How Specialists Switch Markets

If they can switch industries, anyone can.

You may have to knock down some roadblocks to take a new route in your career.

It’s eminently possible even for a specialist with a long history in one industry to make the switch to another, career coaches and recruiters say. But there will be some roadblocks to overcome, especially in sectors of the economy that are especially hard-hit.

“People think, ‘I’ve done sales in my industry; I can do this type of sales,'” according to Robert Hawthorne, president of Hawthorne Executive Search, a member of Ladders’ community of recruiters. “It’s not uncommon, but they have to think, ‘How can I package myself to compete with someone from this industry?’ Frankly, they’re not going to stack up well against a performer with experience and a track record in the industry. The out-of-industry candidate is going to be out of luck.”

“Sharon,” a member of Ladders and former marketing executive with Bear Stearns, left her last job at an investment bank voluntarily in the spring and has been job-searching since August. After two months networking among hedge-fund companies, she thought she’d landed a good position. “Then the hedge funds blew up,” she said. “Now I’m looking mostly in private equity, but I’m also looking at technology and other industries.”

“I have 24 years in financial services at a very high level, but recruiters and connections I’ve spoken with have told me I’m too entrenched,” Sharon said. “All the advice is to take your core competencies and just move them into some other area. A lot of people in those areas just don’t want you. They see ‘financial services’ tattooed on your forehead, and they already have enough people in their own areas.”

Making the switch from a Wall Street firm (where both the products and the business are highly complex and don’t much resemble the products in other industries) might be harder than switching from a less-arcane industry, according to Clark Christensen, a career-long industry switcher who is currently chief financial officer of Atlanta-based PS Energy Group Inc.

“Industries like that make you highly specialized, and you get paid highly for it,” Christensen said. “But you’ve taken a little bit of a fork in the road, and you’ve got to come back a bit if you’re going to change directions.”

The more industry-specific your knowledge or experience, however, the more difficult it is to apply them elsewhere.

“I’m not a chief financial officer,” Sharon said. “A chief financial officer or accountant might have an easier time. I’d be aiming for direct sales. But, really, is a fantastic product marketer or strategist who has built sales strategies for every type of financial product around not going to be able to market other things?”

To a certain extent, complexity is complexity, so the ability to handle the technicalities of one industry is a good indication you could do the same in another, according to Michael Neece, chief strategy officer of PongoResume, an automated resume-writing service.

Neece, who worked in human resources at Hewlett-Packard, Fidelity and publishing giant International Data Group, said the key to convincing an interviewer of your competency is to show how you mastered the complexities of your last industry and do enough research to show you understand a fair amount of the subtleties of the new one as well.

“If you’ve made the decision to switch and are having a hard time selling it, go back to the common threads that transfer across industries,” PS Energy’s Christensen said. He suggests you tell interviewers, “‘I was in this industry, and this is what I did, but there were 10 or 12 sub-industries in there. I learned each one, quickly to get the job done, and isn’t that what you’re looking for?’

“You have to get the interview,” Christensen said. “Let them see the passion in your eye and show them you’re not stuck and that you have these skills that make you more than your resume would suggest.”