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Career Switchers: An interview with Wharton’s Dawn Graham

In the August 14, 2018 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader complains about the difficulties in changing careers — and about the costs. So we’re going to discuss career switchers in this special audio edition! Hope you enjoy it!

Question

career switchersI’ve been around the block a few times, that is, I’ve changed jobs. It was never easy, except for one job I got from a personal referral without even a job interview. But nothing prepared me for changing professions. I’ve all but concluded it’s impossible. Even if I could do it, now I question whether it’s worth it because of the haircut I’d have to take in pay.

I’m a successful IT executive. I always wanted to work in investment banking. Everyone told me I’d better get an MBA, so I did. Even the school — a big name — promoted its program as a “career changer.” After a huge tuition bill and three years working diligently at getting into the investment world, I realize career change is a game no one wants to play with you because they’re never going to see what you can do, only what you’ve done. Employers can’t get past the labels. I tried everything from job boards to headhunters to networking meetings to expensive career and life coaches. Can you tell me something I don’t know? Should I give up?

Nick’s Reply

I wouldn’t give up, and I hope you learn something you don’t know in this special audio edition of Ask The Headhunter.

I’m going to let my good buddy Dr. Dawn Graham, Director of Career Management for the MBA program for executives at The Wharton School, answer this one. A former headhunter, Dawn is also a clinical psychologist and she hosts a weekly radio show — “Career Talk” — where I’ve been a guest many times.

This is where the fun starts! In a recent program we turned the tables and I interviewed her about career switching — and we’re going to borrow some excerpts from that interview so we can do an audio edition of Ask The Headhunter this week. (Cool, eh?)

Career switchers

“If you’re like most Americans, you will spend around five years of your life engaged in some type of job search activity. You’ll hold about eleven different positions in the course of your career, and each job search might take you six months or longer. The new normal is not only to switch jobs but to change professions — which isn’t easy to accomplish.”

That’s from Graham’s new book, Switchers, which is a how-to guide for people like you who are pursuing career change. Graham notes that the average time a person spends in a job these days is 4.2 years, so job change of one type or another is quite common.

However, she offers the same caution you’ve heard from me here on Ask The Headhunter: Job change is not as easy as LinkedIn, ZipRecruiter and Indeed suggest it is.

switchers“In our one-click world of instant access, job seekers might expect the same ease in the job search process. Technology has become a seductress, luring candidates into endless hours of internet searches and countless online applications. These methods are barely effective for even the most qualified job applicants, and career changers who rely on them don’t stand a chance. Career Switchers tend to give up not because they lack the skills to excel in their desired profession, but because they don’t have the proper search strategies and knowledge.”

Audio Ask The Headhunter

Knowing I was going to tackle your question here, I waited until Dawn and I  discussed the topic on “Career Talk” so I could share some of the audio here with you. (This originally aired on Sirius XM Channel 132, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School.)

A radio talk show goes quickly, so it’s not possible to get into a topic in great depth — but I thought we could have a little fun with an audio edition of Ask The Headhunter and help the reader who asked this week’s question. I hope you enjoy this little experiment — and that you chime in with your own advice!

Excerpt 1

Let’s start by discussing the two main kinds of career “switch” a person might attempt: the industry switch and the functional switch. Or both! The important insight is that the traditional hiring process has not shifted to make switching easier.

      Switching careers in today's employment market

Excerpt 2

Does the hiring manager think you’re too risky a hire?

      Are some switches more difficult than others?

Excerpt 3

Headhunters and hiring managers are usually averse to risk, so they go for the easy candidates; the ones who are a clear fit with lots of relevant experience. But you may have visions of a radically new career — and none of this seems fair.

      Managers hire the safe candidate

Excerpt 4

Understanding the hiring manager’s mindset will help you deal with the natural biases of hiring managers — and with the inevitable role of emotions in hiring. What are some fundamental laws of psychology that you need to know?

      Emotions & Bias: The psychology of hiring

Excerpt 5

What you think the employer wants, and what they really want, may be two totally different things. Can a candidate figure out what a manager really wants?

      What the hiring manager wants

Excerpt 6

No one wants to take a salary haircut when they change jobs. How realistic is that when changing careers?

      The cost of switching

Excerpt 7

Do you really need more education to get the job you want? More important, does the employer think the education you’re buying is going to make you a more desirable hire?

      The myth of education in career change

Do these excerpts give you some ideas about how to change your approach to switching careers? I hope they at least encourage you to not lose heart and to not stop trying — but to modify your approach a bit.

Career Switching

On the “Career Talk” program we just touched on a few important ideas about switching careers. In her book, Dawn Graham gets into loads of detail, methods and techniques for making career switches. It’s the kind of advice she delivers every day to Executive MBA students at Wharton to help them with their career goals. You’ll have to look long and far to find a column where I’ve endorsed a book — this is one of those rare times. Switchers: How smart professionals change careers and seize success (AMACOM, 2018) is a great tutorial from an accomplished expert I respect.

