A leap of faith: 5 practical steps to help facilitate a successful career change

Senior Consultant Alasdair Robertson draws upon his personal experience to share valuable advice for those considering a changing their career.

The days where we are forced to choose a vocation, profession or career for life may well be behind us. However, a change in career can be daunting. Some are terrified they will simply waste the formative years of their career that were spent accruing a broad and deep knowledge of their chosen vocation, whilst others cite the major obstacle as a potential fall in earnings, seniority and impact. Throw into the mix the inevitable fear and anxiety that is often synonymous with significant life change, and you have a recipe for maintaining the status quo. However, some careers can be a series of short, interconnected journeys where skills matter as much as knowledge, rather than a repeated trek along the same, homogenous path.

Five months ago I was an educational leader working in a South London secondary school; a school that I loved. I had tremendous colleagues, an exceptional boss and took great joy in working with the amazing kids, but after 10 years I needed a change. As someone who has recently swapped school leadership for project management, it seemed logical to pen my thoughts in the hope of supporting others looking for a similar life change. As such, here follows my “Top 5 Tips” to support a significant change in profession, based on a mixture of my own experience and those of several others who have undergone a similar professional transformation.
 

1. List your skills

In the UK, it’s commonplace for us to hate talking and writing about ourselves. The construction of a glowing CV or covering letter are often viewed as a narcissistic task; it is baked into our psyche to undersell ourselves. But to make a successful career move, you have to first overcome this reluctance.

As someone looking to make a professional shift, it is highly likely that you will have developed a significant number of talents, abilities and skills in your time working at your given career. You may have significant leadership experience, be an expert in resolving conflict management, or be wonderfully talented at organising hordes of customers, colleagues, pupils or patients. If you find it hard to make such a list, ask your colleagues to help you. Or work backwards; start with a list of your professional achievements and accomplishments to date, and work out what skills you deployed or demonstrated in the journey to your achievement.

Finally, identify and note the very best examples of an occasion where you fiercely evidenced all of the listed skills. This will be very important further down the line. 
 

2. Selecting the right path for you

The next step is logical, but often executed poorly. What you absolutely must not do is retreat to scrolling through one of those painful recruitment sites that lists jobs by salary bracket or by distance form your home. Both of those things are important, but the (fictional) website findmyperfectjobin5minutes.com is unlikely to be the answer here. However, where you can use the generic job search engine is to look for job titles. The job descriptions are often overly convoluted and confusing, so ignore these and instead take a job title you like the sound of and Google search it alongside “required skills.”

Think about matching your skills to a more generic career like consultancy, project management or some form of analytical role rather than jobs that clearly require a tranche of specific training or a multitude of prior qualifications. Such jobs rely less on industry-specific knowledge and more on your ability to work with people, processes and apply organisation, common sense and logical planning.

In terms of relevant pathways, consultancy is usually a tremendous starting point for those looking to shift careers as consultancies provide a raft of roles that require skills, not specific knowledge. For example, you could be a Project Manager or Business Analyst at a tech consultancy with relatively little experience of anything “techy”; you just need to be armed with excellent EQ, strong organisational skills, an ability to work with anyone and a ferocious desire to learn. Equally, you could work for a consultancy that specialises in the Public Sector, Healthcare, Financial Services etc. In each case, there will be roles that don’t require specific knowledge but will provide you with an opportunity to learn about a new field or sector whilst on the job.

Ultimately, look for and select a pathway that utilises the multitude of skills that you have already listed and can evidence. This is crucial and without having a reasonable number of transferable skills, you won’t get your foot in the door, so think very deeply and match any possible career to your meaty personal skills matrix.
 

3. Getting your foot in the door

This is the big one. At this point, you could be forgiven for thinking, “That’s all very well, but who will interview me when I am competing against others with more relevant CVs?” This is where you need to use those skills that you noted down.

First of all, use LinkedIn to get a genuine insight into the pathway you are exploring. Let’s say you wanted to explore Project Management. There are a multitude of community groups on LinkedIn that share articles, best practice, blogs, vlogs and webinars that will give you an overview of a given career. Build this on top of the knowledge you have acquired by researching the relevant regulatory or advisory competency framework and before you know it, you have a set of criteria by which you can start to build a conversation, CV or covering letter around.

Once you have this information to hand, it’s worth reaching out to recruiters or a talent leader at a relevant organisation. Make a list of relevant companies, and then head to LinkedIn and look for the recruitment teams at these companies. If they have the magic “We’re Hiring” sticker attached to their profile, you’re in luck!

Compose a thoughtful and considered message to them explaining who you are, the fact that you are looking for a career change and then your detail professional background. Again, think about linking your existing professional experience and skills to the sector in which the recruiter is working (use that list that you started with!). Most importantly, be explicit about asking for advice on making the change. At worst, you will get no response, but you may also get a response with genuine advice on some accreditations to pursue, some useful online literature to peruse or even some contacts to reach out to. The best case scenario would be a conversation that leads to you sending a formal CV, and an interview follows. By being proactive, you are demonstrating positivity, drive and confidence that all recruiters are looking for.

