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Getting Your Foot in the Door When Switching Industries

Mastering the fundamentals of these five areas can help

Published: Wednesday, March 20, 2019 - 12:02

Born to a Dalit family, Megha was raised in Southwest India and learned English at her convent school. As a child, she aspired to be a fashion designer or a cardiologist, but her parents insisted that she become an IT engineer. After four years of higher education, Megha found a job in the booming technology sector.

During the next six years, she worked as a technical engineer and consultant on various projects. She recalls: “I tried to fit into the normal life of an engineer; however, something inside me was saying that I was not in the place where I was meant to be. I was dissatisfied and hungry.”

While exploring new career options, Megha grew interested in the business side of the fashion industry. She saw it as a natural progression since she had a strong foundation in management. In 2011, she heard about an MBA in international luxury-brand management in Paris and applied for it. When the letter of acceptance came, Megha knew she was ready to move to the City of Light, even though she did not speak French.

In the months before her MBA, Megha made sure to learn everything she could about luxury goods. She found a job as a sales assistant at a local luxury, multibrand store. She interviewed store managers of international luxury brands in Bangalore and Mumbai. By the time she arrived in France, she had a solid understanding of the industry.

During her MBA, she had internships at Cartier and Printemps Paris Haussmann. She also worked on a business plan project for the luxury car market. After completing her MBA, Megha received several job offers. She chose a position at S.T. Dupont, a French luxury manufacturer of lighters, pens, leather goods, and other accessories, thus realizing her dream.

The growing need for a reboot

Every year, millions of professionals attempt to pull off the same exploit as Megha—with varying degrees of success. Although it is common for those with MBAs to make big changes (54 percent of the INSEAD MBA classes of 2017 switched sectors), we see more and more professionals seeking a “reboot.” According to a 2015 LinkedIn survey of more than 10,000 members who took on a new role, 34 percent changed both function and company.

In our career-coaching work, we have observed many reasons why people want—or need—to switch industry. Some started out in an industry for its résumé-enhancing value, like banking or consulting, or took the first reasonable offer they received out of school. Some were initially attracted to an industry, but the reality of that work disappointed them. Others reached a point in their lives where they wished to find more purpose or meaning in their work. There are even career changers who like their current industry, but fear it is fast becoming obsolete.

However, if finding a job is hard, finding one in a different industry can be even trickier. One of the biggest obstacles is employers who don’t see how you can transfer your skills into a new business context. Whether through sheer laziness or a lack of imagination (or courage), recruiters naturally tend to hire candidates who tick all the boxes in the job spec, including the perennial “proven track record in the industry.”

But fear not; switching industries is possible and doesn’t mean you have to go back to square one. Here are some suggestions based on our career-coaching experience:

1. Do your research and be strategic
• Define those industries you’d like to explore. Be clear about what you want. Ask yourself what makes you an attractive value proposition.
• It will be easier if you choose a sister industry. If you are in consumer goods, you could consider a switch to consumer healthcare. If you are in finance, you might go into insurance.
• Target industries that are either growing or more open to nonindustry talent. In a 2015 blog, LinkedIn ranked the top industries hiring outside. The internet industry came first with 12 percent of talent hired from a separate industry. Ranked second, venture capital and private equity brought in talent from nearly every sector.

2. Know your core skills and how to articulate their transferability
• Take stock of your skills and identify which are transferable to your target industry and roles. Any given business function has skills that are considered fundamental and can be transferred.
• Don’t forget soft skills like leadership, communication, and teamwork. They are often just as important as hard skills and are applicable across industries.
• Make sure you have solid stories describing how you have successfully applied your skills.

3. Network relentlessly
• Stepping out of your comfort zone to make connections is critical to switching industries.
• Ask your current network to introduce you to decision makers in your field of choice. Your contacts are likely to be able to help you and are often more than happy to do so.
• Contact and meet people doing the kind of work you want to do. Find out how (or whether) your skills match up. Try to understand how the industry operates and whether its culture welcomes career changers.
• Be patient and keep this in mind: The purpose of networking is not to secure a job immediately, but for you to get a sense of the industry, including its lingo (e.g., terms, expressions, acronyms).

4. Experiment, get trained, be flexible 
• Take every opportunity to immerse yourself in your target industry. Ask if you can shadow someone, to observe what a typical work day is like. Attend events sponsored by the industry and follow its thought leaders on social networks.
• Use relevant companies’ products or services. Visit their stores, and talk to their customers, suppliers and other key stakeholders.
• Look for training programs that can help you build the required knowledge, skills, and network.
• Be open to taking a step back in terms of seniority or salary. Consider applying for positions in smaller companies where opportunities may be more abundant. SMEs may not always have the right talent to promote from within.

5. Show passion, energy, and determination
• Ask yourself: “Am I prepared to face the inevitable rejection of this kind of job search and not take it personally?”
• Keep trying. Don’t be afraid to knock on doors and tell people why they should hire you.
• Show passion, energy, and hunger. Recruiters want to see that you have the enthusiasm and stamina to pull off this transition.

Remember how Megha eventually followed her passion? Not only did she get that first job at S.T. Dupont, but soon after, she was appointed to its executive committee as the international marketing director for products and communication. Although changing industries can be challenging, it can be an exciting decision that will open a broad range of opportunities.

First published Feb. 18, 2019, on the INSEAD blog.


About The Authors

Claire Harbour’s picture

Claire Harbour

Claire Harbour-Lyell writes regularly on talent, publishing articles and books, as well as a monthly magazine. A multicultural background plus an early career in Asia helped to develop her sensitivity to talent and culture, and everything she has done since is linked to people. She has a degree from Cambridge University and an MBA from INSEAD.

Antoine Tirard’s picture

Antoine Tirard

Antoine Tirard, founder of Paris-based NexTalent, is an international talent management consultant, trainer, and coach who works with large global organizations. Tirard’s expertise includes strategic human resources management, talent management, leadership assessment and development, executive coaching, learning, recruiting, performance management, change management, organizational development, and intercultural management. Tirard is co-author of Révélez vos Talents (Entreprise & Carrières, 2013), a book on psychometric tools for development, as well as a French-English dictionary of human resources management. Tirard regularly lectures at INSEAD and Paris Sorbonne University and speaks frequently at international HR and talent management conferences.


Switching Industries

I may be a poster employee for switching industries.  I started in pulp and paper, then came electronics, followed by engineering consulting much of it focused on agriculture, accounting software sales and service, nonwoven textiles, injection molding, and athletic shoe manufacturing.  I have a BS in Engineering Physics from Montana State, and MBA in Operations Research from UC Berkeley, and a PhD in Industrial Engineering from Northwestern in IL.  I think this educational background opened lots of doors if only because hiring managers were curious.  In interviews I always tried to get past human resource managers to the hiring managers, then get them to talk about some of the problems they faced.  Often I could relate to some of these problems either from education or experience.  Lack of direct experience in a new industry was always a hinderance and some of the advice in this article is very well taken.  When you lack direct experience in an industry, it usually takes time to really become productive so some discussion needs to take place up front.  If a hiring manager will commit to a one year minimum and you work hard things should go well.  And the change in subject matter can be very stimulating.