01/04/2012 01:42 pm ET Updated Mar 05, 2012

Career Advice: 5 Steps To Transform Yours Now

By Linda Descano, CFA® President & CEO, Women & Co.

For some of us, life is a series of predictable steps in more or less the same order. School, college, career, marriage, kids. But lately, I've been talking with friends and colleagues about the reality of the lives we are living versus the vision we once had. Naturally, a number of those conversations have been around what it means to live a more "meaningful" life, and the efforts we're each making to achieve that.

For some women, the pursuit of a meaningful life includes a spiritual journey to renew their faith. For others, it means ramping up their community service work. And for some, like my friends Karla Brom and Julie Brosterman, it's the challenge of re-envisioning their professional lives and turning their passions into their work. What they've demonstrated is that it's never too late to reinvent yourself professionally, but it does take discipline, perseverance and a willingness to take a chance. With their input, I'd like to offer you these ideas to get you started if you are thinking about a career reinvention.

1. Get over the "fear factor."

Change is frightening for most of us. It's natural and appropriate to worry about the possibility of failure, jeopardizing your financial security, or reneging on your obligations to others. But sometimes we get so caught up in what we stand to lose that we forget to consider all that we stand to gain. And, we forget that we are driving the timetable and parameters for making this change. Says Karla, "I knew that I had the personal wherewithal to make the change from working for a large company to working for myself, but was concerned about my financial health. After taking a hard look at my finances, I decided that I could afford to make the transition because I had saved enough (mainly through bonuses) to cover two years of fixed costs. This enabled me to focus on getting myself ready professionally."

2. Take inventory.
"Begin at the beginning and that means taking stock of where are you today," says Julie, who went from working in the mortgage industry to founding Women & Wine®, a lifestyle company and social media platform community for savvy women who love wine, food, travel and more. "Take inventory of your skills and competencies, accomplishments, and your values, from what you find satisfying to the type of work environment in which you thrive. This will provide a baseline for measuring your "fit" with the field you want to pursue."

3. Do your homework.
Leverage your network to connect with people in your chosen field to help you better understand the current state of that industry or sector and the types of job opportunities that exist today and are likely to exist "tomorrow." Karla says, "Don't just focus on the obvious, such as marketable skills, but also inquire about the intangibles, such as workplace culture, scheduling flexibility and so forth." She adds, "Networking is a great way to raise your visibility and start positioning yourself as a serious job candidate."

4. Close the gap.
Based on your research, compile a list of the critical skills and competencies associated with these opportunities. Then, compare this list against your baseline inventory to assess your "fit," and identify what additional skills, training or even education you need to make a successful transition. In some cases, it may mean going back to school to obtain certain licenses or certifications. However, in many circumstances, it comes down to acquiring or honing skills through on-the-job experience. Internships and volunteering are means of gaining experience. When she was planning her transition from traditional finance to microfinance, Karla provided unpaid advisory services to a small consultancy working in the microfinance sector. Not only did this give her practical work experience, the exposure eventually led to her first paid job opportunity in the field.

5. Form a support group.
Both Julie and Karla sounded out their goals, plans and anxieties with a small group of friends as a way of testing their thinking, refining their transition plans and helping them objectively look at seemingly insurmountable roadblocks.

While the action plan sounds linear, both Julie and Karla worked on various steps at the same time. And, there's clearly some overlap between the steps. I wish that I could say this plan is fool-proof, but I think you understand that there are no guarantees regardless of whether we're talking about careers or investments. I hope, though, that these tips will help you dream a bit bigger as you re-imagine the next phase of your career.

- Linda Descano, CFA®, President and Chief Executive Officer, Women & Co.

Linda's commitment to helping women maximize their financial ambitions brought her to Women & Co. in 2003. Prior to joining the team, she served as a Director and Portfolio Manager with the Citi Private Portfolio Group and Senior Vice President and Director of Environmental Affairs for the Citi predecessor company, Salomon Inc. She recently received a 2011 Luminary Award from Womensphere® and the Urban Zen Foundation honoring her for the work she does in actively changing the lives of women and was named the New York recipient of the 2009 Corporate w2wlink Ascendancy Award for her career achievements and her dedication to mentoring women.