How and When to Shift Careers

Do it early, do it thoughtfully, and avoid the pitfalls of being “crazy reactive.”

February 22, 2019

Illustrated figures shown on criss-crossing paths. Credit: Jing Jing Tsong

These days, most MBA students come to business school with a career shift in mind. | Illustration by Jing Jing Tsong

George Hodgin, MBA ’17, has had a more exotic career path than most. Before enrolling at Stanford, he was a Navy SEAL officer, leading a team of 24 counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operators in Asia and the Middle East.

While Hodgin loved the challenges of being a SEAL, he eventually realized that it was time for a new line of work. “I decided to go to business school,” he recalls. “I didn’t have an industry in mind, but I wanted to use the next few years to experiment and see what I liked.”

As a result of that process, he’s found a new calling that, like his old one, has an element of risk and adventure. He’s CEO of Biopharmaceutical Research Company, a two-year-old start-up that’s seeking to produce high-quality, standardized marijuana for use in scientific and medical research.

“There’s a real opportunity, in a federally compliant fashion, to advance scientific research on cannabis while doing a lot of good for the country,” Hodgin explains. “As I started to explore the idea, it invigorated me, like how I felt when I was a SEAL. And I realized that we could potentially help a ton of people. That makes it easy to go to work in the mornings.”

Going from covert ops to cannabis cultivation might seem like a startling shift, but in the fast-changing economy in which Stanford GSB graduates must navigate, it’s no longer uncommon to radically reinvent a career. In previous generations, workers often stayed in a particular industry throughout their careers, ideally with the same high-prestige employer, gradually rising through the ranks as they built upon their accomplishments. But such stability seems almost as outdated as rotary telephones and adding machines in today’s age of technological disruptions and rapid economic shifts, in which entire industries can suddenly become obsolete.

Stanford GSB experts say this new reality is creating a more dynamic career arc, in which graduates don’t just change employers, but also often reinvent themselves. But instead of being spontaneous or improvisational, these career pivots tend to be carried out through an orderly, structured process designed to identify transformational opportunities and leverage existing skills.

Career Pivots Are Becoming the Norm

Like Hodgin, many students come to Stanford GSB with a career shift in mind. A survey of the 2018 graduates found that after graduation, 65% changed their work function, while 56% shifted to a different industry.

“The prevalence of career pivots has significantly increased over the past several decades, and we expect that pattern to continue,” explains Carly Janson, acting assistant dean and director of the school’s Career Management Center.

That’s in keeping with a national trend. “The average employee tenure is four to five years, and most people change roles several times within that,” explains Allison D. Kluger, a lecturer in management at Stanford GSB who teaches a class in personal branding and recently created a new course called Strategic Pivoting for Your Next Chapter. “There’s a reason for this — technology, automation, and the proliferation of start-ups all challenge the concept of job security and stability. But it also offers a plethora of opportunity.”

Kluger herself has plenty of experience with career pivots. She switched to academia after a 25-year career in broadcast media and entertainment, during which she was one of the original coordinating producers of ABC’s The View, served as a host and executive producer for the Global Shopping Network, and cofounded an e-commerce website.

You don’t want to drop everything that you’re doing and just rush headfirst into a major change. That’s not a strategic pivot, that’s crazy reactive — you don’t have a financial runway, and you don’t have a plan.
Allison D. Kluger

“The shift is that a lot of people want to have a sense of purpose,” says Kluger. “Money is certainly a factor, but people also want to have a job that fits their life’s values and provides a sense of work-life balance. And they want to feel as if they’re adding value to the world in some way.” She also cites the emotional benefits of making a career shift: “freedom, adventure, flexibility, and opportunity.”

While workers can make career pivots throughout life, Kluger notes, the revelation that it’s time for a change often comes while they’re still young. “With your first job, you’re really dipping your toe into the pond,” she says. “You’re just glad to have a paycheck. But after a while, you realize that you need something more.” It’s not an uncommon epiphany; an August 2018 Gallup poll found that only 34% of U.S. workers feel enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.

Rather than waiting for dissatisfaction to take a psychological toll, Kluger recommends being careful to look for its early signs. “Do a frank self-inventory,” she says. “What are you getting out of each day? Is it like the movie Groundhog Day, or are you excited by new challenges, by new ways to add value?”

But seeing that it’s time to make a change is just the start. “You don’t want to drop everything that you’re doing and just rush headfirst into a major change,” Kluger said. “That’s not a strategic pivot, that’s crazy reactive — you don’t have a financial runway, and you don’t have a plan.”

One key element of the process is analyzing one’s skill set and thinking about other roles — or other industries — in which it could be applied, Kluger explains.

“The same skills that made me successful in TV enabled me to sell myself in education,” Kluger says. “Messaging, coaching. I knew how to create innovative and compelling content, and I was comfortable in front of people, presenting information. It was a giant pivot in my life, but it was also a natural fit.”

At the Career Management Center, Janson urges both Stanford GSB students and alumni to embrace the reality that they’re likely to have multiple, divergent careers. “I do this exercise with them, where they map out three different career plans for the next five years, because you never know what’s going to happen,” she explains. “You need to learn how to become a career designer.”

