The first edition of the Ask The Headhunter newsletter was published 20 years ago. This was the Q&A column subscribers received via e-mail on September 20, 2002. I haven’t changed a word. When I wrote it, I intended my advice about how to change careers to be “evergreen” — that is, to remain valid even with the passing of time. I’d like your opinion: Did I succeed? Is it still valid today? (If you don’t subscribe, please do!)


Recently I read an article about the 15 symptoms of burnout. The article said if you had five of the symptoms you might be burned out. I have 14. I’ve pretty much done all I can do career-wise at this company, except bide my time and move into senior management. So I can either gut it out for few more years, which I’m dreading, or do something different. So, how do you change careers?

I require two main things from a job. First, I’ve already spent a lot of time paying my dues in the trenches, so I’m really not willing to come in on the bottom rung and just be a worker bee. I’ve got to have some responsibility. Second, I need to make close to what I’m making now because I have a house payment and some bills coming up in the future. I don’t want to downgrade my lifestyle too much.

Of all the millions of jobs out there, can you make a lateral transition from another industry like I want to do (I think)? How do you change careers midstream?

Nick’s Reply

change careersThere’s a ton of re-hashed advice out there about how to change careers. Like most things, however, career change requires common sense, and the conventional wisdom relies too much on nonsense. Career change requires that you know where you want to go, and that you know what to do to get there. You’re not going to find the job you want by reading want ads and sending out resumes.

Plan how to change careers

First, you’ve got to know which businesses would stimulate you. That is, what’s worth pursuing?

Second, you must figure out what’s the work? that each business needs to have done. You must research this carefully until you truly understand the specific problems and challenges the business faces.

Third, you need to figure out how, exactly, you would tackle those problems and challenges so you could get the work done profitably for the company. Finally, you must show the hiring manager why you’re right.

Don’t expect an employer to figure it out

I know how obvious that sounds, but few people go about career change that way. Most people do it backwards. They don’t select an industry, research the best companies and prepare a business plan showing how they’ll do a specific job. Instead, they skim the classifieds and pick an ad — and then they’re stuck trying to “sell themselves” to this mindless ad. No wonder so many job hunters feel stuck and dejected. They’re not preparing for a career change; they’re hoping some personnel manager will “see the connection” between their skills and a job and pluck them off the street. Lotsa luck.

It’s very different to first explore what’s there, make choices, and plan your approach carefully. The real work lies in studying a business and the kinds of work done in that business. But that’s the whole power of this approach.

People flub career change precisely because they fail to really understand what the work is all about. They hand their resume to the employer, and essentially say, “Here are my qualifications. Now, YOU go figure out what to do with me.” Employers won’t do that; especially when you’ve never worked in their business before.

To change careers, don’t just change jobs

When you “apply for what seems to be available,” you’re essentially begging for a job. But, when you study specific businesses to figure out how you can help them, your task is very different — it’s to solve a company’s problems.

I pity the poor jerk who thinks career change is about finding a job. Companies don’t give out jobs. They hire people who can help them make more money — and they’re willing to pay for that. If you approach career change any other way, you will fail.

So, when you approach a company, you must explain how you fit to them. Believe me: they will not get it on their own. You need to create the equivalent of a business plan, mapping your skills to their needs.

A business plan to change careers

Now I’ll cue you in to the single reason that most attempts at career change fail, at least in my experience: The job hunter never expends the effort necessary to understand what the employer’s work is all about. The job hunter is too focused on “the job” and on the “qualifications.” The actual work is rarely defined in the job description. It’s hidden under all the bureaucratic jargon. The only way to get at it is to talk to people who do the work you want to do at the company you want to work for.

You’ll know whether you’ve really figured this out if you can write a short paragraph at the top of your resume that explains (1) the main challenge and problem the employer faces, (2) the specific skills you have that can help him solve it, and (3) how you’re going to pull it off. No matter how some people try, they wind up describing their past accomplishments rather than explaining what they’re going to do for this employer now.

Changing careers is an investment

This is a tall order. Career change is a tough challenge. But it’s do-able if you’re determined and willing to put out the effort. If you focus on the specifics of the job you want, and on a plan to deliver real value, you will quickly recoup any loss in salary you took in order to make a career change.

As for avoiding a salary cut and starting closer to the top, well, expect to exchange value for equal value. If you can actually deliver the value of an experienced worker in the job you want to do, you deserve the same pay. Otherwise, consider career change an investment. You must put up something in order to get something in exchange.

I hope you find this helpful. It’s the only approach I know that works.

The original 2002 column linked to three articles that became sections of the PDF book How Can I Change Careers?: “The Library Vacation,” “Put a Free Sample in Your Resume,” and “Taking A Salary Cut to Change Careers.” I hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane with me!

Have you tried to change careers? How did it turn out and why?

