When I was hiring a program manager for the career team a few years ago, the two finalists had very different backgrounds. The first had ideal experience on paper including roles in human resources and knowledge of international visas. Skilled at interviewing, the candidate was prepared with relevant accomplishments and had stellar references who’d been coached in advance to address perceived skill gaps (something I’d highly recommend if you’re in a job search!).
The second candidate was a double-switcher, moving from retail to an academic setting, and shifting from a busy, hands-on sales management function on a large dynamic team to a quieter, mostly desk job on a small team. Guess who I hired?
Well, this wouldn’t be much of a story if I had hired the first candidate, but it was the reasons why I hired the second where the lessons lie if you are a switcher.
Since I write about career switchers frequently and am one myself, it would only make sense I’d be an advocate for career changers when I hire for my own teams. That said, I don’t purposely go out of my way to hire a switcher. Rather, I approach the hiring process with:
- An open mind about how different experiences and backgrounds can be valuable to the role and team.
- A clear idea of what transferable skills are most valuable and which can be learned on the job.
- A laser focus on the motivation of the job seeker, which is usually the deciding factor.
In this case, the double-switcher had demonstrated an ongoing, committed interest in university work for several years, starting back in college working in the residence hall through volunteering for the university recruiting program in the current retail management role. There was no doubt this career path was a long-term interest, which was confirmed by the three (also stellar) references provided.
While both candidates would have contributed in their own way, the first seemed more interested in exiting their current role for something new in any industry related to HR, and the second was interested in developing a career specifically in an academic setting. In fact, those were the only roles the second candidate applied to.
Often when hiring, I spend more time than most, but as someone who’s made some poor decisions, I’ve learned the investment up front can make a world of difference in your day-to-day work life thereafter. So, to me, it’s worth rolling up my sleeves and spending more time in the details of the recruiting process to save headaches later.
Unfortunately, not all hiring managers see it this way. I am fortunate to have a background in recruiting and extensive training as an interviewer, but that’s rare for most line managers who hire. Their main job is what they do on a daily basis — accounting, supply chain, programming, etc. — and hiring might be something they get involved with only once or twice each year.
Most hiring managers are already busy, and with being down a team member, they’re eager to get someone on board quickly to pick up the slack. Speed, lack of know-how, or laziness can lead to choosing the person who looked best on paper or who was the most skilled at interviewing. And in my opinion, this is a bigger risk than a switcher will ever be.
Since it’s unlikely you’ll get a hiring manager who is openly pro-switcher or willing to invest a lot of extra time to dig into the possibilities of what you might contribute beyond the foundational skills, here’s what you need to do as the candidate to make hiring you the easy answer:
- Know the challenges you’re facing. Traditional candidates have some real advantages over switchers in the marketplace, so don’t underestimate the competition. They likely understand the industry “lingo” and can hit the ground running without much training. So, it’s important to understand any “red flags” hirers might perceive and be ready to address them. Give examples of your resourcefulness, demonstrate how you’ve been effective in new situations previously, and show how you’ve successfully handled intense challenges in the past. One time I was hiring for a role where the clients were tough and often had unrealistic expectations. Customers were a priority, and the candidate I hired (a switcher) mentioned in the interview she’d profitably managed the Macy’s shoe department during the holidays. I knew in that moment she was worth learning more about.
- Be the solution to their problem. It’s your job to rebrand your skills, abilities and knowledge in a way that the hiring manager can easily see how you can solve their biggest challenges. This includes getting to know your audience and what would be of most value to them. Don’t expect them to see your background and make inferences – it won’t happen, or if it does, it won’t be in your favor as a switcher. Rather, do the work for them. Another switcher I hired in Belgium when I was managing a global team didn’t have the optimal background, but had worked all over Europe and knew the culture and how to make things happen. Our team had a large change management initiative ahead of us and I knew his skills in influence and persuasion would be even more valuable on the ground than deep expertise in the function.
- Don’t apologize. A hiring manager doesn’t care if you’re a switcher, rather they care that you can do the job, make them look good and not need extensive hand holding. You may apply for a sales role with 10 years of direct experience, but could have been the worst salesperson on every team you’ve been on. So, experience doesn’t equate to competency. If you know you can do the job, convince the hiring manager you can. There’s no need to point out you’re making a major pivot or brand yourself as a switcher, but you do need to demonstrate you understand the challenges and have the transferable skills and drive to tackle them. I’ve passed over many candidates who’ve told me how “passionate” they were about the company or role, but didn’t add any substance behind the words, which leads to my next point.
- Show your commitment. You may feel passionate about your switch, but a hiring manager doesn’t know the difference between a fleeting whim and a serious career pursuit unless you give them hard evidence. Did you wake up with an interest in sports management after catching a rerun of “Jerry Maguire” or have you spent the last few years immersing yourself in the industry, writing thoughtful commentary on social media, and shadowing someone currently in the role? Are you just bored where you are and looking for something new, or have you dedicated yourself to this path?Self-created internships, volunteering in the field, earning certifications, developing proposals and investing in concrete ways can help a hiring manager see you’re motivated and committed to building a career in this area. Why should they invest in you if you haven’t invested in yourself first?
- Get a trusted referral. This is one of the best ways to land your switch, and while building a network can take time, if you truly are focused on this career path, it’s a no-brainer. Applying online as a switcher is an exercise in futility because Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) often weed out individuals who aren’t a match based on the pre-identified criteria. If fact, applying online can be a shot in the dark even if you’re a traditional candidate because of the intense competition and quirkiness of the systems. I once had a candidate who was overlooked because she was a switcher. Four weeks later she had networked into the company and was recommended to me directly by a colleague. As both a referral and someone I respected for being assertive and showing commitment, I took a shot and interviewed her. She was hired and was still in the company a decade later.
Just to put a bow on the opening story, my hiring decision turned out to be the right one (although in fairness, the other candidate may have been fine, too), and the program manager has since gone on to earn a masters in higher education.
Of course, not all hires turn out this way, and not all switchers are right for the job. But if you’re a hiring manager, investing a little more time in the hiring process and approaching it with an open mind might lead to some valuable staff who bring diversity and creativity to the team.
And if you’re a switcher, put yourself into the mind of the hiring manager and become the solution to their problem. To do this, you’ll need to narrow your focus, invest in your targets, and learn about your audience, but I promise, the investment will pay off in much greater ways than sending countless resumes into cyberspace.