Try a systematic approach to painless career transition

 Want to change your career?

Start with a good process.

RES CAREERThe trick to redefining your career is to create a disciplined change process and stick with it.  And once you master your go-to approach, you’ll have a starting point for future challenges.  Whether you want to change professional tracks or simply pump up performance in your current gig, you’ll always know where to begin.

I’ve read a lot of research about how change happens, but when I work with coaching clients I often suggest a simple process that I’ve been exploring since I was a teenager. In this longer than usual post, I’ll tell you about the process, and how I know it works.

As a child, I followed my New Zealander parents’ example and drank lots of tea.  I liked it loaded with milk and sugar.  But as a young teen I started worrying about the calories.  I didn’t want to give up my habit of drinking cups of tea every day after school, but kicking my sugar habit seemed too tough.

Then one day I was inspired to reduce the sugar volume so gradually that I’d never miss it.  As I sat at the kitchen table, staring at the heaping pile of sugar on my spoon, I decided to start by removing just a few granules. In the following days, I estimated earlier volumes and tried to remove a few more grains. I kept at it, progressively lessening the amount of sugar from two or three spoonful’s to none.  It took nearly a year, but I learned to enjoy sugarless tea without ever feeling deprived.

I was intrigued by the power of creating change through small, painless steps and applied what I called “the Sugar Grain Principle” to other aspects of my young life. For example, I became better at keeping my room neat by building little habits, like routinely shutting the closet door or spending just five minutes cleaning each morning.

I remembered the Sugar Grain Principle years later, as a senior at Ohio University.  An injustice in the way women students were treated motivated me to somehow support gender equality. I didn’t expect to actually change practices that were widespread, but I thought the Principle might help to frame a satisfying gesture, just for me.

So I promised myself to every day do at least one small “Thing” in support of greater equality for Ohio University women. It didn’t have to be much. A Thing could be as small as a sugar grain. But I needed to come up with something – anything – every single day.

It was easy at first. A day’s contribution might be as basic as speaking about equality in class. But over time it become more difficult to find my daily Thing, and I was forced to move out of my comfort zone. To meet my quota of sugar grains, I enlisted friends and spoke to any class or club that would have me. I started doing radio interviews.  And I became the first woman to enter the MBA program.

As I scrambled harder to define new Things, I worried less about failure and became more creative. Eventually, the university president noticed, made me his assistant, and asked me to write a detailed report on the status of women.  Most of the report’s recommendations were accepted, and ultimately I led Ohio University’s implementation of Title IX, the landmark federal legislation outlawing gender discrimination in education.

In my job, I met with many individual women, often encouraging them to embark on career paths traditionally dominated by men.  Still in my 20s, I was called upon to give advice to faculty members and other women who were far older and wiser.  And of course I had no training in career development.

So once again I relied on my experience with gradual change, and I developed a model that, at least inside my own head, I called “the Sugar Grain Process.”  Over the years I’ve worked through the Process while navigating my varied career.  And I’ve shared the Process countless times, as a mentor, a manager and coach.

I understand that The Sugar Grain Process is not unique, and that many similar models can create success.  But I have 40 years of experience in fostering career change with The Sugar Grain Process, and I am absolutely confident that it works.  Here’s how:

1.  Start with a vision of the career you want.  Begin the Process by creating, as clearly as possible, a picture of what you desire in your next career phase. You needn’t define a precise destination before you get going, but you may be surprised at how much you already know. Try these techniques to get at your vision by building a wish list:

  • Note what you do know.  List the elements you want in your work.  One way to begin is to identify the good and not-so-good aspects of your current situation.   As you find the negatives, rephrase them as positives for your next job wish list.  For example, if you keep thinking that you’re bored with the same old thing, reframe that thought into, “varied and interesting.”
  • Think about how you’ll need to be.  As you contemplate the kind of situation you want, consider what kind of shape you’ll need to be in, in order to excel.  Of course that includes being energetic and in good physical shape so you can work at your highest level. But you will also spot other areas where you’ll want to grow, like by developing new skills or building a broader network.
  • Jump ahead and look back. Imagine it’s three years from now, and the years 2014, 2015, and 2016 were professionally satisfying.  Envision yourself feeling very successful as 2017 approaches. Now describe what made the past three-year period so productive and satisfying.  What did you do to bring you to this good place?  Do you want to add some of those elements to your wish list?
  • Ask what else you want in your life. Consider whether certain values or interests should become more important in shaping your career.  If you want to spend more time with your kids, maybe “no weekend work” should go on you vision list. Or perhaps you want to live in a different kind of place?

