Career Transitions and Starting from the Bottom

Career Transitions are common these days, whether the result of a failed business, a career choice that didn’t work out as planned, a layoff, or just knowing it was time for a change.  Changing careers is nothing to apologize for but an opportunity to embrace change, to leverage transferrable skills and follow your passion.

Regardless of the reason, career transition should be planned and executed well to ensure success.

  • Honest Assessment – you need to very honestly assess your personal strengths and weaknesses.  Be honest about what skills you possess and what skills are needed in the roles you hope to pursue.  Identify opportunities to develop the missing or weaker skills.  Be very honest about what you like and dislike about your current employer and your current role.
  • Have a plan.  Know where you want to go so you can figure out how to get there.  Carefully consider your skills interests and passions to find the best intersection.  Research target companies and investigate their flexibility.
  • Network like crazy.  This is a great way to learn how others have made similar career transitions, to learn about the various roles in your desired field and the key skills for success.  This is also the best way to learn how flexible and supportive organizations truly are.  Use your alumni database, linked in, family and friends to identify contacts in target positions and at target companies. (More on Networking for Job Search Success!)
  • Focus on your transferrable skills.  What skills do you already have with demonstrated success that are important in this new role?  Think about how to market those skills?  Have you demonstrated your ability to learn a new industry or function in the past?  Use that to your advantage.  Don’t focus on the parts of the job description you haven’t done before.  Focus on the skills required to do that job and sell your skills and experience.  Don’t forget that sometimes a fresh perspective is just what the company needs when it done respectfully.
  • Don’t focus on the reason for the career change in your interview, focus on your passion for the work and the skills and experience you bring to the table.
  • Turn a negative into a positive.  If you tried something and it didn’t work out, focus on what you learned from the experience.  Having the courage to try something is positive and show that you learned from the experience and bring that learning to the new role.
  • Track record – have you already successfully transferred to a new industry, a new department?  Have you learned a new system or process?  Show that you learn quickly, set high standards for yourself and quickly become an expert in your area of responsibility
  • Show your passion – let them know why you are so passionate about this opportunity and what you can bring to the company.  Be sure not to come across as the “flavor of the month” but as someone committed to success in this field.
  • Know your competition – you will be competing for this position with people who have done this job before.  Sell the hiring manager on the unique strengths and perspectives you bring to the position.
  • Execute flawlessly – Be sure your resume has no typos or grammatical errors.  Same for your cover letter.  Prepare well for the interview.  Have questions prepared to ask the interviewer.  Be sure to send a hand written thank you note.  Every step of the process you want to stand out and be remembered for positive reasons.

Managers have come to expect career changes when they post a position.   They want to see someone who has done their homework about the company, the position and the career path.  They want to know why you are making the change and how you will contribute to their organization.  The most critical factor is fit.  Do they feel they can work with you and that you fit well with the team.

But what if someone isn’t wealthy? Can he afford to start over in a new industry?

  • With a career transition you may have to take a step backwards or sideways in your career but you shouldn’t have to start at the very bottom.

If so, what are some tips for making it work and still being able to make ends meet?

  • Do a very honest assessment of what your “floor” is in terms of salary and benefits.  Know what you must have to pay the bills.  Discipline yourself to not consider anything below your floor.  But taking  a cut to get into a field you desire and where you can advance may be a good investment in your future.

If not, what are other ways to make a change without starting from the bottom?

  • If you do a lot of networking to learn what skills are required for success in your target organizations, you can really focus on selling your relevant transferrable skills.  When you are bringing something of value to the table, your offer should be higher.
  • Also consider interim steps to get you closer to your desired career path so you can maximize your value add.  You can build experience in your target field by leveraging your current experience.  For example:  I have an undergrad degree in accounting and was very successful in my accounting career.  I completed my MBA and realized my passion was marketing and managing customer relationships.  My first marketing job was with a financial software vendor who valued my accounting knowledge, my experience with financial systems and my connections in that field.  I was able to make a very significant career change without stepping backwards.  After several years there, I had the marketing experience to pursue the opportunities of my choice.
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Working With Recruiters

Employment Agencies, Head Hunters, Executive Search, Temporary Agencies, Etc.

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These organizations are in business to help companies fill positions – either full-time or temporary.  They charge the client company a fee for identifying the appropriate candidate for the position.


