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Working Identity

I just finished the book, “Working Identity” by Herminia Ibarra. The author was on the faculty of Harvard Business School for many years and in her research on how young professionals advance or don’t advance in up-or-out firms (e.g., consulting firms), she noticed another population. One that was actively seeking to move to new careers.

In her study of many professionals moving into new careers, she realized that new careers are closely linked to new identities. Hence, the title of the book. What’s even more interesting is that the way people go about successfully changing careers is in small experiments—trying out a possible new self, creating a new network of supporters, and staying in action.

I know this to be true for myself. The full transition from one working identity (engineer) to another (organization development consultant) took years. I started experimenting with team building and team effectiveness several years before I took a formal role as retention leader in R+D. I read journals in the field—Organizational Dynamics and Harvard Business Review. I read books about being a change agent. And I moved into action. My fellow engineers accepted my interest in the people side of things and let me try new things out on them. Ways to communicate better as a large team. Conflict resolution through the discipline of Dialogue. Using metaphor as a way of brainstorming a new process. All of this was “extracurricular” and all of it excited me.

Now looking back, I can see the emergence of a network of supporters—those engineers who were hungry for the human side of work to be addressed in parallel with the technical side, mentors who validated the need for my new work in the work world, and new colleagues in the same field.

I also know the milestones that told me I had changed too much to go back to the old working identity. I had crossed over for good. After one round of layoffs, I was asked to take a temporary three-month assignment in the software testing group to help get a software release delivered—an area in which I had expertise but which I had left more than two years prior. I had already been operating as a full-time internal consultant by that time. I agreed to take the assignment but vowed to myself that I would finish in two months, because the work was so meaningless and draining for me. Those two months taught me that I could never go back to being an engineer. I had become someone else.

Those two months in the lab, locked away with servers and software, disconnected from other human beings, also gave me compassion. Compassion for fellow workers who found themselves loathing a job they used to love and feeling stuck. These are people who have outgrown their current working identities but who are not yet conscious of the need to create a new one. They can only focus on the pain.

I met a friend for lunch recently. We both worked for the same large telecommunications company where the running joke was that if you stayed long enough, you would develop a Bell-shaped head. She left last year and went to a start-up, as head of their marketing and sales. I have never seen her happier. She remarked that when she went back to visit colleagues at our old company, she could see the pain in people’s faces and the resignation that there were no options for anything different. Working identities can be lethal when they are so closely tied to a single company.

What she and I both know now is how much larger the world is than what we could allow ourselves to believe several years ago. My network has dramatically changed since leaving my last corporate job. It’s bigger, more diverse, less insular, more interesting. Instead of transferring into new departments or business units every couple of years, we cross over into new cultures, new companies, new industries, new ways of living every day.

It strikes me that if I’m growing, I’m always in transition from one working identity to another. From engineer to organization development consultant to coach and entrepreneur. This in turn has influenced my view of the world. I see the world as more accessible, full of opportunities with fewer barriers.

Start down the path of reinventing yourself. Today.

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  1. Kathi on February 6, 2006 at 9:39 am

    Great post! I can relate to what you have written. There is a great fountain of
    refreshment and joy in this journey of evolving and redefining ourselves and our
    work to manifest the extraordinary gifts and divine purpose for which we were
    created. Agape!

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