Let’s say that you get a message back saying “get some accreditations and then let’s talk”. Some form of formal accreditation is a great way to prove to any recruiter that you are serious about a career change. For instance, there are a myriad of project management qualifications available that provide a learning experience and assessment of the broad skills required to be successful. This could include Prince2 Foundation and/or Practitioner, or some form of Agile qualification.

There are also workarounds to keep costs down; there are ample YouTube videos available covering most or all the modules and content required for the most recognised qualifications, so you can plan to spend 2-4 hours a week learning and preparing for your chosen exam. There is usually a cost associated with taking the certifications, but this is almost always far lower than expensive training courses, and one or two accreditations will be financially viable for most. To avoid the risk of failing and thus having to pay to sit the exam again, be sure to take a few of the practice papers that will inevitably be found for free online.

Finally, use your own LinkedIn network and friends of friends to root out introductions. This can feel uncomfortable; I was cautious about reaching out to friends and coming across as asking for a favour, especially as someone coming out of the public sector where this is not common. However, referral bonuses or finder’s fees are becoming more commonplace; by making an introduction, a friend could be in line for a reasonably hefty lump sum bonus payment, so use this to your advantage and don’t be shy in putting a message on reaching out to people on LinkedIn. Recruiters at rapidly growing start-ups, or small/medium-sized companies often rely on this to help source good people with the right character, ethos, and work ethic.

Finally, remember that the odds of this happening in minutes are slim. Perseverance is key. Keep reaching out, keep upskilling yourself and eventually a door will open.
 

4. The covering letter, CV and interview

A conversation has been started on LinkedIn, and they have requested a CV or more detailed covering letter. Perhaps they have even invited you to an interview! Now is the time to think about tailoring your experiences to the chosen career. Whether writing a CV/covering letter or preparing for an interview, return to the (already researched) list of competencies associated with the sector of your potential new employer. Structure any covering letter around these competencies and fill the letter with robust examples of when you have successfully demonstrated or deployed said competencies to great effect. The process for preparing for an interview is the same; be ready to recite examples of where you have a proven track record of whatever the desired skill may be.

For instance, at an interview I was asked to provide examples of when I had managed risk as part of a project. I had no formal project management experience, but was able to talk about my time spent safeguarding hundreds of teenagers in my prior career in education. I had also completed risk assessments as part of event planning for school-wide events involving hundreds of thousands of pupils, parents, and colleagues.

There are simple steps you can take to help reassure any interviewer that you’ll be up to speed in no time:

  • Demonstrate that you have evidence of learning fast. Think of examples where you have been out of your comfort zone before and be ready to narrate the journey you took to overcome that fear or lack of knowledge.
  • Again, be proactive! If the company deal in cloud migrations, get yourself a copy of ”Public Cloud for Dummies”. Seriously, the for Dummies range of books are a tremendous help when approaching a new career. Simply by doing some reading, you are showing you have determination, you want the job and that you enjoy being outside of your comfort zone.
  • At interview, ask what training opportunities the company can provide and if there will be an opportunity to do any more before you get thrown in the deep end. If the answer is “no”, that company probably isn’t the right place for someone changing career.
  • Highlight the fact that as someone with a raft of experience in a different sector or background, you will bring a new perspective that can be useful. Successful companies are always on the lookout for people from different backgrounds to see if and how they can do things better; it’s your point of difference or USP, so sell that part of you. If you have leadership experience, be forthright in talking about how you can use this to support leadership at any prospective company.

Essentially, leverage and maximise every drop of existing experience you have to ensure you give yourself the best shot at that new role and the career change that you have been craving. Lastly, interview practice is key. Speak to friends or colleagues and ask them to interview you.
 

5. Starting on the right foot

It would be remiss not to focus a little on making the best possible start in months one and two of your new career. None of what follows is ground-breaking, but it is essential in making a positive start.

Build relationships with colleagues who have the expertise you initially lack, and reach out to as many people as possible to build up connections. Don’t be afraid of contacting senior staff to ask their advice on how to best integrate into your new company and new profession. They will often be happy to conduct one-to-ones with you, or even be willing to put time aside to mentor you. If not, they will certainly point you in the direction of good people who are willing and have the time to do so.

Furthermore, think about what value you can start adding to the company straight away. You may be able to support in social outreach work, build a support group for new starters on Teams/What’s App etc. or support in the logistical planning of a company social event. Anything that shows a willingness to roll your sleeves up and get stuck in will help endear you to your new colleagues and superiors.

In terms of getting up to speed, ask if there is a personal budget for training, as is the case at more and more companies. If there is, think about spending half to two thirds of that budget up front to get the basics under your belt; in your first month or so you will probably have the time to engage with any training courses you enrol on, and you’ll start to build a core of knowledge needed to be successful. That said, leave at least some budget to spend on training to tackle challenges that arise as you get into the role.

Lastly, in the current hybrid environment, try to get into the office a few times a fortnight, even if your contract states that you can work from home full-time. Get to know people, dive in headfirst and be a sponge. You can learn from anyone and everyone and those coffee break conversations are as important as your formal meetings!

I wish you the very best of luck on your journey! Hopefully the above is useful and helps you make the life changing move you are looking for. Just remember that persistence, confidence and proactivity will bring you success.