: :

  1. I wonder if we are finally past the era of surgical hiring: HR says that the company needs 3.5 years of experience … not 3, not 4, 3.5 years.

    I’ve changed careers over three times. I think every time it eventually turned into a step down for one reason or the next. My advice to those coming up? Find what you love, do what you love, and don’t compare yourself to the guy/gal with great hair, perfect teeth, and who won big in life’s lottery. That is a sure way to kill the joy of working on what you love.

    Oh yeah: Max out your I.R.A, max out your 401K, and buy gold inside your retirement plan. If you hit a rough patch of unemployment, leave retirement assets alone. You’ll thank me later.

  2. My first experience in career change was forced due to downsizing which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Develop your portfolio of achievements, skill sets and do the research Nick professes. Network like crazy within the industry you’re targeting. People love to help people who are ambitious and enthusiastic about finding a new endeavor.

    My second career change started me down the path of solo entrepreneur and never looked back. The possibilities are endless for outsource talent and working without a net can be exhilarating. Again, research the market, identify gaps in needs and be open to new ideas.

    Of course this approach takes courage and fortitude. Naturally the fear will come but don’t let it paralyze you. If you’re excellent at what you do, the universe will respond profitability.

    • @Paul: Thanks for sharing your method, glad it worked for you again and again. I’ll emphasize one point you made: If your goal is to change careers rather than just jobs, you must network within the industry you’re targeting, not so much outside it. Go hang out with people who do the work you want to do — that’s who can help you figure out how to package your skills and help get you in the door. Networking among people you already know or have worked with isn’t going to get you far.

  3. “Stop looking for the “right” career, and start looking for a job. Any job. Forget what you like. Focus on what’s available. Get yourself hired. Show up early. Stay late. Volunteer for the scut work. Become indispensable. You can always quit later, and be no worse off than you are today. But don’t waste another year looking for a career that doesn’t exists”.-Mike Rowe

  4. I’ve retooled myself a # of times, mostly involuntary. But my last adventure was a targeted career change. To turn myself into a recruiter. And during my working life have seen more than a few targeted career transitions along with my own.

    My advise would be to
    1. understand that transitioning uses different tactics strategies or plans then simply looking for a job in your current field.
    2. plan worse case. Realize you are aiming to convince some hiring manager to give you a shot, instead of choosing qualified people already in that vocation. That’s a risk & managers usually are risk adverse.
    3. I think accepting Nick’s point about the change being an investment is key.
    4. Park your ego at the door, you’ll going to make some sacrifices. So if you feed your ego with income & titles, you’re in for a disappointment. You’re about to hit the reset button & you’ll have to earn your way back to ego fulfillment.
    5. Sure, do all the good networking to see if you can blaze a path to a hiring manager and court them. I refer you back to #2.
    6 But I think you’ll do much better bridge building. that is do a lot of homework on companies in your targeted industry, develop a list of targeted companies. Those that you know value what you aspire to be. Go after them.
    7 Unlike a job hunting mindset you don’t have to be concerned if they will survive & prosper, taking you along for the ride. You are simply looking for your OJT classroom.
    8. Adopt @Antonio’s advice. Just get a job there. Ideally with your current vocation and where your hand is stronger. If not, any job will do that meets your support needs. Your objective is to become an insider. You should assume this will cost you..i.e. a pay cut. That is your investment. Ideally it would be working at your current vocation where you’re playing hand & comp is best. Next best is some organization/job that works with, supports, your target organization. but again, plan worse case. Then any job will do.
    9. Once inside, you can learn your way around quickly & gain everything you need to know about your targeted vocation. Who, what, when, where, why etc.
    10. View the company as one big sandbox. As such you work toward building your internal network getting you closer and closer to your target. Gaining good street cred in whatever you end up doing is an important tool in building this network. Your aim is to build a bridge to your desired organization from where ever you are. Hence as valuable as pay, is the networking opportunities in a job.
    11. Go at your target, bottoms up. Get to know those who work in your targeted vocation. Find out what life is really like in that world so you’re sure that the reality matches your ideal.
    12. You’re in sales. You want to sell those pro’s on your ability, enthusiasm, willingness to join them. Convince the doers so they will convince their boss that you’d be an asset to bring aboard.
    13. and be prepared to double down on your investment. For instance if you took a job at your current vocation & are competitively paid , to effect a transfer you may face a cut in pay or even another cut if you took one to get in the door.
    14. Be patiently persistent. Transitioning is one on those ventures where the slowest way is often the fastest. I’ve seen if many times where people find their way into roles from the inside that they’d not have a snowball’s chance in Hell doing so from the outsiders application route.

    Yes it would be nice if the company that hires you & opens an avenue into your new vocation becomes the place where you get a gold watch. But be prepared to change companies. Because once you cross your bridge into that new vocation you’ll be positioned to grow, and find that other companies offer a faster path ahead.