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Change Career or Start a Business? It's Never Too Late to Pivot

If you sometimes wonder what it would be like to start your own business or switch to a new career, but don’t know if you can, then I know how you feel.

After 17 years of working as a lawyer, I decided to give it all up and change direction by becoming a coach and author on the topic of presentation skills.

People often think it must be a natural transition from lawyer to presentation expert because the perception is that lawyers are naturally confident speakers. That’s not necessarily true and certainly wasn’t the case for me. In fact, I had such a huge fear of public speaking that I decided I needed to find a way to conquer that fear and learn how to become comfortable speaking in front of groups if my career was to go anywhere.

Through years of investing in my own personal development, I began to enjoy presenting and gained a depth of knowledge that I could share with others. That’s what led me to consider a change in direction.

I'm lucky in the sense that I've not really ever been faced with gender barriers in ways that others have. I did notice junior male colleagues sometimes being given better opportunities than me, but I honestly believe that was because I was too shy and didn’t make myself visible enough to ensure my managers could see my potential. I thought it should be obvious by the quality of my work. In contrast, I watched many of my male colleagues repeatedly broadcast their achievements and openly discuss career aspirations. Over the years I’ve worked with many professional women and this issue of lack of visibility and not being heard is quite common.

This was one of the key drivers that motivated me to become a presentation coach. I am passionate about working with women in leadership and I believe that strong communication skills are fundamental to career and business success. However, the decision to leave my well-established career behind and step into an unknown world of being self-employed was quite a daunting one.

There’s a term known as sunk costs fallacy often referred to in economics. It basically means continuing an action based upon past decisions - where you keep doing something simply because you’ve already invested so much time and/or money into it, and to abandon it seems like throwing it all away. In my case, it was all the years of study, hardship and money I’d invested into becoming a senior lawyer and thinking that I should continue in law because otherwise all my efforts would have been wasted.

I faced the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make to date. It wasn’t as if I was miserable in my work. I had a job I enjoyed that paid well and provided me with security. However, I felt a compelling urge to concentrate on developing my expertise as a presentation coach and help others become better at speaking - sharing knowledge that I wished I had been given access to right at the beginning of my career.

I also suffered from imposter syndrome, although I didn’t know what that was at the time. Even though intellectually I knew I had the skills to embark on this new venture, a little voice in my head kept taunting me with: “What if you don’t have anything to offer or no-one is willing to pay you? What if you give up a really great career with nothing to show for it? What makes you think you are any good at it?” 

Setting yourself up for success

The only way to find out if something is going to work is to give it a try. Easier said than done, I know, but there are ways you can set yourself up for success.

Before I took the plunge and handed in my notice at work, I spent quite a bit of time planning and working out what I would need to do. One of the first considerations was finance. I didn’t know how long it would take me to build up a regular income stream, so I made sure I’d saved enough money to survive for a year to give me the space to develop a client base. I was really fortunate to have a very good relationship with my employers and they became my first clients, which made the transition a bit easier. I found lots of online courses to learn about Internet marketing, social media and website development so that I could set up the basics on a shoestring budget.

I also spent a lot of time going to networking events. When you work for yourself all the marketing, sales and admin comes down to you - unless you have the ability to outsource. Developing a good network is essential for so many reasons. Most of my work over the last few years has come through referrals from people in my network.

The term networking can fill people with dread – walking into a room full of strangers and plucking up the courage to talk about what you do is uncomfortable. Just know that the more you do it, the easier it gets. Knowing which events to go to can be tricky to identify – it took me a while to figure it all out through trial and error. Networking events can be time-consuming and expensive, so make sure you do the research to know that they're worth your while.

Of the many reasons to invest in developing your network, the most powerful one is to find mentors or like-minded people who can support you. Being able to speak to others that have been in similar positions and can offer advice and insights is hugely beneficial. As you develop these relationships, you will be connected to people who can introduce you to new opportunities. I think that success in business is about nurturing relationships and therefore it’s worth putting in the effort to do this.

Staying on track

Starting your own business takes proper planning and the right mindset or courage to have a go. There will be times when you doubt yourself and often you’ll have irrational thoughts so identifying ways to get out of those downward spirals is necessary.

One of the techniques that worked for me was to make a list of my successes (from all different areas of my life) and keep reviewing them to remind myself that I’ve overcome obstacles before and can do it again. I began to realise that all the experiences, qualifications and skills I had accumulated throughout my life contribute to what I can offer now – I can utilise it all and nothing has been wasted.

I also connected with other businesswomen so that I had a support network. When you are faced with challenges, there is a fairly high chance that someone else has been in a similar situation and can offer advice. Having such a group can be a great opportunity to bounce around ideas and get some perspective.

Taking a leap of faith can be scary but if you have a powerful vision then it might be worth giving it a try, the “leap” doesn’t have to be a huge one! Sometimes small incremental steps towards your chosen destination work just as well. Work out where you want to go and then reverse engineer the steps you need to get you there such as saving money, taking courses and building a network or client base before you push the button.