How to turn an unexpected career pivot into your next great job

4 min read
Abby Sinnott
  •  Sep 4, 2020
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Many are facing unexpected career changes. While this can feel scary, it may be the perfect time to consider new opportunities and change the trajectory of your career. The important thing is to lean into the change and learn how to transfer your skills and expertise, says Elayna Spratley, design thinking program lead and coach at Duo Security.

She knows a thing or two about career pivots: Before kicking off her design career at IBM, she worked as a general manager at a radio station and as a school photographer; currently she runs a design, photography, and personal fashion styling business as a side hustle. Here, Elayna shares her top tips for successfully redesigning a career—whether planned or unexpected:

What did you want to be when you grew up?

My first dream was to be a background singer—I was always obsessed with music. And then it shifted during middle school and I wanted to be a radio DJ. I love the idea that radio and music can go with you anywhere. It was the one medium that you could take in the shower, the car, at work, etc. And I thought the relationship that DJs could create with their audience was really cool, especially those with the morning drive shift. I went to Bethune-Cookman University as a radio and television major.

What happened after you graduated?

The recession in 2007 hit the communications industry really, really hard. I ended up interning at V103 in Atlanta, which is the radio station that my favorite DJ, Ryan Cameron, worked. So I got to meet him! I thought, “I’m living my dream.” But then everyone in the production department was let go. It wasn’t until years later that I worked in radio again as a general manager at SCAD-Atlanta Radio.

You were unemployed for the next six months. How did you land your next gig?

I applied to as many jobs as I could. I dipped into this depression and feeling like, “Why did I get this degree in radio? What am I supposed to do now?” I ended up getting a job as a studio manager at an Olan Mills photography studio inside of Kmart. They were one of the few people that responded and had an opening. I also thought “maybe I just need to simplify what I want and love about radio.” So I decided that whatever job I had, it needed to include art, people, and technology for me to be at peace with it.

What did you learn from an unexpected career pivot?

First, it’s important to figure out who you are as a person and what excites you. Ask yourself: Where do I get energy? What sucks energy out of me? When do I enter the flow state? And think about the skills you can transfer to another job. For example, you might not think you’re a great manager. But if you think about what you’ve been doing in your household—especially during the pandemic—you’ll realize you already are a manager. You are an entrepreneur because you’re having to iterate every day on how you are supporting your clients (your family.) Don’t take for granted your previous work and life experience.

You also talked about developing an “elevator pitch” for yourself. Can you elaborate?

Having a mission statement or elevator pitch is like arming yourself with a really simple and succinct statement for interviews or cover letters. It can be something as simple as, “I am an empathetic leader who wants to drive innovation.” There’s an exercise you can use from frog Design called Mission Countdown that helps teams working together for the first time to create a mission statement. You start with 13 words, then you reduce it down to eight, then four.

We know that a lot of budgets are being restructured or cut. How can designers prove their value to their company?

It’s important to always be solving problems and documenting what has worked. The beauty of problem solving is that it gives you a new challenge and allows people to see you flex your design skills in a different space.

When I was at IBM, I was let go due to team cutbacks. But the very same day I had an interview for another team. I was the only person out of 10 people who had an interview, and it was because I was always helping the entire IBM studio solve problems, whether it was mentoring younger designers or running workshops.

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Do you have any tips for job hunting in the current climate?

I highly recommend Bill Burnett and Dave Evan’s amazing book, Designing Your Life. I often refer to it in my personal and work life. At the very beginning of the book, they break down the core practices of designers: be curious, try stuff, reframe problems, trust the process, and ask for help. That’s literally what you need to do when you’re job hunting.

Can you talk more about how to best reframe a problem?

Right now, if you’re unemployed, it’s especially important to reframe your problem—sometimes we’re not looking at the problem with the right angle. Your problem might not necessarily be that you don’t have a job right now. It might be more useful to tell yourself your story has changed. Reframe it. For instance, you might say, “I’m not currently working with a team that is aligned to my passions or my goals.” That’s all it is. You’re just currently not on anybody’s team right now. You’re just on your team.

What do you mean by asking for help when job hunting?

You probably have a designer friend who’s out of work. You might have a design research friend who is out of work and is really good at Googling and finding everything. Collaborate, use your skills. If you combine your resources together, you can actually span out your job hunt reach because it’s not just you. Each of you can designate different spaces to looking for work—maybe you’ll find jobs for all three of you.

A lot of companies are recruiting and hiring remotely. Any tips for crushing a video interview?

First step: Bring yourself! I came dressed today for this interview and did my makeup. Come ready. This is not the time to think, “ I’m just going to have my pajama bottoms on and throw on a suit top.” When you dress from head to toe, that energy comes through on the video. It adds a transition moment from the bed to the computer.

Prepare your mind as well. The only way you can bring energy to something is if you cultivate it inside of yourself. Some people love to take a walk around the neighborhood, others like to spend the morning quietly journaling by themselves. I do an internal energy practice in the morning, which is basically yoga-type stretches and meditation. That’s what fills me up. Some people just love the art of making tea. Whatever it is that brings you joy, let yourself have a quiet moment in the morning and detach from technology before you even start your interview. I’m a big believer that these video conversations not only take power from the wall, but they take power out of ourselves. They’re draining after a while. So you need to charge your battery in the beginning of the day and set an intention for yourself. My intention this week is compassion.

You talk about the importance of empathy when job hunting. Can you elaborate?

Creating something that is larger than you is so helpful when you’re on your job hunt—especially for very empathetic people like myself. There can be a tendency to just focus on yourself. But when you figure out what you can do for others, it will change your positioning in your interview. It helps you come off like a team player, and that you’re thinking about the big picture. Having empathy deepens your compassion and acceptance of other people. It makes your vision for your career more than just about yourself, because you’re not creating products for yourself, you’re creating them for people.

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