Sallie Krawcheck, once a Wall Street titan and now a serial entrepreneur, has long been an important member of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women community. So it’s fitting that we will kick off each of our six 2016 MPW events with an exclusive piece from Krawcheck. Her first in the series reflects on what she calls her “four careers,” and explains why we should all expect to experience a number of thrilling and unexpected pivots throughout our working lives.
This is particularly timely advice on the eve of Fortune’s March 1st Most Powerful Women International Summit in Hong Kong. As Krawcheck notes, globalization is transforming business—and changing the lives the people who make up those companies and industries. The adaptation strategies she lays out are a terrific starting place for the conversations that will unfold in Hong Kong.
In my 20s, I was an investment banker; in my 30s, a research analyst; in my 40s, I managed and led large, complex businesses; and now that I’ve entered my 50s, I’m an entrepreneur. Four decades, four separate—but related—careers, each building on what came before.
I can’t say I exactly planned it this way. But nor did it “just happen” to me. Rather, these transitions were the result of some combination of my working in an industry roiled by constant change and my active search for interesting and meaningful work.
The types of transitions I’ve experienced may be unusual among my peers. Yet, I believe careers marked by change, pivots and reinvention will become the norm going forward, and particularly so for women, given that we tend to take more career breaks. Whereas historically a career-well-worked has been characterized by a steady upward progression—in title, in responsibility, in pay—going forward, success will be about proactively constructing an interesting career by building one’s skill base and making more lateral moves.
This is because business is changing—fast—and the pace of that change is only going to accelerate. The forces of technology and globalization are fundamentally altering any number of industries. The result: What worked for decades will no longer be a given.
This type of dislocation can feel like a negative, and indeed, it does mean you’re more likely to lose your job, as strategies and bosses shift to keep up. But it also means that our career options are expanding—if only we’re open to them. For example, it may not be easy to start a business today, but it’s certainly easier, and less expensive, than it has been in the past. Think cloud-based computing instead of buying servers, shared workspaces instead of multi-year leases, video-conferencing instead of business travel, crowdfunding instead of venture capital money or bank loans, freelancers instead of full-time hires. Everywhere you look, the infrastructure for starting and funding businesses is exploding.
So, if career pivots are the way of the future, how can we best make these transitions successful?
First, get past the mourning for the comfortable hierarchy, the big office, the heavy-stock, cream-colored stationery, the sense of understanding the “rules of the game,” the singular view of what success looks like.
And get past the old view of what good leadership looks like: strong, decisive, certain. Instead, the key traits for success will be curiosity, open-mindedness, intellectual flexibility, and interest in understanding others’ perspectives. In my old world, people ran from tech projects—almost literally; they were viewed as always-over-budget time sinks. In the new world, the skillsets for managing these ventures are essential.
Secondly, to successfully navigate a world in flux, you have to embrace a certain intellectual discomfort and a willingness to fail. This one can be tough because we women tend to take a failure harder than men do, personalizing it. For me, being a research analyst was great training because I had to get comfortable being “out there” and making non-consensus calls, even though I was brought up, like most southern young ladies were, not to rock the boat.
Part and parcel of this: Get comfortable being criticized. This can be another difficult one for us ladies, because so many of us were socialized to prioritize relationships. But change can make people uncomfortable, and so they fight it; if you’re moving in a different direction, it can feel like a rebuke. I will never forget, after the announcement that I was working on Ellevest, my new digital investment platform focused on women, getting on a call with a group of financial advisors from my old industry, who expressed disappointment that I was launching this project rather than operating with them in the more traditional part of the market. The tone of the conversation was that I had hurt them in some indefinable way.
Another insight: Even though one might imagine that there is a sense of urgency with reinvention, be very careful not to lurch from one thing to another. Instead, give yourself the time to really think things through, try the change on a bit, feel your way into it. I spent about nine months working through my transition to research analyst, thinking about whether I would like it, thinking about whether I would be any good at it. While many facets of the job were similar to investment banking, there were key differences, such as the greater responsibility of the individual in making the “calls,” as compared to the teamwork and deal orientation of an investment banker.
Implicit in all this is the idea that it’s important to “play in traffic.” By that I mean getting out there, engaging with people, getting a feel for a new industry or position. This type of transition isn’t likely to happen as the result of a headhunter’s call, or even a colleague picking up the phone. It’s important to be proactive here, rather than wait for it to come to you. It won’t.
My transition to entrepreneur took me a couple of years (my husband might say forever) to work through, during which I advised a number of startups and startup CEOs, really trying to get a feel for what it’s like to be in their shoes and whether I could be successful in making such a significant change. And the outcome wasn’t a foregone conclusion; I compared entrepreneurialism with other options, such as moving into a regulatory role, consulting or board work—all of which at the time left me feeling pretty “meh.”
Which gets me to: You must prepare financially. You have to be ready, should the shifting business environment knock you on the head and you lose your job. And you have to prepare for the transitions that you may want to drive. This is where the guys have a leg up on us women: not only do they make an average $1 to a woman’s 77 cents, but they also tend to invest those earnings to a greater degree in the stock market. Over the course of a career, those two things can add up to literally millions of dollars more in earnings.
But for us women taking on what can feel like more risk, such as asking for the raise (which so many of us dread) and investing in the markets, can pay off in greater career flexibility—and therefore less risk and far more opportunity—down the road.
Sallie Krawcheck is the CEO and Co-Founder of Ellevest, a digital investment platform for women, to be launched in 2016. You can sign up for early access here. She is a Wall Street refugee, having run Merrill Lynch Wealth Management and Smith Barney. She has been named one of Fast Company’s most creative people in business.