A lot of talented people grapple with the disruption of having to switch jobs or careers and figuring out how their current profession’s skills can be applied in a fulfilling new way. The good news is that other industries may value your talents just as much, if not more, than your existing one. The challenges are understanding what those talents are and packaging them in a way that their value to others is apparent.
I made a career switch seven years ago, when I went from working as a reporter at the Financial Times, where I covered health care in the United States, to consulting — advising CEOs in the pharmaceutical industry on thought leadership and articulating their corporate strategies. Since then, many friends and strangers have sought my advice about career paths outside of newspaper journalism.
From these conversations, I learned a broader lesson about reinventing yourself: It is tragically easy to take for granted some of your most important skills and attributes. The trouble comes from an identity trap. People associate their core skills with their old profession and assume that those skills are less valuable elsewhere. In fact, they might actually be worth more on the outside.
Consider the legal field. It has long been widely acknowledged that legal skills are broadly applicable to all kinds of careers: business, politics, finance, even sports coaching, fiction writing, and journalism. Presentation and communication skills, analytical thought, diligent preparation, and attention to details are all highly prized. The same is true of other professions. From inside an industry, fundamental skills can seem like a commodity. But to outsiders, they may be crucial to succeeding in 21st century business and life. In the case of journalists, that means the ability to:
Communicate clearly. Inside the profession writing is like breathing — involuntary, common, barely noticed. But outside, the skills of storytelling, structure, and clarity of communication in any form or medium, including the digital, are highly valuable.
Execute fast. Everywhere I turn I hear leaders stress the need for speed and agility to create a competitive edge. Few people or organizations can match the speed with which a newsroom and its reporters can execute. Every newspaper reporter has probably written an important story in under 30 minutes to make an edition — analyzing and digesting incredible amounts of information, formulating ideas, and making decisions before the clock runs out.
Think creatively. At any level of an organization, and particularly at the top levels, the ability to find and piece together disparate bits of information to form a new view of the whole is essential. Journalists do this nearly every hour of every day — driven by the desire to get to the root causes of events and issues.
Build networks. Inside the profession, building an extensive network of contacts and sources for stories is like tying your shoelaces. A friend once said to me, “You actually go to lunch with strangers and find something to talk about the whole time?” It had never occurred to me before that others would find this hard to do. Consider how many articles, advice columns, and books have been devoted to networking and its value for decision making, personal success, and better understanding of the external environment. Journalists can build connections and bring new ideas into an organization as a matter of routine.
Act with courage. Many journalists put their name on the line every day. David Carr, the late New York Times columnist, once said that the moment a controversial story goes live, you brace yourself in anticipation of the “boom.” Your work is publicly scrutinized every day. What leader wouldn’t see this fortitude as a valuable asset in any line of work?
So how does one identify his or her transplantable core skills? Here are some simple, commonsensical steps.
Tap other reinventers. Take a step back and think about the skills that are crucial to excelling in your existing industry. Consult with people who have already transitioned from your industry to a different career. Discuss what core skills you might be overlooking and how they could apply outside. The range of potential applications is probably broader than you think.
Confer with outsiders. Talk with a wide range of folks outside your industry, especially people who have interacted with you professionally. Ask them for their opinions of your core skills. I talked with several CEOs at health care companies. You should also ask: How you should market them? What are less-obvious functions or organizations looking for such skills? What are the obstacles to landing such work?
Create a strategic message. This is often overlooked. The best CEO strategists with whom I have worked distill what a company needs to do to a stunning simplicity. For instance, Fred Hassan’s successful turnaround strategy for drug maker Schering-Plough was: “Grow the topline; grow the R&D pipeline; reduce costs and invest wisely.” Individuals should do the same thing – which is how I came up with: “Communicate clearly, execute fast, think creatively, build networks, and act with courage.”
The skills you take for granted just might be gold. When you position them the right way, you might be able to launch a brilliant second career.
Christopher Bowe advises CEOs in the health care industry on articulating and communicating their strategies and ideas.
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