May 1, 2011

The Unlikely MBA

Many business school graduates pursue careers in financial services or consulting. For some, these careers offer a very satisfying career path. But for those who find their interest waning, the transition can be a challenge.

Claire Steichen '93

While an absolute majority of Columbia Business School alumni work in consulting and finance (65%), more than a third work in other fields. As a coach, cosmetics industry veteran, and multiple career shifter, I have been in the “other” category my entire career and have coached numerous professionals into careers outside of financial services and management consulting.

At various times in my career I found myself deeply appreciating what I had learned at Columbia (during my brand management days) and then wondering how I’d ended up at B-School in the first place (standing with eight fragrance modifications on my outstretched arms while my client and colleagues smelled me). Many business school graduates, either because of heavy student loan burdens, or for reasons of prestige and achievement, pursue careers in Financial Services or Consulting. For some, these careers offer a very satisfying career path. For others who find their interest waning, the transition can be a challenge. How do you make a change when a) You haven’t had the time to cultivate side interests, or don’t even know what they are and b) You don’t see how you will pay the bills in a post-Finance career? Here are a few of my thoughts:

Take the Long View

Good transitions take thought and time. In my experience, it takes two years to learn a new job in a new discipline. We’ve all heard the stories of the investment banker who quits and starts his own vineyard. Yet ask him about the road to success and you will hear about some real white-knuckle moments. The “98% perspiration” needs time. I experienced this first hand as I developed my own coaching practice. My timeline quickly went from one year to two years, and I had to ask myself if I really wanted it.

If you are looking to start a business, stay in your current job, or shift to part-time or consulting until you have traction in the new area. If you are looking for a new job, extend your timeline. You may need to look longer to find a company willing to take a chance on you. Or you may need to volunteer or intern to prove you are serious. Either way, don’t set yourself up for failure by taking the lottery approach.

Put Your Hypotheses to the Test – In Increments

There is a term at the coaching program I followed*, “Forward the action, deepen the learning.” If you really want to figure out what’s next, try some things out. I don’t mean taking a course, though that can be a part of it. I mean actually do it. So many people dream of opening a B&B, painting, or becoming a life coach. Yet they do nothing to explore the possibility. They think that once they quit their job, their full-time focus will make it happen. Or, some say they have no idea what they want to do instead of their current job. Again, they don’t take time to expore their interests and impulses. Do you dream of becoming a chef? Cater an event or two for a charity you are involved with. See what you learn. Do you dream of being a ski instructor? Do it part-time for a season. Do you want to become an architect? Try designing your own renovation. Or, just volunteer for an industry group or do a part-time internship to see whether you like the job, or even the industry.

Keep the Faith

It’s amazing. We are high-achieving people. And yet it is so easy to get into the thinking that if we leave our job, we will be a nobody. What I have actually seen, again and again with my clients and with my own transition to coaching, is that our sense of performance and delivery actually transfers from expertise to expertise. With time, you will rise to the same level you enjoyed in your previous job. And if you love your new job more, you will likely rise higher.

Get Support

The same week that I took my first coaching course, I hired a coach. A lot of us underestimate our need for support, or think that we are weak for needing it. This is simply not true. One of the first things my coach told me was, “Get a group of friends who believe in you as a coach and small business owner. They will be your sounding board.“ A lot of people will test you and cause you to have doubts when you transition. Make sure you have a few close, reliable people to bounce ideas off of as you are exploring and making your decisions.

Understand Transferrable Skills

I am always surprised to hear people say, “But I can’t do that job; I don’t know Powerpoint (or Photoshop or how to write a business plan). When you want to transition, you need to look for more general skills that can be used across disciplines. And, you need to understand what the important skills are in the job(s) you are going for. I never realized how critical my 18 years in sales and marketing would be to getting my own coaching practice up and running.

Are you an effective writer? Do you connect easily with people? Are you good at execution? Are you a detail-oriented finisher? Do you work better on a project basis, or on maintenance? Are you incredibly patient? Do you embrace the challenge of politics in a large organization? Are you unflappable and would do well in a start-up situation? All of these are the kinds of skills that are invaluable across job functions, companies and industries. To better understand your transferrable skills, try looking at Strengthsfinder 2.0 or at Please Understand Me II, which interprets the Myers-Briggs profiles.

Be Strategic

While I was at Columbia a professor said, “Surround yourself with good people and your career will make itself.” I would add one dimension to that. ‘Good people’ doesn’t just mean people who have been successful in their work. It means people who believe in you. If you are joining a company where others have more experience than you do, make sure that you have advocates with decision making power. Coming with experience or knowledge that the company is looking for is even better. In the first year or two, you need some wiggle room to learn and make the occasional mistake. Feeling protected will keep stress levels down. For a great description of support systems in an organization, see Carla Harris’s, “Expect to Win.”

As professionals who have invested so much time and effort into our training and education, I believe that we should be allowed to pursue careers that we love. My own experience has been one of peeling away of the layers of the onion until I found what suited me best. We don’t have to know what we want to do at age 22 or even 27, but if we want sustainable career satisfaction, we may need to make the occasional adjustment.

Good luck!

*The Coach Training Institute, San Rafael, CA.

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