Changing Careers – How to Do it Successfully

Research and determination are the keys to success, whether you’re 25 or 65

When Wendell Hall was asked to relocate for the 13th time in 31 years, he realized how demanding and unfulfilling his corporate life had become.

As a vice president of operations for General Motors Acceptance Corp., he oversaw lending activities among GM dealers throughout the Western U.S. The job required lots of travel and, at age 55, another transfer, this time from northern New Jersey to Detroit.

“I wasn’t willing to do that again, so I left,” he says.

Mr. Hall accepted an early retirement offer, then wasted little time before launching what he considered career #2. “During all those moves, I always liked buying and selling homes,” he explains. “It’s a hell of an interesting business, so I decided to give it a try.”

After completing a real-estate course and earning a license in less than a month, Mr. Hall signed on with a local realtor as a sales associate. When asked why he thought he could make such a major change — from corporate bigwig to lowly sales associate — Mr. Hall says that taking a complete inventory of his strengths and having a strong motivation to succeed were key ingredients. Mr. Hall eventually owned a multi-site brokerage firm in Oakland, N.J. that employed dozens of associates, before deciding to retire and move to central New Jersey with his wife.

“I enjoy working with people, and that’s the greatest similarity between the two careers. In both, it’s important to build trust and mutual respect with others, which I like doing,” he explains, adding that if he were an engineer or scientist who enjoyed working alone, “real estate wouldn’t be a good career choice.”

The biggest difference between Mr. Hall’s two careers reflects the source of his motivation. “In a corporation, you’re paid a salary whether you have a good year of not, so some people lay back on the oars if they want to. In real estate, everything is on commission, so you’ve got a real incentive to do well. If you’re not a self-starter, you won’t earn any income.”

To be sure, there are trade-offs. “What I really miss most about corporate life is that I have to do my own photocopying,” Mr. Hall adds with a laugh.

The New Trend

Everyone is changing careers these days. Teachers become financial planners. Airline pilots buy fast-food franchises. Middle managers learn to write software programs and sell them at trade shows. The list is endless, and for good reason. There’s no excuse for sticking with a career that you no longer enjoy, aren’t good at anymore or has been taken away from you.

The restructuring of corporate America has hastened this trend. Entire layers of management — as well as whole departments — are being eliminated willy-nilly, tossing long-tenured employees at all levels into the volatile job market. Some of these folks are so eager to find new corporate homes, they’re squeezing themselves into restrictive job requirements just to earn paychecks. But many more are putting a positive spin on the situation. They see this as a chance to launch more meaningful, exciting and potentially challenging careers.

Yet choosing which careers to try next is rarely easy, whether you’re 25 or 65. Some folks have second jobs that can be expanded to fill their now-available time. But most are at loose ends. Fortunately, selecting a new career direction isn’t difficult once you understand the process.

“If you’re conducting a fundamental career reappraisal, you must pay attention to three distinct areas of inquiry,” says Douglas B. Richardson, a leadership, communication and career management consultant in Narberth, Pa. They are:

  • What am I capable of doing?
  • What am I temperamentally suited to do?
  • What will the world let me do, given what I’ve done before?

“This last point often is ignored by idealistic or highly motivated career changers,” says Mr. Richardson, who has worn many occupational hats thus far in his career, including lawyer, headhunter and outplacement executive. “They overlook the fact that their future career options are dramatically limited by past choices.”

Overcoming other people’s stereotypes of what you’re capable of achieving will probably be the biggest obstacle you’ll face as you attempt to change careers, Mr. Richardson says. It’s easy for potential employers to hire known quantities: a tax accountant at an automobile dealership can probably handle the taxes for a nursing home without much difficulty. But would he succeed as an emergency medical technician? And would any ambulance company give him a chance to try?

Perhaps the best way to boost your odds in a new career field is to research it so thoroughly before making your entry that you know as much about it as people who have been in the field forever. That approach worked well for Gary Blum, a financial planner in Los Angeles. A lawyer by training who spent four years trading options on the Chicago Board Options Exchange, Mr. Blum saw an opportunity to enter a new career just as demand was growing.

“I could see lots of people gathering lots of wealth at young ages, but not knowing what to do with that money. They needed financial counseling, especially in regard to tax issues,” he explains.

Not knowing anything about the financial-consulting and estate-planning fields, Mr. Blum recreated his law-school days and started cramming. He attended multiple seminars and read every book he could find on both subjects. Then he did lots of networking, which included several informational interviews (defined as meeting with people primarily to pick their brains on a specific career field, as well as gather names of others who can help).

Complicating Mr. Blum’s career shift was his decision to move to California from the Midwest with his wife and infant child without having a job lined up. But it wasn’t long before he convinced a financial-planning firm to take a chance on using him to handle legal duties, with the understanding that he’d quickly move into estate planning, which he did. After two years, Mr. Blum rounded up a group of clients and went solo, and taught a course in estate planning in addition to his consulting practice.

“It’s important to keep your eyes open to all possibilities and expect the unexpected,” he says. “Determine what potential problems are out there, and what you can do to help solve them. Then you’ll create a career based on consumer demand for your services.”

Researching the market is critical at this stage, and there’s no better source for help than your local public or university library. In fact, reference librarians there earn their livings and generate their greatest satisfaction from helping career changers explore new job possibilities.

