Strategies for those wanting to make a career or sector change

June 23, 2010

Many transitional executives contemplate career changes. It may be a career auto or general manufacturing sector executive questioning its future, or a large-company type who covets the chance to work in a smaller organization. Often, it is simply individuals longing to shed unfulfilling careers for exotic destinations as yet unknown. While such transitions are achievable, they are tricky and must be planned. It certainly will not happen simply by informing a headhunter of your ambitions.

First, the fundamental challenge in orchestrating dramatic career or sector change is managing the accompanying uncertainty. Potential employers struggle to evaluate candidates who have limited experience with their industry, products, markets, issues or stage of growth. They cannot easily anticipate the transitional challenges that the trucking sector executive will have moving into their telecommunications sector and thus they cannot easily ascertain the likelihood of success or failure. As a result, they deliberate at length, waffle or in many instances, push the reject button.

Meanwhile, search firms are hired to mitigate hiring risk for their clients so they also wrestle with the uncertainty that accompanies candidates from outside their clients’ comfort zones. Understanding this, job seekers must try to reduce the perceived risk by finding linkages or bridges to where they want to go. Bridges are the job seekers’ knowledge, contacts or experience that link the past to the desired future. It may be familiarity with certain markets, products, technologies or regulatory environments. It may be experience with certain processes, levels of complexity or problem sets. In the case of roles such as finance, human resources, or legal it is functional knowledge which cuts across a variety of sectors. Bridges reduce uncertainty by providing comfort that there is some connection between the candidates’ experience and the roles or sectors they seek going forward.

Consider the trucking sector executive we met last year who was determined to transition into the technology sector. He reasoned that his likeliest bridge to that sector was his knowledge of the trucking industry, its cadence, procurement patterns and key leaders. He spoke to the head of IT in his current organization about trends and emerging technologies which promised to impact the sector and he mapped the many technologies already in use. He researched the appropriate technology sectors, began subscribing to trade publications, joined industry associations, and attended tradeshows and functions. He networked with tech sector executives selling into the transportation market. Over coffees he discussed his aspirations while probing into their roles, skills and challenges. Each step educated him and validated that this was both a desirable and manageable move. Well-informed and prepared, the executive’s transitional aspirations resonated with headhunters and potential employers alike and he secured a role in an organization which marketed fleet management and telematic systems. Though this was not his final destination it was the critical ‘foot in the door’ en route to recreating himself as a technology sector executive. While not everyone will find bridges this readily, the process of looking for and building upon them will pay dividends for anyone embarking on a journey to a different future.

Cost is another key consideration for those contemplating dramatic career changes. A form of tuition is often demanded from the individual seeking to be educated in a new career or industry. It may be a reduced role, title, or compensation while the executive demonstrates the ability to adapt and contribute to a new employer. The more dramatic or unlikely the transition the higher the tuition one can expect. To illustrate, I recently met the President of a high growth media company who mentioned that he was previously employed by a scrap metal company. When asked about this unusual career path, he explained, “I spent 15 years in an industry which I fell into and which no longer interested me. I wanted to get into the media industry but there were few obvious links between the two sectors. I was determined however so despite having been General Manager in my last company, I convinced this organization to hire me as a sales person and worked my way up. It took a little while but it was worth it”. Though such tuition may be too steep for the mid-career executive with financial and family obligations to meet, the issue of tuition is important and should be factored into any transitional plan.

Search consultants and job seekers share a common interest in good hiring decisions. For the search consultant it is marrying complex client requirements with candidates who will thrive in those environments. For job seekers it is making career changes, sometimes dramatic, that will fit their interests, talents and aspirations. While uncertainty always hovers as a risk factor, with proactive planning and preparation it can be managed for the benefit of all concerned.

About Author

Robert Hebert, PhD is Managing Partner of Executive Search Firm StoneWood Group Inc. He can be reached @ rhebert@stonewoodgroup.com or at 416.365.9494x777