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The Management Moment

A Systematic Approach to Job Transitions—Finding Your Way and Landing in Your Best Place

Baker, Edward L. MD, MPH, MSc; Murphy, Susan A. PhD, MBA

Editor(s): Baker, Edward L. MD, MPH, MSc, Column Editor

Author Information
Journal of Public Health Management and Practice: January/February 2021 - Volume 27 - Issue 1 - p 88-91
doi: 10.1097/PHH.0000000000001231
  • Free

The question is not how to survive, but how to thrive with passion, compassion, humor and style.

Maya Angelou1

The ability to perform work that is aligned with your mission and values in an organization that encourages you to be your best self can reignite your passion, compassion, humor, and style. For public health leaders, managing one's career and finding that “right fit” can easily take second place in your list of day-to-day priorities. At times, some seem to have been able to navigate the process of transitioning between jobs and even between careers with a certain degree of skill, whereas others may find the process a source of confusion, frustration, and anxiety.

In this column, we draw on our own experiences and observations along with published literature2 to provide a few thoughts and questions for various stages of the process. Our intent is to provide a structure for the transition process that might be helpful to those contemplating and embarking on this path. To begin, we focus on clarifying why you are considering leaving your current position and what you are actually looking for in another position or career. Then we discuss the process of finding a new position, leaving the current one, and successfully settling into a new role.

Leaving Your Current Position

Often, the process of transitioning from one position to another may begin with uncomfortable feelings. At times, you may feel a range of conflicting emotions and inclinations. Since working in a team is often the norm, you may feel a loyalty to the team and to the team's mission. Projects that require intense and well-coordinated team effort may (often do) suffer if a key team member decides to move on. Thus, the emotional dynamics associated with “moving on” can be a major challenge. Ideally, you may come to feel “good” or “better” about moving on by considering your future growth.

As you consider the future, what are the pros and cons of staying versus the potential for growth in a new situation? In situations where you are beginning to consider a voluntary transition (or even as a result of involuntary circumstances), you may find a few questions regarding your current position useful. By asking yourself these questions, you can clarify your values and beliefs regarding the work experience. Starting a “transition diary” may help. Here are a few questions to consider:

  1. Did I do what I came to do?
  2. What did I learn about myself in the job?
  3. What skills and knowledge gained will transfer to a new position?
  4. When I look back, what am I proudest of?
  5. What about the work environment did I find most (and least) beneficial to my growth and development? How aligned is the culture of the organization with my values?
    • Am I considering leaving because of the type of work?
    • Because of my boss's behavior?
    • Is it because of the long hours?
    • Lack of positive feedback?
  6. What will I miss most about this position?

As you consider these questions, we suggest that a few pitfalls be avoided. It is typically best not to advertise too widely that you are starting to look around. Therefore, you should keep this introspective process to yourself and to a few trusted confidants who can help you clarify your thinking. Above all else, beware of social media and e-mail. Scrub any negative and political posts.

In seeking advice from a few trusted confidants, you might identify 3 or 4 people outside of your organization (a “kitchen cabinet”) who know you well and talk over a few questions with them (it is often best to provide them with questions in advance):

  1. When you have transitioned to a new position, what worked for you and what do you wish you had done differently?
  2. What questions should I be asking myself as I think about transition?
  3. Based on your knowledge of my strengths, what are the key features of a new position that I should be thinking about?
  4. What advice can you provide and what sources of advice would you suggest I seek out?

As appropriate, sending a handwritten note thanking them for their time and shared wisdom helps strengthen that relationship and simply express your gratitude.

Preparing for the Search Process

The current coronavirus pandemic has placed public health in the limelight as never before. An extraordinary series of reflections displayed on a new Web site, titled “Why Public Health Matters,”3 captures the deep commitment of those working to protect health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, more know what an epidemiologist does than was the case a few months ago. As the public monitors the course of the pandemic, public health informatics professionals now work creatively to provide real-time data and display information. Public health leaders are in the public health eye and those who support them are seen as unsung heroes along with those on the front lines of health care delivery. As a result of these forces, many are now considering positions within the public health system and are drawn there as a way to serve the health of the public in new and exciting ways. Those already in the field of public health or those who are graduating from public health schools will also be preparing for the search process.

So, at this stage, you may begin to delineate the characteristics of the position or career that you may be seeking. Here are a few questions and suggestions:

  1. Are you seeking a new position within your field, is this more of a career change, or is it some of both? In our experience, we were “called” to a new career as a result of considering how best to deploy our talents in service to others. In your case, do you discern a calling to a new career or a deepening of experience in your current field?
  2. As you attempt to sort out this major issue, you should decide on what you are looking for before you start looking:
    • How much responsibility do you want?
    • How much freedom do you desire?
    • What about work-life balance?
    • How does a new position build on what you have done in the past?
    • What kind of people do you want to work with?
  3. Seek out a time and place to reflect/restore your spirit/relax to enable you to begin to think more clearly.
  4. Find a coach/mentor to help you clarify what is most important and the path ahead.
  5. Identify knowledge or skill gaps that you wish to develop/explore. Should you consider getting more formal education/training in a new field or in your current field?
  6. Become clear on your strengths and what is special about you and how a new environment will contribute to your growth professionally and personally.4 Prepare for the question: “What distinguishes you from other candidates?”
  7. Typically, it is best that you not announce that you are leaving your current job until you have something else confirmed and tied down.

