We’d call Herminia Ibarra a Renaissance woman if we didn’t think that description sold her a little short.

As a scholar, thought leader, best-selling author and speaker, Ibarra’s intelligence and drive catapulted her from a childhood as a Cuban refugee in Miami to a full professorship at Harvard Business School ― and now beyond.

Along the way, her research and best-selling books have transformed the way millions think about their jobs and go about realizing their career potential.

Roads Less Traveled

Ibarra holds a master’s degree and doctorate from Yale University in Organizational Behavior and is now the Cora Chaired Professor of Leadership and Learning at INSEAD, a graduate business school with campuses in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

We caught up with Ibarra between continents to gain her insights about actions that work for career reinvention and how her own non-linear career path led her to the lessons she now teaches.

Sobel: The Ivy League and Europe are a long way from your childhood in Cuba. Can you share a bit of your journey?

Ibarra: We immigrated to Miami from Cuba when I was a child. Culturally, young Cuban women did not go away to college back then so I attended the University of Miami. I majored in Psychology, and the head of the department nurtured my interest in research and in going to graduate school.

Connecting with Bill Sobel
Going to Yale was almost an accident. I was visiting the Organizational Psychology department at the University of Michigan, my top choice at the time, when I happened to run into a professor who was on leave from Yale. He convinced me I should go there.

The environment at Yale was amazing. The professor who recruited me, the late J. Richard Hackman, pioneered the study of team dynamics and he had assembled an interdisciplinary group of sociologists, psychologists, economists and behavioral scientists, all thinking about organizations. From Yale, I joined the Harvard Business School faculty and was there for 13 years.

In 2000, I went on a sabbatical to INSEAD to write “Working Identity” and ended up staying in Europe. So even though I haven’t changed careers, the big moves I’ve made have followed the research and advice I’ve written about in my books.

Sobel: Your 2004 best-selling book, “Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career,” describes how people can try on what you call “possible selves” to reinvent their careers. Can you tell us more?

Ibarra: When I started studying how people made big career changes, I was struck by how hard the process is, how so many people stayed stuck in what they knew was the wrong career. They could articulate clearly what they didn’t want or what they were trying to escape but not knowing what they wanted to do instead and not knowing how to find out was keeping them stuck.

The advice they were getting from so-called career experts ― to figure out what they loved and follow their passions ― was only making matters worse. I concluded that a “plan and implement” method based on introspection ― first figure out who you are and what makes you happy and then execute ― doesn’t work because the advice is backward.

By contrast, those who did manage to break out and find new and more satisfying careers were following a different pattern that I called “experiment and learn.” They were actively experimenting to discover what they might want, while at the same time equipping themselves to do it. That method isn’t a straight path and it takes time but it’s exhilarating and more important, it works.

Sobel: Your new book, “Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader” suggests people don’t have to change careers or even jobs to take on greater leadership roles. Can you share your thoughts?

Ibarra: People learn to lead by getting thrown into new assignments that stretch them, but the pace of change in today’s world is often much faster than the rate at which people get new roles and job titles.

The book shows how people can orchestrate their own transitions to demonstrate that they have the potential to lead at a higher level. It teaches them how to stretch the boundaries of their current jobs, networks and self-conceptions.

Sobel: I’m looking forward to your upcoming presentation at the World Business Forum in New York City in November. Can you give us a preview?

Ibarra:I’ll be presenting on the importance of experience over introspection. My headline message is that you can’t think your way out of an outdated mindset and that the most effective way to change is through action not analysis.

I’ll show how we can act ourselves into new ways of thinking through a process I call “outsight.” It’s the fresh, external perspective we get when we plunge ourselves into new projects and activities, interact with different kinds of people and experiment with new ways of getting things done.