The best career ladders are rarely just a simple, uninterrupted vertical climb upward. Don’t limit yourself to that way of thinking. Great careers often zig and zag. Like a skilled mountaineer crossing a chasm, sometimes you need to turn the ladder horizontally before you start climbing again.
If you work in a declining industry, for example, your fastest career progress may result from making a lateral move into a new industry. You might find it easier to draw a steady paycheck as an average talent in a hot industry than by trying to stand out as a genius in a declining field.
My friend George recently jumped to a new industry. His experience illustrates the challenges and rewards of making a lateral move. George spent most of his career working in an increasingly volatile industry. And he defined himself by the industry in which he worked — it was part of his identity. Over the years, I saw the steady decline of his industry and asked him if he was considering other options. But he liked the work and was really good at it. Yes, other people in his company were getting laid off, and yes the pressure to perform was always increasing, but it was all so familiar to him.
As an outsider, I could see the writing on the wall, but George was too busy working to even look at the wall. To keep his focus, he methodically avoided reading any bad news about his industry. As Upton Sinclair observed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
Finally, as another round of downsizing swept through his company, George recognized he had to make a change. But this time, instead of fighting the bad economics of his industry, he turned his career ladder horizontal, and went looking for a lateral move into an industry that was growing.
This was complicated. His long tenure in his field precluded him from getting interviews in many other industries. Most of his friends could not help him make new connections since they also worked in his current industry. George knew his odds of getting an interview were slim when he sent resumes — hiring managers usually prefer to hire people from their own industry. But the reality is that growing industries simply must hire people from “the outside” to keep growing. So for one job opportunity, George leveraged a classic networking strategy. He connected through a weak tie — his wife’s friend’s spouse. This friendly acquaintance opened the door just enough that George could run through it.
Making the case for himself
With the opportunity of a first interview, George did his homework on the company and then used his interview time wisely by asking a lot of great questions. Initially he was not even sure if he wanted the job. But his questions demonstrated strategic thinking, a passion for the business challenges, and a keen interest in the company. And the more he learned, the more excited he became. Hiring managers (perhaps incorrectly) often look for passion in the interview. Industry insiders have an easier time demonstrating it, simply because of their long tenure. But outsiders need to demonstrate it in other ways.
George created a plan to preemptively attack the idea that he might be a risky hire. He had to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he was not risky. So he outlined ten points of similarity between his last job and the job he wanted, and illustrated his success in each area. As an outsider, this is something he had to do. Nobody else was in a position to make that analysis.
It turned out that the two industries actually had a lot of overlap — data-driven sales processes, management of complex sales with multiple stakeholders, etc. George’s skills were incredibly transferable, but George could not assume that a hiring manager would know that — he had to prove it. (In an interview, the hiring manager rarely believes what you say about yourself, but they do believe the conclusions they form about you. So the goal of your interview is to give them the evidence they need to reach the right conclusion.)
Creating the right strategic framework
Not only did George’s ten point plan reduce the appearance of risk, it also showcased his skills so that he appeared more strategic than any other candidate. His own framework provided the structure for an interesting and productive conversation. And of course, softball questions like, “What do you know about the firm?” were easy home runs.
George’s preparation overcame the hiring managers’ inclination to hire industry insiders. One person in the sequence said George was the best-prepared candidate they had ever seen. Another in the interview sequence was highly opposed to hiring outside the industry, but enough people lobbied for George that he was convinced to change his mind. The firm’s president said he wanted more hires like George, and suggested that HR pursue more people with his background.
George had a lot to learn in his new industry, but he is marveling at how much more enjoyable it can be to be part of a winning team in an industry that is growing.