Coaching myself as part of my career transition: Entering, and then sustaining, a transitional space by Caroline-Lucie Ulbrich
Understanding how I am developing my coaching practice has enabled me to become more aware and sensitive towards assessing how I apply what I do in coaching on myself, first, before advising others. I think it is important to “walk-the-talk” to demonstrate that a coaching approach is effective. It also helps with putting oneself in the coachee’s shoes – you have been there yourself and thus understand the potential difficulties of your counterpart. Let me share a bit more of how I coach myself.
Acknowledging a period of uncertainty
Entering, and then sustaining, my transitional space (as part of a career transition) requires resilience. Sustaining this period of psychological stress, it helps to remind myself that “this too shall pass”. To reiterate: a transitional space is a psychological space which allows a professional to reconnect to his/her creativity while embracing uncertainty and engaging in creativity experiments (changing behaviors, engaging in (identity) play, being open to novel ideas, possessing an elevated level of autonomy) (Mitchell & Bridges 2003, p.2; Reid & West 2011, p.177; Ibarra & Petriglieri 2008 p.10).
I think it’s crucial to acknowledge that as part of the psychological reorientation, uncertainty will occur. As professional identity shifts and evolves, many questions (and potentially self-doubts) emerge. Depending on how much importance one ties to one’s professional identity, this process can consume energy and cause stress. In my case, I caught myself looking in the mirror and wondering who I was. If I was not a management consultant anymore, had I morphed into a banker? Or did an entrepreneur look back at me? A fashion designer? A blogger? (Note that due to my fashion interest, I could easily dedicate a blog post to the significance of wardrobe choices and how a latent professional identity shift becomes visible through the formal business wear choices one makes.) Herminia Ibarra, an accomplished organizational development professor, refers to a multi-step process of change as “lingering between selves,” a phase in which “testing possible selves, both old and new” occurs (Ibarra 2004, p.12), requiring flexibility and adaptability (Ibarra 2004, p.3).
Necessary disposition: growth mindset and self-awareness
Entering a transitional space requires a certain mindset, a combination of increased self-awareness and a belief that one can grow (= change). While self-awareness can be enhanced through activities such as reflective journaling or regular conversations with a coach, achieving a growth mindset is a question of attitude and persistence. Carol Dweck, a renowned professor with an interest in mindsets, summarizes it: “Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset.” Professor Dweck cautions one to preserve it, as “fixed mindset triggers” exist in abundance, leading one to “fall into insecurity or defensiveness, a response that inhibits growth.” The latter points out that persistence is required to enter and sustain a transitional space.
Allowing emerging insights to unfold
Entering the transitional space very often is not a conscious activity. It cannot be likened to an individual waking up one day and deciding: “Today is the day when I enter my transitional space.” Quite the contrary, a shift occurs in a subtle manner, leading to incremental moments of reflection regarding one’s values, sense of self, identity, and career progression. Interestingly, I do catch myself looking into the mirror and wondering which professional self I see. To illustrate how Herminia Ibarra’s notion of “testing possible selves, both old and new” can be applied in a (self-)coaching context, let me briefly describe the use of a related playful activity: taking pictures of oneself.
Using identity play to enter the transitional space
I entered my transitional space (and regained access to my everyday creativity, which emerged as a strong wish during my transition) by creating photographic self-portraits and reflecting on them in writing. The rationale for doing so was rooted in my subconscious, as my written reflections highlighted: “On the way to the MRT [subway in Singapore], I perceive the photo booth out of the corner of my eyes. I walked by it so many times, but never consciously noticed it. This time, I invest SGD 7 [Singapore dollars] and took a “fashion shot” picture – consisting of four pictures of me against the backdrop of a “fashion” magazine. This reminded me of similar pictures I took when I was 23 and 24 years old as a student in Strasbourg and Tokyo.”
I entered this transitional space in a playful manner, not quite grasping what it signified. It was only much later, when I engaged in reflective journaling, that I realized that it opened the door to a transitional space. My journal entry stated: “It’s funny, because when I did [taking the photographs in a photo booth in Singapore], I felt like I was reaching out to that person that I was back then, I feel like it’s still there, I just have to reactivate it.” This activity can be likened to visual “identity play” (Ibarra & Petriglieri 2008): “… personal photography has become a medium through which the narrative of identity is explored, confirmed and negotiated (Holland 1997)” (Bloustien & Baker 2003, pp.69–70 – discussing a study on visual auto ethnographic practices).
