Leading an industry - does changing careers make it more difficult?

People change careers for a variety of reasons, including more money, better job satisfaction or simply because they can. Jobs for life are no more, and several career changes, spanning multiple industry sectors, are the norm.

The question is; does regular job-hopping damage your chances of making it to the top of your profession or industry? Apparently not, as some of the most successful people in business started out on a career path far removed from the one that eventually made them happier, healthier, richer, and more satisfied with life.

The Virgin Group might never have happened if a (very) young Richard Branson’s early foray into breeding budgies had taken off in a big way. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings first job after leaving school was selling vacuum cleaners door to door, and enjoyed it so much that he deferred college for a year to keep doing it. And had Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz carried on working in sales at Xerox, where he started as a graduate, Starbucks may never have been part of the global café culture. Of course, these are examples of first jobs rather than careers, but they prove that you don’t need to follow a linear career path to get to the top.

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And there are many business leaders who did make more traditional career switches and never looked back. Before he founded the global digital media powerhouse that is Buzzfeed, Jonah Peretti’s career was in education, where he taught computer science to middle school pupils at a school. That led him to attend MIT where he worked on projects designed to create 'viral' internet content.

TV Dragon Peter Jones' journey to the Den was never part of his original career plans. As a youngster his heart was set on being a top tennis coach, originally teaching the game at a tennis coaching centre, where he also learned how to run a business. After passing the Lawn Tennis Association exams, he set up his own tennis school and continued to coach. But Jones had been bitten by the business bug, and in his twenties he launched his own computer business, a move that marked the start of a hugely successful career as an entrepreneur.

Read: How Virgin helped me change careers

Julie Meyer is founder and CEO of investment firm Ariadne Capital, whose post-graduate career took her to France where she taught English to French executives in the tech sector. A decade later she co-created First Tuesday, a networking forum that connected entrepreneurs and investors.

With many of the career changes made by future business leaders there are clear links, where experiences in their early working lives inspired them to make a career move that gave them greater ownership of their career ambitions and aspirations.

But some executive career moves have been radical. Douglas Haig, managing director of the Seraph Group, is also Vice Chairman and Director for Wales of the Residential Landlord association. However, before becoming a senior figure in the property sector, he had worked as an astrophysicist.

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He said: "After studying, I had a job to go to in the US, but I knew that my heart wasn't in the subject. I looked at commercialising the technology that we’d developed, but this was already tied up with another company and terms couldn't be agreed. I really felt like I wanted to start my own thing."

As a sideline, he had been buying and doing up property, using funds he had raised with some investors. It seemed a sensible option to explore and at the end of 2008 he launched his own business.

Read: How to fight a robot for your job

"Initially it wasn't a deliberate change," says Haig. "The decision to leave the world of astrophysics was hard. The work was incredibly exciting, and I met some incredible people. I still wonder if I made the right decision but ultimately I would always have this desire to set my own business up."

He now works longer hours, and with the business reinvestment, would probably have been financially better off in his previous career, but he says he enjoys being in control of what he does, and is satisfying a lifelong desire to run a business and take opportunities as they come.

Many career experts say that switching careers can add a diversity of experience that works in the favour of those striving for the top. And once they are there, it remains an option when career wanderlust strikes again.

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Jude Jennison spent 16 years as a senior leader at IBM, her most recent role being European Skills Leader. Feeling that life in such a high-pressure role had run its course, she gave it up to launch her own leadership consultancy, The Leadership Whisperers, using horses to provide experiential leadership development programmes.

"It was while I was on a year’s sabbatical, completing a leadership programme, that it became clear about the vision of how I wanted my life to be and the impact I wanted to have in the world," she says. "I’d done everything I wanted to do in IBM, I knew that the next promotion was more of the same and I was ready for a different challenge."

Jennison had previously trained as a coach and was coaching people in IBM alongside her main role. "The pressure people are under in business is immense and I realised the impact I was having through coaching was huge, sometimes life-changing for people and I wanted to widen this impact.

In her new role as business owner, she says wellbeing and job satisfaction improvement are off the charts. "When I left my corporate career, I left a very well paid job and we halved our family income," she says. "We sold our house and moved to a smaller house in a cheaper location in order for me to follow my desire of running a business. This is by far the hardest job I’ve ever done, but it’s also the most fun I have ever had."

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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