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Dawn Graham  |  June 27, 2019

The Career Switcher’s Top 5 Job-Search Killers

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switchers book coverEditor’s note: Switchers, author Dawn Graham’s look at how smart professionals switch careers with success, was published one year ago this month. In this excerpt, Graham, the Career Director for The MBA Program for Executives at The Wharton School, outlines the biggest mistakes career-changers make.

I’m going to alert you to the five biggest mistakes unsuccessful career Switchers make (which I wish I knew when making my first switch!). When you’re aware of these missteps, it’s easy to avoid them.

SWITCH KILLER #1:  Relying on Traditional Job Search Advice

The wisdom you’ll find in most career books just won’t work for a Switcher. Why? Because the competition you face isn’t ordinary. Traditional career books emphasize the importance of using keywords on a resume so that you’re selected by applicant tracking systems (ATS) for an interview after applying online. For career Switchers, applying online isn’t typically an option and you may not have the right keywords in your resume’s previous experience. You must begin with rebranding, not just as far as a resume goes, but extending to every aspect of your professional identity.

Most job search experts recommend networking, and for Switchers it’s absolutely essential. You need to network into an organization and then convince the hirer to pass up traditional candidates and roll the dice on you. You won’t be up for that challenge unless you possess a whole new bag of networking tricks.

What about the interview? Even traditional candidates are nervous about relaying their qualifications. Imagine how it feels to walk into an interview knowing you don’t have the expected background. Additionally, Switchers need to get past the hirer’s biases and assumptions. No matter how talented or credentialed you are, job seekers with a traditional background in the industry or function will speak the lingo, require less ramp-up time, and know what they’re getting into. Switchers seem inherently risky to hirers, as they have a steeper learning curve and may need more hand-holding to get up to speed. Everything you do as a career Switcher needs to account for this reality, and common job search advice doesn’t acknowledge it.

SWITCH KILLER #2:  Treating a Degree or Certification as a Magic Bullet

The first question I usually hear from Switchers is “Should I return to school?” Unless you’re switching to a field like nursing or law, which require specific degrees and licensing, the answer is almost always no. It shouldn’t be a first step. Many overestimate the value of graduate degrees when it comes to switching careers. Obtaining an MBA or another impressive degree is only the cost of entry. While people will pay attention to you and it will expand your network, you still need to prove you are worth the risk. Think about it: If you had an open role on your team, would you go for a person with the prescribed background in the function or industry or someone who took a few graduate-level classes?

If you attend graduate school as a career-shift strategy, you’ll still have a tough job search afterward, plus you’ll have student-loan debt. Depending on your target, it may be better to volunteer on a project at your current company or create an internship. This will earn points with a potential hiring manager since you’ll have applied experience. It will also give you the opportunity to try out the new professional identity before you dive into it. A client, Nancy, earned a master’s degree in speech therapy, only to decide she didn’t want to work in that field. When she came to me for coaching, she was still undecided on her target career and out $38,000 in loans.

It could be a plus to go back to school. But don’t research universities until you perform your due diligence. Assess the actual return on investment that your valuable time and money will earn. … If you’re already enrolled in a degree program, great! Then, start applying the strategies in this book early. You will have some advantages, like access to a new network through your classmates, but that doesn’t mean you can skip steps and expect to land your switch.

SWITCH KILLER #3:  Ignoring Your Network

There are very few things in life we can accomplish alone. A career switch is a major goal, and you will only succeed if you activate your network. Many highly accomplished executives shy away from networking when making a career switch. Why neglect such an obvious step? Some haven’t searched for a job since college and think applying online is still the standard way to find employment. Others don’t know how to mobilize their networks. Small talk and large crowds aren’t their thing, so they decide to leave networking to those who are naturally good at it. Many don’t network because they feel out of their element, maybe a bit vulnerable, due to their lack of direct experience in the new field. Suddenly, their credentials pale in comparison to junior employees in the industry.

Dean was an executive at a hospital who continued to apply online despite having access to incredible contacts. Dean didn’t believe in asking for help; he prided himself on being able to achieve success on his own and wanted to let his qualifications speak for themselves. While this approach had worked for him in the past, when it came time to make a switch he couldn’t understand why what had once worked was now a dead end. Don’t let ego prevent you from asking for help. …

SWITCH KILLER #4:  Failing to Know and Neutralize Your Red Flags

Vikram was a successful Ph.D. in pharma who led clinical trials for new drugs. He excelled at his job and, having reached his early forties, was ready for a different challenge. With his deep industry knowledge, Vikram figured that a functional switch to strategy and business development at his company would be a no-brainer. He was stunned when he was repeatedly told that clinical types didn’t have a place on the corporate side. Undeterred, Vikram pursued the opportunities he wanted but the harder he fought, the harder hiring managers on the corporate side pushed back. He continued to promote his Ph.D. and clinical accomplishments to hiring managers who were looking for finance, strategy, and data analytics skills. Vikram had failed to rebrand himself.

Every job seeker raises some red flags for hiring managers. It could be a gap between jobs, a layoff, or too many short stints. Fair or not, hirers look for red flags so they can quickly narrow the list of applicants, and being a Switcher is a major red flag. Even if you gain access through a trusted referral, it’s important to anticipate potential objections to your abilities, fit, or motivation that may arise. Have genuine, logical responses ready to go. …

SWITCH KILLER #5:  Disregarding Supply and Demand

Do you remember the Segway, the two-wheeled, stand-up vehicle that some security guards and tour companies still use? The company predicted they would sell 10,000 units per week, but they didn’t even reach the 10,000 mark after two years. What happened? Executives failed to identify a market. People didn’t have an actual need for Segways when they already had bicycles, cars, and—oh, yes—feet!

Assessing the supply and demand for your target job is critical, but even non-Switchers sometimes skip this step. I have many clients who want prestigious roles at companies like Google, overlooking the reality that Google receives over 4,000 resumes per week and hires one-tenth of 1 percent of all applicants. More and more executives seek to move from mid- or senior-level operational and engineering roles into sexy finance roles at venture capital (VC) firms. This is among the most challenging double-switches, since VC jobs are so coveted, rarely advertised, and favor candidates with expected career credentials. While a few unicorns manage this switch, they are extremely well-connected and persistent—sometimes pursuing a position for several years, launching their own startup, rubbing elbows with VCs once established, and then eventually transitioning. While this is an extensive process, with no guaranteed outcome, if you want it badly enough and have the talent, contacts, and luck, you can make this switch happen.

Don’t make the mistake of neglecting to research the market before proceeding, especially into an unfamiliar industry or function. Remember, the further you stray from a traditional career trajectory, the harder it is to switch. So, do your homework and craft realistic goals based on what you learn.

Taken from Switchers by Dawn Graham. Copyright © 2018 by Dawn Graham. Used by permission of HarperCollins Leadership. www.harpercollinsleadership.com.

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