By Dorie Clark
Harvard Business Review, 5.24.16 —
Many experienced professionals would like to make a career transition. But the thought of giving up their hard-earned seniority and starting again at the bottom is simply too demoralizing, so they stay — sometimes unhappily — in place. But as I discovered in researching my book Reinventing You, there are ways you can shift jobs or even careers without giving up your professional status. Instead, you can work creatively to transfer it, so that even if you’re starting in a completely different field, you’ll benefit from your years of labor. Here are four ways to capitalize on your past experience.
Leverage the halo effect. Since the early 1920s, researchers have understood that people are generally susceptible to the “halo effect” — viewing others as being totally good and competent, or totally bad and incompetent (minus any shades of gray), based on their initial evaluation of the person. Often, this can lead to heuristic errors and people’s true abilities being overlooked. But if you’re an experienced professional, you might as well use this human quirk to your advantage.
Recognize that if you’ve proven successful in one field, others are likely to view you as being excellent all around, and therefore a great candidate in another field. For example, look to the political success of actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger or the business success of sports heroes like famed skateboarder Tony Hawk.
Make use of your advantages. If you’re an experienced professional, you’ve likely accrued two assets that younger “reinventers” may not have: connections and money. Take stock of the particular advantages you possess, and think about how you can leverage them. If you’ve built up a nest egg, you may be able to take time off in order to volunteer at a high level for a cause you believe in, thus gaining valuable experience and paving the way to a paid job offer.
Even if you’re transitioning away from the field where you made your name, your contacts may well have relationships with top performers in other industries they can introduce you to. In any city, the most successful professionals are likely to know one another through clubs and charity events. Find out — through LinkedIn and casual conversations — who your friends know in your desired industry, and who they might be willing to introduce you to.
Your existing contacts can also help your transition immensely by serving as wingmen who will sing your praises to the new communities you’re interacting with, and allay any concerns about the transferability of your skills. They might wonder whether a former financier could make it as a nonprofit executive director, for instance. But if your friend forcefully defends your passion for the cause and your people skills, you’re very likely to at least win an interview for the position.
Find opportunities where inexperience is a virtue. You might suspect that people would be reluctant to hire someone at a high level who lacks experience in the field. And in general, you’d be right. But there are certain exceptions. If a company is in trouble — the established means of doing business haven’t been working for them — they’re often unusually receptive to a hiring an unconventional candidate as a leader. Outsiders without industry experience are risky choices that could crash and burn. But according to the research of Harvard Business School professor Gautam Mukunda, they’re also disproportionately likely to be the best leaders, who can resurrect troubled companies, map out bold new strategic directions, or guide a nascent startup to dominance.
If you make that case forcefully — and can explain why your inexperience in their field is more than compensated for by the skills you’ve gained in your previous career — you may suddenly become a very desirable candidate. Indeed, when I was hired early in my career as the executive director of a bicycling advocacy nonprofit, my cycling knowledge was so lackluster, I couldn’t even remember what brand of bicycle I owned. But, I argued to the board, I brought media, lobbying, and communication skills the organization didn’t have at the time — and they ultimately agreed and hired me.
No one wants to feel that their years of hard work have been wasted. If the thought of losing your professional status and having to start from scratch has been dissuading you from considering a professional reinvention, think again. With these three strategies, you can build on the best parts of your experience while transitioning into your next chapter.