Making a Career Change: Advice for Employees and Their Employers

Karen Weeks
September 18, 2019

Career Change. Career Lattice. Career Jungle Gym. Career Ladder. Internal Transfers. Promotions. Lateral Moves. Whatever you call it, today’s professionals are focused on learning, growth, and gaining new experiences through the different stages of their careers, not just checking boxes as they navigate their way up an org chart. The good news for companies, and company leaders, is that we can offer many more rewarding opportunities to our employees.

Below are three tips that both individuals and companies can use to help determine the right career path or navigate a career change.

Focus on experiences, not levels

One of my favorite “career change” stories is about a colleague of mine who started in a technical role, but realized she wanted to move into a client-facing role. She had already been promoted to a leadership position on her technical team, so she was going to have to take a step back in order to move into the client-facing role. Rather than worrying about the optics of her title, she remained focused on gaining the experience she needed for her new interests and trusted in the career change, ultimately taking the more junior position.

Two years later, she was promoted to manager of her client-focused team and continues to have success in client-facing organizations to this day.


Take advantage of internal trust to make a career change

If you are thinking about a career change, the best place to do so is within your current company. Even if you don’t have the qualifications for a new role on paper, you have the advantage of having built trust with your managers and team. You have already shown you are a great team member, you understand and live the company values, and you can demonstrate the competencies needed for that role.

As an HR professional, I am always looking to hire someone who has the soft skills and ability to learn any new technical skills to fill in their gaps in experience and education. As your interests shift and change, it’s crucial to be honest with your manager or HR partner about your career goals. When a new opportunity you are interested in opens up, it’s also important to raise your hand and let them know you are interested. Otherwise, no one will think to consider you for a different role.

At my last company, a member of our client support team applied for an HR coordinator role. I figured if she could handle clients, she could handle employees. She did great through the interview process and focused on how she would use her experiences working with clients and apply them to HR. When she was hired, she was mentored by someone on the team with strong HR knowledge and she excelled in her new role. Four plus years later, she is thriving in her HR career. She had built internal credibility and trust within the organization in order to successfully make a career change, so we were willing to take a chance on her in a new function.

Test the water before jumping into the deep end

Being able to flex and “try before you buy” for a new role is helpful both for the individual—in order to determine if this is really something you want to do—and for the company, because it demonstrates if you will be able to make the career change. Building experience before switching to a new role can take many different forms. It could be supporting a different team to gain exposure to another area of the business or taking on a side project to learn a new skill you haven’t used before. If you are interested in a brand new role within your organization, it also demonstrates the business need and the value add not only of the role, but of already having a person who has stepped into it. In addition, trying out a new role will help you start to build new skills and identify where additional training is needed.

One of my first jobs was for a small company. We had an Executive Assistant who really wanted to move into sales. At first, she took on some sales operations work to support some of the senior sales people in the company. Then we gave her a couple of leads a month to work. By the time I left, she had transitioned into working as a full-time sales representative. By identifying different projects for her to take on, and gradually moving her into a new role, she was able to better build her skills, get a taste of what it would be like to work in a sales role, and demonstrate to the company that she would be able to make the career change successfully.

I myself transitioned into HR in order to help people find success in their careers and help businesses grow through building great teams. The employer/employee relationship is a partnership. Employees need to explore what is important to them in their career. HR partners and managers then need to help employees find those paths toward their goals. Especially in today’s fast-paced work environment, companies need to think outside the box and find creative ways to help support an employee’s development, no matter the direction it may take.

Photography by William Perls

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