Making a Career Pivot: A Q&A with Jenny Blake

Career strategist Jenny Blake provides tips for changing your career direction.

By John Scorza Aug 25, 2016
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​Jenny Blake

The traditional career ladder is a thing of the past. Job roles change dramatically within four or five years, which also is the average time that employees stay with one employer these days. That’s why we need a new way to think about job transitions, says Jenny Blake, a former career development manager at Google. She helped develop the tech giant’s Career Guru program, which provides Google employees with career coaching services that were previously available only to executives and those in leadership training.

In 2011, she made a dramatic career transition of her own when she left Google after five years to launch her own business as a career and business strategist. Although most people thought she was crazy for leaving a dream job, she says she knew she would regret not trying to make it on her own. She recently reached the five-year anniversary of her solopreneurship, and in her new book, Pivot: The Only Move That Matters Is Your Next One (Penguin Random House, 2016), she talks about how to take “smart risks” to launch yourself with confidence in a new direction.

How do you define a career pivot?

It’s a purposeful shift in a new, related direction that one makes by doubling down on what is already working. Typically, when the word “pivot” is used, it refers to a strategy shift, moving from Plan A to Plan B to save a business from dwindling profits or a dismal forecast. But when it comes to our careers, learning to pivot—within our roles and job paths—is the new Plan A. 

Why do people need to think about job transitions differently today?

Pivoting is the new normal. In fact, career plateaus are a good thing. They signal a desire to make a greater impact. Calling such aspirations a crisis or shaming people for wanting to prioritize meaningful work in a volatile economy is missing a huge opportunity. We should celebrate and support them for seeking to make greater contributions to their workplaces, society and the lives of others.

When is the right time to make a change?

Ideally, the sweet spot is when you hit a career plateau. That’s when you feel work is “fine,” but you recognize that there’s room for improvement in terms of applying your greatest strengths on the job and learning and innovating within your role. Plateaus signal you’re ready to make a greater impact. However, when people don’t pay attention to them, change may choose them instead. Their bodies may signal greater distress (such as burnout, illness or worse) until they heed the call. Or, in some cases, people get pivoted—departments reorganize, their company is acquired or they are let go. In these instances, pivoters can still review what was working best in their previous role to shift methodically into a new position.

What can a person do to test the water before making a career move?

Take small steps, not big leaps. I call these career “pilots”—low-risk experiments to explore your hypothesis about your best next move. A good pilot should help determine the Three E’s: 

  • Enjoyment. Do I like working on this new focus area? 
  • Expertise. Can I become an expert at it, and do I want to? 
  • Expansion. Is there more opportunity within the market (or the company) for me to dedicate my efforts more fully in this direction?

What holds people back?

One of the biggest pivot pitfalls is waiting for the perfect next move or aiming too far outside of what is currently working—one’s existing strengths, experiences, interests and connections. Another obstacle is when people fail to clearly define their desired state one year from now. Even if they don’t know specifics about the exact role, it’s important to consider what would feel exciting and how they can make the greatest impact. It’s like plugging their desired destination into a navigation app. By understanding where they are now and where they want to go, they can more effectively bridge the gap between the two. Without this one-year vision, people may focus too much on what they don’t want, which doesn’t move the conversation forward. 

How do you know when an opportunity is the right move?

Gut instinct plays an important role, which is why physical fundamentals are so critical when pivoting. Getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising and mindfulness practices all help individuals tap into their greatest source of wisdom: their own instinct and intuition. Although there may be certain external indicators of a right move—such as desired salary, location, job role or company culture—ultimately, most pivoters I spoke with “just knew” when they landed on something that truly fit their values, strengths and one-year vision for success. 

What should you do if your pivot doesn’t work out?

Decisions are data. One can only spin on a set of questions for so long before the better thing to do is get something in motion, be an observer and make the next move from a new vantage point. No one I spoke with regretted their pivot decision, even when it didn’t succeed by traditional standards or they pivoted again shortly afterward. They all looked for learning opportunities. These are people I refer to as “high net growth” individuals. For them, taking smart risks and venturing into the unknown is when they feel most alive. Like a tricky parallel parking job, sometimes larger pivots require several smaller turns in succession. Each pivot informs the next. 

How do you define success?

Money, accolades and accomplishments come and go. Success, to me, is making the greatest impact on the world that I can, enjoying the process and taking care of myself as I go. It is about appreciating fear, insecurity and uncertainty as the gifts that they are. My personal mission is to be as helpful as possible to as many people as possible. If I help even one person gain clarity or feel more at ease about navigating change, I have succeeded.  

John Scorza is the associate editor of HR Magazine. 

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