Building a Bridge to Your Next Career Move

How to find the bricks and put them in place to get to where you really want to go next in your career.

6 minutes
Haley Stomp

Building a Bridge to Your Next Career Move

People often ask me, “How did an engineer end up in marketing?” It’s part commentary on the stereotypes of the personalities of both professions and part curiosity on how to transform. I remember a sign in the maintenance office of the manufacturing plant in which I worked that said, “Talking with engineers is like trying to communicate with the dead.” On the other hand, one of my favorite Dilbert cartoons concludes, “Marketing is just liquor and guessing.”

So how does one go from being a nerd making breakfast cereal in steel-toed boots armed with a TI-85 and tape measurer to the person hosting happy hour at trade show booths and customer receptions? (Ok, maybe there is a little liquor and guessing.)

Aside from being a restless, shape shifter with a cat-like curiosity, I took some specific steps to build the bridge from engineering to marketing. Then, in the past three years, I have added more tools to the transformation toolbox as I’ve shifted from corporate marketing to writing and consulting. From these two major shifts, I noticed commonalities on what worked to start building the foundation to cross over to a new path, one that builds on existing skills and opens a new world in which to grow and feed a restless soul with a new platform to help others.

It's said that the hardest step for a runner is the first one out of the door. This is true of so many endeavors. You can dream, plan, think, but until you finally do, nothing really gets going. You have to just start. Nike continues to be right – “Just Do It!” It’s going to be messy and scary, and it’s up to you to accept this is how it’s going to feel and do it anyway. It’s up to you to wonder – what if this goes right?

I’m not saying just throw caution to the wind and don’t have a method to your madness. There are things you can do, brick by brick, to have firmer footing and trail markings along the way.

Start learning.

The biggest commitment I made to move from engineering to marketing was to go back to school for an MBA. I’m definitely not saying you need to get a new degree to transition. But I am saying you will need learn new things and you will need a platform to prove to yourself you can do it. Taking MBA classes helped me identify which part of business was most interesting to me. As the program progressed, I looked for ways in my company to change my responsibilities, apply what I was learning and broaden others’ views of my capabilities. I baby-stepped from project engineering to new product project management where I was exposed to all sides of the business and had a platform to demonstrate I was more than pumps and chemistry. I funneled into more marketing classes, and by graduation, I had positioned myself to apply for a marketing role.

This was a very structured way to put myself in place for anew profession, and one I’m forever grateful for doing. Although I loved being an engineer with all the straight lines and math and Gantt charts, marketing science fed my need to see the world and truly understand and communicate the application of science. It also fuels my inner social butterfly, and she does not like to be ignored.

My latest career transition has been much less structured. It’s been bobbled together and duct taped and ping ponged and full of self-doubt. What I’ve learned most is how to make a leap without a safety net, and that lesson has been invaluable. I’ve learned I’m capable of more than I ever knew, prompting me to reflect frequently of my recent growth that, “Youth is wasted on the young.”

Crisis breeds innovation. It can also uncover new opportunities. I did not deliberately decide – Hey, when there’s a global pandemic that brings humanity to the brink, I’m going to start writing about the craziness on Facebook before I quit my corporate job and start a blog. Then I’m going to connect with someone through my writing who asks me to be a cofounder of a company. I’ll launch that company and then a year later leave to focus on writing a book. Then a year later, I’ll launch my own consulting company while the book becomes more of a reality.

So, these are two possible paths to career transition – a structured learning and stepwise job progression or just lose your sh$t, release yourself from all previously imagined boundaries, ride the wave and experiment for three years until you finally see the way forward. Liquor and guessing, anyone?

Here are some tips from my recent crash course transition seasoned with a few sage moves from the past. I’m going to assume you might not need as much of the mental health support I did, but if you have trouble getting out of bed or even imagining starting, then you might want a tune-up with your doctor or therapist to clear your path. I’m going to focus here on the functional particulars and the emotional learning.

Emotional Learning

The truth is, unless you need to train on a specific skill like brain surgery or coding, you’ve probably already gained the skills needed for many different jobs. You just need courage and confidence to apply them in a new way. It’s important to have the right mindset and support to start.

1.     Be OK not knowing how it’s going to end up.

I had no idea where getting an MBA would lead me. There was a point early on when I wanted to move to California and pursue a degree in viticulture while finishing my MBA. I was going to live some romantic life in Napa Valley. Spoiler – that did not happen. I’m still in Iowa, but I’ve walked through so many wonderful doors I couldn’t have imagined.

I left my corporate job (and corporate income) to stay home and figure it out. Thankfully my husband could support our family financially while I did this. Most days after I left, I barely knew what I would do the next day. Even three months ago I wasn’t sure what I was doing. But it’s funny how comfortable I’ve become with the uncertainty. There is a freedom in letting go of the constant worry and need to control everything. Good things continue to happen along with the occasional setbacks as long as I keep taking steps, working and letting things go at the pace they are going to go.

