Career transitions

SuccessCareer transition has become a much discussed topic over the past few years. This is due to a cultural shift in attitudes towards the idea of a career for life, and work generally, and a new global industrial, digital revolution making many careers and jobs defunct.

A transition is never easy, even when it is voluntary, and especially when it is involuntary through redundancy. Fortunately for me, I can’t speak to involuntary transitions … yet.

However, I made several voluntary transitions over the past few decades, most of them accidental, even opportunistic if you will. But I never looked back, and I thought I would share some of my experiences and what I learned from them.

From chef to waiter, to restaurant manager, to banking customer service representative

The story of my transition from chef, to waiter, to restaurant manager, to banking customer service representative requires a back story.

It all started in 1982, in then communist Hungary, with my first defection to Austria and application for political asylum as a young, very young, teenager. Unfortunately, after a few months the process played out to an unhappy conclusion for me and I was deported back to Hungary. After a period of captivity and interrogation I was returned to my family. At the same time, I was unceremoniously dumped from high school and it was made clear the State no longer saw me deserving of university education and I was trained to be a chef.

When I defected again in 1987 I was more successful and ended up in Melbourne, Australia as a political refugee. Since I didn’t speak English my chef training came very handy as you don’t have to speak English to cook up a storm. I worked as a chef until 1991, most of that time at the Southern Cross Hotel, a Melbourne institution, and I also took an evening/night job at the Australia Club. I was young, full of energy, and a poor immigrant, so every extra cent went a long way.

During those years I knew I wanted to do more. At that stage I fancied waitering. It seemed a much cleaner and far more glamorous career than being a chef. Keep in mind, this was before the rise of the celebrity chef. I started to pay attention to the waiters at the Southern Cross Hotel and learned the basic skills involved, including silver service from my colleagues, who were delighted by my interest.

One day, on my way home on the tram, I met a young woman by chance. She just opened her own restaurant on Toorak Road in South Yarra. She was overextended and short on funds, and she was looking for someone very versatile who could go from kitchen to front of house. By the time I got off the tram I had a new job.

Taking on this opportunity turned out to be a wise choice. It was risky to leave a safe job to work for someone who admitted to have overextended herself, and wasn’t sure how long she could stay in business. Over the next year the two of us worked an average 100 hours per week because all she could afford was some casual help. But we made her new business venture work. In the process I worked as a chef, a waiter and a restaurant manager. I learned more in that one year than in the previous four years put together. I didn’t just perfect my waiter skills, but maintained my cooking skills and learned how to manage and run a restaurant.

In 1992 my partner passed away in a car accident. I needed a fresh start, so I moved to Sydney. With my new skills I was able to transition into a waiter and assistant restaurant manager role in a new Paddington venture. One night in 1994 I was looking after a table of executives from one of the big four banks. By the end of the night I was offered a customer service role at the bank.

And that’s how I transitioned from chef to waiter, to restaurant manager, to banking customer service representative. Some moves by design, others by chance. In order to make these transition I had to keep an open mind, take big risks and learn new skills continuously. While I was always focused on the job on hand, I was always ready to sacrifice a few hours of recreation or sleep to do something over and above, to learn new skills. And that, together with focus and perseverance, was the key to each step forward and up.

From banking customer service to corporate lawyer

Working at the bank was a fantastic opportunity. I perfected my customer service skills, but also learned about business strategy and the finance industry. I volunteered for a number of strategic projects that required input from branch and customer service perspectives which led to promotions and pay increases. In the meantime my English skills reached the level where I was confident I could undertake further formal education to advance my career.

At this point I should explain that although in 1983 I was thrown out of high school and was trained as a chef over the following four years, I took advantage of a quirk of Hungary’s communist system. Communism focused on ‘educating the working class’ as an ideological priority and they had established night high schools for workers who wanted to further educate themselves. Given I worked as an apprentice chef during my training, I managed to enrol as a ‘worker’ to complete high school at night. Thus, by the time I defected again I was qualified as a chef, and I also received my high school certificate.

