Herminia Ibarra's Theory and Career Change

“Changing careers means redefining our working identity—how we see ourselves in our professional roles, what we convey about ourselves to others, and ultimately, how we live our working lives.” Herminia Ibarra

Herminia Ibarra is my hero. In her seminal book “Working Identity,” she presents her theory of changing careers and career identities.  The heart of her theory is that changing careers means changing ourselves by acting, testing, discovering, and adapting. Rather than continually thinking about change, Ibarra encourages us to “get out of our heads and act.” Ibarra discusses how our identity constantly changes and, rather than having one “true self,” we are many selves throughout our lives. Our many selves are defined by our histories and our present circumstances, as well as by our dreams, hopes, and fears for the future. 

Herminia Ibarra's Theory & Career ChangeIbarra says that “your working identity is an amalgam of the kind of work you do, the relationships and organizations that form part of your work life, and the story you tell about why you do what you do and how you arrived at that point.” Reshaping our identities involves examining and making adjustments to these three areas. This can be a lengthy process, and it can also be chaotic and messy.  Ibarra calls this time the “murky middle,” or as transition guru William Bridges calls it “the neutral zone,” a time between endings and new beginnings. As a career consultant, I see this with my clients as they transition from one position to new opportunities. It is a scary, uncertain time, but also one of hope and excitement.

I love my work as a career consultant and I wouldn’t be doing this work without having made my own identity and a career change that involved action as well as redefining my working identity. I toyed for years with the idea of going back to school. Once I began graduate school and actively tested my ideas, I began to realize where my future and my new identity lay. Ibarra’s lessons about finding our “true selves” assisted me in mustering up the courage necessary to explore my interests and transition into a new career.

Ibarra discusses three central themes in career change:

  1. Craft Experiments: Try  new activities and professional roles on a small scale before making a major commitment to a different path.

    I recommend this continually with clients. Try a new idea, test it, see how it feels. Whether it’s volunteer work, a class, a workshop, or shadowing someone’s job, the point is to live it by taking small steps. Ibarra emphasizes that deciding what we “don’t” want to do can be as helpful as figuring out what we “do” want to do. 

  2. Shift Connections: Develop new contacts that can open doors to new opportunities and look for role models and new reference groups to guide and benchmark your progress.

    How often are we discouraged by those closest to us to make changes?  New people provide us with a fresh perspective and help us see ourselves in a new light. By working to develop contacts in the industry in which we’d like to transition, we increase our ability to develop the necessary skills to ensure professional success. These contacts are also integral to reaching and finding potential positions in our desired fields.

  3. Make Sense of it all: Find or create catalysts and triggers for change, and use them as occasions to rework your life story. 

    In our work and in our lives, our stories continually change and evolve.  As career professionals, we help our clients make sense of it all and reinforce the notion that reworking and retelling these stories are a vital part of a purposeful life journey. 

Everything we read and hear emphasizes the new notion of work - that nothing lasts very long. Change is inevitable, and we have to be continually willing to adapt to it. The new normal will most likely include many jobs and/or careers throughout a lifetime. Ibarra’s theories resonate wonderfully with the reality of continual change and the likelihood of many jobs and/or careers throughout a life span. All of us will likely transition from one career to another at some point in our professional lives. By understanding the importance of adaptability in our careers as well as our lives, we can not only transition careers faster, we’ll also improve our ability to address new and unforeseen challenges throughout our careers.

Career Partners International provides top quality talent management services to organizations of all sizes. Their offices around the world help assessengagedevelop, and transition talent in any industry. To find out more about Career Partners International and how you can maximize your organizational performance, reach out to an office near you or contact us today!

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  1. Russ Knight's avatar
    Russ Knight
    | Permalink

    This is good even for people not familiar with Ms. Ibarra. I have seen your first point presented also by calling it a "low cost probe".

    What is it about her story that makes you say she is your hero?
  2. Geoff Officer's avatar
    Geoff Officer
    | Permalink
    I am with you, this author is outstanding. A 2002 HBR article by Herminia Ibarra has just given me a totally new perspective! It is a good read, "How to Stay Stuck in the Wrong Career" and develops the working identity perspective. Thanks for your observations, I share many of them and as a Career Consultant for over twenty years I have seen many individuals whose working identity is their personal identity. When work changes, the fragility of who they are comes to the fore. I am only dismayed that I did not land on her writings earlier.
  3. Irene Rossman's avatar
    Irene Rossman
    | Permalink
    Russ and Geoff,

    Thanks for your interesting comments. I think of Ibarra as my hero because she opened up my way of thinking and offered a different perspective for working with clients dealing with career change. I love the idea of exploring, trying and testing, making connections (of course, networking!), and making sense of it all. It's really simple, but really profound;we learn by doing, more than by thinking. I think the theory is also very helpful for clients who are stuck in their job searches. Getting out and meeting people is so much more effective than sitting by one's computer. I appreciate your input. I love her book and I also love using the article from HBR and use it a lot with clients!!


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