Rows of white origami boats on a blue background, with one red boat veering off into a new direction, symbolising career pivots.
Image: © Worawut/

10 indispensable nuggets of advice for career pivots

12 Mar 2019

Make your next career move your best one yet with this essential advice on career pivots gathered by Dr Anita Sands.

Are you contemplating a change in your job or career? Remember, career pivots are common and you’re not alone.

I’ve been pivoting – or ‘repotting’, as others like to call it – for more than 20 years. First, from physics into public policy, then from academia into financial services, next from Wall Street to Silicon Valley, and, most recently, from an operating role into my current portfolio career.

As I look back, an informal pattern has emerged in how I orchestrated these various turns in my professional life. Along the way, I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors whose advice at key moments performed miraculous reversals on my thinking. I hope that sharing this advice will help others successfully navigate their next chapter.

1. Your past doesn’t have to define your future

My most recent change came at a time when my life felt a bit broken. I was emerging from a struggle with Lyme disease, had experienced a disastrous few years romantically and was working in a place where I never felt like I belonged. Depleted physically, emotionally and mentally, I decided to stage an intervention in my own life (which ended with me in Antarctica – but that’s a story for another day!)

How could I create my next chapter and leave behind everything I felt had gone wrong, especially when I felt like it followed me around like a dark cloud? At this crucial time, Dan Schulman, the CEO of PayPal, offered some simple yet ferociously important advice: your past doesn’t have to define your future.

These liberating words are absolutely key for those looking to make a bigger change. All too often, people (and recruiters in particular) pigeon-hole you into what you’ve already done. It’s crucial that you remain true to your real intent for change and not be deterred from the path you’d like to pursue.

2. Pick one or two things that really matter and let the rest go

To come out of your decision-making process with complete clarity, you must be ruthless in prioritising what’s most important to you and equally ruthless in the level of honesty you bring to that process.

Of course, what matters to you most can (and should) change at various ages and stages of your life, so don’t be surprised if what you’re solving for today is very different from five or 10 years ago. I’ll never forget another mentor’s words: “Pick the one or two things that really matter to you at this juncture of your life and let the rest go.” Honing in on what really matters brings tremendous clarity to what you do next.

3. Geography, industry, role

The latest of my career pivots involved a lot of changing variables: I had decided to leave NYC and move to San Francisco, and I was exiting financial services and pursuing a career in tech. As much as I was clear about what I wanted to do, I was less clear on what kind of role my skillset would translate into and what avenues might be open to me. As I started to confuse the decision with the complications of moving cross-country, I found myself spinning.

In his typical effective bluntness, Frank Slootman (then CEO of ServiceNow) said to me: “It’s simple: geography, industry, role.” I gave him a perplexed look and he explained: “Most people try to make career changes starting the other way around. They fret about what’s the right role for them.” Of course, that’s exactly what I was doing. Slootman’s brutal clarity made me realise that if I had decided on geography (San Francisco) and was resolute on the industry I wanted to be in (tech), then the exact role wasn’t a deal-breaker if I got the first two things right.

4. It isn’t who you know, it’s who knows you

Central to every change is a strong and extensive network. As networking expert Kingsley Aikins puts it, the important thing about networking isn’t who you know, it’s “who knows you”. Aikins believes that “opportunities don’t float around on clouds; they’re attached to people”. This advice has never left my mind.

5. Keep your eye on your ball

I was speaking at a conference in Toronto with bestselling author Geoffrey Moore. As we chatted, he asked about my career and I explained how I wanted to move into the tech industry but was struggling to decide between various opportunities. What Moore said next was like the proverbial bolt of lightning: “Anita, you’re going to fit into a lot of people’s plans. The only question that matters is whether or not they fit into yours.”

Right there and then, the penny dropped. I realised that being crystal-clear in my criteria and priorities was the only way I would avoid getting sloshed around by every conversation or distracted by the next shiny opportunity that came my way. In short, keep your eye on your ball, not on all the opportunities out there that others might have in mind for you.

6. Rely on your anchors

Career pivots can be a rollercoaster. There are times when confidence is high and you feel that offers will materialise; however, there are likely many more moments when the scourge of scarcity sets in and you start to panic, believing you’ll never be employable again. We’ve all been there, which is why we need our anchors.

I rely greatly on the distilled wisdom of my remarkable executive life coach, Helen Mumford Sole. She’s been instrumental in reframing my thinking during times of self-doubt, reminding me to stop letting emotions overrun the facts at hand and to think systematically about the opportunity cost of every decision. She would force me through the uncomfortable admission that, at certain times, I was less enamoured by the prospect at hand than I was driven by the desire to get out of where I was.

7. Make the right comparisons

It may be tempting to compare Opportunity A (today’s position) with Opportunity B (the new offer on the table) and debate the relative pros and cons of each. Instead, take a step back and define Opportunity C, which is the ideal opportunity.

Rather than examine the old versus the new, compare the old and new against what you would like to do the most. In other words, compare both Opportunity A and B to Opportunity C. After all, if you’re going to put yourself (and loved ones) through a huge change, then it should bring you closer to your dream job.

For those early in their careers, think through what future doors might open to you should you opt for one role versus another at this given juncture.

8. Find your sweet spot of belonging

Ultimately, the best role for you lies at the point where passion meets competence meets an organisational need. If you have passion and competence but there’s no need, you’ll find yourself very underemployed. Should you have the competence and there’s a need but you’re not passionate, chances are you’ll be pretty bored. And if you have passion and there’s an organisational need but you’re not competent in that area, then you’re setting yourself up for failure.

For me, the hardest lessons learned weren’t the result of any changes I made but rather the ones I didn’t make soon enough. Having now realised the powerful effect of “belonging” from Pat Wadors, CHRO at ServiceNow, I look back and realise that the times I was most miserable were in situations or cultures where I didn’t feel like I belonged.

Belonging is a fundamental human need and something we all understand. It means being able to bring your full, authentic self to work instead of showing up as the version you believe the corporation expects.

Find a workplace where everything that makes you ‘you’ is seen as an asset rather than a liability and where you’ll be able to contribute more of what you uniquely do. Settling for anything less is a surefire recipe for misery and isn’t going to empower you to do your best work.

9. Lean your ladder against the right wall

What you do with the talent you’ve been given should – and will – be largely determined by you and you alone. Gone are the days of working for a single company that outlines an enriching and varied career for you that spans the next three decades. As we move further toward the gig economy, the ability to determine your own career path becomes an essential professional skill.

Another way to consider your options is by heeding Dr Brené Brown’s brilliant advice: “Before you climb, be sure your ladder is leaning against the right wall.” The best way to do that is to get your fundamentals right, be crystal-clear in your thinking, deliberate in your networking, and ensure you have the right mindset and framing to make the decision.

10. Believe in yourself

Change always involves risk, fear, discomfort and uncertainty, but navigating it successfully depends on one thing: believing in yourself. When it comes to changing your life, knowing that something better awaits you and believing that you deserve it isn’t half the battle. It’s the entire war.

This article has been adapted from a longer version originally published on LinkedIn Pulse.

Anita Sands
By Anita Sands

Dr Anita Sands is a US-based board director, author and speaker. She has a background in the financial services and technology industries, and has served on the boards of companies such as Symantec, ServiceNow and Pure Storage. She also happens to hold a PhD in atomic and molecular physics and a master’s in public policy and management.

Loading now, one moment please! Loading