Think Beyond the Obvious When You’re Changing Careers



Image via Harvard Business Review’s Facebook Page.

If you’re contemplating a career change, you’ve probably been advised to look at ‘adjacent’ careers that require the same skill set (if you’re a journalist, you can become a nonprofit communications director; if you’re in sales, maybe you could move to marketing). That’s sound advice – but also very limiting.

If you really do think it would be fulfilling to move into a closely related field, that’s terrific, because you can make a strong case for yourself with hiring managers about why you already have the necessary skills to succeed.

But as I learned while writing my book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future, many professionals needlessly limit their options. When you’re reinventing yourself, it’s likely you have far more transferable skills than you might imagine.

From a Legal Career to the Wine Industry

Lisa Granik was an aspiring law professor who’d done all the right things – Fulbright research, a doctorate from Yale Law School, and a hefty dissertation. But as she got closer to her decade-long goal, she had an ominous realization: she didn’t want to be a lawyer or a law professor, after all.

She began diving into an amateur interest of hers – wine – and taking classes. And soon, she made a surprising discovery: her training as a legal scholar was the perfect background to launch a new career in the wine industry. First, like most academics, she’d had language training in order to be able to research primary sources. Fluent in Russian, Spanish, and French, with a little Italian thrown in, Lisa found herself uniquely positioned to communicate directly with winegrowers, many of whom are farmers who don’t speak English. Second, she realized her ability to evaluate the taste of wine was shaped by her legal education. “Wine analysis is deductive,” she says, “and that’s a skill set one develops as a lawyer. It’s the ability to break a wine down with deductive reasoning.”

Third, her training in oral arguments meant she had an edge in communicating about wine. Finally, in a somewhat comic turn of events, she was even able to leverage her experience writing a dissertation. It turns out that to become a Master of Wine, a rigorous industry designation, you have to study for years, take a battery of tests and yes – write a dissertation about wine. Using the research skills she’d picked up on the first go-round, she was able to polish off her second one more quickly. Today, Lisa is actually the North American dissertation coordinator for the Institute of Masters of Wine.

On the surface, legal academia and the wine business have little in common. But as Lisa’s story shows, sometimes the most salient job requirements are hidden below the surface, and are eminently transferable.

From Wall Street to Nonprofits

Another important question you can ask is what skills or abilities you possess that are in short supply in your new field. Susan Leeds had worked for more than 15 years as an investment banker. But when she became a mother, environmental issues began to interest her: “I started thinking about what’s happening in the world, and what kind of a world our children are going to grow up in.” Casually tooling around on the website of an environmental advocacy group, she stumbled onto a job listing: astonishingly, they were looking for someone with an investment banking background. Soon, Susan was on the job with a two-year policy fellowship.

It was an immediate culture shock. She’d never worked at a nonprofit, never done policy research, and had taken a massive pay cut. “I was a terrible fish out of water at that place,” she recalls. “There were 400 employees and only two MBAs – one in accounting and the other was me.” She wasn’t always received positively: “I was a suspect person. I’m in a world of hard-core environmental advocates and I was from the business world; there were plenty of people in the environmental advocacy field who view people like me as the enemy. I was learning to speak a different language and getting frustrated because people didn’t understand what I was saying or didn’t care about my opinion.”

Determined to succeed at her fellowship, she muscled through: “I focused on the positive aspects as much as I could, that this role was giving me the opportunity to meet and network with a huge number of people, some of them senior level, that I otherwise would have never had access to. And I also focused on the fact that I cared about the work.”

But amidst the lawyers, policy wonks and scientists, she realized she had a special skill: “They wanted someone who could talk to people on Wall Street, and I could do that.” She also saw important connections to her old job. “One of the big opportunities was making buildings more energy efficient,” she says. “You invest in them and all of a sudden, it looks a lot like real estate finance and asset finance, and that’s what I know how to do.”

She began to develop a reputation as an innovative thinker in the field. Before her fellowship was up, she had become a coveted speaker at major conferences and been headhunted by multiple firms, ultimately landing a prestigious position dedicated to spurring energy efficiency investments.

Leverage Your Outsider Status

Susan’s finance skills, while top-notch, weren’t unusual on Wall Street. But she made herself valuable because, in the environmental advocacy world, very few people knew what she did. Her skills became a precious commodity that distinguished her and helped her rise quickly.

As you start to envision a new career direction for yourself, don’t limit yourself to the ‘obvious’ choices. Think broadly about the skills you’ve learned, not just the line items on your resume. And remember that your diverse and eclectic experiences might actually be the secret sauce that makes you uniquely valuable to your new employer.

Are you ready for a career change? GA can help.

It starts with “yes”

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out. You can download her free 42-page Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook.