How to Change Careers

You're ready for a BIG career change. But you're overwhelmed and not sure where to start. Modern Mentor shares her own career pivot story, and a 5-step plan for turning your hopes into action.

Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #655
The Quick And Dirty

Landing a successful career pivot comes down to five simple steps:

  1. Mark a clear destination
  2. Focus on continuity
  3. Mind the gaps
  4. Craft your story
  5. Tap that network

I finished my graduate degree ready to take on the world. And my first job was in Operations Management. Every day - donning steel-toed boots and a hard hat – I managed a team of 50 people in a warehouse using scanners, pick-trucks, and conveyors to get thousands of items from trucks to shelves. It was loud and fun and challenging...until it wasn’t.

Five years in, I had a baby and decided I was ready for a change. I wanted to shift from warehouse management to Corporate Human Resources.  Friends and family wished me luck…but gently told me not to hold my breath. “That’s a real 180, Rach” I remember a cousin saying.

But I did it. I made the pivot and I’ve never looked back. It took some focus and intention on my part. And today I’m going to deconstruct how I made it happen, offering you a roadmap for your own career pivot. 

Step #1: Mark a clear destination

There’s a world of difference between running away from and running toward something. When I decided to leave Operations Management, my quest began with a need to walk away – from the intensity and the demanding schedule of the job. I was, after all, a new mother, and my needs had evolved.

But I wanted my next career to be born out of intention – not desperation. So I took a beat and really reflected on what pieces of the Operations job I loved, and which I was ready to leave behind.  

And for me, it was about the people. My success as an Operations Leader had little to do with my expertise in conveyor technology or logistics, but rather in my ability to recruit, train, and develop the right talent whose expertise in those things would deliver results. And this reflection pointed me in the direction of Human Resources.

Being mindful of what you’re striving for will help you craft a clear path forward. So begin here. You may know what you want to leave behind, but are you clear on where you want to arrive Consider your current role. List out the things – activities, responsibilities, projects, and tasks – that give you energy, and those that don’t. Maybe for you, it’s the writing, the mentoring, and the educating clients you love most. Have you considered a transition into education?

Really invest in this upfront reflection. It will serve you well later on.

List out the things – activities, responsibilities, projects, and tasks – that give you energy, and those that don’t.

Step #2: Focus on continuity 

The on-the-page job descriptions of an Operations Manager and a Human Resources leader are pretty dissimilar at first glance. One focuses on physical safety, logistics, transportation, and managing large teams, while the other focuses on knowledge of human motivation and learning styles, building training programs, and managing performance. 

But if you look closely there are indeed similarities. Both roles require attention to detail, intellectual curiosity, an ability to connect with people, to understand and tap into their motivation and skills.

Your job is to find and highlight those similarities for a hiring leader so they can envision you transitioning from your current job into a new and different one. What are the elements of the job you’ve been doing that will carry through into the job you want?

My friend Jess had been privately teaching yoga for years before she decided she wanted to shift into a marketing role with an agency. Big change!

So we focused on finding those points of continuity. Her yoga practice has required her to connect meaningfully with her clients. Understanding what they were experiencing, how they wanted to feel at the end of a session, and choosing the right poses and rhythms were the keys to her success.

Being a successful marketer requires much of the same. The expertise may be different – and we’ll talk about that next – but finding the skills and experience you leveraged in one job and could bring to the next is key.

Step #3: Mind the gaps

Whether it’s experience, technical knowledge, or a credential or certification, the reality is that some career choices will require something you don’t currently possess. But that’s okay. Your job is to know what the non-negotiables are and establish a plan to start building them. 

For Jess, she needed some hands-on marketing client experience. So while still in her yoga practice, she reached out to her network and offered to do a few small marketing projects for free, in exchange for testimonials. Within six months she felt ready to hit the ground running.

What will you absolutely need in order to qualify for your chosen industry? And what can you do to ready yourself? Do you need to begin a teaching certification? Start a side hustle? Or maybe watch a bunch of instructional videos or start a blog to showcase your writing or knowledge or point of view?

What will you absolutely need in order to qualify for your chosen industry? And what can you do to ready yourself?

Step #4: Craft your story

You are a story to be told – not a set of bullets on a resume. So climb into the drivers’ seat. Don’t let a hiring leader make lazy assumptions about you and your limits.

Tell a compelling story. Have you loved onboarding clients onto a new marketing platform, teaching them how to engage, training them on new features? And do you have a passion for educating young minds? Then that’s the story of why you’re seeking to transition from corporate to education – and what makes you uniquely qualified.

What makes you excellent at your job today? What has it taught you that you’ll carry into your next role? And how will that set you apart from the others applying for the job from within that industry?

My own story was about how I’d been training, coaching, developing learning solutions all along – but in the trenches, alongside my employees. This gave me real-time data on what worked and what didn’t – data most traditional HR practitioners didn’t have access to. My story made my pivot an asset – not a liability.

What’s the thing you’ll carry from your present job into your future one that your employer will view as a benefit?

Reach out to your network rather than sending your resume into the black hole of internet job postings.

Step #5: Tap that network

In order to ensure your story gets told, you’ll want to reach out to your network rather than sending your resume into the black hole of internet job postings. Let people in your circle know you’re looking – what you’re seeking and why. 

Practice telling your story, get feedback, and refine as you go. Be broad in your outreach. Have virtual coffees (or actual ones!) with people who can give you insight into your optimal industry, who can make introductions, who can provide feedback on your resume, or who can just offer support and encouragement.

You never know where that open role will come from. So lean in and don’t be shy. 

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.