gallup.