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Dare to change?

11 Tips for professionals seeking career change....

A lot of people in today’s business world seek to change their careers in some way or another, to a different function/country within the same company, to the same function but in a different company, to a totally different sector or country, even leave the realm of employment and move to private business. And they all ask the questions on how to prepare, educate, and train themselves to such a move as well as how to lobby/network to reach their aims. Since I had gone through all the above changes in my career so far, I was recently invited to take part of conducting a workshop at the American University in Cairo (AUC), to present my personal experience in changing careers successfully, as well as strive to answer some of the inquiries raised during the workshop. After the workshop and all the insightful questions I was asked, I came up with my list of top 11 tips to give for people seeking career change:

1) Self assessment:
Candidates should take the time to assess their skills, values, interests and personality. It is the core of any career planning process and provides light and guidance for your next step. Making a list of the skills you have and the jobs you would like to move to, and matching them will help you focus on the transferable skills among them, and assess whether you fit the new job or not. What are the skills you need to develop further so you match those jobs in the future?

2) Build on your transferable skills:
A lot of skills end up being transferable not only across different functions in the same company, but also across totally different industries; like managerial skills, selling skills, negotiation skills… This usually applies to most interpersonal skills, as well as some technical hard skills depending on the situation. Moreover, someone coming from a different professional background (industry, function, department) always adds value to the new job since he comes with a set of strong skills that he acquired from his previous job, that were not emphasized in the new job. This aspect in itself enriches the new job. For example moving from operations to consulting allowed me to bring in real-life experience and wisdom to any consulting work I conducted, since I had much more insight to proper management, realistic forecasting and budgeting, issues that companies will face during implementation…as opposed to someone who had his entire career in consulting without having taken a stab at the actual implementation of those plans and recommendations.

3) Be good at whatever you do:
Companies consider their good employees more than anything, especially in Middle East markets where the ‘talent pool’ is very scarce due to the brain drain we have suffered over the years. A good employee exceeding his targets and excelling at work; is always an asset to the company to be promoted and retained as a matter of priority. HR and line management are much more likely to consider the requests of such a good employee versus a mediocre employee. Same applies for people wanting to move to a different company. Nothing can promote you better than your work, achievements and reputation. So even if you are unhappy at work, make sure you excel until the last working day you have in that company.

4) Be clear on commitments from day 1:
It is very useful to set expectations with you line manager, upper management and HR from day one of starting a new job or assignment, in terms of length of the assignment, potential next moves, targets to be achieved upon which you can be considered for a promotion or move. This clarity makes your negotiations later on much easier, as you refer to a clear commitment from your side as well as from the company’s side.

5) Stay long enough:
Every job has its own life cycle and in order to properly learn, execute and excel in a job you need to stay a minimum amount of time, which of course varies from one job to another. Without spending this amount of time required to digest a job well and deliver results, other companies would disregard this work experience when you apply to join them. For instance some jobs need at least one year to have gone through the market seasonality, budgeting, year closing… The more senior the job is, the more time it requires usually to complete its proper learning and development life cycle. For example as the General Manager or the Market Manager for a company, you need at least two years to get the grasp of it. The first year you are usually implementing the plans, projections and strategy of the previous Market Manager, learning the in and out of the job market, competition, and getting in control of your own organization. The second year becomes much more useful as you set your own plans, strategies and projections for the year, work on achieving them, and close the year seeing the results of your work. This in itself provides invaluable feedback on your own performance in planning, strategizing and budgeting as well as implementing and achieving, versus simply implementing someone else’s plans.

6) Move laterally as much as possible:
Try to building on the above and always move laterally, not horizontally. Changing jobs, companies or departments does not mean that you get a demotion or have to start the new career track from scratch. Yes, you may lack some technical training or knowledge, but your interpersonal skills, management skills, other transferable skills, and general business maturity should give you a boost in the new job while you pick up on the missing technical knowledge which in my opinion should not take long to acquire in most jobs available in today’s market (excluding the obvious ones like deciding to become a doctor, engineer or lawyer all of a sudden!)

7) Position yourself well:
The way you write your CV is very important to reflect your experience and transferable skills, as well as the way you conduct different types of interviews like case studies, case interviews, group exercise, tests, and straight forward interviews. There are lots of articles/books/friends who can help you make your CV more concise (preferably one page), crisp with information, and relevant to the new job you are applying for. There is also another untraditional way of writing CVs in a functional format rather than a simple sequential format that allows you to present the skill-set you acquired much better, and that illustrates right away all your transferable skills that apply to the new career. One trick I always found is that titles given in different companies do not necessarily reflect the actual job you were doing, and do not coincide with titles used in the new company you are applying to. My advice on this one is to add the weird job title you had, another job title between parentheses that reflects the real job you were doing to help the company reading your CV understand your experience better. A very close example I encountered is a friend of mine working for one of the largest multinationals with the title of ‘Platform Strategy Lead’; the English translation would be ‘Competition and Strategy Manager’.

8) Invest in your career:
A General tip in life is to ‘give’ before you ask to ‘take’, which makes the ‘taking part’ much easier later on. Reflecting on our topic, you can always change careers by investing in yourself through training courses to prepare yourself for a new job, or interning (for free) in the new company to allow them to test you and allow you to test yourself in the new job, before they can commit to a long term contract with you.

9) Be a risk taker:
No guts no glory! A lot of people in life stay in their same boring jobs, wondering what if? Until it gets too late to change. Quoting Lawrence of Arabia ‘’all men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible”.

10) Lobby and network:
Creating your own network within an organization as well as outside of it is very important. The social capital of people has been proven by research to be one of the most important success factors in life. Of course while looking for a new job within or outside a company, building on your network will help you get the right market information, know about opening posts, understand more of the job advantages and issues, land you an interview, and help you lobby all the way through! Social capital is not limited to strong links (people you know well); in fact research proved that weaker ties are much better in helping you land a new job than strong immediate friends of acquaintances of yours, since they reach a very different audience that is far away from your reach or the reach of your immediate circle who tends to already share the same contacts with you. (Granovetter, Mark. 1973. The Strength of Weak Ties. American Journal of Sociology 78: 1360-1380) .

11) Education and training:
Of course you can do your MBA (as everybody does now!). My recommendation is to tackle this topic with care and intelligence. You need to start by determining some kind of direction you want to take in life at least on the short/medium term. The best way to do that is to talk to a variety of people older than you who work in different companies, fields, countries, and understand the reality behind those jobs and careers to decide for yourself whether or not this is the direction you want to take. Second step is to understand the best way to get there, is it through an MBA, or specific courses, or climbing the ladder from the bottom... A lot of multinationals especially in manufacturing, FMCGs, do not value MBAs and fancy people who have the right work experience; as they have their own internal training courses to teach what you would need for the job. While consulting firms on the other hand heavily respect MBAs as they learn the proper tool-kit necessary for your career in consulting, in fact they even sponsor their analysts to go for their MBAs. Third step is to take the right course of action, specific to the type of career you want to pursue; not a simple generic off the shelf MBA program.

By Alaa Rady


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