  • Particularly for senior level positions companies often rely on an outside firm to source candidates.  The firm relies on their network of candidates and referrals to identify appropriate contacts to present to the company.  If you are seeking a C level position or even a VP position with a large firm, many of these positions will be handled by a search firm.  You want to be known to the search firms that specialize in your field so you will be on their radar screen for appropriate opportunities.  Definitely make a connection and build a relationship with a leading firm if you are searching.  This will connect you with opportunities you may not find otherwise.
  • For other positions, companies are either having trouble identifying the right candidates or are too busy so they rely on an outside firm.  These positions may or may not be available through other means.  The firm will do the screening and can provide you with additional information and insight on the position.
  • Often taking a temporary position gives you an opportunity to learn more about the company, the team and the job while they assess your skills and fit for the position.  It can be a great foot in the door if it is a company you hope to work for and can lead to full-time opportunities.


  • You are NOT the customer.  The firm does not work for you, they work for their client.  They seek to find the best candidates for their clients.  If you fit the qualifications, you will hear from them, otherwise you will not.  Don’t expect them to land you a job when you are having trouble landing one yourself.
  • The firms are expensive.  So if the company posts the job on their website and uses an outside firm, it will cost them more to hire the person presented by the firm.  Don’t put yourself at a disadvantage if this is a company you very much want to work for going forward.

Company Recruiters

Most companies rely on recruiters in their HR department to manage the hiring process to identify talent for the organization.  It is only after clearing the process with the recruiter that the candidate gets passed to the hiring manager for an interview.  Recruiters are often extremely busy and can’t be expected to be the expert in every position in the company.

If you are contacted by a recruiter, respond quickly and professionally.  Answer all their questions honestly and positively.  While it may feel like just a phone conversation, it is an interview.  They are often trying to screen out candidates so don’t give them a reason to eliminate you from consideration.  Ask thoughtful questions about the company and the position based on your research.  Show interest and enthusiasm for the position.  If you really want to stand out from the crowd, send the recruiter a thank you note.

See more on How to Get Your Resume to the Top of the Recruiters’ Pile!

Focus on Fit

While many employers have always focused on fit during interviews, it has become increasingly important.  It is expensive and time-consuming to lay off someone who isn’t working out.  It is much better to spend a little more time in the interviewing process to ensure that you are making the best possible hire.  There are many qualified candidates for most jobs so it is critical to find the candidate with the appropriate skills, education and experience, who also fits the organization.  The individual needs to fit the organizational culture and work well with the rest of the team.  We all spend too many hours of our week working to be working with people we aren’t comfortable working with at all.

To accurately assess fit during the interview, it is incumbent upon the interviewer to clearly identify what constitutes fit for the organization and the department.   Clearly define what you need so you can ask appropriate questions as well as recognize it when you see it.   Think about how work gets done successfully in your organization.  Do you need someone who works collaboratively as part of teams or someone who can keep their head down and get the job done?  Do you need someone who can work very independently or do they need to be given constant direction?  Do you want someone who accepts the status quo or someone who is always looking for a better way to do things?  Some key interview questions to consider:

  • Tell me about your greatest success in your current role and how did you achieve it.
  • Tell me about a time you were part of a team and you didn’t agree with the action being taken.  What did you do?  What was the outcome?
  • Tell me about a time you had to convince a team to take an unpopular action.  How did you accomplish this?
  • What do you would need to be successful in this job?
  • Tell me about a time you identified a better way to do something in your job.  What steps did you take?  What was the outcome?

The personal fit can be a bit more challenging.  Managers needs to have a self-awareness of their own style as well as of how their team works together.  While you don’t want to hire someone to be your best friend, you need to hire someone you enjoy working with and can trust to do the work in a timely and accurate manner.  Social intelligence can be a significant factor.  I had an employer explain that they after an interview, they ask themselves if they could do a cross-country flight sitting next to the person.  If the answer is a clear no, it is probably also not someone you want to work with every day!  How do they work with others and with their manager?  Some key interview questions to consider:

  • How would your current manager describe your work style?
  • What would your current manager identify as your strengths and weaknesses?
  • How would your colleagues describe your work style?
  • What would your colleagues identify as your strengths and weaknesses?
  • What three words would your current manager use to describe you?
  • What three words would your colleagues use to describe you?
  • How would you describe the perfect manager?
  • What do you need/expect from a manager to help you be successful?

With employers focused on fit, we are seeing an increase in behavioral questions.  Looking at how the candidates handled different types of situations in the past to assess how they might respond in the future.  It is less about asking very personal questions and more about seeing how they behave in certain situations.

Starting A New Job on the Right Foot

Starting a new job is the perfect time to make a good impression.  You want the employer to be confident that they made the right decision in hiring you for the position.  The first hundred days in a new job can be one of the most critical times of your career.  Here are some recommendations based on feedback from our employers.

