University of South Carolina :: Darla Moore School of Business   the Competitive Edge

by Dawn Graham, Ph.D.

What You Will Learn

Practical tips to overcome the 10 most common obstacles to implementing a career change, from an executive and MBA career coach. Challenges include:

  • How can the skills that I gained from an MBA enhance my candidacy in this career change?
  • How do I overcome the concern that I'll be "throwing away" years of my life by taking a step backwards?
  • How can I convince the company to roll the dice on me as a Career Changer?
  • How can I stay motivated if this career change takes longer than I expect?
  • How can I think differently about networking to be more effective?
  • How can I get the information I need from an informational interview, while also leaving a positive impression?
  • How can I figure out my transferable skills?

Challenge #1: Overcoming Concern About Taking A Step Back

Key points:

- Research shows that career changers are common in today's market.
- At present, few people have a linear vertical climb when you look deeply into their professional backgrounds.
- Your past credentials and achievements do not become irrelevant when you make a career transition.
- The skills you've gained in all your roles throughout your career have shaped you to what you have become today. If you map out your career and list all the critical skills you gained or strengthened in each role -- including recognitions and awards, promotions, trainings, internships, and other significant projects -- you will find tasks you have achieved without prior training or knowledge.
- Identify the most relevant skills and knowledge you have for your new career target and put these together to apply to your desired role. Think of it like having the basic foundation, but mixing it up with different "ingredients" to come up with a different outcome.
- Re-inventing yourself is not losing something. It's a step forward to gaining a whole new set of career possibilities.

Challenge #2: Clarifying Reason for Making a Change

Key points:

Two primary reasons people want a career change:
1. To get away from their current situation.
2. Discover something more exciting they want to do instead.

- Job seekers who are focused and clear about their target tend to be more motivated and successful in their transitions.
- It is important to know why you want to make a career change and specifically why this particular career change in order to be as successful as possible with your career transition. The reason will not only keep you motivated, but will also be a factor for employers to consider hiring you as a non-traditional candidate.
- If you are not clear about your motivation about choosing this new career path, your chances of being hired decrease significantly. If you want to be taken seriously, have a logical and insightful response to the question "Why do you want to make this change?"

To convince recruiters of your dedication:
1. Include the concrete steps you've already taken to demonstrate your commitment to a new career path. Investing in your MBA is one step, but this alone won't differentiate you.
2. Show how the transferable skills you've built translate into adding real value in this new career.
3. Demonstrate that you understand the key pain points in the new role, so be specific.
4. Be clear about how this next role will play into your longer term career goals.

Challenge #3: Moving from Fear to Courage

Key points:

- It is our ability to reduce risk that has kept us alive and our ability to create habits that has made us efficient. Change, whether forced or by choice, goes against our biology as humans, which is why it feels so hard.

If fear is holding you back from taking action on a career change, try these techniques:

1. Practice conquering fear. If you continually stretch outside your comfort zone, the bar for what makes you anxious will disappear and new things will naturally feel easier.

2. Take a moment to think about something that you were initially intimidated to do that is now a regular part of your life.

3. Ask for help. It's important to be strong enough to stand alone, but the most successful people are wise enough to know when to ask for help.

4. Be careful of comparisons. When starting something new, we tend to watch the experts. This is a great way to learn but can also be very intimidating. Be careful about comparing your "start" to someone else's middle or peak.

- Research shows that people regret their actions over the short term, but regret inactions over time. So while fear of the unknown may be holding you back at this moment, think about how you will feel five years from now if you don't make this change.

Challenge #4: Using Informational Interviews to Open Doors

Key points:

What are Informational Interviews?
Informational interviews are meetings designed to learn more about an industry or a particular role.

If done right, these meetings can be vital to your career change particularly for gathering intel whether or not this change is really what you want.

How to do informational interviewing right:

1. Have a strategy. Identify specific companies or roles you're interested in and look for 3-4 contacts on LinkedIn who can be good resources for information. You can always expand your targets later, but starting with a clear focus will allow you to identify themes and patterns that you can build upon.

2. Start with the people you know. Remember, even at the early stages, you are always leaving an impression. One natural place to begin informational interviews is with your MBA classmates.

3. Do your homework. Your questions in the informational interview should have depth and demonstrate knowledge.

4. Don't forget to maintain the relationship. If someone has taken the time to help you, look for opportunities to reciprocate. At the very least, thank them and keep them updated.

Challenge #5: Staying Motivated When Progress Is Slow

Key points:

- Standard career change can have a timeline of 6 months to 1 year once you have clearly defined your target. If your target is not clearly defined and if there are other variables like a cross country move, the career shift may take even longer.

Strategies for staying motivated:

1. Be strategic from the start. Build support from classmates, a partner or friends to keep you positive. There will be setbacks, and cheerleaders will keep you on track.

2. Reframe rejection. Getting turned down or making mistakes is normal or expected each time we reach for something new. A simple reframe should remind you that you're still moving in the right direction -- forward. Instead of thinking "this will never happen,” look at defeat as temporary and keep going. Instead of taking things personally and thinking "I'm not qualified,” recognize that circumstances are situational and come up with a plan to overcome hurdles.

3. Do some soul searching. To understand how badly you really want to make this change, are you willing to relocate? Travel 80% of the time? Take a pay cut or step back in seniority? Endure a long commute? If the answer to these questions is no, then maybe you are putting obstacles in your way rather than the other way around. If this is what you really want, keep your eyes fixed on the prize and you'll no doubt find a way.