At the beginning of my career transition, my professional role as a management consultant was deeply ingrained in me: “I had become so good at being a person and playing that role, that it was really difficult to say no to it.” Taking photographs of myself in a non-corporate attire and a playful manner (note the “fashion” cover) helped me disrupt this perception and view my identity as less bound to a role. Entering and remaining in a transitional space was required for this experience to unfold. My insight showing the progress in career transition emerged during reflective journaling: “I wonder whether the fact that I always preferred four of these pictures (and not one big one) was a clue. Did I always prefer possessing several (professional) selves, and not one? To express the different elements of my personality?”
Transitional spaces may serve as a “role-free” space, with professional roles losing relevance, and rapprochement to the self (or selves) occurring in the form of “identity play.”
Engaging in reflective journaling to sustain the transitional space
“RJW [reflective journal writing] promotes active and personal ownership of learning, critical thinking, understanding one’s own learning, facilitation of the learning experience, and the valuing of personal observation and knowledge.” (Estrada & Rahman 2014, p. 22). To be a powerful coaching tool, reflective journal writing should be combined with a personal goal to change – otherwise, there is a risk that the coachee will be cemented in a state of permanent non-action. Cognitive resources would be tied up by self-reflection as illustrated by a study of journal writers (Grant 2016, p.256).
What is your poison (your transitional space)?
Making sense of how I gave myself the necessary quality of attention to enter my transitional space mattered. I have created a fun and effective feedback loop that has helped me to grow and develop as an individual, taking accounts of the situation, reflecting on how I behave, and reconnecting to the outcomes I want to have more of in my professional and personal life. This requires time and resilience. Each coachee has a different approach to achieving this objective, e.g. it might consist of taking a cooking class, repeatedly drawing self-portraits, or listening to podcasts pertaining to personal growth.
As I still live in and confront the uncertainty tied to transitional space, I strongly recommend including a playful element to this chapter of professional (and personal) growth. Choose your poison well – you might require substantial quantities of it (and I am not referring to alcohol).
To connect with Caroline-Lucie Ulbrich
“Caro, you are so cosmopolitan” – this is what I often get to hear. German–French by birth, I have spent many years working as a management consultant and am slowly transitioning into more creative industries. Reflecting on transitions, career changes and the underleveraged roles of creativity and playfulness are part of this. I have a passion for maneki nekos (“lucky cats”), sustainable fashion and Vinyasa yoga. Slowly but surely, Asia has become my second home turf.
References & Bibliography
 Defining my transitional space as part of my career transition by Caroline-Lucie Ulbrich (guest)
Bloustien, G., & Baker, S. (2003). On not talking to strangers. Social Analysis, 47(3), 64-79.
Dweck, C. (2016). What having a "growth mindset" actually means. Harvard Business Review Digital Articles, 2-4.
Estrada, F. & Rahman, H. (2014) Reflective journaling writing as an approach to enhancing students' learning experience. Brunei Darussalam Journal of Technology and Commerce
Furth, G. M. (1988). The secret world of drawings: Healing through art. Boston, MA, US: Sigo Press.
Grant, A. M. (2016). Reflection, note-taking and coaching: If it ain't written, it ain't coaching! Coaching Psychologist, 12(2), 49-58.
Holland, J. (1997) Making Vocational Choices: A Theory of Vocational Personalities and Work Environments, 3rd Ed, Psychological Assessment Resources
Ibarra, H. (2004) Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career, Harvard Business School Press
Ibarra, H., & Petriglieri, J. L. Identity work and play 2008. Fontainebleau. INSEAD, 2008.
Kaufman, J. C., & Beghetto, R. A. (2009). Beyond big and little: The four C model of creativity.
Knowles, M. (1978). The adult learner: A neglected species., 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Gulf Publishing.
Reid, H. and West, L. (2011) “Telling tales”: Using narrative in career guidance. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 78, 2, 174-83