A cure for the professional identity crisis

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Over a brasserie table littered with architects’ drawings, Herminia Ibarra is fielding calls on her mobile. While the rest of Paris winds down for the summer, she is juggling wedding preparations with plans for repairing and moving into a new flat.

It will be a break from equally wide-ranging professional roles: research and teaching at Insead, where she is professor of organisational behaviour; conference appearances, including at this year’s World Economic Forum; and advising companies on leadership, diversity and talent development.

But it is precisely this multiplicity – the skills, in­terests and experiences people use to build a sense of professional identity – that fascinates Prof Ibarra in her academic work. “I’m interested in what happens when you hit major transitions and how that calls into question your sense of who you are,” she says.

A specialist in career development, she explores the strategies people use to find and adapt to a role matching their character and aspirations.

With a background in psychology, she began by studying informal networks, and their impact on career progression. “I found there’s a strong link between the kind of networks you build and your sense of who you are professionally. That’s what got me very interested in this idea of professional identity, which has really been at the fore of everything I’ve been doing since.”

Initially, she looked at people trying to take the next logical step within their chosen career – one that could prove surprisingly destabilising. This included consultants and bankers who were being asked to move from analytical work to client-focused roles. But she swiftly broadened her research to people considering more radical, mid-career changes. “I saw so many people around me having an identity crisis,” she says.

Over a three-year period, she tracked 39 professionals seeking to reinvent themselves, whose eventual solutions ranged from a manager deciding to become a trainer to a psychiatrist turning Buddhist monk. Her studies resulted in Working Identity, published in 2003, the book for which she is best known.

The key message is to ditch reflection and self-analysis in favour of action. Different facets of our personality mean we have a number of “possible selves”, but Prof Ibarra argues that successful change stems from testing these possibilities, in small steps, meeting new contacts who can guide a transition, and following opportunities as they appear.

For example, one interviewee considering a move away from investment banking spent more than a year experimenting with different roles – qualifying as a scuba-diving instructor and writing a business plan for a wine-tour business – before settling as a venture capitalist in a media company. “It’s all about having bigger horizons, and it’s all about trying things out,” she says.

The book struck a chord with the public, which she puts down to a widespread sense of instability over job security as well as heightened career expectations.

“Twenty or 30 years ago people expected less out of their jobs. Now, we want balance, we want challenge, we want fun, we want passion – and when you have all those expectations and then you have this job that bores you to tears and has no meaning, there’s a real sense of ­disconnect.”

For a specialist in career crisis, though, the Cuban-born academic has taken a smooth and single-minded course to the top of her field.

After acquiring a bachelor’s degree in psychology at the university of Miami, an interest in business led to an MA and PhD in organisational behaviour. Prof Ibarra has spent most of her career at Harvard Business School, where her courses included a case study of Margaret Thatcher’s rise to leadership. She moved to Insead in 2002, one of two female professors at the Fontainebleau-based business school.

Her latest project is tracking a group of executives who are moving from management to leadership roles. Many struggle, she says. “While the nature of the work changes a lot they do what made them successful in the past, and become a victim of their own success.”

The concept of professional identity is a recurring theme. When moving to a role that requires a substantial shift in behaviour – whether stronger emotional intelligence, better delegation or a broader sense of strategy – “it’s all about starting to see yourself differently and taking on a new identity”, she says.

This is the third article in a four-part series. For previous articles go to www.ft.com/womentowatch

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