A Career Change Road Map

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Changing careers requires intensive research, self-knowledge, and passionate commitment to a goal. Ultimately, getting hired may rest on devising a marketable idea you can present to an employer in the field you've trained your sights on.

Self-assessment is the essential first step, says career consultant and author Andrea Kay. In order to forge a new professional identity, you must redefine your core skills in a way that makes the transferable ones obvious to people outside your current profession. "You need to think of yourself as a package of skills and abilities that you could pack up and take elsewhere," Kay told a gathering of investment professionals recently.

She often asks prospective career-switchers to name their six best skills. Each must be expressed in basic language - not the specialized terms found on resumes and business cards. Most clients struggle to complete the exercise. For instance, when an audience member listed "structuring" as a skill, Kay rejected it as not elemental enough. Even "sell" was separated into component parts such as "educate," "persuade" and "negotiate."

Beyond the Business Card

The title or description on your business card doesn't state what you can do, observes Nella Barkley, president and co-founder of Crystal-Barkley Corp., a career coaching organization. "Each one of you," she told the group, "has somewhere between eight and 15 major skill sets" that are useful for changing careers.

After identifying your essential, transferable skills, combine them with personal goals and values to create an ideal job description for yourself. This is the opposite of the typical strategy of seeking out posted openings and tailoring your presentation to match their stated requirements. "Don't try to be cramming yourself into a box that doesn't fit you well," says Barkley.

There's also the simple fact that the conventional approach just isn't suitable for a person switching into a new career. Except for pure commission sales and unskilled labor, posted jobs invariably require either experience in a similar role, extreme youth (as in, just finished college) or a newly minted credential with scarcity value like a quant Ph.D. degree. Mid-career switchers won't fly.

Nor do switchers fit any candidate profile that external recruiters are hunting for. Because employers pay retained search firms to find candidates who perfectly match current openings, a recruiter isn't likely to recommend you for a particular opening in a new career you want to break into, says Richard Lipstein, managing director at Boyden Global Executive Search. However, recruiters can be useful sources of information about companies, advice about transitioning, and referrals to contacts in your new field (although not to the recruiter's clients who are currently hiring).

Identify, Study and Pitch a Target Employer

The next step is finding a bunch of firms that need someone to do the job you designed for yourself. That requires a substantial investment of time in research, which should include informational interviews with key individuals in the industry you're targeting. Of course, such meetings are called "informational" interviews to make clear you are there to pick the person's brain - not ask about a job.

Finally, to get in front of a decision-maker who can launch you in your new career, you'll have to pitch that person an idea that makes good market sense for her business. By then you should have made yourself an expert on your target's industry, company, market and the competitive challenges they face. "I have to put on my problem-solving hat and think like the employer," remarks Kay. Do enough homework about your target's particular needs that you can credibly say: "If you're looking for somebody who can solve your problems, I'm your man."

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