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Thinking About Switching Careers? Read This First. by Mariana Bockarova Ph.D.

Sam* had spent the past ten years pursuing one goal, and one goal only: becoming an engineer. He graduated from a competitive University, went straight into his Master’s to secure himself the competitive edge, and spent the next few years qualifying for his P. Eng designation. He felt pride in his chosen profession, education, and the path that he had taken, and was particularly happy to have fulfilled his parents’ wishes of becoming either a doctor, lawyer, or engineer; a requirement they had, certain that those professions meant a guaranteed job. Soon after earning his designation, however, something in Sam changed. He brushed the feeling off, assuming his personal life was affecting the positive emotions he usually experienced at work, but a few months later, there was still no change in his mood. First, his colleagues noticed, then his boss. He felt unmotivated, unproductive and filled with doubt: Was this profession he had chosen really the right one for him? If so, why was he so unhappy? A few months later, after mulling over the decision tirelessly, and seeing no change in how he felt, Sam worked up the courage to quit…without a ‘Plan B’.

Was it the right decision? According to Jeevan Balani, former Associate Partner at McKinsey, VP at a Tech Startup, and the current CEO of RocketInterview, “there is no perfect time to leave a career, but there are good reasons to chart a new career path”. According to Balani, if “you are no longer growing, learning, or improving your capabilities; your current industry or demand for your role is in a state of decline for structural reasons, for example, because of automation; or your skills and capabilities will be more valued in another industry or job role” it’s time to go.

Balani, who himself transitioned from successfully climbing the corporate ladder to starting his own business, has interviewed hundreds of candidates and helped clients, particularly those career transitioning, land jobs in roles ranging from product management to accounting for massive corporations. As an expert in the field, I spoke to Balani about the best way to move forward when thinking about making the big switch:

How common is career transitioning among your clients?

Most of my clients are pursuing some form of a career transition, and the question is more about how significant of a jump are they pursuing. An example of a smaller transition is doing the same role in a new industry – for example an accountant moving from a product-based industry such as retail to a professional services industry such as law. Bigger transitions include changing actual job functions – for example moving from corporate finance to operations, but staying in the same industry to bring relevant, tangible skills to the role.

Have you seen any trends in terms of age/experience/previous career among those who have had – and made – the switch from one career to the next?

There are a couple trends with career transitioners: Early career (less than 5 years of experience) individuals are able to transition at the entry level where salaries are lower and expectations on skill mastery are lower. Conversely, people later in their careers have a higher bar on showing how their skills will translate to a new career – and candidates who can tell a compelling story and clearly connect the dots between their old career and target career are able to get the opportunity. Notably, having a compelling story on why a candidate is seeking a change (e.g., pursuing a passion) can mitigate not having all the skills the employer is seeking. In terms of previous career, people with strong horizontal skills – for example analytics, can find their capabilities are very transferable to a new industry context.

How do you explain your reasons for transitioning during a job interview? Are there any top tips you have for your clients who are in the midst of this?

The biggest mistake candidates mistake is describing what they do not like about their current career, and instead the most important thing you need to do is explain why you are pursuing this new opportunity. An employer wants to know that you are deeply interested and motivated for this new opportunity.

Some top tips include:

Express a deep interest, that goes beyond the surface. For example, articulate the specifics on why this path fulfills a sense of purpose or why it aligns well with your capabilities.

Connect the dots for them. Explain the skills and capabilities you expect to bring over from your prior career and how you will apply them to the new role.

Put yourself in their shoes. What would you need to hear if you were in their shoes to feel confident that you could make the leap? Ensure these talking points are weaved into your narrative during the interview.

I find much of the stress surround making a change can sometimes come when considering what other people will think. This was certainly the case for Sam. How do you break down the idea of wanting to start “net new” to colleagues, family, friends?
It has to start with purpose and passion. People want to hear about the pursuit of something that excites you. After that, you want to demonstrate that you have thought through the key steps and what it will take to make the transition. Then you want to highlight the key challenges and how you plan to tackle them. Finally, ask for their support – maybe in terms of bouncing ideas off them or just knowing they are in your corner.

What anxieties have you found that people have around career transitioning? Which of them are valid?

There are two main anxieties people face: One is whether they can actually make the move; will an employer be willing to take a perceived chance on them? And the second is whether they are making the right decision.

Both are valid concerns if framed in a helpful way to both chart the right path and have conviction in that decision. The way to tackle both is to: (1) spend time on the “story” they will tell the prospective employer on making the transition and ask themselves if that “story” is compelling enough to get the job. If it is not, what skills and experiences do you need to acquire as an interim step? And (2) write down the reasons you are making the switch – do these reasons seem like the “right” ones to make a switch? One way to pressure test this question is to ask family and friends what they think of your reasons.

When it comes to the perspective of the company, what anxieties might they have when it comes -to hiring someone who is transitioning careers? How can you work around those fears?

There are two core concerns for companies: (1) Will this person stick to this new path? Employers do not want to invest in an employee that is a significant flight risk. And (2) will the candidate succeed in the new environment?
To mitigate the first concern, candidates need to express how deep their interest lies and ensure they do not focus on aspects of their old job that they are leaving behind that are also prevalent in the new job. For the second, clearly articulate the applicability of your skills, combined with your desire to apply them to this new context.

How important is it to be realistic about your new career trajectory?

Being realistic is typically about being patient (it takes time) and being flexible on entry point (sometimes they might bring you in at a lower level than your target to have you prove yourself). That said, candidates should spend time knowing their worth (you have a unique confluence of strengths) and use that as the basis to negotiate the best entry point.
Have you noticed any cases that make people successful – or, conversely, not – when it comes to making the move to a new career? In other words, what makes for a successful transition?

Successful transitioners have clarity on the “why” and this conviction is well internalized. This is important because there will be challenges along the way and unless there is conviction in the transition, it is easy to fall back to the old path. Conviction is the fuel to push through the challenges. Planning is the other aspect. Successful candidates chart out what they need to do to make the transition (from training to networking), and then execute. The timeline may adjust but having the steps outlined is key to successfully transitioning.

Do you have any personal experience transitioning careers? If so, any “do’s” or “don’t’s”?

I transitioned from consulting (15 years) to a startup. My top do’s and don’t’s are: Do: Have clarity on why you are making the transition. It will get you through the tough times and you will not spend energy on whether you are doing the right thing, but rather spend your energy on being successful in the new venture. Don’t: beat yourself up when there are bumps along the road – remember why you made this bold transition, and be proud that you were courageous in taking this step, and then use every bump as a way to bolster your capabilities.