Take These 2 Key Steps to Make an Extreme Career Transition Possible
In 2014, after over a decade in uniform, I left the Marine Corps and began my Darden journey with the Global Executive MBA Class of 2016 cohort, along with my first civilian jobs. I was a health care services operations manager, a federal audit readiness accountant, a marketing director, a small business owner and, eventually, chief marketing officer for a very young startup — all in the span of four years. Last fall, I finally reached adulthood as a marketing professional by joining…an agency.
From Marine to Marketer
Upon leaving the Marines, I set my sights on the creative industry (more specifically, marketing and advertising) because of a strong desire to improve how organizations express and exemplify their own identity, purpose and core values.
But breaking into any kind of creative role was extremely difficult. My resume looked like I should be in the military and did not initially showcase my capabilities as a strategist and communicator. That was an obstacle that I came up against over and over as I applied to jobs and spoke with people. They couldn’t see in my resume what I knew about myself. So I had to become the marketing and communication professional I wanted others to see.
It was hard work. But I did it. And through it all, I discovered the value of two pivotal career transition disciplines: networking and immersion.
I’d still be an accountant scrubbing the Air Force’s incredibly inaccurate financials if I didn’t discover and capitalize on those two golden eggs. Even though I found more than $50 billion (yep…billion) in previously-unreported USAF capital assets, I derived no intrinsic satisfaction from the work. I had to move on in order to experience some happiness.
Career Transition Principle No. 1: Network
Networking is THE best way to become part of a new tribe, and that’s what a career transition is all about. Before you groan with displeasure, consider this: Networking doesn’t have to be miserable. It can be satisfying. I learned to think differently about networking as I went about my career transition. Here are a couple thoughts:
- Networking isn’t as ugly as you think it is. When I used to hear the word “networking,” I would cringe with performance anxiety. I worried that I wouldn’t deliver my elevator pitch well enough. I stressed over whether I knew enough about anything to speak intelligently. But after hundreds of calls, coffees and cocktails, I can say this: networking is just a conversation. If you’re being yourself, some conversations will turn into opportunities. Some may even become real friendships. Don’t let notions of how unpleasant networking feels prevent you from just talking to people.
- If you don’t ask, the answer is no. I wouldn’t have survived without the application of this idea. As a member of someone else’s company, as a consultant, and as someone who simply loves to come up with big ideas and turn them loose on the world, this concept of simply asking has been a game-changer.
Career Transition Principle No. 2: Immerse Yourself in Your Desired Function
All the networking in the world won’t make you good at the job you’re trying to win. You’ve still got to show that you know what you’re talking about, and that you belong in the tribe you’re gunning for.
Here are some things I learned through my own immersion efforts.
- Become a master learner. This concept is taken from the book, The First 90 Days. Author Michael Watkins says there is “no substitute for logging the time and digging in.” Yes, his book is all about the first 90 days once you start in a new role, but it’s the idea of “digging in” that I adopted for my transition. And as Beethoven said, “Do not merely practice your art, but force your way into its secrets.” I’m still benefiting from all my transition-period studying, and success came through disciplined, immersive learning.
- Do free work. I was introduced to this idea by a fellow Darden alumna who, herself, has transitioned into a very different career. She got the idea from Herminia Ibarra’s book, Working Identity.
I accelerated my move away from accounting by doing several forms of free work, each of which allowed me to learn and gain valuable experience. As an unpaid intern for a startup, I learned social media integration, the WordPress content management system and content planning strategies. As a pro bono small business consultant, I gained expertise in building public brand expressions and leveraging organic social media to gain new business prospects. I even produced digital video assets and photo shoots for professional colleagues at no charge.
Find Your Tribe and Become an Expert
Résumés, cover letters and online applications are still important, but consider some data from my transition. Out of 100 job applications, I interviewed with nine companies (9 percent interview rate). I received two offers (a 22 percent interview success rate, but only a 2 percent application success rate). I accepted both offers, as they occurred more than a year apart.
The point is that submitting applications and trying to interview through the standard approach of ‘outside-in’ thinking won’t get you where you want to be.
A better way is to go build relationships with people already in the tribe you want to join, and dive head-first into things that will make you the go-to expert.
A final thought, taken from my Darden graduation speech: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.