2.  Organize your vision.  Once you’ve created a long list of details, break your wish list into categories.  It can be helpful to do this by drawing a diagram that not only illustrates key aspects of your ideal career, but also puts it in the context of a life that supports your success.  I often ask clients to do this by creating a “mind map,” a colorful, branching diagram with the power to quickly portray complex concepts or projects.  Start your mind map with an image or keyword in the center of a page.  From that center, draw main branches, spreading like the spokes of a wheel.  Label each branch to represent a sector of your life, and fill out the details by adding smaller branches to the main branches.

3. Add a category for your job search.  Now that you have a vision of where you want to go, add a branch on your map (or a section on your vision list) related to your possible job search.  If these items don’t show up anywhere else, you may want to include:

  • Expanding your network.
  • Reconnecting with folks you already know.
  • Building your social media presence.
  • Developing new skills or acquiring certifications.
  • Methodically exploring professional fields that are a step or two removed from your own.

4. Commit to a pace of Things.  Once your have a picture of where you want to go, decide how quickly you need to move.  That will determine how many Things you commit to doing each day, or week, or month, for each category you’ve identified.  This is important: the power of the Process comes from your commitment to keep up your pace even when you feel like you are out of ideas or don’t have the time.

5. Begin a list of Things for each category.  Start a list of Things – small “to-do” items – for each area on your map.  As you come up with your first Things, keep these points in mind:

  • It doesn’t matter where you start.  I don’t call these little items “steps” because they aren’t linear.  Things won’t take you in a logical order along a direct path.  The Things on your list needn’t be related to one another, and sometimes they’ll feel pretty random.  But as you do more and more Things, patterns will emerge.
  • Examples vary.  Things might include sending an email to an old contact, attending an event you’d typically skip, spending one hour setting up your LinkedIn account, or exercising for 30 minutes.
  • Things will lead to other Things.  For example, if you attend a dinner where you meet somebody interesting, your next Thing could be to send a follow-up note.

6.  Maintain records.  Keeping track of your Things is important to the success of your Process. Your record keeping will help you see your progress, bring you new insights and inspire additional Things. How you do it, whether it’s on paper or in the Cloud, is your choice.  In addition to holding on to your lists of completed Things, consider using:

  • Logs.  They work.  It’s well established that keeping a log can sustain your efforts to build new habits.  For example, whether you’re making notes on your calendar or maintaining an Excel spreadsheet, you’re more likely to stick to an exercise or other program if you record each minute you spend.  Logs can illustrate your efforts, reinforce your commitment and help you see the gap between where you are and where you want to be.
  • Journals.  They can promote self-reflection, help you explore and keep track of new ideas, and give you a way to manage frustration and setbacks in the course of your transition.

7.  Enjoy the Process.  The most difficult part is getting started. But once you build up a cadence of Things, the Process seems to generate its own energy.  You’ll start to trust the Process, and feel confident that it’s taking you somewhere interesting and important.  Often a client who has completed a career shift will say something like, “I’ll kind of miss the Process.  It was getting to be really fun.”

For more on career transitions, click here to listen to a podcast on WOUB Media.

Ready to change jobs within your field? Read: How to plan a career side

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Bev, a former lawyer and Fortune 500 executive, is an executive and transitions coach, and a leadership consultant with a broad and varied practice.

Posted in Career management, career resilience, career transitions, professional growth Tagged with: ,

Beverly E. Jones

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Links to occasional colleagues

ECCA - Website
ThreeJoy - Website
Kerry Hannon - Website
Ohio University's Voinovich School - Website
Senior Entrepreneurship Works - Website
Congressional Management Foundation - Website
WOUB - Website
ShadowComm LLC - Website

Books with Bev’s Tips

Bev’s tips on career change are featured in the books and other writing of leading journalist Kerry Hannon. If you’re thinking about a career transition, try:

What’s Next? Find Your Passion and Your Dream Job in You Forties, Fifties and Beyond


“Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy and Pays the Bills”


Bev at Ohio University,
where she is a visiting
executive with the
Voinovich School of
Leadership & Public Affairs



Bev's garden at Buckeye Farm