One of the most frequent requests we receive from candidates is to help them change direction career wise. Sometimes this will be to make a shift in terms of role (“I’ve worked in a PMO for the last six years, but I’ve really always wanted to be a lion tamer”), but more frequently it’s been a plea to help them change sector.
Some of the time I get the impression that candidates think this is just a matter of us sending their CV to a different bunch of clients, but in practice it’s often a deeply frustrating process with lots of seemingly wasted effort. If you’re going to change lanes, you’re going to need to work at it.
Here are my top five tips:

1. WHY do you want to do this?

A candidate’s reasons for changing sector can vary wildly. For every strategy & change professional out there (still!!?) looking to maximise their earning potential in the investment banks there will be an investment banker looking to ‘put something back’ into a charity. Neither of these convictions, in themselves, is more logical, honourable or straightforward but they have to be firmly held. Recruitment consultants, both internal and external, can spot a chancer a mile off, and there’s no chance you’ll get as far as a first interview if you’re not genuinely set on a change of sectors. “It’s great to hear you’re committed to a career in the retail sector. Why have you applied for my colleague’s job at megabank?”

2. What are you selling?

Candidates, even very good ones, sometimes aren’t great at selling themselves – in their CVs or at interview. If you’re going to change sector and convince a client that your 15 years of manufacturing experience is more relevant than the 200 CVs they’ve had from candidates in their sector, you’ll need to find an angle.
The most obvious way to work an angle is through your skill set.
Many of the markets I recruit in every day are skills short. In these circumstances, all the bells and whistles – sector background, management style, soft skills and cultural fit – can become less important to a client than your expert knowledge of Lean, 6Sigma or a particular ERP system.

3. Marketing yourself

For those candidates with more generalist backgrounds this can be trickier, but there is usually an angle. Some sectors are seen as more readily transferrable in themselves – FMCG to retail for example – but otherwise you might need to make the conceptual bridge on behalf of the client. An example of this would be to emphasise in your CV, the outsourcers, customers or other partners you’ve worked alongside during your career. This might just be the thing that gets you into the ‘yes’ pile rather that ‘no’ pile, even just because the line manager wants to get the lowdown on a competitor or outsourcer he’s thinking of using.
Whatever the angle you try to work to make your ‘relevance’ clear, make sure you do this explicitly rather that implicitly. Make the connections for the client. One of the most effective ways can be a testimonial at the end of the CV from someone in your target sector. The fact you play Dungeons and Dragons with him every Wednesday night is totally irrelevant!

4. Get help

This can be a lonely battle. So finding some allies will help, and to be successful you will need to cover all the angles – former employers, peers, school chums, LinkedIn, job boards, recruitment consultancies – everyone. There isn’t a magic bullet solution to this, so there’s no point in hiding behind your grassy knoll hoping to get lucky!
Essentially you need allies for two reasons – to give you intel about what’s going on in the field and to help you identify opportunities to make your attack. The former is straightforward. You’ve worked with Doug at XYZ Engineering. Doug now works at an NGO. You want to work for an NGO. You call Doug and ask him if his employer might be looking for someone like you.
The latter requires more work. You’re going to have to do that ‘selling’ thing by getting onto the phone to Doug’s boss to tell him about all of the wonderful skills you can bring and the new ideas you have. Even if the CXO is looking at 200 relevant CVs at the time, he’s still likely to want to engage in a conversation with a potential employee who is prepared to try a bit harder.
A word about recruitment consultants here. Some recruiters – me, for example – can do a lot of this for you, and do it on behalf of candidates everyday. However you shouldn’t expect this in every case. More ‘transactional’ recruiters simply won’t have the ‘pull’ with their customer to work this angle on your behalf and will be religiously following a person spec before firing CVs down the pipe. This isn’t their fault any more than it is yours, but it does mean you might have to do some of the work yourself.

5. Keep trying

This will not be easy, even if you follow my advice to the letter but if it’s what you really want to do I would encourage you to persevere. It can be very satisfying, and not just for you.
Several years ago I sat at a shortlist presentation with a client and argued until I was blue in the face that a spectacularly good candidate from a FMCG background should be included amongst the shortlist for a senior position in the charity sector. I tried everything – logic, pleas, cajoling, throwing a hissy – and eventually got my way. Predictably (and thankfully given the fuss I’d made) she aced the interviews and got the job.
She’s not there anymore though. She’s now the chief executive of an international charity.
For more advice and guidance with moving your career in the direction you’d like, get in touch with a specialist consultant at Michael Page Consultancy, Strategy & Change.