Thoughts and learnings about Career Transitions

As someone who transitioned careers a lot of times seeking professional and personal growth, I can say something about it. From Journalism to Marketing, and then towards Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Venture Capital, that is quite a journey.

I wrote about career transitioning back in 2017 when I had just consolidated myself as Head of Marketing at ACE. Well, I have learned and changed so much to this day that it might be a good time to recalibrate my ideas with what did and did not work in other career changes.

I learned a lot in all my transitions. From Creative Copywriting to Journalism to Marketing to Product/Tech, and finally to Venture Capital investment. Also, I learn a lot every day with entrepreneurs at ACE Startups. They have to pivot not only careers but entire companies (with a lot at risk).

What started as a quick copy translating and editing turned into a full new text, as I now think differently about many topics. Let’s start.

In college, I studied Journalism, a career that has an increasingly challenging market. The way we consume content has reinvented itself, and traditional media is going through an unprecedented crisis. Some professionals and media outlets have reinvented themselves (in a more planned or more chaotic way), but those who did not will probably struggle.

But it doesn’t just happen in Journalism: many (or all?) careers are going through moments of disruption. Architecture, Design, Advertising. You name it. In my opinion, every market and every position is open to disruption.

This creates a challenge and also a massive opportunity for thousands of professionals. Faced with such a situation, many decide to look at options and change careers.

In addition to the market crisis and rapid changes, there is also personal satisfaction. You may be killing it in your career or company, but if you get sad every time you go to work or can’t motivate yourself to try to grow, there may be something wrong there too.

There are some significant adaptations you need to make if you want to make a career transition. Interestingly, there are similar things that we call pivotal in the world of startups: a drastic change of direction.

Drawing the Map

The first thing you need to know is where you are, what you have, and where you want to go. 

That possible thought back in your amygdala that spits “here is too bad, I need to go somewhere” doesn’t help, and needs to be channeled into something useful. 

Biologically, the human brain has difficulty understanding an unaccompanied negative explanation or alternative (dogs too). “Don’t do this” does not have the same effect if unaccompanied with “do that” or “because of this.” Therefore, the same logic applies to your thinking.

Start with an exercise: where do you want to go?

It can be a place, a position, or even a feeling. You don’t have to be very specific (in fact, try not to close too much the description of what you want), but having a well-defined North is significant in a transition.

Some other questions to your map:

  • Where do you want to get? Why?
  • Who is already where you want to go? What can you learn from him?
  • What skills are needed for this career?
  • How can I develop these skills (fast)?
  • What differentials can I highlight?

It would be best if you had someone to look up to. You can talk to these people to get insights, and especially you can compare your profile and experience against what you want – and that takes us to the next phase.

Comparing skills

Remember when you played video games (I still play A LOT today), and each player came with a series of different attributes? Depending on the team’s position (and even the style of play), some players fit and performed better or worse. Not necessarily the best player in the game was good for the position you wanted.

The same logic applies to your career. Yes, you have competencies widely used and well regarded in one market, but they are not necessarily a big deal in others. See what skills are crucial within the career you want and study how to add them to your list of specialties. 

Watching and benchmarking against well-established professionals in the market or job you want to follow can give unparalleled insight into this. 

If you want to give the leap of faith, you need to make sure you can live to the new role’s expectations. I discovered a well-grounded theory to illustrate some concepts I think a lot: the T-Shaped Career. 

The T-Shaped Career is a classification used in entrepreneurship, technology, and marketing that says that to leverage your career. You need to have competencies in two axes: width and depth. That means that one professional has to be excellent in some skills (depth) and navigate swiftly in many others (width). 

We have points of differentiation (in which you are different from your market competitors) and parity (where all players in that segment are equal). One who is changing careers must look at par points when competing with someone who “has always been there”, and match the prerequisites. 

Your big task now is to detect the par points (where you are at a disadvantage) and eliminate them. Often, little knowledge or experience with a tool or type of function already helps with this. Be aware of a limitation of scope in your career change. 

If you want to leave Journalism to follow your journey in Medicine, there is a long way with a series of prerequisites. 

But you might have a right angle on closer pivots, and you don’t have to make the complete change at once – you can phase it in some smaller steps. Let’s see the example below:

Journalism> Social Media> Digital Marketing> Strategic Marketing 

Why break down the change? The experience and learning in the current position qualify the professional to take another step towards the desired career. It is a way to get closer to the required “years of experience” and – more importantly, you acquire skills more intimate to the market you want to reach (and see if that is what you wanted!).

Sometimes, you will have to invest more time, money, or effort, as when you need to take a specialization course, a postgraduate course, or get some certification, for example. Prioritize the points where you will have the most significant impact with the least effort (the Pareto Rule).

Once you’ve balanced your profile on par points (and managed to “sell” it right), your previous career history will start to appear as a point of differentiation.

Think of a toolbox: you need to be able to do the same functions as a professional who was already in that market, and you can still add a few more keys to differentiate yourself. You can take ownership of yet another concept of entrepreneurs; MVP (Minimum Viable Product).

One known, one unknown

Once you have decided why, where, and what, it’s the time to work on how you will make a career transition. One thing I have learned is that you can switch careers staying in the same company.

I have done internal career switching twice at ACE. First, I got off my (new) comfort zone in Marketing, moving towards Product, and then Venture Capital. It can be better to change one hand (your role), keeping the other side (the company you work) the same.

Dealing with uncertainty and novelty requires mental and emotional energy. As you have to focus more time and brain on something new, having some “safe space” might be a great idea. 

Any change (even a small one) within your job can be a great idea. You keep your salary and your social capital while testing a new function. 

If you can mitigate some of the unknown (the career you are pivoting towards) by adding some known layer (the company you already work), you might have more room to succeed. 

The one thing that can go wrong is if you cannot detach from your previous role or even the last image that your peers or leaders have about you. If you want to go new, even in the same company, go full-hearted. 

Take courses on the subject you want to pivot is also an alternative. You increase your specific knowledge and create a network of contacts closer to the career you want to pursue. And the right people can make a lot of difference. They can refer you, recommend you, and open doors that you didn’t even know. 

Creating a side project is also a great way out: you have complete autonomy to test and learn from mistakes. If you create a project in a market closer to what you want to achieve, you are already closer to the right practices and peculiarities of that sector. Sometimes, these details of practical experience can make all the difference.

I was once following a mentoring by an entrepreneur who asked: “What is the best Digital Marketing course I can take?” The answer surprised me. “Create a blog and make it reach 10,000 visitors per month“. Why? Because you will have to learn a thousand things on the nail to accomplish that goal. 

The Lasagna Paradox

Imagine the lasagna from your grandmother’s house. Steaming, leaving the oven with the cheese still bubbling and the sauce well distributed under the homemade pasta, that smell of well-seasoned food invading the air and everyone at the table already salivating to eat the food made with love and care in the middle of a good conversation on Sunday afternoon. (got hungry!)

Now imagine that frozen lasagna that you forgot in the bottom of your freezer. Alone on a Sunday night, you put it in the microwave and still eat it in the disposable packaging, with the filling half boiling and half-frozen because it didn’t thaw right, but that’s what it is.

Both have the same ingredients: pasta, tomato sauce, ground beef, ham, cheese, and seasoning, right? So why are the taste and experience totally different?

The presentation. (and, of course, your grandmother’s secret spice)

It is a metaphorical example, but the correlation I want to make is that you also need to demonstrate them in addition to having the necessary skills to enter the market you wish to.

Example 1: Designers with beautiful, well-designed resumes and more complete portfolios have more attention than those who sent standard CVs.

Example 2: Developers with a personal website with good usability and user experience earn points when making the final choice.

Example 3: I have heard of companies discarding Communication professionals due to grammatical errors in their resumes, e-mails or portfolio texts.

There are many ways to demonstrate that you are the right person for that opportunity – even if you are from another career. The first is a summary of your career and skills (curriculum, portfolio, portfolio, letter of recommendation, references) appropriate to the market where you want to work.

Adapt your presentation to the format that the recruiter most wants to see. 

Some careers give more value to how long you stayed at each job. For them, it is worth adapting the curriculum and highlighting the most lasting experiences.

Other careers are more likely to value previous companies. (Yes, that old cognitive bias). In that case, it is worth mentioning that time you worked at that famous company.

In time: when you start an internship, all experience is valid, but as you gain more experience, be concise. 

Hardly anyone will read that 15-page monster CV that counts up to what role you played in Macbeth in 3rd Grade. Edit and leave only the most relevant experiences.

