The MPW Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: What’s your best piece of advice for someone looking to change career paths? is written by Liz Wiseman, president of The Wiseman Group.
Changing careers can feel daunting, especially the notion of trading in our hard-won competence for that feeling of re-found incompetence. While it’s easy to stick to jobs where we have mastery, is it possible that we can be at our best when we know the very least?
Surely you remember that feeling of being in over your head, tasked with something important and hard, and doing it for the first time. For me, I was just 24 years old when I was told I would be managing the training department for Oracle and asked to build Oracle University. I knew that my only real qualification for the job was that I had recently been at a university. I was occasionally teased by the execs for being young for the job. When a client noticeably flinched upon hearing that I ran the corporate university, my boss smiled and responded, “Oh, Liz isn’t particularly qualified for the job, but she’s bright.” Attempting to defend myself, I responded, “Who wants a job they’re qualified for? There’d be nothing to learn.”
Is it possible to have a successful career as a perpetual rookie? My research has shown that there is a distinct benefit to working in this learning mode. When you’re new to something—whether you’re 25 or 65 years old—a learner’s advantage kicks in. In the process of wondering, asking, and discovering, you do your best thinking, often outperforming those with experience, particularly in knowledge work that involves innovation and speed.
The research also revealed that the highest-performing rookies were most often in executive roles. These were smart, seasoned executives who had made internal or external career moves and were now leading in a new domain, such as a new business segment, industry, or function. They brought critical skills and wisdom forged by experience, but they displayed a newcomer’s tendency to ask naïve questions, learn quickly, and unlock new possibilities.
If you’ve decided it’s time to give up comfortable competence for the thrill of working in rookie mode, here are three strategies to make the move the smart way:
Collect confidence points
If the new challenge feels intimidating, scope out a micro-challenge—a concrete piece of work with just the right mix of relevance, difficulty, and opportunity for recognition—preferably one where you can make a positive impact in the first two weeks. In delivering fast, you’ll collect confidence points and build your credibility. And remember, the rookie zone is not only where people tend to do their best thinking, but it’s also where they report their greatest satisfaction. So, even if you are less than brilliant at first, the exhilaration will propel you up the learning curve.
Sell your newcomer advantage
If you are a job seeker and the hiring manager is determined to hire the most “qualified” candidate, articulate the value proposition of those who operate with rookie smarts. Let her know that, with the right-size stretch, you’ll be even more inclined to collaborate and work with a lean, agile mentality, and that you’ll be cautious but quick to prove yourself.
If you are a late career-job seeker who is perpetually told that you are “overqualified,” you might refocus your job search and pivot your experience in a new direction. Sell your value as a rookie rather than as an experienced professional. Show that you have a track record of success in rookie assignments to help the hiring manager extrapolate and visualize your being successful in this new role.
Work your rookie smarts
When you find yourself in virgin territory, don’t rely on yesterday’s best practices. Invent new practices that are fit for your new reality. Here are a few ways to kickstart your rookie smarts:
- Make a list of things you don’t know but need to understand to be successful in your new role.
- Instead of pretending you know what you are doing, let people know you are in learning mode and open to coaching.
- Whenever you take a risk, you should make sure there is a safety net underneath you. Find a senior colleague who will let you know when you are teetering and can help you regain your footing.
- Instead of drawing on your own knowledge, reach out to at least five other experts with your questions. You’ll learn fast while also expanding your network and perspective.
When we linger too long on a plateau, a little part of us dies inside. But when we step out of our comfort zone and onto a learning curve, we feel alive again. If you are feeling comfortable, it might be time for you to step out of your comfort zone and take on a new challenge—perhaps taking a job or a role that you’re not qualified for. After all, who really wants a job they’re qualified for? There’d be nothing to learn.