But while researching potential new careers and employers is critical, it’s even more important to make sure the career is a natural match with your personality. Most of us would like to be famous entrepreneurs, but few have the ability to take risks and live with uncertainty without looking back. A job as CEO of a major company might sound ideal, but what if that position requires constant travel, separating you from your family for weeks on end? Would you still be willing to make this commitment, even if the money and benefits are great?

There are many ways to determine whether you have the right personality for a particular job. Some people spend time in the position on a part-time or temporary basis just to develop a feel for its pace. Others complete career-assessment tests that measure personality traits and match them against job classifications (with the help of a career counselor). Many simply have a gut feel for what they enjoy doing based on duties they’ve enjoyed handling in the past.

That was the case for Mark Evans, who has made two significant career changes in the past 15 years. He started his working life as an eighth-grade social-studies teacher in upstate Bergen, New York, a job in which he “didn’t have a happy day in two years.” Desperate to find a career better suited to his skills, he completed a free series of skills and personality assessment tests at a local community college and, according to the results, found that he would make a great librarian. Mr. Evans enrolled in a one-year master’s degree program in the field, which was followed by two and a half years as a library director in a nearby town.

Mr. Evans thrived in his new career, so much so that he was soon tapped to become director of the public library system for two neighboring counties. Throughout the 13 years that followed, he excelled in the public relations aspects of his job, devising unique PR campaigns and developing new customer services and revenue sources. He loved staffing a booth at state library conventions, and finding new products to sell as fundraisers. Yet a lack of revenues to maintain his system proved too much for Mr. Evans to endure.

“We were swimming upstream against declining funding from the state, which made my job impossible,” he says. When his office was eventually merged with another 50 miles away, “I decided that I didn’t want to move or commute that far each day, so I gave notice.” Mr. Evans considered joining another library system, but limited funding statewide made it clear that he’d “have to do the work of three people just to earn one salary.”

Not sure of which direction to head next, Mr. Evans had a conversation with a good friend in Houston that opened his eyes to a new career direction. “My friend had recently bought an advertising-specialty company, and he asked if I’d like to be his New York state sales representative. I realized that it would involve all the aspects of my former job that I really enjoyed, so I agreed.”

Mr. Evans spent a year establishing a local office and learning how to manage a promotional products business. But when sales volume wasn’t enough to justify his full-time position, he jumped at the chance to become regional sales manager of ad specialties for a local printing and publishing company.

“This career was a natural transition for me, because I was able to build on my strong points, such as customer relations and putting out brushfires,” Mr. Evans says. “It was also important to me that I wasn’t becoming just an order-taker, but someone who matches products to client needs. I also enjoy the creative end of devising slogans and ad campaign ideas.”

Mr. Evans admits that he couldn’t have accomplished such major career changes — either financially or emotionally — without the help of his wife, who provided moral support and a steady income as a librarian herself. “It was great to have her salary to count on while I was experimenting,” he says.

In retrospect, Mr. Evans says the vocational tests and counseling he’d received 18 years ago were important to his successful transitions. “I remember the counselor saying that I should find a career where I could work closely with others, and that stuck with me.”

Achieving Success

Identifying the psychological ingredients that ensure career success isn’t hard. It’s applying those traits consistently that’s demanding. Eugene Raudsepp, a consultant and president of Princeton Creative Research in Princeton, New Jersey, until his death noted eight traits as being most critical to succeeding in whatever jobs you try. They include:

1. Self Confidence – It’s the feeling that you can cope with problems, master challenges and overcome obstacles and barriers.

2. Personal Esteem – What we believe we can do directly influences our actions and determines the outcomes of our plans. “A┬áperson who’s convinced that he’s attained his career limits will stop striving,” said Dr. Raudsepp.

3. Persistence and Perseverance – Having staying power in the face of failure is critical. In fact, it’s frequently even more important than talent or special skills, he says.

4. Enthusiasm – When you’re enthusiastic, your perception of the number of available opportunities is much greater, as is your ability to pursue them.

5. Good Luck – “Luck is essentially a readiness to perceive opportunities, coupled with a willingness to take advantage of them,” he said. While there’s no accounting for a string of misfortunes, continuing to see the bright side will help pave the way for Lady Luck to return.

6. Your Response to Failure – If you see problems as temporary setbacks that must be overcome, you’ll greatly enhance the odds that failure won’t occur again soon. And if you use failure as a chance to analyze what you did wrong, you can learn from the experience.

7. Be Concerned, Not Worried – Worry creates a sense of fear that stops you from achieving your goals. Concern, on the other hand, is a realistic expectation that a problem may arise, which prompts you to prepare to handle that problem now, before it can become serious.

8. Flexibility – In today’s volatile job market, knowing how to shift gears quickly is a critical attribute. By welcoming change, you’ll stand out from the crowd of job hunters and company managers who grasp at the status quo in hope of maintaining what they’ve already built for themselves. Yet what today’s workplace needs and rewards are people who can embrace the latest developments and make hay with them.

Once you’ve adopted most of these traits, you can effectively target jobs you’d enjoy tackling. You’ll also be able to convince hiring managers that you’re well-suited to handle the position, even if you’ve never before performed its required functions.

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