After a successful 30-year career in the arts and entertainment sector (both non-profit and for profit) I decided I wanted a change and perhaps contribute to my community in a different way. For the past year I have applied for several executive director jobs in the social services, where my skill set made me clearly a credible candidate. In a couple of instances I was able to get to an interview with the recruiter. However, at the end of the day, the employers were unable to see past my particular experience, and to focus on my transferable skills.
How do I get an employer to think out of the box and at least grant me an interview? I am confident that if I can get into the room, I can address their fears that I am some "flaky arts guy." I have a track record of significant accomplishment, and can provide references from community leaders.
You've pinpointed a key challenge that many face when shifting careers and trying to break into a new sector. It can be exciting – but tough to break into the new sandbox. Employers are inundated with résumés so if at first glance one doesn't seem to fit the typical profile, they often don't take the time to meaningfully consider the candidates' merits and potential. This just means that you have to work harder to make an impression and to find employers who might be more willing to consider an "out-of-the-box" candidate. This calls for an extra dose of effort, creativity and persistence. Challenging, yes, but mission impossible – no.
Many people have successfully made those transitions. Well before I became a coach, I recall the time I was trying to break into the marketing/PR communications world. I came to the proposition with a distinctly different first career. I was armed with – well, a fitness degree and a lot of unrelated but transferable skills. While I did have some marketing education and experience, I had to convince recruiters and employers that it wasn't all about bicep curls and core crunches and that I was very versed in the "stuff" of their world, such as brand identities (a marketing term) and more.
I also had to market myself differently. While competing with more traditionally trained and experienced candidates I did manage to land a fabulous role with one of the top international PR firms, which lead to a very fulfilling and successful career. And while I was at a more junior stage in my career than you've described for yourself, and the times have since changed with a tougher landscape for job seekers now, many of those lessons still hold true today. Here are a few thoughts for you to consider:
Your first impression needs to break through initial barriers: I like your confidence in knowing that if you could land an interview you will be able sell yourself. However, you can't wait for that. You need to start marketing yourself effectively well before the interview in order to get the interview. This means your résumé, introductory letters and any initial communications must break through the perceived barriers so that you can get invited to that interview stage.
Your introductory narrative must very quickly communicate in a compelling way that you are ready and qualified as a candidate. Take a hard look at your résumé and your pitch letters. What key messages are you delivering? Are you making the reader work too hard to see the potential for fit? Are you demonstrating that you understand their world and the organization's issues and opportunities? Are you speaking their language? Are your transferrable skills and experience jumping out at them in a way that they can start to envision you as a possibility for the role? If writing résumés and cover letters aren't your strength, get feedback and support on this so that you can put your best foot forward in making the right first impression.
Be upfront and direct with your background and turn it into an opportunity. You may want to consider doing so in your introduction communications about coming from outside their sector so that you can own the issue and address it directly. If you don't acknowledge this and instead simply hope they give you benefit of the doubt regarding your potential for fit, you may continue to be overlooked too quickly. Find a way to acknowledge this while framing your "out-of-the-box" experience as a valuable asset. Cite some common ground with respect to issues you have successfully dealt with in your past work that are relevant to their organization. Some examples might include: fundraising; doing more with constrained resources; finding, developing and keeping great talent; community relations; government relations. This isn't about overemphasizing the "outsider" angle, but rather about acknowledging it and showcasing your experience in a way that can be directly relevant to their needs.
Network, network, and network: In addition to applying for posted jobs, make networking a priority. Networking is often one of the most underutilized tools in the job seeker's toolbox. Find ways to connect with influencers and leaders in this sector and to meet people who can help in some way – either directly or by introducing you to others. Use your networking to learn more about the sector you want to break into; to hear about opportunities that may or may not be advertised; to get feedback about your potential for a senior role in this new arena; and more.
Consider other roles as a stepping stone: While I certainly wouldn't discourage you from applying for the top positions (e.g. executive director roles), you may also consider other slightly less senior leadership opportunities to get your foot into the door with some sector experience. Of course, your next step in your career depends on your overall career and life goals. If you see a substantive road ahead in terms of working years and really want to make this change, then investing some time in a role that allows you entry into a new arena might be worth some consideration. Work out your goals, your must haves as well as the "nice-to-have-but-negotiable" wants. This may open up new possibilities for you.
Most importantly, keep your confidence because you will need it to stay focused, tenacious and resourceful. And put on a learner's hat too because you must stay open, curious and flexible as you navigate towards your new career. Best of luck!
Eileen Chadnick is a career coach and principal of Big Cheese Coaching in Toronto.
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