10 tips for switching industries

Open up job prospects in a new field

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With the economic recession wreaking havoc on the financial services, automotive, retail and other industries, many IT professionals in those markets who've been laid off are considering an industry switch to open up their job searches.

Indeed, many career experts are urging job seekers to apply for jobs in the few industries that are growing or are poised for growth despite the recession, such as green energy and technology, education, and healthcare. They say diversifying one's job search will increase their odds of landing a new job more quickly.
But switching industries can be an uphill battle for IT job seekers. Companies often don't want to hire executives outside of their industries because it increases their risk. Hiring any executive is a high-risk and costly endeavor, so employers want to make sure that whomever they hire is right, can hit the ground running, and doesn't need to come up to speed. Consequently, that often means that employers seek candidates with experience specific to their industry. (Of course, there are times when a company specifically seeks an industry outsider to bring in a fresh perspective.)

Despite the challenges associated with switching industries, doing so is not impossible. I have worked in multiple vertical markets, including broadcasting, retail, manufacturing and education. Recently, I moved from healthcare to educational publishing. I found this particular transition very challenging, but from this and other experiences, I learned several valuable lessons about moving from one industry to another. I hope my lessons will help you move into a new industry and make your transition a seamless one.

1. Immerse Yourself

If you're hunting for a job in a new vertical market, consider spending a week or two in the new environment. Consulting or unpaid internships are options to consider if you have the opportunity and the means. As an experienced IT leader, your expertise is extremely valuable to many organisations. Have you overseen an ERP conversion? That large scale project management expertise sets you apart. For every vertical market, there is a company struggling with a problem you've already solved.

This is how I got into publishing, healthcare and education. I had experience that a company in those markets found beneficial, and a conversation with the head of each organisation led to those opportunities.

Start by reaching out to your existing professional network. When I engineered my transition to higher education, I sought out colleagues who taught at colleges and universities, and I talked to them about their experiences and challenges. Through those conversations, I got the chance to guest lecture for one of my professional colleagues as an IT industry expert. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and it led to further introductions to other professors, more discussions about higher ed's needs, and gave me the opportunity to explain how my work in publishing applied to their needs.

If you can't find connections in your professional network, social networking tools like LinkedIn and Twitter are great places to find professionals working in the vertical market you wish to enter. Using Twitter and LinkedIn, I connected with educators all over the country and learned what troubles were universal. With those insights, I developed a pitch that expressed how my experience could help them. Specifically, I explained how my experience with open source tools, web publishing and marketing was valuable to admissions professionals in higher education, and how I helped colleagues build tools to measure and improve the effectiveness of their social media campaigns. They introduced me to their peers, and a new professional network was born. About two weeks into my social media campaign, I started to get recognised as an industry expert, even though I had never worked in the industry. I simply joined the conversation, contributed where I could, and respected those who were already there.

With the economy being what it is, your target market is likely experiencing a major shortage of training and development dollars. Figure out what you can offer folks in that target market and get out there.

2. Practice Nemawashi

Nemawashi is a Japanese term that literally translates to "going around the roots." The concept of nemawashi is so engrained in the Japanese culture that it is difficult to translate into English, but it is most often translated as 'laying the groundwork.' As it was explained to me, nemawashi is an informal process of quietly laying the foundation for a change by talking to the people concerned, gathering their support and feedback before any formal steps are taken, and maintaining the harmony and credibility of those involved. It's similar to our concept of getting buy-in, but the primary difference is that nemawashi is done quietly, almost covertly, before the idea for the desired future state is formed. This is a critical practice for gathering information about your new industry and identifying ways to help prospective employers in it.

I wish I had practiced nemawashi during the early stages of my current career transition. I was spending a lot of time with Jeremy, the branch manager at my local bank, to get my personal finances in order. The amount of paperwork he had to do to open an IRA account was staggering. I helped Jeremy a few times with some simple Windows shortcuts as he was trying to copy and paste information from one form to another. I did a little math in my head and realized that for this bank, the 20 minutes of work Jeremy was doing, multiplied by the number of IRA accounts they open (which Jeremy estimated for me) worked out to be a very large dollar figure. It was enough for Jeremy and I to retire on.

I shared my calculation with Steve, a colleague who was doing some programming work for Jeremy's bank. I also shared my ideas on how to trim some costs from the process. Steve liked my ideas, but said it wasn't quite practical for the bank for security reasons.

Had I practiced nemawashi with Jeremy and Steve, I could have learned about the security risk before suggesting the possible change, and perhaps I could have worked with Steve to refine and revise the idea so it more closely matched the needs of the bank.

Whether you have five or 50 years of experience under your belt, in a new industry, you are the rookie. Nemawashi can help you gain support in the rookie stages, win allies, and most importantly, influence an organisation in the right direction.

3. Establish Your Credibility

I met Chris Brogan and Julien Smith during my days in publishing, when they were working on a book, Trust Agents, about using the web and social media to build influence, reputation and trust. One of the core premises of their book is that to have credibility in a social network, you must be "one of us." For example, if a soft drink company is trying to sell a new cola to an online community of gamers, the company can't just join the conversation with, "Hey guys, check this out." Only if an existing, valued member of the group says, "Check this out," will the recommendation have any merit.

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