My goal here, with you, is to riff on what we just heard on the audio excerpts, and to launch some discussion on how to make career change happen. Do you find the issues Graham raises helpful? Is there really a distinction between job change and career change, and is one more challenging than the other?

Have you ever tried to switch careers, either at the industry or functional level — or both? Did it work? Do you recognize any of the issues Dawn and I discussed? Do you have any suggestions on how to expand these ideas to help others change careers? If you were a guest on that edition of “Career Talk,” what questions would you have asked Dawn? (Did you enjoy the audio? Want more in the future?)

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12 Comments
  1. Wow. I have switched at least 15 times in my career. My list of past employers ranges from startups to Fortune 100. I’ve done Marketing, to Ops, to Sales and now IT consulting. Probably in over 10 different industries.

    It isnt fun to constantly be switching. The grass is seldom greener. I have taken paycuts, but also increased pay.

    The easiest job transitions occurred because i knew the hiring managers personally and they looked forward and not backward.

    While I am fine with the approach I’ve taken, I’m pretty sure I’d be ahead if I’d have stuck it long term with one of the companies.

    For someone as inclined to switch as i have, it may be worth to dig into the root cause of this restlessness.

    I did, and I’m ar peace now. Current job is 4 years old now with no plans to go anywhere.

    Great ‘audicle’ Nick.

  2. THIS is what I desperately need! I’ve been working PT as an instructor for over ten years and I need a change. However, I get pigeonholed as a teacher, no matter how much I play up my transferable skills and non-teaching abilities.

    Looking forward to listening!

  3. This format works really well, and I am definitely getting the book.

    As I recover from depression incurred by an abrupt job loss, I’m finding my way back to useful things that I used to do before the fall, and one of them is the realm of audio. I had forgotten that one of the most powerful aspects of audio is: repeat as necessary.

    I have a wild mind (neural fission) that’s a lot calmer than it once was, but I still often have to make a huge effort to focus, even on short clips. But I just hit the button again, and usually I can stay on track (pun intended).

    I’ve followed the headhunter’s thinking for a couple of decades now, but this audio really let a lot of it sink home big time, especially about maintaining confidence.

    My daughter, way smarter than both of her parents, is fond of saying, “Life isn’t fair, but the universe is just.”

    The discussion of fairness in this dialogue today is incredibly important because nothing undermines confidence more than feeling that the universe is plotting against you when things don’t go your way.

    Only people plot against you. I think it was Emerson who said that once you set a goal, the universe conspires to help you make it happen.

    After I lost my job, I read about a guy who lost his even higher paying job. The thing he said stuck with me, even though it took me years to actually feel it: “I didn’t suddenly become stupid just because I lost my job.”

    Even in the depths of depression, my skill-set remained intact, expressing capabilities on auto-pilot that most people never bothered to develop. It’s still a challenge to express those skills to a hiring manager, but I’m glad I re-gained that confidence.

    The gauntlet of hiring managers is formidable, but as you practice articulating what you have to offer, that confidence will eventually be recognized on the other side of the hiring desk.

    • When the gauntlet of hiring managers tells you you’re not wanted, it’s just a signal that you’re talking to the wrong people. Never confuse rejection, which is a judgment, with your identity, which is a never-ending fact.

  4. In today’s atmosphere making a career switch sometimes includes going into business for oneself. Reasons for making this type of switch vary but Ms. Graham touches on a couple of key components in making a switch from employee to employer. #1. is the issue of education. The marketplace doesn’t really care about the level of education you have achieved; nor does the consumer, whom you want to become a customer. In my capacity as a business consultant, too many times I encounter wannabe’s who focus on education and not experience. The pile of small business ownership failures is riff with arrogant individuals who do not do the basics prior to launching a business.
    My take on this audio program is that Ms. Graham’s book may have a few tidbits for those wanting to make a switch from employee to employer. Beyond her book, I’d advise anyone considering switching careers to business ownership to seek out a true professional who has plenty of experience in small business ownership prior to jumping into the uncharted waters of competing in the marketplace.
    The #2 point by Ms. Graham is on risk. If you aren’t fully committed and in essence hedge your bet, you will fail. Guaranteed. I intend on purchasing Ms. Graham’s book for comparison purposes.

    • @Tom: Nice catch on Dawn’s point about risk. The flip side of that coin is commitment.

