Herminia Ibarra on working identity

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Herminia Ibarra on working identity

May 15, 2024

Linear career paths are passé now. How do you steer a career reinvention?

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by Emanuele Savettiere
Photos by Rob Percy

Herminia Ibarra, an expert on career development, organizational transformation and leadership, emphasizes how your professional identity defines you across time and during career transitions.

In the ever-changing landscape of the contemporary world, the concept of a career is undergoing a transformation. Many individuals are diverging from the traditional linear career paths and weaving unique professional and personal identities. Breaking away from convention provides a fertile ground to explore new avenues and accomplish new goals.

In this interview conducted during the Global Peter Drucker Forum, Herminia Ibarra, professor at London Business School and author of Working Identity, walks us through the idea of work identity and the nuances of career reinvention.

A question of identity: Herminia Ibarra believes that our work identity becomes central to who we are and that can get in the way of a career reinvention.
A question of identity: Herminia Ibarra believes that our work identity becomes central to who we are and that can get in the way of a career reinvention.

What is work identity, and why is it important?

It has two meanings: One is your identity in what you do with your professional identity, but also working your identity like you would work it like a draft. So why is it vital? Work is our whole life. We work long hours; we train for it, and it's our calling card. It affects everything. The story we tell about who we are is based on what we do.

"Broad professional identity is something that's very enriching, that helps you position yourself; but when it's just tied to one role in one organization, it's not healthy."
Portrait of Herminia Ibarra

Herminia Ibarra

Charles Handy Professor of Organisational Behaviour
London Business School

How does work identity relate to professional reinvention?

There's a difference between tying yourself to a professional role and tying yourself to a professional identity. A professional identity is much broader than a single role. It's about the experiences and skills and values and preferences that define you over time. And I think it is important to define yourself in that sense. Broad professional identity is something that's very enriching, that helps you position yourself; but when it's just tied to one role in one organization, it's not healthy. Because your work identity is so central to your sense of who you are, it's hard to leave something when you don't have something else. So in the best of cases, you're thinking, "I don't love this anymore," but you have this new thing that's pulling you that's exciting and attractive. But when you don't have that thing that's attractive, you kind of hang on to the old. And it's that sense of identity: I am – I have invested in this. For example, I had somebody whom I interviewed who was a brain surgeon, and he had been training forever – all his life. And he didn't really enjoy it very much – he wanted to work in health care policy. But the idea of throwing away all those years of investment was horrible. And this sense of identity as a doctor, as a surgeon, was really holding him back from exploring other possibilities.

How can we deal with failure that might come with professional reinvention?

Ideally, if you fail, you're failing on a small basis. Fail fast, as in, "I tried it, but it didn't work. Next." What's tougher is when you say, "Okay, I quit." But you don't know what it is instead. You don't find something and run out of money. It depends on what you're qualifying as a failure.

When we fail, it's because we tried something that wasn't as exciting or interesting as we'd hoped, but it gives us information to move on. Find things that you can explore that teach you about possibilities. But a lot of times what happens, especially today as more people are losing their jobs, is people haven't experimented. Their networks are very narrow. They lose their job and don't know where to start. And so they have to start from scratch.

We are hearing of ideas like “portfolio careers” and how we must think of careers differently today. How does work identity play out in such cases?

Your identity is your sense of who you are and how others see you. Identity is social. I can't say, "I'm an entrepreneur", and nobody else believes that; everybody else thinks "I'm just a corporate hack." It doesn't work—it has to go both ways. In a portfolio career, it's hard for people to categorize and place you, so there's always that type of ambiguity. Oftentimes, a portfolio has a core: They're all based on my financial skills, for example. And sometimes it doesn't, like ‘slash’ your career.

[Instead], it places additional demands on you to narrate a compelling story that explains the reasons behind any career change or unconventional career. There isn't a simple shorthand. There's not a bullet point quick answer to all of that: some people are fine with it, and some people struggle. And when they struggle, it's usually because they themselves don't fully understand what's at the core of what holds it all together.

Herminia Ibarra

Herminia Ibarra is the Charles Handy Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School. Prior to joining LBS, she served on the INSEAD and Harvard Business School faculties. She is the author of Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader and Working Identity.

Do you think the fast-paced changes in careers happen because people chase their own happiness, or is it more about companies not keeping up with these changes and sticking to old, linear patterns?

It's both. There are lots of different reasons why. First of all, we're living longer, and it gets boring to do the same thing for 60 years in a row. So, the longer we live, the more we're going to be making changes. Second, technology is changing everything, so some jobs are not going to exist anymore, and others are going to be done differently. Companies are streamlining and downsizing, doing layoffs and all that. And then a fourth factor is people wanting happiness, meaning and purpose. Companies don't necessarily want that linear path anymore.

What's difficult is we don't have very many market intermediaries when your career is nonlinear. So, if your career is linear, you can get promoted on your career path in your company, or you can go to a headhunter on LinkedIn. When it's non-linear—I was in finance, and now I'm an entrepreneur in the wine industry—no headhunters touch you because you haven't done it before. So it's not that the company wants a non-linear career; it's that we don't have institutions that support it.

The only one we have is you go back to school, and then you have a different degree that allows you to move on. But that's just one example. We don't have enough elements that certify that now you're bonafide qualified to go and do this.

What were some of the most interesting examples of professional reinvention you came across in your work?

There are all kinds. Right now, I've been following somebody who was a lawyer and then worked in corporate compliance and is now becoming a documentary filmmaker. One of the first stories in my book was about a guy who was a psychologist and ended up becoming a Buddhist monk. It's about moving into different areas.

About the author
Portrait of Emanuele Savettiere
Emanuele Savettiere
With a background in Fashion Design and a tenure at Harper's Bazaar (Italy), where he worked on research and editorial activities with the then Editor-in-Chief, he joined the Think:Act magazine team in 2023.
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