Beginning the Search Process

As you begin the search process, we suggest a systematic approach that entails a set of strategies, guiding principles, and best practices.5 See the process as considering a few options. In doing so, you will learn more about yourself and how well you might fit into another situation—“3 to 4 options” is a good rule of thumb (one of which could be a new career). Don't jump at the first thing that comes along.

  1. Decide how to market yourself: distill a succinct description of your strengths and “your brand.”
  2. Ask as many questions as possible about another position (and avoid “wishful thinking”)—remember that the grass may look “greener” but it may not be!
  3. Develop and utilize your networking skills; don't go it alone!! Jobs are often found not through your contact, nor your contact's contact, but your contact's contact's contact.
  4. Your résumé should reflect your skills, accomplishments, and professionalism. Make it easy to read (no typos) and keep it up to date (as well as your LinkedIn bio). Bring a copy of your résumé to your interview to show that you are organized and proactive.
  5. Timing is key—you should control the timing and not get into a reactive mode where the timing is dictated by external factors.
  6. Make sure you are always doing a great job at your current employer—even when you've decided to leave.

“Looking Under the Hood”

  1. Once you think you may have found a few good options, “look under the hood” by asking those who work there (or those who recently worked there) what it is really like (not just the “bosses” or the recruiter).
  2. Determine the 2 to 3 most important attributes of the new position and assess the degree of “fit.” Compare your strengths with those attributes. “What will success look like in 1 or 2 years?”
  3. As you begin the interview process, don't interview first at your number 1 choice. Interviewing is a skill and can be practiced.
  4. Polish your interview skills:
    • Answer questions in the range of 20 seconds to 2 minutes.
    • Apply the 50/50 rule: you talk 50% of the time and the interviewer talks 50% of the time.
    • Practice answering tough questions in advance.
    • Always send a thank you letter after the interview.
  5. Don't join an organization because of one person—that person may leave. Consider the organization as a whole. Is there room to grow in the new position?
  6. Take your time and avoid impulsive decision making

Finalizing the New Position

The process of finalizing a new position varies across sectors. Those in public health who are seeking a position in a governmental public health agency will have dramatically different experiences from those looking to work in the private sector or in a university. Our central guiding principle is to continually ask questions and challenge your assumptions. Take enough time on the front end to establish the terms of employment, which you will live with for months or years to come. No question is a “bad question.”

Leaving Your Current Position

Once you have a firm commitment to a new position, you then have the opportunity to leave on a positive note. Consider ways to celebrate. Take time with valued colleagues to thank them and to share with them those outstanding qualities that you most admire and respect. You may not be able to have these conversations once you move on!

Entering a New Position

As discussed in a prior Management Moment column,6 the first 3 to 6 months in any new position are critical. Take time to “make the rounds” both formally and informally. You can use the “I'm new here” introduction for a limited time; as a result, you will learn a lot. Building new relationships and learning about the organization's culture as deeply as possible are critical success factors in any new position. These factors go beyond “simply doing your new job well,” although that is, of course, critically important. If possible, seek out a near-term success for which you can take credit and be identified with.

Conclusion

Taking a systematic approach to your career path is the best way to ensure that you are building your career on a strong foundation of your purpose and values. To enable that to happen, we suggest that you begin the transition process by first examining your current situation and then systematically delineating what you might be looking for in another position or career. Follow those steps by activating your search, “looking under the hood” of a few options, and finalizing the process by leaving well and starting off well in a new position.

As you pursue these initial steps, we recommend that you take the time for the introspection needed to reaffirm your purpose and values as you consider your future. Although this process will not be linear, we suggest these initial steps be taken before you explore career options and “look under the hood” to carefully evaluate new opportunities that seem to fit with your next strategic career move.

Pay attention to your health and well-being during the process. Looking for a new position is often another full-time job, requiring time, energy, and focus. Keep your sense of humor—there are often a lot of ups and downs. We challenge you to take control of your career destiny. A systematic approach will increase your odds of successfully finding your way and landing in your best place.

References

1. Bruce J. The 3 lessons Maya Angelou taught us about coping. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/maya-angelou-legacy_b_5479355. Accessed April 25, 2020.
2. Murphy SA. Maximizing Performance Management—Leading Your Team to Success. 2nd ed. Englewood, CO: Medical Group Management Association; 2016.
3. #WhyPublicHealthMatters. https://whypublichealthmatters.org. Accessed May 9, 2020.
4. Baker EL. The evolution of a leader. J Public Health Manag Pract. 2011;17(5):475–477.
5. Murphy SA. How you can give your career a fresh start. Forbes. February 15, 2015. https://www.forbes.com/sites/womensmedia/2015/02/15/how-you-can-give-your-career-a-fresh-start/#73970acf7046. Accessed April 25, 2020.
6. Ruiz R, Baker EL. The first 6 months—transitioning to a new position. J Public Health Manag Pract. 2013;19(2):187–189.
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