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6 Steps to Transitioning at Work

Sometimes it’s clear that we need to change something at work, but we don’t know how to go about doing it.

Other times, we get this nagging feeling that something is not quite right at work, but we can’t put our finger on it. Boredom or restlessness starts to seep in. Maybe we don’t have enough responsibility. Maybe we no longer find our work challenging. Or maybe we feel like we’ve stopped learning.

If you’re saying to yourself, “Oh, wow, that sounds like me,” here are some practical steps you can take to successfully make your next transition—and even accelerate it.

1. Get specific about the change

Consider John, who goes into his boss’s office and says, “I’m not as jazzed-up as I used to be in my work. I need a change. What advice do you have on what I could change?” Now consider Mike, who goes into his boss’s office and says, “I’ve been thinking that I need a new challenge. I’d like to reach out to Client X, I’d like to put some thought around our technology governance process and I’d like to create a more robust summary client report.”

Mike, as compared to John, is giving his boss a lot more material to work with. In the case with John, his boss might think he is just complaining. However, Mike is looking for solutions. Mike lists three specific aspects of his work that he wants to change.

2. Figure out your story, then stick to it

Each of us has a transition story. Margaret’s story is that she worked in human resources for more than a decade, learned the ropes, and then transitioned to her own executive coaching and consulting business 17 years ago. Margaret’s clients especially appreciate her advice because she has worked in business, and she is constantly bringing the latest research and best practices to her work.

Senia’s story is that she started from an analytical background, majoring in math and economics at Harvard University and working at Morgan Stanley as well as co-founding three startups, before transitioning to research in psychology and receiving a Ph.D. in organizational behavior. Senia’s clients especially appreciate that she has a math-based and analytical background, but can also speak to how people work and think in organizations.

What is your story? How did you start and how does the transition you want to make now position you even better for the future? In one short paragraph, write about how your past experience combined with the current transition makes you a compelling and valuable asset. Call three friends and tell them your story. Ask them what they think. How clear is your case for making this transition? What could make your story even more compelling for your boss or clients? Ask your listeners for their help in clarifying the relationship of the current transition to the big picture you want to achieve.

3. Determine what's in it for your boss (and the company)

Let’s go back to our first example with Mike and John. Mike hasn’t made his business case for why he should take on these three additional responsibilities. In coaching hundreds of executives, we’ve found three main motivators that spur managers to help their team members take on new or different work. The first is that the manager truly cares about the employee’s development, and the change is a way for the employee to continually learn and be challenged. You may be lucky enough to be working for a manager like that. However, you may not be. In that case, consider the second motivator: The change is not only good for the employee, but it is also a win for the company. And last, the third: The change makes the manager’s life easier. Be sure to frame your business case to appeal to one or more of these motivators.

Now let’s examine how Mike could use Motivator No. 2. Suppose he goes to his boss and says, “I’ve developed a strong relationship with many people at Company X, and I’ve been working closely on the product that they are primarily buying from us. I think it would benefit our company if we knew of their concerns earlier in the process. I would also be glad to reach out to Client X for further business development. Let’s discuss whether this is something that I could transition to.” Might this be more convincing than just saying that he wants to work on the Client X account?

4. Become a dabbler

Professor Herminia Ibarra of INSEAD business school has found that people who attempt a cold-turkey change from one profession to another are often disappointed, don’t get very far and then return to the first profession.

However, she finds that some of the most successful career changers are those who basically dabble. What does that look like? These are people who remain in their profession but who also engage in volunteer activities, educational events or small tasks at work to begin exploring the new profession they are interested in.

How could you dabble as part of your transition? How could you start doing more of the work you want to transition to? Be a dabbler and raise your hand for assignments that are outside the scope of your current position, department or profession.

5. Train your replacement or succesor

Our client Marie had taken some of the steps previously outlined. She had made her change specific in three concrete bullet points, she had shared her story with some close friends and refined it, she had presented a convincing business case to her boss, and she had started to dabble in her new work. However, she hadn’t thought about how to hand off her current workload and was starting to burn out.

One of the biggest obstacles to actually making a smooth transition is identifying your replacement or successor. Make this part of your transition plan. If the tasks that you are transitioning away from are great enough, then identify and train your replacement. This may even require creating a job description of all the things you do if you don’t currently have one.

If you are handing off only a few small tasks, document your process or automate it so that you can focus on your new role. Remember, make the transition easy for your boss, too.

6. Just do it

It’s easier to think about doing the steps we’ve outlined than actually do them. If you are considering making a change, you have likely already spent some time thinking about it. Now it’s time to go for it. Make it concrete. Put your thinking into action.

We have one important caveat: All of us can fall into the perfectionist trap from time to time. “Oh, I won’t have the discussion with my boss until I have made my change concrete, and I need a few weeks to get that right.”

We’re going to be blunt: No, you don’t need a couple of weeks to get that right. Your boss could say “No” tomorrow or your boss could say “No” in a few weeks. If this transition is important to you, then you’re better off hearing the “No” earlier. Why? So that you can take other steps.

Perhaps you’ll begin looking for another job. Perhaps you’ll start doing the transition with a volunteer organization.

It’s time to get going and enjoy the ride.

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