When it comes to changing jobs, there's a clear hierarchy of difficulty at play:
Easiest: Changing to a job in the same function and industry.
Harder: Changing job function or industry.
Hardest: Changing both your job function and your industry at the same time.
And yet, despite that hierarchy, many people do attempt to take on major career changes all the time. According to Chris Kovitz, Associate Director of the MBA Career Center at the Paul Merage School of Business (UC, Irvine), some 44 percent of MBA students cite the desire to change either function, industry or both as a major reason for pursuing the degree.
In a fascinating workshop for MBA career service professionals at the recent MBA CSC conference in Seattle, Kovitz touched on the difficulty that many candidates have in understanding the roles or industries that they're aiming to break into. One of the main themes that emerged from his session at the conference is that many job seekers often have very little idea of the attributes or skills that are required to do a given job in a given industry. And without that knowledge, it's very difficult for a candidate to be able to pull off the trick of looking like he or she is the perfect person to fill the role.
Fortunately, Kovitz also led a group discovery session aimed at equipping job seekers with exactly that knowledge, and learning to harness it. Here are just a few of the suggestions that came up:
Identify attributes and skills
Start by making a list of the attributes and skills required for a job. To do that, candidates can do everything from a close reading of job adverts—which often list desired characteristics—to more in-depth research, including informational interviews—and checking out career sites such as (cough) Vault (cough).
Kovitz recommended creating two separate lists—one for skills (basically, things that you can do) and the other for attributes (personality traits that will help a person succeed in the role). But if the job you're targeting is "financial advisor," don't stop at say, "Excel proficiency" as a skill. Think about why or how you would use Excel in that role, and drill into the sub-sets of skills as well. Perhaps "ability to draw insights and conclusions from large data sets" might be on your list. As might "ability to identify cost savings and efficiencies." Both of those are likely to be of more interest to an employer than the first example--especially if you're seeking to impress someone in a different industry, or trying to explain why your existing skill-set would transfer seamlessly to a new role.
Do a self-audit
It's not enough, however, to simply come up with a list of buzzwords or a description of a job. Once you have it, you need to put it to work, by carefully considering how your current abilities and traits stack up against those that you have identified as critical in your target role and industry.
It’s important at this stage to be honest with yourself. Not having a specific skill or attribute doesn't have to be something that will kill your application. But if your strategy for landing the job is to pretend they don't exist and hope it doesn't come up at the interview, you're taking a big risk. Instead, address each of the shortcomings, either by developing an answer as to how you would overcome it in the role, or by getting the requisite training.
Develop proof statements
While you're using your new lists to help you prepare for your new career, don't forget about the things that you cando. For each of the attributes that you think you do have, be sure to come up with a "proof statement" that you can trot out in any interview setting. That way, if you're asked about your ability to, say, effect cost savings, you'll have your answer about your excel skills saving your last employer a bunch of money all ready to go.
Perhaps the best suggestion for planning a transition into a new career field came from one of the attendees at the workshop. The advice came from a former consultant who now advises MBAs on how to transition into consulting careers. Her suggestion: that you treat the research process as you would a consulting engagement—researching data, putting together a presentation, and figuring out how to counter objections before they come up.
--Phil Stott, Vault.com
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