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Changing Industries – Why and How?

I asked Kelsey Richards, Program Coordinator for the McDermott & Bull Executive Network, about a “burning question” that she often gets from different members of our group. With 1500 executive level members and growing, we have a diverse group that has many different career objectives, so we find it to be a relevant melting pot of job search ideas and challenges.

One question that tends to come up frequently is, “If I wanted to change industries and my resume doesn’t speak to that industry, how can I accomplish this?” I know some industries are still in a declining state, while others seem to be growing. We all want to work in growing, expanding, and challenging fields, but with no experience, how can we market ourselves to companies in those fields?

I asked this question of Biff Comte, CEO of Accentcare, on a web broadcast I conducted on Job Search & Career Development Strategies last year. Accentcare’s industry is home health care where they provide nurses of varying skill levels to take care of family members at home. His company employs over 10,000 in multiple states, and is based in Irvine, California. Because his industry is fairly new, he often has to seek candidates, especially for executive level roles, from outside their industry. Finding people who have “been there, done that” is often impossible, so he looks for people with complementary skills and experience, and can make the case that their background would be a great fit with his industry and his company. He’s most concerned with their “fit” with his company, and their drive to succeed. If they find someone with the right attitude and drive, they can teach the rest.

Unfortunately, some companies and industries are not as progressive, so candidates need to do a really good job of selling hiring companies on why their experience and skills would be great for this new industry. I have a good friend who spent 18 years as a very successful owner of a mortgage company. He still worked on loans, up until he left the business nearly 3 years ago, and did a great job working with consumers on structuring financing for their most expensive life purchase. To say he’s an expert in consumer financing and finding ways to make deals work is an understatement. At this point in his career, he’s looking to do something different, but with his mortgage background, many people have told him he’s branded and tarnished. We’ve spent considerable time exploring new opportunities that would leverage his background in consumer finance. We’ve come up with a few, and now it’s up to him to sell first himself on why his expertise is transferable, and frankly should be sought after in these new industries, and then he needs to sell his future employer on it.

If you’re exploring an industry change, start with the following steps:

  1. Define your expertise, but not in terms of your industry. For instance, in my friend’s case, he’s not a mortgage broker, but instead a consumer finance expert. Who needs that? Companies selling solar to homeowners need it. Also, companies that sell business opportunities or franchises need it. With conventional financing difficult to obtain, and home equity loans being slashed, financing for prospective franchisees has become a huge challenge for franchisors. His expertise will come in handy to both these industries.
  2. What is the ideal role for you in a new industry? If your background is as a CFO, but in the financial services space, and you would like to explore alternative energy companies, how could your expertise lend itself to their challenges? It might not be as a CFO, but it might be as a project finance person, or a treasurer, or possibly in a financial planning and analysis (FP&A) role. To get the ultimate job you want, you might have to accept a stepping stone position.
  3. Attend industry events, seminars, and tradeshows. Become knowledgeable by meeting with people at booths and hearing from leaders in the industry when they speak. As an outsider, you might gain significant expertise quickly and not be constrained by the conventional wisdom that tends to bog down thinking in most industries. You truly are an outside the box thinker because you are an outsider.
  4. Write a special report. Position yourself as an expert, get knowledgeable about the business by doing some hard core research, and be able to sell your opinions to your prospective employer as someone who really knows the challenges they’re facing.

They say recessions can be times when amazing companies are built. Often, those companies are built in industries that already exist, but someone from the outside figures out a better mousetrap and solves a huge industry challenge the everyone forgot to solve. Lots of companies have been selling briefcases and luggage for years, but Targus won the market for laptop cases from companies that never should have let that happen. If you’re not interested in starting a business, perhaps your outsider’s perspective can turn a sleepy industry on its ear by taking on a new point of view.

I know this is only scratching the surface of this topic so please share your comments on other ways to facilitate an industry change and let’s get the best ideas out to our readers.

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