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‘Making a career pivot is a series of transition moments.’ Rising Sideways lessons from Karmen Tang

When I think about people who don’t let traditional boundaries or job descriptions get in the way of their career journey, my friend Karmen Tang always comes to mind. When I first met Karmen in my previous company, she was our Financial Controller at Iris Singapore (an advertising agency.) Since then she has pivoted into her own entrepreneurial venture starting another startup story, a business consultancy and coaching platform where she marries her expertise as an ACA qualified chartered accountant with her love for creativity. Did I mention that she’s also a podcast host and model too?

While she was telling me about her journey, she realised that it has been full of various transition moments on the path to unlearning what society primed her to pursue. In her early years, she spent time and effort to undergo grueling exams to become a Chartered Accountant. At first she was afraid to ‘throw all the hard work away,’ thereby starting her career in finance. However, along the path to discovering more about herself, the creative industry kept calling to her. Read our conversation below about the different types of pivots she took to Rise Sideways on her path to personal fulfilment.

When people usually talk about making a pivot, it feels like one moment in time. But as you pointed out, your journey has actually been filled with all these different transition moments. Is there a difference between a mini and major pivot?

I'm trying to pinpoint the major pivot in my journey because there’s actually been layers of pivots that happened throughout. It wasn’t just the pivot from finance to the creative industry, but it was also the mindset pivot from being an employee to having your own business. The major pivot is usually the scariest one which for me, was probably leaving my full time role and going full throttle with another startup story.

There are many different types of pivots. There’s the functional kind (i.e. from employee to employer, from one industry to another) but I want to talk to you about the emotional pivot. Is there a difference between the small and big emotional pivot. What were those emotional pivots for you?

My first transition was from auditing to consulting and this didn’t feel as scary because I was still in the same company and industry. I was still in this safe haven. Even when I left to join an advertising company, I didn't feel like it was a pivot because I was still in a finance role, but the difference was that I was going to be working in a creative environment. The scariest part for me was going full time to start my own thing. It was very emotional because you’re suddenly in a situation where you have to go and get new clients. So much has to be done before you ever start the work itself. All the responsibility is on you.

Another way to think about the mini pivots is that they’re actually just baby steps that prepared you for the big pivots. So can you talk about the small things that people tend to forget but are important by the time you have step up and do things and fly.

There’s that quote about jumping from a cliff and building a parachute on the way down. That’s how it feels like. There are a lot of little things you can do in the run up but you’ll never really know until you make that jump.

For me, what I learned is to be on that constant path of understanding who you are. We get conditioned a lot by our society. I ended up doing Economics and an accounting graduate scheme because I thought that was society’s rule to guarantee success. You make choices as a result of your environment versus listening to your own unique talents. Growing up I was always good at art. Art was the one thing I really excelled at and everything else was average.

Earlier you said that you did all these things to earn your degree and become an accountant. And you said this line ‘why am i going to throw it all away.’ I think a lot of people that I speak to feel that. Why should they make a change and ‘throw it all away’ when they spent years developing this one career. Can you talk me through what you meant by that and is it true that you threw it all away or is it about finding a new way to apply that in whatever you do right now?

For anyone who has completed the ACA accountancy exams will know that those are some of the toughest exams. For me, making a transition from finance meant a big opportunity cost, in terms of time spent for doing the exams and also taking a huge salary cut.

Even when I wanted to move from Audit to work ‘in industry’, I was looking at the creative industry and I remember all the recruiters asking me ‘are you sure you want to go into the creative industry? It’s going to be a 20% lower pay cut vs going into the finance or tech industry.’

But I never felt like I was throwing everything completely away. I felt like my corporate experience actually gave me an edge. If i had continued to stay in the finance role and worked my way up I would be earning more than what I was earning when I was first starting the company.

But now, I'm genuinely excited and passionate about what I do. A few extra $$ is not really going to bring that much value to the joy that you get from doing what you love. You can always earn it back. That’s the beauty of entrepreneurship. One month you can have really low income but the next month it is really high. It’s all up to you. It’s not capped.

Making a pivot is a very brave thing to do. There are a lot of people who will keep asking ‘are you sure, are you sure, are you sure.’ I’m curious. If you could give advice to someone who’s hearing that, what would you tell them?

I was lucky in that I didn't receive so many negative ‘are you sure’s?’ along my transitional journey. I had built a network leading up to the transition so I had a lot of people to turn to for advice before I made the big leap. Most of them just told me to do it and whatever happens, you’ll figure it out. There’s always going to be challengings along the journey and it’s so important to have that network of friends and mentors who can emotionally and strategically support you. I call it my personal board of advisors.

When I posted the interview with Rahat, you commented that you really resonated with the tension between her corporate and creative identity. How have you come to terms with the different sides of you? You were accountant Karmen before, but now you’re a creative podcast host and model Karmen.

People are multifaceted. Pigeon-holing someone is like saying ‘you’re a doctor, so that means you’re only interested in doctor things.’ Doctors have hobbies too. I think there’s a thing to be said about not turning all your hobbies into a career or money generating venture, but if you can make money from your passions, then why not. It’s just about listening to your unique desires and dreams. It goes back to conditioning and why many people choose a career they’re not happy in - because they listened to what their friends and family told them to do. I think a lot of people are starting to awaken to this.

I’ve noticed that you treat your projects as less of ‘I have to make a career out of it’ and more of ‘What new skills can it teach me?’

I recently went to a casting for a TV commercial and I had to act out certain scenarios. I realised how hard acting is. But I also became a lot more self aware of how I expressed myself. I wouldn't say I developed a skill from this one experience, but it did make me more aware of my posture, my angles, and how I speak in terms of my tone of voice which can be a transferable skill in business.

I love this. Side projects and passion projects are not necessarily a new thing but i feel like the reputation that it gets is that you always have to commercialise with the intention of quitting your job. That’s not the point. It’s about experimenting, gaining new skills, getting feedback and applying it to whatever your main hustle is.

Last two questions! When is the right time to pivot and when should you not and just stay where you are.

I don’t think there’s ever a right or wrong time. You have to trust your intuition. I know it sounds cliche but it’s true because you’re the one going through the transition. No matter what people tell you, you have to really believe that you want to and that it’s the right thing to do. I could sit here and tell you all the practical tips but you really have to be in tune with yourself and surroundings. Are you doing it out of fear? Do you have the financial runway to do so? What other commitments do you have?

Millennial culture has created this ‘we want it fast and now’ mentality and instant results. Every transition you make, you have to have the intention of being in it for the long term. Don’t treat it lightly, trust your intuition and timing.

What does rising sideways mean to you?

I think it’s making a lateral move. We live in this culture of ‘go, go, go’. I think the pandemic has been an incredible analogy to teach us to stop, pause and reset and if that means taking a sideways step that’s fine. This only means that you will be propelled to run further as opposed to continuing in the wrong direction. Sometimes moving sideways doesn’t mean you’re moving backwards. It means you have more clarity to move forward in a more sustainable manner.

With over 8 years of industry experience in corporate and agency environments, Karmen is a strategy executive who focuses on the management and growth of modern brands. As an ex Financial Controller of a global creative agency; she has specialist knowledge in business and marketing strategy, and content creation. With her creative flair and business acumen, Karmen continues to create meaningful digital solutions for brands with purpose and authenticity for the modern world. As a business coach and the principal consultant, she’s always on the search for new methods and experiences to up-skill and educate individuals on the creative process, communication, personal development and entrepreneurship.

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