How to Navigate Industry Change as an Executive

Industry Change as Executive

Many of my executive clients change industries. Today’s executives must be prepared to market their skills and talents to employers in multiple industries. Those who see themselves as specialists, or in one industry, may erroneously believe they are confined to one type of business. Others may feel they lack available choices because they are generalists. The reality is that executives of all ages and stages in their careers are moving into new industries.

I find that people often overestimate their potential barriers and underestimate their abilities to make contributions – frequently in a short timeframe. So, what steps might ease your transition to an executive opportunity within a new industry?

Use both online and offline methods of following and tracking growth industries. Review major and lesser-known resources, ranging from LinkedIn, to company websites, to trade journals. Talk to people. Your goal is to pull out traits of industries that are a fit with your background.

Track the industries you find in three categories:

  • Comfortable (easy possibilities)
  • Close (next best)
  • Far (stretching)

Look at growth industries.

Look at growth industries. Why? Because a fast-growing company generally means faster promotions, higher compensation and more valuable stock options. Why join a firm in a printing business that is contracting or a mature industry where stock options may be insignificant? Growth companies are typically propelled by shareholder value. If private, employees often receive options to buy stock at a low percentage of the price extended to venture capitalists. Of course, there are restrictions regarding tenure with the company. But executives joining a growth company often have potential at any age for compensation in stock options that can go far beyond their salary.

And while I do advocate checking growth industries, don’t overlook two other potential opportunities. Distressed industries can present turnaround opportunities for the right executive who has worked under pressure to navigate struggling organizations to healthier status. Perhaps you control major accounts that would give an industry new business. Or, you’ve cut millions in expenses, and can do it for a new industry.

Learn what you don’t know.

The more due diligence you conduct on an industry, the easier it will be to get interviews.  If you don’t have knowledge about a particular industry, comb every piece of informative resource you can access. Trade publications are a great start. They make it easy to communicate on new products, data on specific firms, and the major industry TOPS (Trends, Opportunities, Problems, and Solutions).

Three of my executive clients landed in new industries, late 2014 and early 2015, because they conducted roll-up-your-sleeves targeted research.

  • Brent was a marketing executive with a pharmaceutical firm who joined a soap manufacturer. Why? They had comparable marketing approaches.
  • Joan was a COO of a company that produced biological products. She was recruited to become President of a smaller firm that provided medical testing services. Why? These two industries had similarities in operational methods and business development.
  • Sean, a security specialist with a U.S. Navy and management consulting background, was hired by a startup technology company with a global footprint. Why? Sean had built and nurtured a strong network with his new employer’s CEO, whom he had impressed with his knowledge of insider threat and external global security issues.

Market your value to help them with what you’ve learned.

Sell your flexibility.

I’ve found that just about every person can work in a different function that is broader, narrower, or in some way related to a prior position. Again, examples from my clients’ stories:

  • Jeff, a director from 3M, became the SVP of Sales for a firm in the medical device industry.
  • Susan, an executive, went from the Minnesota Department of Education to CEO of a religious publishing house.
  • Jack, general counsel from a printing company, became EVP of an engineering firm.

When you’re communicating to folks about your knowledge and abilities, don’t be hesitant to cover the entire scope. A CFO frequently has a grasp of the entire business. A sales executive often knows marketing, product management, distribution, and other areas of the business. Market your unique selling points.

Minimize your subjective obligations.

When talking about the obligations for a position, differentiate between subjective obligations and those that actually align with outcomes. Subjective obligations might include titles, degrees and industry experience.

Emphasize your unique selling proposition.

The final hiring decision seldom has to do with stipulations. If you can come across as one able to make a positive impact with results, you’ll likely land the job. If you think you can bring results to this new industry and company, own it. Now’s not the time for modesty. And whatever you do, do not take a lower-level position than you should. And don’t take yourself out of the running because you’ve not done it before. Could you do it? How? Tell them.

Shoot for low barriers.

When changing industries, you can often find more opportunities in small and mid-sized companies. There are not the layers of management waiting to fill new opportunities. And their executives tend to be less specialized.

I recently wrapped up work with a delightful executive client, Barry. A month after our last session, I received an email from him.

“Your model of approach to changing industries took the mystery out of the scenario. It became a linear, logical process, albeit one that required me to face unknowns, reach out, and roll up my sleeves. But if I had not had you to turn to and brainstorm with, I think I would have had a hard time pinpointing my industry options. You rather dramatically helped me find and reframe possibilities. I have now moved gracefully and happily from a career in higher education nonprofit, to senior leadership in the business world.”

If you are an executive contemplating a change to another industry, it’s not as foreign a land as you might think; nor as daunting a mission as you might fear. If you have a story about shifting as an executive or professional from one industry to another, I’d love to hear from you!

Photo: Robert Couse-Baker

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