We spend a lot of time at work – especially as consultants. We want it to count. Turns out it is only natural to be nervous when making your first career choice. Overcoming fear is no joke!
We have a special treat for you, as our friend from the U.K. Erica Sosna – an expert career coach, author of Your Life Plan, and founder of Career Matters shares how to deal with the fear of making the wrong choice so you won’t let it hold you back.
Listen, I get it. You have a great degree and the world is your oyster. There are so many exciting choices for career paths out there. Mum and Dad have one view, your tutor another, your friends another still – and then there’s all these firms coming to visit campus, trying to persuade you that theirs is the right place for you.
Given all this noise, is it any wonder you are nervous about making the wrong choice? The need to overcome fear is a common theme in people’s career.
Maybe you are worried about choosing the wrong consulting firm? Or even really not too sure that consulting is the career for you.
I’ve spent nearly twenty years in consulting now and enjoyed setting up my own firm, but it wasn’t always smooth sailing. I’ve had to overcome fear in my own journey.
Be OK With Shift
The trouble with careers is, there is no real way to know if they are for you until you actually try them out. This can be in the form of a short internship or placement, or through taking the plunge and accepting a job offer. It may also be that you are in the right kind of role but in the wrong environment. A new role helps you learn more about what suits you. If the fit feels wrong, then one of two things will happen – either you will make a shift of department or specialist area or you might move out of your industry to try something new.
I promise you, it will be ok! But it sure doesn’t feel that way. In fact, when you are a square peg in a round hole, it feels like if you made a terribly wrong choice and that the world might end.
How do I know? I’ve been there, got the T-Shirt and survived it. In a moment, I am going to help you overcome the fear and anxiety, but first….
Let me tell you a story.
In 1999, when I was in my final year of Social History at Edinburgh University, I was in the exact same position.
I knew enough about myself to know what my core skills were. I loved writing, speaking, researching, explaining, and asking great questions. I knew that I wanted an unconventional career, filled with variety and interest. I had attended the presentations for final year students, where a variety of firms pitched what they could offer talented graduates. The only one I kind of liked was the Fast Stream Civil Service. This was a graduate programme to join the Government as a policy adviser. It seemed to tick most boxes. So I applied.
In the meantime, I saw an ad for an announcer on a TV station called Channel 4. They wanted someone to fill in the time between each of the programmes. To apply, you had to send over a sample of you responding to a variety of crises that would disrupt an audience from their evening viewing. I was so excited by this role at Channel 4 – but I didn’t know how to go about recording audio. Back then, you couldn’t just use your phone. So I didn’t apply.
A few months later, and I had jumped through all the hoops. The exams, the assessment centre and the panel interview and I had beaten the 100 to 1 odds of being selected for the Fast Stream. There was just one small problem.
I didn’t want the job.
I arrived at the HR department, a solemn, concrete building in the centre of London. It looked drab and grey and unfriendly and the people going in and out looked solemn and serious. Across the road was a quirky unusual building – made of metal and glass with external lifts and lots of fun-looking casually dressed people were milling around.
I walked up to the building to see who the company was.
It was the Channel 4 building!
And I realised, I was on the wrong side of the road.
Nevertheless, I took the job at the Civil Service. It felt too prestigious to turn down and I kept hearing the impressed intakes of breath when I described the work I was involved in – writing laws and tackling inequality. But I just wasn’t happy – though the work was fascinating, the culture was so uncomfortable for me that I felt like a square peg in a round hole. I lasted 18 months before being headhunted by a training company and I have been in the learning and careers field ever since.
My point is this:
It was not a mistake to join the Civil Service and I do not regret it. I learned so many useful things during my time in Government. I learned how to consult with stakeholders, how to write speeches, how to respond on the spot to challenging questions, how to explain a complex idea in a few words, and how to plan and implement a national or international project or programme. All of these skills made me the consultant I am today.
I also have a fantastic network of friends and colleagues at senior levels in Government. Plus, people still search on LinkedIn for former Fast Streamers, because they know we are a certain type of high performing character.
Whatever step you take now and however it pans out, there will be a huge opportunity to learn and grow.
So that’s me…how about you? If you’re thinking about consulting but worried it won’t fit – what should you do?
How to overcome career fear
- Accept fear and welcome it
First, you need to know that your fear is a natural and normal response to change.
We experience fear and anxiety because we are afraid of making the ‘wrong’ choice. We get to the edge of what is familiar or known to us and we start to feel outside of the comfort zone.
The comfort zone is the places, decisions, relationships and environments that we are familiar with. Like our University or college, our hometown, or our friends and family. When it comes to making a decision about your first big job, or about making a shift to a new career path, we come right up against the edge of our comfort zone. We are looking out into an unfamiliar territory and it is human nature to find this scary. We are actually designed to avoid change, risk and new things. That’s how we stayed alive as a species for thousands of years – by staying with what was known and familiar.
The Purpose Of Fear
In fact, we can actually welcome and appreciate fear once we know this, because the primary purpose of your fear is to keep you safe. OK, we no longer have to run away from a woolly mammoth, but we still want to protect ourselves from financial insecurity or getting fired or making a fool of ourselves.