  • Be Punctual – This is a way to show you are serious about the job.  You can worry about flexibility later after you have proven yourself.  Always arrive a few minutes before starting time so you are ready and eager to begin your day.  Managers notice when employees are not punctual.  If something comes up and need to ask for some time off, give as much advance notice as possible.  Try to minimize the negative impact on your work deadlines and offer to make up the time if appropriate.  Always be mindful of critical work deadlines.
  • Show Respect – Honor the culture of the organization you have joined and respect those in authority as well as your peers.  Put your cell phone on vibrate and avoid taking personal calls except in an emergency.  Do not use company property for personal reasons – this includes the internet.  Follow the company’s dress code.  Take the lead from your manager.  Don’t gossip or participate in the office rumor mill.  Also show respect of their current processes and procedures.  Don’t start out telling them their systems are antiquated and their processes don’t make sense.  Learn the systems and processes first.  Listen to why they do things the way they do.  There may well be significant opportunities for improvement but you need to invest the time in understanding the status quo and earn some credibility before you start proposing changes.
  • Open Communications – Identify your supervisor’s communications style and preferences and work to accommodate that style.  Also identify the style and preferences for your colleagues.  Discuss any concerns you have with your manager.  Provide your supervisor with progress reports.  Avoid surprises – such as a project not completed on deadline.  Let them know in advance if there are issues.  Keep your manager advised of any concerns that could impact results and deadlines.  Set the pattern for open, frequent communications early.  Ask for feedback regularly so you can fine tune your performance to ensure you are meeting or exceeding expectations.
  • Ask Questions – Do not make assumptions.  You are learning the company and the role.  Ask questions to be sure you understand.  Clarify requests to be sure you understand what you are being asked to do.  Inquire how your work supports the department’s goals and the company’s objectives.  It is not a sign of weakness to ask questions.  Don’t waste time and energy doing the wrong things because you didn’t ask.
  • Take Notes – Take notes so you don’t ask the same question again.  Review your notes and apply what you have learned when faced with similar tasks or issues.  Keep a record of your accomplishments – details of projects competed and impact on the organization, skills you developed or enhanced, knowledge you gained.  They know you are new and you will need to ask questions as part of the learning process but they will quickly grow frustrated if you keep asking the same questions.
  • Be Fully Engaged – If possible ask what you can do prior to your start date to learn more about the company, the team and the position.  Do your homework researching the company, competitors, industry etc.  Demonstrate your energy and enthusiasm.  Remain positive.  Show you are hungry for a challenge.  Pay attention to both quality and timeliness of your work.  Look for ways to exceed expectations.
  • Identify Solutions not Problems – When you encounter problems, try to find possible solutions.  Identify unmet business needs and ways you can help meet them.  When identifying a problem, always offer at least one reasonable solution.
  • Listen – Learn as much as you can by listening to others as they talk about the industry, the company and the department.  Listen carefully to instructions for assignments and clarify as needed.  Pay attention to deadlines, guidelines, and procedures.  Always ask for feedback and think about how you can apply what you learned going forward.  Seek continuous improvement.
  • Earn the Challenging Assignments – Employers don’t give the most challenging project to the rookie in most cases.  Demonstrate with your early assignments that they can count on you to deliver high quality and timely work and you will begin to earn more challenging assignments.
  • Show initiative – Look for ways to exceed expectations.  Identify unmet business needs and determine ways you can help.  Offer to assist a busy colleague with a big project.  Volunteer for a project that needs a home.
  • Be Flexible and Adaptable – Accept all assignments cheerfully and give every assignment your best effort.  Be open minded about new ideas, new procedures and different work.  Anticipate change and embrace it.
  • Curiosity – Ask open ended questions to demonstrate your interest.  Offer ideas and suggestions for possible improvements.  Seek opportunities to learn more about the company and the industry.

The manager hired you instead of all the other candidates because he/she believed you could make a difference on their team.  Show them from day one that they made the right decision.

Anticipating Unusual Interview Questions

Mr Binky

Cartoon Courtesy of Mark Anderson

To be successful, job candidates must expect the unexpected in their interviews.  While they will likely still see “tried and true” interview questions as well as behavioral questions, we are seeing more employers utilize unique questions in the interview process.

So much of the job search advice and preparation is to help the candidate get to the point of being invited to interview.  Networking to make connections and learn the company, developing a flawless professional resume, preparing compelling customized cover letters and utilizing your networking connections to get your resume in the hands of the hiring manager.  If all those things work and you are invited to interview, that’s great news but now the hard work begins. Read more on how to anticipate unusual interview questions.

