I changed my career path after 10 years in L&D - and this is what I learnt

(Everything represented and opined here is personal and is not vetted, endorsed or advocated by Entrepreneur First. This post is about my departure from EF and what I have learnt.)


In September 2016, I left a stable job to join one of the fastest growing companies in Europe - Entrepreneur First. It was a big leap of faith to change my career path, but I knew I had to take it when the opportunity arose. The role was to be a Programme Manager, handling the core programme that is responsible for transforming computer scientists and academic researchers into world-class CEOs and CTOs. The hypothesis is bold: They can help the most brilliant technical talent become deep tech entrepreneurs through a strict 6-month process of ideation, team building and product development, with constant guidance from exited tech entrepreneurs (who are Venture Partners with EF).

The result? A portfolio of more than 90 companies worth over US$500m, with three exits amounting to ~$270m in just five years of existing. This is the field EF plays in, and this is why EF wins. If you want to start a startup, but have no idea what you want to do and/or have no co-founder, EF is your best bet to build a billion-dollar company.

So back to last September, when I was offered the job, I couldn’t say no. And yet after a whirlwind 8 months, I find myself leaving EF.


Your Career Progress Must Be Linear

Co-founder of EF, Alice Bentinck, wrote a fantastic post that we share with our cohort of entrepreneurs titled 'How to Pivot Properly - Linear Ideation'. In a nutshell, it speaks of how one can pivot an idea positively and not destroy the value one has built up over time. (It’s a 4-minute read, I highly recommend you read it if you’re in a stage of ideating right now.) I think a person’s career has to work the same way.

Since 2005, I’ve been working in the Learning & Development space. Coming in as an entry-level facilitator, I learnt fast and grew quickly to leading full-scale education programmes, as short as 3 hours to as long as 2 weeks. After founding my company, we maintained the focus on L&D, trying our hand out at social enterprise and edu-tech as well. My involvement with a local established L&D company also revolved around programme management, entrepreneurship training and design thinking. One wonders how I found myself in the VC space - but my answer to that is that I pivoted my career.

I’ll go a bit further to say that pivots can be both positive and negative. They are positive if they utilise the learning and value you’ve gathered over time, but the change - if too drastic - can have negative consequences. I took with me the learning from managing programmes at an education level, and at a shorter timeframe, into this role. But the nature of the core programme run at EF is an intense mix of operational diligence and startup consulting, and every person in the team has to be able to juggle them well. Managing the transition did not pan out as smoothly as I’d hoped, and this had substantial repercussions down the road. As Michael D. Watkins says in his book The First 90 Days: “The actions you take during your first few months in a new role will largely determine whether you succeed or fail.”

I seize every opportunity I can to learn and grow, and on reflection I take with me some invaluable notes from this experience.

1. Make Sure Your Skills Match, But Don’t Rely On Past Successes

One of the reasons why I’m leaving is that over time, it became clear that what I am really good at isn’t what the core programme needs at its current stage. I excel in consulting, helping to condense ideas and messages into easy-to-understand terms, and all this is based off my experience as a trainer. But managing timelines over a longer period was something I picked up recently, and had to grow very rapidly in order to perform at the level required. The tricky part was how I thought I could use the time management skills I picked up from my programme management before, buy boy was I wrong.

In changing your career, you want to bring experience with you, but not let it be the definitive way of doing something. I think this is especially the case when you’ve been in one industry your entire career, or one job role, and took the scary step of venturing into an unknown space. The best way to manoeuvre around this is to apply your past skills on a broad level, but let your experienced colleagues show you the way they do it. Ideally, a perfect balance is struck between your own experience, your colleagues’ know-how, and what the job requires.


2. Management: Downward and Upward

I learnt a lot about management from my direct manager at EF, and how he was able to traverse the different levels of the organisation from the highest ranked officer to the interns. This is the most valuable skill to take from any experience, and at EF this holds truest. My previous experience in management has been confined to transient teams of high-performing operations and teaching staff, along with interns who are assigned big projects with autonomy, and this was greatly tested as I transitioned into managing a full-time team.

Transitioning into a manager’s role is never a walk in the park, no matter how long you’ve been managing or leading. Multiple stakeholders hold different impressions of your entrance, and something I saw the importance of first-hand was the power of one-to-ones. A one-to-one is a private conversation between yourself and your direct report, where your report highlights what he/she wants to according to what he/she is concerned about. It’s a chance for you to do an informal check on how they are doing; how they are feeling. And in the same way, you have a one-to-one with your manager as well. Ben Horowitz highlights this in his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things, and I take with me the paramount significance of having these conversations.


3. Adapting to the Team Culture - Fast

The company culture is where the unspoken rules are; where the subtle impressions lie; and where you can either feel right at home or stick out like a sore thumb. EF has a truly remarkable and pleasant culture where every team member is treated like family. You spend Monday mornings talking about how the weekend has gone, there are channels on Slack that discuss serious topics and also channels that talk about chocolates and goats, and every week there is a global check-in call. Call it a startup culture, call it a non-Singaporean thing, call it what you will - I had the best time there.

How well someone new fits in and feels at home is testament to the wonderful culture a company can create, but it takes two hands to clap: The new person has to be able to adapt. And not just adapt, but to adapt fast. People form impressions very quickly, and those impressions tend to stick (read Daniel Kahneman’s timeless book Thinking, Fast And Slow), and you want to let those impressions be rapport-building instead of effort-draining. Three pointers worth noting:

  1. Try to ask questions and discover (uncover?) more on the culture before your first day.
  2. Use the lingo and abbreviations that the company has.
  3. Spend as much informal time with the team as possible - EF has a lovely thing called Team Lunch, and I think this plays a big part in integrating people quickly.

Your Trajectory of Growth

Growth is such an important metric, not just for startups but for individuals. But sometimes the growth isn’t enough. Startups don’t hit the numbers they need to hit to in order catch up with the market; Individuals don’t hit the level they need to hit in order to catch up with the business. Something worth asking yourself, and your manager, is what kind of growth trajectory you need to succeed, and how this can be tangibly observed.

I don’t venture to think that I know enough about making transitions and career changes to be an expert, but I consider this such a valuable learning experience that I cannot help but think someone out there would benefit from knowing this. I am currently looking for my next challenge, and am looking to further my growth in Project/Programme Management, Consulting, or even to find a great opportunity to do some of that in the Learning & Development space again. Let me know if you know of anything like that out there.

Finally, best wishes to EF - I cannot be more grateful for the time I spent there. For people looking for a new challenge, they are currently hiring for some senior roles; and to future founders out there, the application to be build a deep tech startup from scratch is closing soon. Get in touch with them through the links above.