Reinventing Careers


July 1, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

Pamela Mitchell is an expert in the world of career change. She’s founder and CEO of the Reinvention Institute, an organization that provides coaching, products, and a community that helps successful professionals transform their careers. Her firm also consults with innovative businesses who want to create “reinvention retention” programs that keep high-performing talent within the organization. I recently spoke with Pamela regarding this new take on how to manage career change; edited excerpts from our conversation follow.

You say that in today’s marketplace, the old concepts of career change don’t work. Why is that?

Over the past several decades, the pace of business cycles has sped up considerably. Cradle-to-grave employment is a thing of the past. Within the space of a decade, what’s been considered to be a good field for jobs can disappear. Take a look at the phenomenon of outsourcing, which has decimated U.S.-based opportunities for many industries, like software programming. Or consider the media field. With traditional revenue models struggling and new technologies competing for audience attention, newspapers are trying to find new niches to replace lost profits.

How do you cope with these factors? Career change has tended to focus on typical job transitions – strategies for climbing to the next level of seniority within your organization or moving to a similar position within the same industry. But what do you do when your company is reducing headcount and opportunities in your field are disappearing?

Great point. How is career reinvention different from career change? In this day and age, the ability to reinvent yourself – to recombine your skills, talents, and experience to move between job functions, departments, or industries – is the new form of job security. More than just repackaging your background, career reinvention involves changing your assumptions about how your career will evolve. It means being prepared to take advantage of new opportunities by developing your skill sets with a strategic eye toward emerging business models.

That sounds great for someone who is new to his career, but what about if you’ve been working for 10 or more years in the same field? Is still possible to reinvent your career when all your experience has been in the same industry?

This is one of the most common questions we get! Yes, it is possible; in fact, we have a number of clients who have made successful switches after long careers in a particular industry.

That said, it is crucial that people understand that career reinvention is not an easy process. I like to draw the analogy that switching between job functions or industries is similar to moving to a foreign country. To be successful in your new land you’d have to learn the local language and familiarize yourself with its customs and cultural expectations. The same is true when you want to move to new career territory. To bridge the divide between your old and new careers, you need to learn the language and customs of your new field…and decide what to bring along from your former job.

If someone with 10 or 20 years of experience is leaving a field, that’s a huge loss of talent for their organization. How does the trend toward career reinvention affect companies?

Over the next 5 to 10 years, as boomers retire and the available pool of workers shrinks, companies will be forced to rethink their strategies for retaining talented workers. But this requires that they break out of the old mindset of slotting employees into function-based boxes. They need to ask themselves: Do our people feel they can transform themselves beyond their current role, or do they need to leave us to grow?

For corporations, reinvention is the road to retention. Leaders need to become the architects of employee reinvention within their companies. One of our recommendations is that companies develop their workforce by facilitating ways for their talent to move within the firm. Along with reducing layoff costs, this strategy can minimize the expenses associated with pursuing new business opportunities. Some forward-thinking organizations are already creating these types of reinvention programs.

What are some of the stumbling blocks people face when they’re trying to reinvent their careers?

People tend to fantasize about new careers and are often unprepared for the amount of work that’s involved in actually making the switch. They also have a hard time shifting out of their old work identity, which means that they often try to pitch themselves in a new field using their old language. This results in a translation failure, where hiring managers don’t understand how the candidate’s background applies to the job they’re seeking.

Identity can also be a big obstacle when people are trying to reinvent themselves within their firm. Because they’ve been defined by a particular job function, they cannot get a shot at a new role. A number of clients come to us after hitting this barrier.

What advice do you have for people looking to reinvent their career?

Understand that whether it’s within your current firm or a totally new field, successfully reinventing yourself requires you to establish your legitimacy as a candidate. Hiring managers, both internal and external, have goals they need to meet. Your mission is to prove – in tangible ways – that you can be a valuable asset to them in reaching those objectives.

Minimize translation failure by learning how to repackage your background so that it highlights those skills that will be directly useful in helping you succeed in your new role. Ask yourself: “How can I benefit from what I’ve done in the past?” Analyze your talents and identify the work successes that demonstrate them. Match those previous accomplishments to future career deliverables – this will help you see what achievements in your background are of value to hiring managers in your new field.

Thank you. What if our readers want to learn more?

They can check out our Web site at

Readers: Would you like to “reinvent” your career? If so, what is holding you back? What is helping you get started? Any comments are appreciated.