Challenge #6: Making Your Networking Productive

Key points:

Based on research, networking is the number one way to land job opportunities hands down.

When networking isn't working, it's usually for one of three reasons, all of which are fixable:

1. Asking for a job in an initial networking meeting is the equivalent of asking for someone's hand in marriage on the first date. Not every contact will end up being a great lead. Usually most have something to offer and you never know who their contacts are, which is vital. When meeting a new business contact, the goal is to build a relationship and then getting to the second date.

2. Neglecting to create ambassadors. If you don't leave a good impression with a new contact or he doesn't want to introduce you to others and at the very least stay in touch, you haven't created an ambassador, which means it was most likely a waste of time for both of you. The best way to create ambassadors is to focus on the relationship and not the outcome. A networking meeting isn't about spending 30 minutes enumerating your every accomplishment and skill. Instead, select one or two accomplishments to share and focus more on learning about them. Remember, it's all about getting to the second date.

3. It's easy to forget that networking is about planting seeds. If you don't see the benefits of networking for months or even years, it doesn't mean that it's not working. Continue to cultivate it, and your network may come to your rescue in the most surprising times.

Challenge #7: Convincing an Employer to Roll the Dice on You

Key points:

Research shows that 80% of company turnover is due to poor hiring decisions. The Labor Department also estimates that it costs an average of 1/3 of a new hire's annual salary to replace them. Hiring mistakes are very costly and those costs increase the higher up in the organization the turnover occurs. Due to this, companies usually hire a traditional candidate who is deemed "safer" rather than a career-changer.

Things you can do to assure the organization you are worth rolling the dice on:

1. Network into the company. Show that not only do you have the skills to do the job, but you are also a good fit for the culture of the team. While both are important, skills can be learned, but fit tends to be more personality-based and therefore more difficult to mold.

2. If you're able to make a positive connection through your network, a Hiring Manager may be more willing to overlook a non-traditional background.

3. Speak their language. Use language that connects you to the interviewer, rather than distances you from them. The goal of the interview is to build a positive relationship with your new boss.

4. Demonstrate an awareness for their concern and aim to put their mind at ease. One way to do this is to share experiences from your past where you were new to situations and demonstrated success. Past success is one indicator of future success. Examples of your experiences go far in demonstrating your ability to quickly adapt your transferable skills to achieve results.

Challenge #8: Using your MBA as an Asset

Key points:

- Concrete application will always trump coursework when being evaluated as a candidate for a job. So while earning an MBA degree may be a prerequisite, what companies are most concerned with is how you apply what you've learned.

Two best ways to get the most out of your MBA while in a career transition:

1. Focus on the transferable skills that you're gaining while earning your degree. Don't just list a bunch of classes on your resume or LinkedIn profile. What is most valued by a potential employer are real-world projects where you solve business problems for actual clients or companies. When writing your resume or interviewing, speak about your classroom knowledge and skills in terms of outcomes and results you achieved by applying what you learned.

2. Don't underestimate the value of your MBA network. Whether as a current student or an alum, your shared experiences with your classmates or graduates of the program is enough to open many doors. So go beyond the classroom and take the time to get to know your colleagues while in school and also make it a point to engage in alumni events after you graduate. If you skip the networking opportunities, you're missing out on one of the biggest advantages an MBA can offer you, especially when considering a career change.

Challenge #9: Negotiating Compensation

Key points:

- The primary reason why people avoid making a career change is fear of taking a salary hit. Unfortunately, this is a consideration when deciding to switch career paths. However, before deciding that a hit isn't worth it, consider the entire picture:

1. Think about the long term pay off. Taking one step back to take two steps forward in a job that you love seems to be a worthwhile strategy.

2. Other factors aside from base pay add up in your bank account at the end of the month. You can negotiate longer vacation time, or tuition reimbursement for your MBA. Look at total compensation and take time to negotiate. You may not be losing as much as you think.

3. While you may not be the typical candidate for the role, perhaps some of the experiences in your background enable you to contribute more value to the company.

4. Consider the big picture. Salary is a key motivator but there are other aspects that contribute to overall job satisfaction.

Challenge #10: Making Time for a Job Search

Key points:

- Time is probably the number one rationalization as to why most things that fall to the wayside don't get done. The problem: time is a finite resource. It's also an excuse. The truth is we make time for what we choose to.

- If you're serious about making a career transition, there's no getting around making time for it, which in most cases means giving up something else, temporarily at least.

- Something to try: Think of one thing you can stop doing today that will have a significant impact on your job search. Then think of one thing you can start doing today that will have a significant impact on your career transition.

- Every day we have a choice. Tomorrow, why not focus on your career goals?

Expert BIO
by Dawn Graham, Ph.D.

Dawn Graham, Ph.D.

Dr. Dawn Graham is a Career Expert, Licensed Psychologist, and former Corporate Recruiter who has 20 years’ experience working across North America and abroad in several global organizations in consulting, coaching and talent management roles. As the current Career Director for the MBA for Executives program at The Wharton School in Philadelphia, Dawn coaches some of the world’s most successful business leaders on making strategic career changes, building professional brands, creating stellar networks, and negotiating competitive compensation packages. Dawn hosts a weekly career call-in show called “Career Talk” on Sirius XM radio (Channel 111) where she helps listeners get hired, be promoted and earn more money by providing an “insider’s view” of the job search from her work as a Recruiter. Dawn has served as Adjunct Faculty at the University of Denver, and is also a Certified Personal Trainer.