The Perils of Running in Place

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If you're one of the few who've spent years and years honing your skills at a single firm, you might face some extra hurdles on the way to your next job. Here are some tips on getting around them.

In today's market, remaining at the same firm for an entire career is about as likely as winning at roulette in Vegas. An Ivy League pedigree may get you in the door at Merrill Lynch, but to be a lifer there - well, that requires a healthy dose of good luck. But what if you're one of those rare, proud owners of a plaque commemorating your 30th anniversary? Could such a milestone be a liability if you're contemplating a move?

Most career experts say yes: Remaining at a single firm for many years presents a number of problems, ranging from old habits that may not transfer to sending an unwitting message about your willingness to take on new challenges.

Old Culture, New Culture

Hiring managers may view an individual who's stayed in one place as being too ingrained in a corporate culture. Each firm has its own way of doing things, from who handles due diligence to what's accepted office attire. As a result, you may be deemed less likely to quickly assimilate to a new culture.

To overcome this, think about ways in which you've displayed flexibility at your firm. This can be anything from tackling evolving job responsibilities to joining committees formed to address business and workplace issues. Focus on the different hats you've worn, from mentoring young professionals to training staff at an overseas office.

Lori Schmaltz, of career consultant Lee Hecht Harrison, says you should also reflect on why you chose to stay at the firm for so long, and craft your reasoning into a discussion with the hiring manager considering you. For example, maybe you were consistently presented with new opportunities at your firm, so it made sense to stay on.

Aversion to Change?

However, staying in one place can say something about how you view change. Specifically, it can show that you possess an aversion to risk, says Richard Lipstein, of Boyden Executive Search. Employers might see you as someone who fears new challenges - everything from using new skills to working with new people. For example, they'll see a red flag if you've spent years at an inferior firm or your pay hasn't been commensurate with the market. If you do something where demand is high - such as portfolio management - and haven't moved to a firm with a better track record, your complacency could be held against you, he says.

If you're in this group, be sure to explain how you stayed on top of your game. Did you seek out professional development? What professional associations are you involved in? Did you apply your skills in different settings, such as volunteer organizations? Much like someone who's had many jobs over their career, it's critical that you communicate accomplishments in order to demonstrate your value to the hiring organization.

Lee Hecht Harrison recommends that candidates in transition follow four steps: First, describe the situation to a potential employer. Next, describe the obstacles you faced. Third, list the actions you took to resolve a problem or achieve an objective. And, finally, explain the results you helped obtain and how they benefited your firm.

The Right Way

There is a right way build a career at one firm, says Doug Rickart of Robert Half International. Professionals who can demonstrate a track record of growth and achievement face few hurdles, especially if they've moved into different business lines, operating units, or functions.

Even if you've spent years at one firm, your resume should reflect a progressive track record. It should clearly spell out the growth, outlining the dates and functions you've held.

While today, a career at one firm is more often the exception rather than the rule, it isn't always a liability. Although you'll face questions about your ability to adapt, you can overcome them by demonstrating flexibility and highlighting the varied roles you've had and the skills you've developed during your career.

Have you faced the job market after a lengthy career with one employer? Post a comment below.

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