So my first piece of advice is to know it and embrace it. And…. to really be open to discovering what works for you. If you are early in your career, you just don’t know. You have spent time at school and University and maybe in some summer jobs, but actually you have no real idea what the world of work will have in store for you until you get into it. So any choice, in any direction, is going to be useful for getting you off to a good start.
It Will Be OK
I’ve coached hundreds of career shifters in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Many of them had been very successful in career Number 1. So if you pick consulting now and change your mind later, I promise you, it will be ok!
But knowing this doesn’t make the fear go away. Here’s what does.
Tell a truthful story
Fear is, in truth, a fantasy of some disaster playing out in the future.
We make up a story about where our decision to say, join a consulting firm will take us and we come up with THE WORST POSSIBLE ENDING EVER.
This behavior is a phenomenon known as ‘catastrophic thinking’.
The brain aims to protect us from risk or disaster. To do this it has to convince us that what we are planning is risky. So it goes into overdrive to play out all the scenarios about what could go wrong. And to make sure it gets our full attention, it makes sure to come up with some high drama scenarios, rather than a mild mannered comedy of errors or a little inconvenience. This can make the thought of overcoming fear seem really far off.
Think about it. If your fear is a projection about the worst thing that could happen in your future, then it is just a story or a fantasy. If you are going to make up a fairy story about what could happen next in your life – why not make it good one? One with a really happy ending?
The Worst Case Scenario Exercise
Here is an exercise for you to overcome fear. Take out a piece of paper or open a document. On it, write out in detail, the worst case scenario. Really go for it. If your consulting role doesn’t work out, just how bad could it get? Do you end up on the street? Do you parents disown you? Do you get trolled on social media?
Really go into the fantasy.
Now you have it on paper, read it aloud to yourself. Does it sounds likely?
Usually once we have put it all down, the fear becomes a lot less frightening. We start to see that we may just be exaggerating a tiny bit and that even if the worst did happen , it is unlikely to be fatal!
Now turn the paper over and write a different story. Write the story of the best possible outcome. What would that look like for you? Paint as vivid a picture as you did with the catastrophe.
Read this one out too.
Now ask yourself – what could I do to help make sure that scenario B rather than scenario A is where I end up?
Take Ownership of Your Career
This exercise should have helped to reduce your level of anxiety. It has an additional benefit too. That is, it should have helped you to clarify what you want to move towards and what you want to avoid. This is invaluable for your decision making when it comes to picking the right firm or role opportunity.
Now you have to do your research. This will help you match what you want with what is out there. And it will build your confidence in making a good decision. With all the information at your fingertips there is no excuse for going into a career, role, or company blind these days. That’s what I did at the Civil Service. I watched the presentation. I studied so I would pass all the tests and exams. But I never really stopped to think “What will life be like working at Westminster?” I never asked anyone to share their experience with me, and I didn’t do any outreach to anyone else in the Fast Stream environment. In part, this was because I was in Scotland and partly because I applied not really thinking I would get in!
It was also because LinkedIn didn’t exist then.
Don’t be me!
Here are some actions you can take so you can explore if a company and role might match what you want out of life.
- Read Management Consulted’s annual consulting salary report. Check out the in-depth firm profiles covering firm culture, interview questions, and more.
- Connect on LinkedIn with current and former employees of the company. Have a virtual or in person conversation about their experience of working there.
- Ask your recruiter to connect you with someone who is currently in the role you are considering, so you can find out more about it.
- Read the company annual report and have a good look at the website.
- Go and meet the team you would be part of before you accept the offer.
- Have a strong set of questions to ask in interviews to test and explore the things that matter to you. Whether they are development, progression, assignments, or support and mentoring.
Fundamentally, consulting is about asking good questions. It’s about exploring and iterating. It’s about being able to do deep research and translate it into actionable strategies to enhance business performance. Projects might feel daunting in terms of scale, scope or opportunity – any time you are at a learning edge you might get into fear again.
Turning The Dial
However, these tools I have shared with you will serve you in good stead. Whether you are making a plan for your life or solving a complex client problem, working out the worst case and best case scenario is a very useful exercise. Follow this up by doing your research to help you move the dial toward the best case. It will help you to professionally and personally overcome fear. Most importantly, you will also make better quality decisions about your next steps in your consulting career.
Remember to use every experience to learn and grow. Since my time at the Home Office, I have thrived in consulting. I’ve had roles ranging from self-employment to large corporate, from diversity and people strategy to employee engagement and now careers. I’ve moved from working with others as part of a large team to having my own practice. If you are willing to be curious and to keep taking action, you can learn to trust your own judgment and keep moving in spite of the fear. You can learn to overcome fear!
By the way, seven years after leaving the Home Office, I was wearing casual clothes and running workshops for Channel 4 as a careers consultant. So I finally made it to the right side of the road.
Erica Sosna is a two time TEDx speaker, author and thought leader in the field of career matters. Erica has been a consultant since 2002. Her work has taken her all over the world and she has helped thousands of people in companies including HSBC, AXA and The Universities of Sussex, Brighton, London and Cambridge. Erica and her team at Career Matters help professionals overcome fear, find their direction, and make the right career choices, in their firm and beyond.