Vanda Forward on successfully navigating career changes

everywomanClub member Vanda Forward has had a career in three parts. After nearly two decades at JP Morgan, first in learning & development and later in client services, she took a career break which lead to the establishment of her own, high-profile consultancy. Then, after six years at the helm of her own business, she was tempted back to corporate life in her first formal HR role by her client, general insurance company LV=.

Recently appointed as their Group Talent Manager, she shares with the everywomanNetwork her secrets for successfully manoeuvring changes in direction, and what she’s learned along the way.


“It’s good to step back occasionally and mentally re-apply for your role.”

Whether or not you’re looking to change direction, if you’ve been doing the same thing for a while, it’s good to evaluate your performance. I joined JP Morgan as a Junior Manager, there were around 250 people in the division. The majority were recent hires like myself with no knowledge and training was virtually non-existent. I tried to resign but was counter-offered the challenge of solving the training issues, which I accepted. At intervals I consciously tapped into how demands were shifting and what I needed to change in accordance with that. Ask yourself: If I were coming into this role in its current form as an outsider, what would the business expect of me? And how am I measuring up to that expectation as someone who’s come up through the ranks?


“Redefine your personal brand by distancing yourself from your past role.”

That was the advice a new boss gave me when I switched roles within a company. Your new colleagues need to recognise you for what you’ll bring to your new role. That doesn’t mean you can’t offer insight, but it’s important to resist getting drawn into meetings, conversations or projects that will reinforce the image of you as an expert in your previous line of work. When moving from education into client services within JP Morgan, I did that by delegating education-based tasks to members of my team. I didn’t disassociate myself completely from my past area of expertise, but I did do a lot of thinking around my personal brand, and how I could make authentic tweaks – mostly through my terminology and the conversations I got involved in – to stamp my credibility in my new position. It helps to have a good understanding of what your new job is going to demand of you, and what transferable skills you’ll be bringing to the table. For me, what tied together my old and new roles was being able to relate to people, so I was able to use my empathy and listening skills albeit in different scenarios.


“Success isn’t always about having a five-year plan; but you do have to be attuned to good opportunities.”

I’d love to say that starting my own consultancy was in my grand plan, but I’ve never been the type of person to have a five-year career strategy. I’m more in the camp of ‘If you try and do the best you can at what you do, opportunities will come up’. That’s certainly how it was for me when I left JP Morgan with the intention of taking a long break. I’d never taken time off before – my husband stayed at home when the children were young - and after a serious illness, and a job involving lots of travelling, my intention was to spend a few years recuperating and working on personal projects – becoming a magistrate and renovating a house in Italy. Then one day I took a call from a former colleague, who invited me in for a chat about some consultancy work, and it gradually grew from there. But even after I’d done a few stints as a consultant, there was no business plan as such; more a general idea of how I wanted it to pan out, and a willingness to be bold and test the water from time to time.


“You don’t have to say yes to absolutely every opportunity that comes along.”

If you’re not a planner, it can be tempting to just grab at every passing thing. For me this comes back to brand. There are people who are prepared to wing it, and they’re very good at it. But I personally need a degree of confidence that I’m absolutely the right person for any role. So if I hear from a client who wants me to do some work that I feel is best suited to someone else, I’d feel it would be compromising my personal brand to be anything less than open about that. Having the confidence to do that comes from knowing what you’re good at, being honest about what you’re not willing to do, and sometimes being prepared, in the right circumstances, to learn as you go along – even if that means appearing confident while furiously paddling away below the surface!


“If you’re facing a big interview, having a contingency plan gives you confidence.”

I’ve only ever had two interviews: for my very first graduate job at Barclays Bank, and later for my current role. Crafting a CV and going through a formal four-stage interview process for the latter was an interesting experience after so long! What helped calm my nerves was having a Plan B I felt comfortable falling back on if things didn’t go my way.


“If you want opportunities to find you, people have to know who you are and what you’re all about.”

You can visit career websites and apply for roles that might already be earmarked for someone else by the time you’ve read the job description, or you can put your energy into knowing the right people and making yourself known to them. After all, a head hunter’s whole reason for being is networking, and they’d much prefer to look at who they already know, than spend money advertising for an expert in a particular field. So if you’re looking to transition into a new career, look online at which agencies and consultancies are recruiting in that area, call them up and invite them for coffee to pick their brains. People tend to be very generous with their time when they’re asked to share their expertise. I’d always advocate for face-to-face rather than phone; down the line they’ll be focussing on what skills you have or lack, but in person they might see qualities that can be of real value to their clients. They can also give you practical advice on what tactical things you can do in your current position to better position yourself for the area you’ve set your sights on.