What are the lessons I have learnt from my work identity transition?

Three years ago, I left my firm after nearly 29 years.

My firm was my family – I joined it at the age of 20. Most of my friends have some form of connection with the firm – as former colleagues or clients. Some of my closest family members also worked there for some time. It was my world.

I was at the top of my career. I was the Global Relationship Partner for one of Singapore’s largest banks and had industry and other internal leadership roles.

And yet, on the treadmill of work, there was something else I was looking for… something was missing. So, I took a giant leap.

Some people told me I was brave. Others privately said they were envious.

Identity transition isn’t easy.

My journey since then has been more challenging than I anticipated.

I had some plans on what I would do after I left – get some meaningful board roles, do some study, and travel extensively to see places I never had the time to do before. But, in the long run, I also wanted to support aspiring culturally diverse leaders.

Some of these ideas worked. However, others didn’t – especially when COVID hit and the travel stopped.

Before I left full-time work, a few people I spoke to said that my transition would take time. Some told me it would take at least one year and many coffee sessions to get my first board role. Others said it took a few years to get used to a different life.

They were all correct.

For my first three months, conditioned by 29 years of tracking every 6 minutes of my day, I filled my diary up with coffee sessions, training sessions and meetings. After that, my husband started to question whether I had actually stopped full-time work. Old habits take time to break.

Who am I?

A more challenging situation was what I call myself.

Having a senior title like partner gives you status. My title was the key through the door. For many years I didn’t have to explain who I was. I just had to say that I was a Big 4 firm partner.

I also felt that I still needed a business card, even if I didn’t have a company name on it. However, when I gave it to people I hadn’t met before, people would flip the card over a few times, ask me what I had done, and then awkwardly say, “So you have retired?”

Similarly, I couldn’t work out what my title would be for my LinkedIn. Was I a “portfolio careerist,” a Non-Executive Director, or something else? How many qualifications did I include in the title? And did I refer to the name of my former firm?

I felt that I had lost my work identity – who was I? I had become a ‘singleton.’

It was like I had jumped out of a plane, but my parachute was taking a long time to open. My working identity had been so ingrained with that of my organisation that now that I had left it, I was grieving. Further, I had forgotten what it took to have the courage to “give it a go” outside my firm – to try, experiment and learn again.

What I’ve learnt

Working identity transition at any stage of our lives is difficult. However, as the gig economy has taken off, we change roles and organisations more frequently.

It is tricky to learn new things as it evokes anxieties and fears, especially when we get older and have a greater fear of failing. We feel vulnerable.

I have been fortunate to have had several people support me who gave me the courage to try things and experiment. Here are a few thoughts on what I have learned during my transition so far.

1. Reflect

Too often, during our busy lives, we don’t have time to do anything. We don’t have time to think and reflect. We are constantly under stress, then rush decisions – blocking out thoughts and feelings that make us uncomfortable.

However, it is worth considering why you feel the way you do below the surface and what has evoked this?

I used to think that being in touch with my emotions was “psychobabble” – the rational part of my brain tries to block them out. However, as part of my studies at INSEAD, I now appreciate even more how our emotions drive much of what happens in our work and personal lives. For instance, our individual and collective defences at work can lead to fighting, politics, silos and irrational behaviours.

Any identity transition process requires us to sense-make, leveraging both our rational thoughts and emotions. Blocking out and ignoring how we really feel may not be the best for you in the longer run. Take the time to step back, listen, feel, hold and process what is happening.

Reflection has helped me become a better leader, board member and team player.

2. Experiment and learn.

Early in my work identity transition, a good friend suggested reading Herminia Ibarra’s book Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career.

In her book, Ibarra says that successful working identity transition involves small trials – “test-and learn”, as she calls it.

Trying new things is like trying on new clothes. You will feel uncomfortable and inauthentic. However, unless you try things out, you will never know if you really like something or not.

Learning new things can be really exciting.

3. Find people or groups to support you.

It is always good to have family and friends around you as a secure base who know you and help you during your identity transition. However, they can also stifle your development as you seek to move into new areas, as they will always see you as the ‘old’ you.

Become more comfortable reaching out to new people and joining new groups for coffee, feedback and advice. You may find that your experiences are remarkably similar to what they have gone through. And they will invigorate you, as you learn about new and different things.

Author Brené Brown once said, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

Identity transitions are an inevitable part of our lives. Life is a journey of continuous learning. As a result, our identity transition is ongoing. Work identity transitions, in particular, are challenging as we spend so much of our time at work.

All effective change processes require us to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. However, they are incredibly fulfilling as well – I have learnt so many new things and met so many new great friends.

Taking the time out to reflect, experiment, and learn, with the support of both old and new friends, will help you along your journey.

What you learn about yourself will help you become a more effective leader, with a greater appreciation of the impact of change on people and organisations. This will help you bring a unique perspective and contribution to the organisations and people you work with to navigate their change journeys.

Original article published on Linkedin is available here.