  5. After working in different jobs for 6 years after college, I decided to pursue a Master of Music degree in organ performance – I had been a church organist since high school, and decided I wanted to do that full-time. I graduated from a top graduate school in that field (with a double major in organ performance and church music – not an easy task). Out of graduate school, I got a full-time music directorship (organist/choirmaster) that I had for 5 years. One day, my boss told me the job is going part time. After responding to him professionally (he was pleased with the professional way I received the bad news – I was married with one child), I looked for a new job in that profession, but decided quickly that I would need to dust off my BSEE degree.

    Actually, there were two churches involved as I was a member of another (if you work for a religious organization, it is good to have membership in your own, or at least a strong support system which is what clergy do). In my church of membership, a friend told me about a golfing buddy of his who had an opening – and that’s the job I got. It turned out the client had at one time been a member of the choir I directed! I had that job for 3 years (they ran out of work for me to do). It started my transition back to a career I had been out of for 8 years.

    I was fortunate to have a built-in network and not everyone is so lucky. Even so, you can belong to a local service club, fraternal organization, church, temple, mosque, synagogue, political party, charity, or other organization – if you have a shared sense of purpose and a social network, you can at least have people support you during a job search.

    Lastly, I never say I’m unemployed. I’m an electrical engineer (employed at this time with another company chasing me), but even if I lose my job, I am going right to work for myself. I even have a business checking account from a previous stint of self employment.

    • @Kevin A: Funny how that business checking account can serve as an anchor when jobs sail away. It tells you that you can always run your own business if you need to.

  6. Actual careers I’ve had:
    US Navy Midshipman
    US Air Force Property Inspection Specialist
    US Air Force Air Traffic Control Radar Maintenance Specialist
    ESL Teacher
    Contract Security Officer
    QC/QA Associate in Biotechnology
    Financial Services Professional
    Biomedical Equipment Technologist

    and soon

    Information Security Professional

    I’m 56 years old as of Monday, last week. I have started education in InfoSec and plan on getting my first job in that career before I turn 57.

    Can I successfully change careers again?

    (I already know the answer: Yes!)

    • Many years ago a guy in his 70s took me aside (I was about 32) and told me I’d have many careers and to use that fact now to my advantage. It was a liberating thought, even though I had already changed careers 3 times by that point. Sol started out as a professor of Art History in New York City. After WWII, he was assigned to go to Dresden to help catalog the art works that were destroyed and that remained after the heavy bombing of the city. When he was done, he drove through Paris, where he got a job driving race cars at Le Mans. When he returned to the U.S. he was hired to run a company in “the rag trade” in NYC (the apparel biz). A guy he knew put a thing on the market called the Commodore PET, one of the first personal computers, so he hired Sol to run the business. Then Sol retired until a friend asked him to manage operations in his computer company, where he was my boss. Art History. In his 70s, Sol drove a Porsche like he was 25. “It’s a man’s car,” he used to say.

  7. I liked the audio format. It was a good way to bring in the quotes of another professional and preserve their voice (no pun intended). There were only two negatives to audio vs text: 1) speech takes longer to listen to than read and 2) I cannot directly look back to re-read something I found valuable. Beyond that, I think the advice provided should be mandatory listening material for my fellow career advisors.

    Where I work, career changers are a very common client. The twist is that they are not doing it because they want to so they have less time to prepare and often have a very short timeline before they run out of funds. In many cases they have moved here from a larger city and cannot find the kind of work they used to do or the economy has changed in a way that has removed that line of work from the job market. For example, the cost of oil and gas decreasing made a large number of land men and geologists lose their jobs and forced them to look for a new way to apply their skill-set.

    I often looked to the psychological side of the situation because, as Dr. Graham mentioned, that angle tends to be overlooked in job search and I found it to be vital once I met enough people. It is encouraging to hear her speak of many of the concepts that I discovered through my career search research. Resume writing was taught to me as a mechanical process that completely overlooked the most important thing “all human interactions involve around psychology.” We have to deal with the fears and concerns of our audience so we need to understand who our audience is before we can solicit a job. Eventually, I boiled the quality of job search materials (resume, cover letter, etc.) to 3 main categories:
    1) It needs to be readable or they will not
    2) It needs to be meaningful because it is being used for a decision-making process and
    3) It needs to be relevant or the reader won’t care
    In regard to item 3, I often encouraged the people I was helping with their resumes to read each line and ask themselves two fundamental questions:
    1) What does this say about me and
    2) Will the reader care?

    By that time I had discovered “Ask The Headhunter” so I also provided the resume blasphemy approach as an option and sent them to this website to learn more.

    I believe the main obstacle I ran into with this style of advice was that I was too nebulous. People want hard and fast guidelines with easy answers and those don’t exist when dealing with a wide range of humans. Each attempt needs to be customized… which is a lot of work… which is a turn-off to the average person.

    Enough rambling from me. Great article. I’ll encourage my coworkers to listen to it.

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