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How to make a career transition

Unless you are a career McKinsey partner or VC, odds are you will have a few career transitions between graduation and retirement.  This article is focused on mid-career transitions (between 35 and 45), where we have seen many of our peer group make transitions, but the insights apply broadly.

Career Clarity

Knowing what you want to do is often the hardest challenge in a career transition. The following strategies can help you develop a strategy for your next career step:

  • Passion is overrated: How many times have you received the advice “just follow your passion” While that is an ideal path, there are many times when passions shouldn’t drive your career decisions (my career as an NBA general manager probably wouldn’t have been fulfilling as the path I have found myself on). Also see this terrific article on the pitfalls of 'finding you passion'

  • Have only a few deal-breakers: I read a great article years ago about how having too many deal-breakers prevented folks from finding love. The same applies in finding your career clarity – have a few professions / industries you wouldn’t do (medicine is a no-go for me because of the blood) but otherwise be open.

  • Iterate, don’t jump: Changing too many things at once increases your odds of failure. So rather than changing job, industry, sector, company, and city all at once, try changing just one or two variables. For example, if you like your company culture, be open to other roles within before looking outside.

  • Play to your strengths, rather than your weaknesses: When I speak to early career people, they are always ‘rounding out their skill set’. As people mature, they become more comfortable playing to their strengths, and generally pick roles better suited for their talents. You need to understand and play to your super-powers.

  • You won’t really have clarity until you’ve been there: In my experience, the grass will ‘always be greener’ until you’ve been in the type of role you were built for. So, if it doesn’t feel right, don’t hesitate to keep iterating.

  • Have a working thesis: So many people I speak with can only talk in generalities about their career direction. You need to be specific about the types of roles, companies, industries you want to be in, otherwise people can’t help you.

  • It’s okay to have multiple theses: As you develop career clarity, feel comfortable having several areas you are interested in. That is okay as during the execution phase you may find some fit better than others.


After you have developed clarity, then comes the intimidating part. Career transitions, particularly mid-career, can take time so you will need to be persistent, undaunted, and have strategies. Here are a few:

  • Help people help you: Have clear roles and companies you are interested in. If people thing highly of you on a personal basis, they will want to help so be specific.

  • Don’t stress if you don’t have the perfect skill set: Consultants, VCs, bankers, lawyers looking to make transitions often don’t have the skills listed in the job. But rarely does the candidate who is hired match all of the skills. Remember that getting a job (in most cases) is about both how you think and what you know.

  • Be open to building a role: Many roles aren’t listed. All companies have problems. If you have a skill set for a role that isn’t posted, don’t let that stop you from networking and having discussions with companies you find compelling.

  • Don’t compare: Only at graduation do you get to line up multiple offers at the same time. In a career transition, you will need to get comfortable making decisions in series rather than in parallel.

Everything else

There are a number of other issues to think about during a career transition. From the emotional side, to balancing family and financial pressures, it can be a stressful time. But, if you have made up your mind to make a transition, know that you can make it happen

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