According to national longitudinal surveys conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most Americans hold multiple jobs in their lifetimes and over 60 percent leave an employer within a year. “The new normal is not only to switch jobs but to change professions,” points out Dawn Graham, author of Switchers: How Smart Professionals Change Careers and Seize Success. You are, therefore, highly likely to switch careers and are perhaps already thinking about it. For a successful switch, Graham recommends that you follow the five-part road map outlined below.
Choose Your Switch
When considering a change, clarify what it will look like and prepare for the challenge. “The further you stray from a “traditional” career trajectory, the harder it is to switch,” Graham says, and your strategy needs to match the degree of difficulty:
1. Moderately Challenging “Single Switcher - Industry:” If planning an industry switch (from the private to the public sector), you’ll need to focus on communicating how your functional knowledge translates into the new environment. You may also want to clarify how you are prepared to navigate the new environment.
2. Very Challenging “Single Switcher - Function:” If planning a function switch (from an accountant to a marketing manager), you may want to seek out projects that’ll help you gain skills relevant to the new role. Also, “you will likely need to find someone to advocate for you,” says Graham.
3. Extremely Challenging “Double Switcher - Function & Industry:” If planning a double switch, you will face the biggest challenge and will need a solid strategy and many advocates. But don’t despair. “A double switch requires persistence, courage and sacrifice,” says Graham, “but it’s completely doable.”
Once you commit to the process, stop thinking of yourself as your job title or degree. “Hiring managers want employees who can hit the ground running, not ones who will need hand-holding or extra training,” Graham emphasizes. As such, you want to identify the value you can bring to future employers and avoid mentioning your desire to learn something new. Showing how you can make the hirer’s life easier is key to being viewed as a worthy candidate.
Clarify Your Plan A
“Before you formally begin your job search, it’s important to have a very well-defined target -- what I call your “plan A” -- that you can clearly communicate to your network,” Graham says. You want to show that you have done your homework, reflected on your decision and developed a solid idea of what you’d like to do next and why. Plan A is the intersection of your expertise, your interests and the market’s needs. Do you know your target industry, target function, target position, target level, target duties, target companies, target geography, target culture, target company size, target compensation, target pain points you want to solve, target skills you’ll use to solve them and target network? If the above are not clear, you don’t have a solid Plan A.
That said, it’s perfectly okay to adjust your plan as you discover new information. If you are trying to do a double switch, for instance, it may be challenging to go directly into the role you want. Graham advises that you try a “stepping stone switch” by switching industries only, volunteering, creating your own internship or gig, or shadowing an expert. Avoid seeking more education without knowing how it would help. Alumni I work with often ask if they should just go back to school. The idea may seem reasonable, but “sinking thousands of dollars and possibly years of time into additional education,” says Graham, “may or may not open the doors you expect it to.”
Craft Your Brand Value Proposition
“When your colleagues, network contacts or others in your professional circle describe you, do they paint a clear picture that aligns with your Plan A?” Graham asks. As a switcher, you may need to ensure your new brand reflects your new direction. Employers are looking to invest in you and need to see that you are worth investing in. Show that you are already pursuing experiences to prepare for the switch, acknowledge their concerns (about you being a non-traditional candidate), be confident, remember that you are speaking to humans and focus on their needs and how you can help meet them. Your new brand needs to be on your resume, cover letter and online presence. I often remind students that although all their credentials and accomplishments are meaningful, they are not all needed on their application documents. The initial goal is to get hirers to see that you are in front of them for the right reasons.
When evaluating candidates, hirers look for ability, fit and motivation. With that in mind, translate your skills into the employers’ language, research the company culture and make sure it aligns with your values and traits, and have a clear story that explains why you are pursuing the switch. “A convincing career story should be attention-getting, compelling, logical and genuine,” says Graham. As a switcher, your motivation is under scrutiny: What are your reasons for considering this particular shift at this particular point in your life? Don’t expect interviewers to connect the dots because you may not like what conclusions they make.
At this point on the road map, you may not be able to move further without advocates willing to take a risk on you. Yes, I’m about to talk about networking. Networking is nerve-wracking, especially if you are an introvert, but it’s absolutely essential if you are switcher. The key is to engage with second-level and third-level connections because they most likely know people you don’t. Remember that networking requires patience and is about building trusting relationships, not asking for jobs. Instead, “ask questions, be curious and share experiences,” advises Graham. Focus on questions that further your job exploration, help you engage in interesting conversations, reflect you’ve done your homework, show your knowledge of the industry and reveal you have relevant skills. Most of all, be patient. “A lack of immediate results doesn’t mean your networking isn’t working,” reminds Graham.
Keep the Ball in Your Court
When you make it to an interview, focus on confirming that you are not there by accident. Start strong and end strong. Remember that the hiring manager is looking for three things: abilities, fit and motivation. When Graham was a recruiter, it’s that last one that helped her make the final decision. As such, you probably need to update your “Tell Me About Yourself” story. What steps have you taken to make this opportunity a logical next step? What do you have that can immediately be applied in the new environment? Avoid bringing up the fact that you are a switcher. End the interview with the following question: “Is there anything about my background or experience that concerns you about my ability to be successful in this job?” Graham advises. Don’t count on the interviewer to ask the right questions. “The onus is on you.”
Lastly, if extended an offer, remember to negotiate your salary. “As a switcher, you may feel you’re not entitled to ask for more money,” says Graham, but that’s wrong. The offer means you bring value, and you want to be compensated accordingly. That said, if you are going from the private sector to the nonprofit world, you probably can’t keep your current salary and may have to accept a lower pay. Negotiate in consideration of the industry and pay attention to the total compensation. What will you gain from the switch other than base salary?