Looking to Change Careers? Focus on the Employer's Risk

May 4, 2017

You are concerned that the high growth industry you hitched your career to is in decline. Or perhaps you’ve never really enjoyed the career you fell, or were nudged, into and the urge to make a change is becoming harder to ignore. Whatever the source for the itch, you are contemplating a material career change.

While most of the literature on career change focuses on the individual contemplating the change, one study (NBER working paper by UNC professor Camilia Kuhnen and Stanford’s Paul Oyer) examined the issue from the perspective of the potential employers. The results suggest that employers really struggle with career-changing candidates. The issue is risk.

While all companies long to hire candidates certain to be successful, such certainty is always elusive, and thus some measure of risk is assumed with every hire. For entry level roles, this risk is relatively minor. Companies screen, hire and invest in young recruits with the hope they will demonstrate the ‘right stuff’ to be successful. If for whatever reason they do not, ties are cut and someone else is recruited. The overall costs and impact on the business are relatively minor. However, as the importance of the role and the cost of error increases (eg. impact on the business, costs of firing and replacement), organizations become more concerned with risk mitigation. They hire candidates known to, or referred by, trusted employees or stakeholders. They invest more time in due diligence. They look for demonstrable evidence of having executed similar tasks and sets of objectives under similar circumstances. They insist upon directly related industry, product, or market experience. In effect, they do whatever they can to reduce their risk of error.

Risk mitigation puts career changing candidates at a significant disadvantage. To be successful they must tackle the issue of risk head-on. For example;

  • Look for bridges connecting the old world to the new - Candidates will often assert that they have transferrable skills. They urge companies to focus on these ‘competencies’ rather than relevant industry experience. Companies however, except for the largest and most sophisticated, struggle to give equal weighting to generic skills relative to familiarity with products, markets, and customers…As a result, candidates must look for connections that will help allay some of those fears. Perhaps the industry you seek to exit shares common suppliers, markets, investors, customers, regulatory environments, cadence or something upon which you can build a bridge to mitigate their perceived risk.
  • Anticipate and prepare - Do research on the company to seek to join, its markets, competitors, trends etc. Talk to people from within its ecosystem. Mitigate risk for the employer by demonstrating familiarity if not intimacy with their world. Show proactivity and preparation. Similarly, if you know the company will be concerned about your lack of industry familiarity, try find others via LinkedIn who have successfully transitioned to that industry and speak with them about their experiences and challenges. When this issue comes up you can deal with it convincingly, “I was concerned about this so I spoke to a number of people who had made similar changes, explored their transitional issues, and here is why I am even more convinced this is a good move for me, and you.”
  • Know the price you are prepared to pay to change careers. Switching to a new role or industry usually exacts a cost. A Vice-President may have to step down to a Director level role. A manager may have to step down to be a front-line contributor in order to prove themselves in an altogether new industry. For mid-career executives burdened with mortgages and families, such costs, or call it tuition if you like, may be untenable. Nonetheless, knowing the price you are able and willing to pay is important in mapping out your strategy for change, and its likelihood of success.
  • Make it easy. If you have the financial wherewithal, suggest to the employer that a short-term contract might provide a vehicle for both parties to become better acquainted. Alternatively, negotiate a different type of ‘test-drive’ arrangement that allows you to prove yourself and them to get to know you, but with an ‘out’ for all concerned.

Career change carries risks for both parties. For the motivated career changer however, anticipating where those risks lie provides an opportunity to proactively manage and mitigate them.


About the Author

Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.

Contact Robert by email at rhebert@stonewoodgroup.com or call (1) 416-365-9494 EXT 777