Thursday, April 23, 2009

Taking a Career Left Turn

The dot-com bubble had just burst, and we were planning layoffs. As the afternoon wound to a close, our new CEO turned, looked me directly in the eye and said “Why don’t you take on product management?”

….What?? I was only attending the meeting because I was the head of HR. I had to make sure we weren’t doing anything illegal, and give guidance on options around the layoff process. This wasn’t about me. “Think about it” the CEO said. “We need product management, and you’ve got the domain knowledge. Let me know by Friday.” This was different from past job changes, in that I wasn’t being recruited to the new role. I was being asked to take it. It was a big change, and I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in product management - that wasn’t on my 5 year career plan!

Right now, people across the country are being asked to do something new. Maybe you are looking for a new role because you’ve been laid-off. Or you are picking up new responsibilities since others around you have been let go. Or you are being asked to transfer to a new team with new assignments. It’s a time of uncertainty and causes a lot of stress. My advice is to not over-think this transition. There are 3 main questions you need to ask yourself:
1. Can you do the job for 3-6 months?
2. How well do your skills match the job you are being asked to do?
3. Who will support you in making this move?

Note that I didn’t say anything about your history or your career trajectory. In times of major change, you can’t plan for your 5-10 year career path. What you can do is identify what you can bring to the new role, which would make you successful. You can assess if this job would be a good landing place while you look for the “ideal role”. And you can identify champions within the organization who will help you be successful in the role.

I ended up taking the transfer. My new manager and I set very specific goals focused on my existing skills so I could find successes early in the transition. My old manager agreed that if the new role didn’t work out, she would support me in receiving a decent severance package and recommend me for other HR positions. Most importantly, my dev lead, the UX lead and my HR partner-in-crime all went out of their way to give me time in the first 90 days to ask questions, to vent, and to find a comfort level with the new role.

It’s been more than 7 years since I changed jobs. What I thought was a short term experiment to weather the dot-com bust turned into a career that I hadn’t planned for, but have found to be a great ride. Times of change can be times of great opportunity. Prepare yourself, and be open to taking a leap.

[img source: Bruno Peck]


Amy Wilson said...

Gretchen - I think the "support" question is the most important to remember. Whereas it is relatively easy for us to do a quick skill match/gap in our head, we might forget to line up our champions before taking the big leap. Your success story is a good one!

Mike said...

....and for the record, you did one heck of a great job moving from HR to Product Management.