WOW Qualities for Candidates

Hiring managers have a deep pool of candidates for most positions so they are seeking the best fit for both skills and personality and they can afford to be selective.  Candidates need to “wow” the employers in the interview to stand out from the crowded field of candidates.  What makes a candidate pop for the hiring managers?


  • Preparation – They expect that every candidate will have reviewed their website.  The candidates who stand out have gone further, reviewed the website in detail, read about the company in WSJ and other periodicals, researched the industry trends and issues and identified and done preliminary research on the competition.  How does this show in the interview?  These candidates ask very insightful questions of their interviewers and ask specific follow-up questions.  They are also able to tailor their responses to what is most important to the company.


  • Have examples that demonstrate your strengths – when answering behavioral questions, be sure you have examples to share that clearly demonstrate your strengths and show how you go above and beyond.  For example if you were an analyst they expect that you can “crunch” lots of data and prepare a summary.  What wows them is if you have an example where you did the data analysis, identified some key trends, did further research on those trends, identify an issue and solved the problem or make key recommendations about next steps.  Can you effectively use the data to support decision making?
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  • Demonstrate your interest and enthusiasm – Sounds obvious but it is often overlooked.  Be engaged and attentive throughout the interview.  Ask insightful questions.  Take a few notes.  Refer to notes if needed.  Let the employer know you are excited about the opportunity and why.  Let them know the value you bring to their organization and how you meet their needs.


  • Solve Their Problems and Ease Their Pain – Yes in an interview you are selling yourself but if that is all you do you likely won’t land the job.  The hiring manager had a business problem to solve or pain to relieve.  Show them how you can add value by solving the problem or relieving the pain.  Focus on what you can do for them.


  • Be Interested and Interesting – Show interest in the interviewer, take cues from what’s in their office to zero in on an interest or hobby.  Show that you care about them as a person.  Be prepared to reveal a bit about your interests if asked as well.  Be someone they would want to work with on a daily basis.  If the interviewer starts wishing the interview was over, you are not going to get the job.  Be personable but also be genuine.

Staying Relevant in Your Career

The world is changing rapidly around us and so is the world of work.  Employees are continuously challenged to stay relevant and current in their field.  This becomes even more critical if you are seeking to make a career change.  Maintaining status quo is not a marketable job skill.

Have you been so busy doing your job that you have neglected opportunities to learn new things, to stay current in your field, to build and maintain your network critical, while continuing to learn and grow?  Most of us are not guaranteed jobs for life so it is critical to stay relevant in your position and your industry.   With a little practice and discipline it is entirely possible.


Even while you are successfully employed, networking it critical to your professional development and learning.  Maintain the network you have and continue to build your professional network.  Successful networking does not require large blocks of time, a few strategic minutes here and there makes a difference.

  • Network within the company – learn what other departments do and how that influences your work, learn what skills enable people to advance in their careers, be interested and interesting, meet someone for coffee or schedule a lunch.  Set goals to keep yourself focused on networking
  • Leverage Linked In – keep your profile up to date, seek recommendations, post updates, review your skills list, use Linked In to find former managers to stay in touch for future references, find former colleagues and reconnect, identify alumni connections in key companies of interest, keep expanding your network
  • Networking beyond your current employer – participate in relevant professional association meetings and conferences, learn best practices from others, build your network in companies of interest, identify people you can learn from
  • Mentor – identify a professional mentor, gain insight from someone who will tell you the truth and help you learn and grow in your career.  Consider mentoring someone junior in your field.
  • Give Back – host informational interviews with people more junior in their careers who wish to learn from your experience, you may learn something too while you are helping them
  • Set goals and hold yourself accountable so networking doesn’t fall to the bottom of your growing to do list

 See more tips on Mentors!

Professional Development

You need to be continuously learning to grow professionally.  Be creative in identifying different ways to accomplish that.

  • Internal Training – identify relevant internal training sessions, build your technical skills, managerial skills, learn something new, work with your manager to identify relevant training and make it a priority
  • Professional Organizations – identify at least one relevant professional organization, attend meetings, meet other members, volunteer to work on a committee, get involved, your learn something from those you work with in these groups
  • Professional Conferences – if budget allows, take advantage of these opportunities, learn from the sessions but also from other attendees,  if budget doesn’t allow, review the presentations online after the conference, follow up with relevant presenters

How does volunteering impact your resume?