The center uses a process that includes career- and life-design workshops, along with smaller peer-coaching groups in which students work together to generate ideas and provide feedback to identify potential new opportunities.

How to Spot the Next Big Thing

When former Navy SEAL Hodgin decided to leave the military, he saw Stanford GSB as a laboratory for experimenting with new fields. “I realized that my experience was heavy on leadership and management experience, but light on business professionalization or industry background,” he recalls. “It’s the opposite problem that most people my age have, where they enter an industry to get expertise and then vertically try to move into management.”

While at Stanford GSB, he sought to expose himself to a diverse range of industries — from taking a class on the Hollywood movie industry to working in product management for a software firm in Thailand through the school’s Global Management Immersion Experience program. With a classmate, he also cofounded a performance management software start-up, which they later sold to another entrepreneur.

But Hodgin eventually found the right opportunity after he reconnected with a fellow special operations veteran who was considering using medical cannabis to help him cope with war-related injuries. “My friend said to his doctor that he wanted to use cannabis because he was sick of opioids and asked whether it was safe, what variety he should use, and a lot of things that you would ask about any other medication. And the doctor told him, ‘We don’t know the answers to these questions.’”

Intrigued, Hodgin — who notes he’d never been a cannabis consumer himself — started talking to scientists. He learned that for decades they’ve had to rely upon cannabis grown at a single federally funded facility. The chemical profile of the plants doesn’t match what is available to consumers from cannabis dispensaries, he says.

“If you want real science, you have to study what people actually are consuming,” says Hodgin. “It’s as if people are out there drinking double IPAs, but the government is providing non-alcoholic beer [for researchers].”

Hodgin discovered a posting on the Stanford GSB job board from high-net-worth investors who wanted a basic briefing on the cannabis industry. “I pitched them on my business, and they funded it,” he says.

Biopharmaceutical Research Company’s game plan is to obtain a federal permit to grow pharmaceutical-grade cannabis at a state-of-the-art indoor hydroponic farm in Northern California, for use by government-licensed researchers.

Navigating through the regulatory process won’t be easy, but “If you’re willing to do the work and take the risk, there’s a significant opportunity,” Hodgin says. “I think this is a carryover from my time as a SEAL. The really big problems that are worth solving are hard and complex and take time.”

Repurposing a Skill Set

It’s also possible to transition from the business world into a role at a purpose-driven organization, a route that’s attractive to those with a sense of personal mission. After interacting with several generations of Stanford GSB alumni, Bernadette Clavier, director of Stanford GSB’s Center for Social Innovation, thinks it’s crucial for business school students to make such a change within five years of graduation so they can acquire the skills needed to be effective in the social sector and to understand the nuances of its culture.

“Many people believe that because they have skills in the for-profit world, they’re immediately transferrable, but that’s not necessarily the case,” she explains. “Efficient markets provide an immediate feedback that doesn’t exist in a world of donations and aid. In the absence of that feedback, a ruthless focus on the needs of the beneficiary is indispensable and requires a different attitude and toolkit.

“If you wait too long, you might miss your chance to join an organization focused on social innovation. Your next best option will then be to join a board and fundraise for a nonprofit, or to become a philanthropist. You box yourself into having to find a different way to contribute.”

Marcela Ochoa, MBA ’15, already has made multiple pivots. After getting a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering at Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico, she initially worked for a consulting firm. “Everyone around me was really smart, and I learned a lot and developed skills,” she explains. “You’re looking at numbers and figuring out what story they are telling. That’s what you sell to the client.”

But Ochoa eventually came to the realization that she wanted to do more than just climb the corporate ladder and earn a lucrative salary. She was attracted to the idea of working on environmental issues, which led to an internship with the Nature Conservancy. “It was the perfect balance between sitting in front of a computer working on Excel models and going out into the field, talking to farmers about how their practices could create bird habitats,” she says.

As a result of that experience, Ochoa chose to pursue a joint degree at Stanford, where she also received a master’s degree from the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. After graduation, she returned to the Nature Conservancy, where she managed a project that involved identifying sites for low-impact renewable energy development. “We need to build a lot of solar and wind farms, but where you put them matters,” she explains. “At the end of the day, it is building infrastructure, and it’s going to have an impact on land use and the health of communities and the animal species that live in these places.”

After two-and-a-half years there, Ochoa decided that she liked the faster pace of the for-profit sector and chose to shift once again. “I wanted to go back to the business world, but somewhere where I’d be inspired by the mission and the result of my work would have a positive effect,” she says.

In late 2018, she took a position as a strategy and business operations manager for Funding Circle, a lending platform that facilitates loans to small businesses in the U.S. and Europe. “I’m bringing back a lot of the expertise that I gained from consulting, plus the project management that I learned at the Nature Conservancy,” she says.

Such multiple career pivots are likely to become more and more common among Stanford GSB graduates, which doesn’t surprise Kluger. The trend “is appealing to young people and millennials,” she says. “They feel as if the career boundaries aren’t as constricting as they used to be.”

— Patrick J. Kiger

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