Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

We need to talk about (career) reinvention

Read time:

Sonia Kang

Several months into the COVID-19 pandemic, something peculiar went missing from supermarkets across North America. You might be flashing back to the great toilet paper shortage of 2020, but I’m not talking about that.

All of a sudden, millions of people were baking bread. And they were buying every last bag of flour, which meant that next, it was flour that was impossible to find.

If social media was any indication, these people weren’t just making any old bread. They were baking a complex bread called sourdough. So complex that you need something else that’s hard to find: sourdough starter. It’s like a science experiment, treasure hunt and baking class all rolled into one.

What does any of this have to do with work? My point is this: Stuck at home during the pandemic, many people got curious and tried new things that they never would have tried before. And some of them came out of it with new skills and interests. Now that a lot of us are heading back to the workplace, the question is this: What will be your "sourdough bread" at work? What new things do you want to try?

We need to talk about reinvention. I don’t mean doing a total 180; there can be real opportunity in staying put but shaking things up a bit. Maybe that means learning new skills for the same role, or pursuing a position in a different department. For some people, it could mean seeking a promotion or a chance to become a team leader. Whatever it is, this is a great time for a reset.

I recently spoke to best-selling author Dorie Clark, who teaches at Duke University. “It is absolutely possible to reinvent yourself within your job and not necessarily leave it,” she told me. “We should all make reinvention a habit. It’s a little freaky to jump off the proverbial cliff and try something completely new. You can often make for a much gentler landing by experimenting around the edges and sharpening your skills in order to ascertain — in a low risk way — whether this is the path you want to be exploring.”

One way to explore, she says, is by networking. But this form of networking is more like a critical hunt for information. Say you’re interested in data analytics, and you have a team devoted to it at your company. Go to someone on that team and ask, What is an average day like? What do you enjoy about the work? What’s the culture like in your department? By having these conversations, you will get a better sense of whether you would actually like that work. “Once you get a sense that, ‘Okay this sounds really good, this is what I want’, then networking as much as you can within that department is helpful,” says Clark. “Ask what skills or training you would need to join them. You want to have a lot of internal allies speaking to the boss and whispering in her ear, ‘Hey, for this new position, don’t hire outside, we’ve got this someone right here, and they’re awesome!’”

This is a typical first step in a workplace reinvention; but there are a couple of other essential ingredients. For those, I’m going to turn to the Greek parable about two animals that live in the forest. One is a fox. He’s slick and cunning, as foxes are, but also scattered and inconsistent, running in multiple directions, trying to do a million things at once: chase down a rabbit, redecorate his little den and other fox stuff.

The other animal is a hedgehog, and the hedgehog is very different. Unlike the fox, she tries to keep things simple, and lets one big idea or goal guide everything she does. She’s all about focus. When it comes to reinvention, some people are more foxy, moving in many different directions and pursuing multiple goals; and others are more ‘hedgehoggy,’ guided by a single, uniting vision. My friend Jim Reid, the chief HR officer at Rogers, often refers this fable in his work. I asked him how it translates to the workplace.

The hedgehog’s mindset comes from being at the intersection of three circles, he told me: “Circle number one is making sure that every day, you play to your genetically encoded strengths. These are the things that differentiate you — your deep strengths.” Circle two is passion. “Think about when you get up in the morning. What kind of work do you love to do every single day?” And circle three is about making a living. “This circle is more important when you change careers or when you are starting a career.”

So, as people return to the office or continue to work remotely, how can they use the three circles to reinvent themselves and reach their career goals? “The beauty of this framework is that it’s so simple,” says Reid. “Once you’ve done the work yourself, validate it with people you trust. Do they agree with your genetically encoded strengths? Do they see you having this particular passion?’” Once you’ve got these things confirmed, never deviate from it. “In the workplace, focus drives impact, and impact drives success.”

Then, of course, the real work begins, and for that you will need something Wharton Professor Angela Duckworth calls grit. She wrote about this in her best-selling book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. I spoke to her recently about it. Say you’ve been working at the same company for five years, doing the same job, I asked. But during the pandemic, you picked up a new interest. What steps should you take to pursue that direction?

“I think you have to ask the question, ‘Do I think there’s some chance that this could grow into something more serious?’ If the answer is yes, then maybe take a sabbatical from your work and try it out, or ask your supervisor to give you more responsibility in that area. You might not end up pursuing it, but you’ll be glad you tried it out.”

Once you’ve decided on a path to a new department or a promotion, it will take a lot of practice, improvement and focus. But the way we think about ‘effort’ can make a big difference in whether we stay in the game. Especially if things don’t go our way at first. “Usually, the reaction of people who fail to achieve their goals is, ‘I just need to try harder.’ But that is based on the idea that you already have the natural abilities to conquer the challenge,” says Duckworth.

Some psychologists call this a fixed mindset. The problem with this mindset is, if you hit a wall or don’t achieve what you had in mind, you feel like a failure. “When people think like this and they don’t succeed, they often end up abandoning their goal. Instead of that, try something called an experimental mindset, where you stop trying harder and instead, look for better ways to do things.”

For people in the middle of a reinvention, dealing with all the ups and downs that come with creating new habits, goals and workflows, there’s another mindset that will come in handy for the long haul: the growth mindset. It involves getting comfortable in liminal space, which is the space we occupy when we’re making a change or moving towards a goal, like learning to ride a bike or completing a new certification so you can move into a new role.

Let’s take a moment to summarize Duckworth’s key points: Recognize when a fixed mindset isn’t helping you at work. Adopt an experimental mindset where you try new ways of doing things and make this an ongoing process. And approach challenges with a growth mindset, the fundamental belief that you can improve over time.

But there’s more. “If you really want to make a transition from being ‘the sales guy’ to ‘the HR guy’, you have to get people to think of you differently,” says Duckworth. She has some recommendations. “Start posting about topics on social media and sharing articles that are interesting in the new field you are pursuing. Whatever it is, you can begin to plant the seed in people’s heads. ‘Oh yeah; he’s been posting about HR stuff for a while now.’ It begins to change how people perceive you.” Clark also advises using every possible chance to tell people about your new pursuit or desired role.

The next step is to look for sponsors — people who can recommend you for things you want, or generally just talk you up to decision-makers. This can be your boss or maybe even someone you’ve had a good conversation with. Speaking of bosses, reinvention is essential for them, too.

“If you are a good leader, it’s impossible to be stagnant,” says Clark. “You need to model the process of learning, growing and evolving for other people. That is an extraordinarily powerful message to send throughout the organization. And it makes it far more likely that your employees will follow suit.”

As exciting as the idea of reinventing yourself might be, it can also be really intimidating. In this article I’ve tried to make it less so by focusing on its critical ingredients — just like you might’ve done with your sourdough bread. First, identify your passion, something that captures and sustains your attention, and apply perseverance to it. That’s grit. Next, keeping that overarching vision in mind and thinking like a hedgehog will keep you focused and grounded in your goal. And perhaps most important — your sourdough starter, if you will — is having the right mindset: Truly believing that you can learn, change and develop (the growth mindset) and being willing to work through challenges and roadblocks by trying new things (the experimental mindset). Once you have all these ingredients in place, you are well on your way to reinventing yourself.

Magazine CoverThis article first appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Rotman Management magazine. Published in January, May and September, each issue features thought-provoking insights and problem-solving tools from leading global researchers and management practitioners. Subscribe Today.

Sonia Kang holds the Canada research chair in identity, diversity and inclusion and is an associate professor of organizational behaviour at the Rotman School of Management. Her podcast, For the Love of Work, is made possible by Rogers and is available wherever podcasts can be heard.