Life Lessons: What I’ve Learned About Transitioning Careers

Courtesy of Priya Guha

As the ecosystem general manager of Rocket Space UK, I head up the London technology campus for San Francisco, which opened here in the UK in June. We support high-growth technology start-ups that join the Rocket Space ecosystem by offering access to the talent, capital, network and infrastructure needed to grow.

I spent 20 years as a UK diplomat, most recently as the first female British Consul General to San Francisco. I believe it’s important for senior UK civil servants to have worked in the private sector and I wanted to lead by example, so I stepped out of government and took up my current role.

1. Challenge perceptions.

It’s a broad generalisation, but the reality is that in the UK the public sector and private sector don’t mix. This isn’t the case everywhere – the US is a great example of a place where it’s accepted as a good thing for the private sector to do a stint in public service and vice versa. Here, there seems to be a barrier for anyone wanting to move between industries. Many people feel stuck where they are and don’t see the potential contribution they can make to a range of different jobs.

I don’t believe there’s any reason for this – switching sectors might feel like a huge step but it can be rewarding and exciting. Moving to Rocket Space was a fantastic choice for me. It may be a different industry to the one I was accustomed to, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t fitted right in and been able to make an impact.

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2. Gain transferable skills.

Direct experience is not everything. Business skills such as problem solving, communication and time management are central to most industries and positions within them. The challenge is simply to articulate your experience in a way that makes it relevant.

For me, a key component of my public-sector work that I’ve been able to carry forward is leadership. The idea that I have responsibilities towards my team and my company is the same now as it was before. Part of that is the ability to adjust to different situations, empower the team, recruit people who complement your skill-set and take the right strategic decisions in order for the business to succeed. I honestly believe I could apply this anywhere, from the trading floor of a big bank to the kitchen of a local bakery.

3. Embrace change.

Things have changed significantly in recent years in the workplace. We’re living and working in a fast-paced world of technological development and innovation. This can make it feel particularly challenging when it comes to making big shifts in your career, as the skills required at one stage can very quickly become obsolete.

However, in my view the pace of transformation makes it easier than ever to pivot your career. One skill is emerging as king: the ability to embrace change and react quickly to a new environment. This means that it doesn’t matter what your experience is; as long as you’re comfortable with new challenges, you can take on almost any role.

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With automation, AI and other technologies set to dominate the workplace, change is something we’ll all have to come to grips with – not just those making a big career step.

4. Don’t expect to know everything.

There can be a tendency, especially among women, only to apply for roles where you tick every box on the job description. We must try and break this mind-set. One way to tackle this is to plan how you might be able to develop certain skills on the job. Are you someone who learns better by studying or by talking to others? If it’s the former, are there good books that address the learning gaps or any quick courses you could take to get you up to speed? If it’s the latter, is there a peer or mentor who can help you understand what you need to know?

I’m definitely not suggesting you should lie about your experience in a job interview, but if you can show potential employers that you’ve thought about how to grow into the role, while focusing on the skills you have already, there’s no reason for you to miss out on something you’re interested in.

Ultimately, the value of every business comes from the people and the team you are able to assemble around you. The old adage is that you should always hire people who are better than you and who complement your skills and experience. While you need to be confident in your abilities, you should also be able to listen to others and be open to learning from them.

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5. Don’t forget to plan.

When you’re busy at work, it can be challenging to take a step back and think about where you’re heading. But as you navigate your career, you should look beyond what you might want in your next job and consider where you want to be in five or 10 years, particularly as we are all likely to end up staying in work until at least our late 60s.

Careers can be varied and you shouldn’t ever let great opportunities pass you by just because they weren’t necessarily in your plan, but having an idea of what you want can help you to get ahead. Keep a network of contacts who span sectors and experience close to you: they can form a mentorship network that offers a fresh perspective on the skills you have and how you might progress.

Ultimately, you should trust your instincts, allow yourself to take a leap and be confident that your career will make sense, not least because it’s the right step for you.


From: Harper’s BAZAAR UK