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How to Paint Your Career Out of a Corner

Perhaps not too long ago, your skills were in high demand, your company was growing fast, your stock portfolio was hitting new highs daily and your options promised wealth in the years ahead. Today, things may be different. You may find yourself in a sector that showed enormous promise, but now offers dramatically less opportunity, especially in a recession.

To re-energize your career and apply your skills with greatest impact, you may need to change industries or find a very different position. Many senior executives face this challenge today. Easier said than done. To do so, you must jump two hurdles. You must first identify and assess which of your skills are most transferable to a new industry or function. Then, you must convince others that you can successfully apply these skills to their business challenges.

Transferable Executive Skills

Though most of us typically think of our careers in terms of industry knowledge or functional skills, a wide variety of executive competencies are transferable across industries, companies and roles. Consider the skills described in the next few paragraphs and think back to achievements that demonstrate which of these skills are your strongest.

  • Strategic thinking

  • Management skill

  • Operational expertise

  • Business development

  • Marketing

Context and Culture

Hiring managers and job seekers both often overestimate the commonality of experience that employees of different companies in the same industry will have. In fact, unless the position you seek calls for industry-specific technical knowledge or a network of industry contacts, other considerations can be better predictors of your ability to successfully contribute to a new industry or role.

A good executive recruiter will probe to understand the business environment in which you successfully applied key skills. The leadership required to help a small company build market share in a rapidly growing market, for example, is very different from the leadership required to help a market leader improve bottom-line growth in a mature, consolidating industry. There are many other environmental or cultural factors worth considering. Some include:

  • Was the primary challenge to achieve growth despite very limited resources or to allocate adequate resources most efficiently?

  • Did you have to fight an overreaching bureaucracy to be successful, or did you have to design and implement new processes and policies to sustain your business's growth?

  • Was your business highly complex, with multiple product lines and customer groups, or quite focused?

It's tempting during interviews to focus on explaining what you've accomplished and to assume that interviewers will be able to draw the parallels between the industries and companies you worked for and the industry and company they know well.

But reaching this understanding requires hard work and intense focus. Few interviewers have the patience or skill to do so without help. Unless you build a clear case that the business context in which you were successful is similar in important ways to that facing the company you hope to join, your interviewer is likely to seek candidates who built their skills within a familiar industry context.

Some of the best questions you can ask during an interview probe for context. "Ask the interviewer, 'What are the two or three challenges facing the successful candidate that worry you most?' " says Jim Boehmer, a Toronto-based executive coach. "This gives you an opportunity to talk about how you had previously faced these same issues successfully." A successful senior-level interview "often becomes a storytelling exercise," says Mr. Boehmer, who has worked as a career-transition consultant for more than 20 years. "It's important to develop some examples or war stories that demonstrate how you've applied your skills and strengths to similar situations."

A candidate interviewing for the CEO post at a midsize privately owned computer-component maker asked about the relationship between the company's founder and the board. He learned that the board had determined that the founder wasn't sufficiently strong as CEO to grow the company to the next level, yet the company needed the founder's continued leadership in research and development. The situation, though troubled, was similar to one the candidate had encountered several years earlier. He was able to describe his earlier success and demonstrate that he had the skill to resolve this situation in a way that would allow the company to prosper.

He was subsequently hired and succeeded in building a constructive working relationship with the founder, who proved to be an ally several months later when the new CEO sought to win the board's agreement to enter into an important business alliance.

Corporate Culture

Corporate culture can be as important as business context in determining your ability to succeed in a role. "Career-transition consultants have said for years that 90% of the reasons for job loss have to do with lack of 'fit,' " says Mr. Boehmer. "Competence is usually not the issue."

If your interviewer isn't probing for this depth of understanding, you should raise the issue. "An effective tactic can be to say: When my company was looking to fill my spot, this is what they were looking for and this is why I was hired," says Nancie Whitehouse, director of search strategies at General Atlantic Partners, a global private-equity firm.