By 1995 I reached a new career peak at the bank having being appointed to its premier, high-value customer branch, but I was ready for more. I applied to be enrolled in a law and business degree at university. To my amazement I secured a spot.

Over the next five years I studied day and night. Even though my English skills were pretty good, studying law required extra focus and determination. I also chose to study in full-time, which meant I couldn’t work, so my savings and student loans had to suffice. The determination, hard work, and the occasional starving due to lack of money, paid off eventually when I managed to get a summer clerkship with a major national law firm in my penultimate year.

At the conclusion of my clerkship I was offered a graduate position and a year later, upon graduating, I started as a law graduate. This was the source of a lot of amusement at the time for all involved, because I was a fair bit older than any of the other graduate lawyers.

This career transition was arguably my most significant and required a five-year investment in obtaining a double-degree. Given the investment required this was a once in a lifetime transition. But again, the key factors to success were the same as before: learning new skills, focus, perseverance and sacrifice.

From corporate lawyer to knowledge management

I enjoyed my career as a lawyer, and worked both in litigation and the corporate advisory area for close to five years, at which point I moved in-house at one the large accounting firms for a year and a half. This move was designed to give me a better understanding of business issues and imperatives as a lawyer. In my experience being commercially astute and understanding the relevant business is what makes a truly good lawyer. A good lawyer is a trusted business adviser and one can only acquire the necessary skills by experiencing and understanding law from the practical business side. Upon my return to my law firm I continued to work in corporate advisory.

At this stage of my career, having been appointed Senior Associate, I reached the point at which I was expected to specialise in a relatively limited area of the law and work towards partnership.

Strangely, neither of these options appealed to me. I found the idea of a partnership and the need to specialise too restrictive considering my personality and interests.

Within a year I decided to leave the firm and pursue other interests. However, the firm floated the possibility of staying and taking on a knowledge management role. The critical hook for me was that the role involved looking after six distinct aspects of legal practice. I was no longer limited to a narrow focus!

This career transition was more of a sidestep. I continued to provide legal advice internally, to lawyers, on matters of practice and substance and maintained knowledge and resources relating to those six areas of law.

This transition, while remaining with the same employer, still required me to engage in learning, including knowledge management and project management concepts, and a range of new administrative functions.

Founder, editor at large, and social media adviser

I am still in knowledge management today, but I continue learning and acquiring new skills. In the current economic environment one must adapt and upskill continuously, even if staying in the same role.

I learned HTML some years ago, and now I am complementing that knowledge with exploring coding skills.

I also developed practical expertise in social media and emerging technologies. I now also advise on a wide range of social media related topics, from legal and professional issues to the more creative aspect of social media – advertising and public relations campaigns.

I also founded the online publication you are reading, The Vue Post, where I am now Editor at Large. Founding The Vue Post gave me skills in copywriting, copyediting, journalism and publishing.

Risk, learning, focus, perseverance and sacrifice … with a hint of social networking

In the past two decades I learned success comes from ignoring doubt and fear (but not instinct and common sense), taking considered risks, always learning, setting and focusing on goals, perseverance and good ol’ fashioned hard work and sacrifice.

If you decide to develop a new skill, it is best to select something you will enjoy. However, unless you are studying for purely intellectual satisfaction, there are a few more criteria for success.

First, if you are upskilling for a future career transition, you should research the area you are interested in, and create a plan for your transition. Identifying people in your area of interest who may be able to advise you about it can be also very helpful. This will guide you in selecting the right skills to achieve your ultimate goal.

Second, you should consider the realistic long-term feasibility of your chosen area, especially in the context of the global digital revolution that’s unfolding and transforming entire industries. The global economic realignment has already made a range of jobs defunct and the transition may accelerate in the next few decades.

Third, you should ensure the new skills you are acquiring are adaptable and transferable across a range of industries for maximum mobility.

Finally, we live in an age of social networking and the emerging share economy, offering new ways of communicating, making connections and delivering services. Engaging with people on social media and sharing your knowledge and ideas, will help you to create buzz for your personal brand, find the right mentors and, hopefully, the perfect career transition opportunity.

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