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?
There’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?