Selling Yourself

Your challenge is to build a case that demonstrates you possess the relevant executive skills and have applied them successfully in relevant contexts.

The skills that you emphasize in your resume and interviews should reflect the industry and role you're targeting. "A lot of candidates sell skills that aren't necessarily relevant to what the company is recruiting for. In order to talk about their accomplishments, they sometimes tell [recruiters] things that don't apply," says Ms. Whitehouse.

So, while you may have extensive experience marketing products or services to consumers, if you're pursuing a senior role with a company whose revenues depend on strong long-term relationships with business customers, you may wish to emphasize your successes forging several business alliances instead.

A C-level executive at one of the leading advertising agencies assessed his career options while his firm underwent a merger. In examining his skills, he realized that while he'd spent several years as an account executive earlier in his career, his greatest strength was in building professional organizations that excelled at serving business customers. Highlighting this point, even if it meant de-emphasizing his skills as a consumer marketer, opened a whole new set of opportunities for him in his discussions with recruiters.

Highlighting Accomplishments

You should differentiate between activities in which you played a leading role and those in which you merely participated. Though it's human nature to exaggerate one's contributions somewhat, doing so to a degree that could be perceived as misleading will likely backfire, if not through a recruiter's questioning then through the reference-checking process. A better tactic is to be honest and clear about your contribution and emphasize what you learned from your experience.

One senior executive admitted that her role as her company's representative on a joint venture's board of directors was decidedly not a leadership role. The board was controlled by another strategic investor acting in concert with a savvy private-equity firm. But she was very clear about the high caliber of the other directors on the board, the challenges they discussed and how much she learned from those conversations. She did, however, make a point of highlighting the time the board adopted a recommendation she'd made to make a small acquisition and the resulting impact. While she wasn't selected for the position, her forthright style and description of her contribution made a positive impression on her recruiter.

Focus on your accomplishments, not your responsibilities. Says Ms. Whitehouse, "When I speak to executives who are seeking new roles, I advise them to be very specific in describing what they actually did: I grew, I built, I changed, I cut..."

Finally, if you're looking to switch industries or functions, avoid the jargon of your specialty. Describe your responsibilities and accomplishments in your resume and discussions in a way that can be broadly understood. At the same time, steer clear of grand yet empty phrases such as "strategic visionary with high-impact track record," however impressive and applicable these may seem.

Generic terms such as creativity, vision, business judgment, analytical skills, communication skills or people skills offer no information unless backed by clear examples of what you achieved and under what circumstances. Be as succinct as possible and use formatting in your resume to break up long text blocks that aren't easily skimmed.

A CFO's Story

Would it be hard to get re-employed if you lost your job or were dismissed? Says Mr. Boehmer, "Probably not, if your leaving story flies and you have the skills and abilities they are looking for." It also helps to emphasize what you did in response to the unexpected challenges you faced and to highlight any successes you were able to pull off.

One executive left his company of 20 years to become CFO of an early-stage e-commerce company. Like so many others, his company failed to get adequate funding after the market downturn and couldn't execute the original business plan. Subsequently when seeking a new position and talking to executive recruiters, the CFO explained how he quickly moved to conserve cash, while admitting his error in not doing so immediately upon joining the company. He said he especially regretted not reversing a decision made by his predecessor to implement expensive new customer-management software.

The CFO described the steps he and the management team took to transform the company's focus from e-commerce to software licensing and how that helped improve margins and cash flow. He described what he did to win support for this transformation from the company's board and investors. He also discussed his efforts to negotiate asset sales in order to minimize the investors' losses. And he was very clear about why joining this company was a smart decision at the time, how he'd hoped it would enhance his skills and what he'd learned. He's now a CFO at another early-stage company whose CEO admired his ability to make the best of a difficult situation and learn from mistakes.

Going Forward

The times ahead may force you to make a critical, honest examination of your contributions, strengths and developmental needs to successfully guide your career in new directions. Such an examination will help you clearly show interviewers your skills and how you can help them succeed.

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