If you need a portfolio to join an agency, create a portfolio. If you need a formal letter of recommendation to join a multinational, ask for that letter of reference. Find out what they want to see and adapt.

Seek and destroy

To get to the right people in the right places, do your homework. The research will help you a lot with everything. Research about the company you are looking to work. Research about that area within the company. Research about employees, their skills, and even what they think about the company.

Search, if possible, about your recruiter. With the massive amount of information available on the internet, the least you can do is find out more about where you want to work. It gives a lot more confidence to those on the other side of the table – and a lot more credibility for you.

If you have the opportunity to send an e-mail to your recruiter, it is better to make the best e-mail you can. Your mission is to make you curious enough to open your material and call you in for a chat.

If you send that blasé standard e-mail you are probably more like a frozen lasagna among so many others (hundreds, thousands?). Read the job description, explain why you fit that job perfectly, why you are the best, and how much you want to work in that place.

Despite trying to convince the person on the other side of the screen, you cannot look like a used car salesman from slapstick film. You intend to generate empathy and curiosity, not aversion.

The interview is the perfect time for you to make or break. There are HR and People Management professionals who are much more qualified to address the minutiae and methods of doing a good interview. Still, I want to highlight the crucial points.

Ultimately, the interview is just another step for the recruiter to get to know you. You want to awaken a few things in the interview: empathy and trust. But how?

The first is honesty and openness. Be open about your strengths and weaknesses, and describe the position combined with your profile (or not). That old “I am a perfectionist” cliché when asking about your biggest flaw or something like that will undoubtedly backfire. Show you where you are excellent, but also where you can improve. 

Second thing: don’t be a robot or a buzzword machine. The conversation flows much better when you simply talk. The third is to ask. Even with your research, you usually don’t have all pieces of information. So ask. 

What is a company, what is it like to work there, or how to do it, what is the evolution perspective, what is the salary, what is the climate like, if there are benefits, who will be the time when you can work together, how is the traffic there, where to eat. Ask! 

Not just about a company, but also about the recruiter. Who is he, where he studied, who you know that knows him (remember LinkedIn?). It creates empathy. Your connection goes from “You are a candidate” to “You are a nice guy with X skills, profile and Z experience who wants to work here.” 

Bumpy road ahead

After addressing what new skills you need to have and how you need to show up, let’s now move on to the hardest part: getting on the road and starting to look for opportunities in the market have chosen. 

The road is not simple. Career transition is much more an off-road trail than a race track, which you already know the way and just accelerate. You need to recognize the terrain, the traps, and the shortcuts. 

Probably this already happened: you see an opening that can be an excellent opportunity for you, and you have the right profile. But then appears that unblessed phrase: “At least (many) years of experience.” 

Usually, those who ask for experience want someone who has contacts and knows the particularities of that segment, or – in most cases, especially in less senior positions – one who knows what he is doing.

Regardless of how much you’ve prepared and achieved so far, you need to know something vital not to get frustrated right away. 

The chance that you will need to take a small step back is relatively high.

Both in position (from manager to analyst) and compensation, the competition with someone with more experience on that road is fierce. Perhaps the door with the most accessible entry is one floor below.

So it might be useful to adapt your personal life and plan this transition: if your fixed cost is tied to a high salary and you are possibly not going to get equal in your new career, it is good to have some rainy day reserve.

Also, prepare yourself psychologically to listen to many “nos” and lose openings.

It happens a lot. Some companies and recruiters are very risk-averse (a candidate with a history that deviates from the conventional standard) even with the potential for better returns.

Having good networking is fundamental. 

A good network of contacts can provide access to a series of opportunities that you may like, specific knowledge about certain areas or companies, and present you with new connections that are beneficial to your situation and, most importantly, your network can recommend you. 

When someone endorses you for a vacancy or opportunity, you “inherit” part of the social capital (personal, not corporate!) from that person. You can use this both to open doors and to work as an influence on opportunities already underway. 

But this needs to be done very carefully: if the endorser bets on you, you need to live up to expectations. 

Another important thing is to give before asking. If you are remembered for creating value through your contacts, your own “social capital” with them increases – making them more likely to help you when you need it. Help your friends and professional contacts for free and willingly – this will reverberate positively for you. 

Try again. Build, measure, and learn. Good luck.

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