2.     Have an experimental mindset.

Part of releasing the worry is to accept that not everything will lead somewhere. Try it and decide if it’s right or not. You will most likely fail a few times, and that’s good! Knowing how to accept and quickly maneuver through failure is a muscle you need to build. If things don’t work, either let them go or file them away for later. Some of your original thoughts and efforts will morph into something better. And some are just a place you visited in your mind on the way to a better one. Don’t drag things along that aren’t adding value. This goes for people, too. Not every contact will be important.

3.     Find people in similar transitions.

Find the people that are on a similar journey to you, people who understand the ups and downs of being in transition. In my experience, you only need to find one person to bounce ideas, fears, successes off. Like finding a coach, you may need to shop around to find the right fit. Let people know the journey you’re on, and you will attract like kind. In my case, I had a former coworker who recognized I had a lot in common with someone else she knew. I followed up on the connection and we are now friends and accountability partners; this relationship is so valuable for motivation and support for both of us.

4.     Hire a career coach.

You aren’t the first or last person to want to make a career move. Maybe you want a promotion, maybe you want to switch companies or maybe you want a total reinvention. A career coach can be helpful in all these situations. A good one will provide resources and exercises to help you navigate. A great one is someone who can support you both emotionally and technically.

There are a ton of certified coaches on LinkedIn. Many coaches are specific to an industry or job type. Interview a few to find the best fit in approach, personality and budget. Make sure you understand their record of success. Find someone who is going to guide you and challenge you so that no matter what you learn from the relationship.

5.     Talk to other people who have made career moves.

There is a ton of value meeting with people who have already made big moves successfully. Drink in their lessons like an elixir so you don’t have to learn them all from scratch. Take it from me, people like sharing what they’ve learned to help others have an easier time.

6.     Read other people’s stories.

Who doesn’t love a good story? I’ve read many biographies, memoirs and autobiographies in the past few years. Some are inspirational, some make me feel normal and some have lessons I can apply. Reading is a good supplement while you’re writing the next chapter of your own story.

Functional Learning

Depending on where you are in your career and how big of a leap you want to take, there is a specific bank of knowledge you will need to acquire. Maybe it’s industry knowledge or lingo, processes, publications, associations or people. There are many ways to do this. I recommend an approach that both builds knowledge and skills while building your network and brand in the new space in which you want to play. You could sit behind your computer watching YouTube videos, or you could take a multi-prong approach for a faster, wider reach so, while you’re learning, you’re increasing your chances of finding the role you want.

1.     Immerse yourself in the communities you wish to be a part of.

Cannonball into the middle of the pool of workshops, festivals, conferences, webinars, books, social media, podcasts. Then start building new connections. Engage with new contacts, share relevant content, volunteer to immerse yourself. Soon you will understand the lingo and the dynamics, and the first bricks of the bridge are in place.

2.     Socialize what you are trying to do.

Make your network aware of what you’re trying to do. Metaphorically (and possibly literally) dress for the job you want. People will share ideas, opportunities and contacts with you that you didn’t know they had. Some of the most amazing learning experiences I’ve had are because I followed up on something someone shared with me. You don’t have to go about it all alone. Get more brains in the game, especially those who know you and your strengths best.

3.     Take a class.

Learning something new breeds confidence. Make a commitment to yourself by signing up for and completing a class. The benefits are forever, even if what you learn is that you don’t want to do something. There are so many options to gain knowledge, many of them cost nothing or little. There are also more formal investments you can make.

Just a few things I’ve either tried or considered:

  • Attend online classes through universities, community colleges, associations or businesses specifically training in your area of interest.
  • Attend workshops or festivals where speakers share free advice on how to do what you want to do. Bonus if you connect with the speakers and other attendees and build connections.
  • Invest in a retreat designed to teach you and help you network.
  • Complete formal certification programs or degree programs.

4.     Take a chance.

Building takes courage. Each brick you lay marks a moment of bravery. After getting into the right mindset, exposing yourself to new communities and knowledge, it’s time for bigger action. You’ll never be all the way sure, but you can be sure enough and excited enough to try a new role, to start your own company or share your creative output. The good news is you will know sooner if the new thing is right for you, and you’ll have acquired new skills to better adjust your course. Like parallel parking, take that first turn into the space, start over as many times as needed and pull up, back, over, maybe back again, until you find yourself fitting. Once you’re parked, you’ll be amazed how motivating and joyous it is to arrive at this new place.

 If there is something inside you pulling at you to grow, listen. Build your courage and confidence muscles and take the first step to your next step.