Leadership and Industry Transition

By Ford R. Myers
President, Career Potential, LLC

ExecuNet (www.execunet.com) is recognized as the Internet’s most comprehensive resource for effective career management, exclusively for executives and senior-level managers with salaries above $100,000. ExecuNet sometimes asks noted career experts to contribute opinions and information for the CareerSmart Advisor, their biweekly newsletter. I was fortunate to be selected for this honor. Below is the content I recently provided to ExecuNet in response to their specific questions about Leadership and Industry Transition. Some of these answers were featured in the September 29, 2008 edition of the CareerSmart Advisor. I hope you will find the information below to be helpful and interesting!

ExecuNet: A leader needs to be able to spot talent regardless of a candidate’s previous industry expertise. How can he or she effectively determine if an individual who possesses other desired skills, but not direct industry experience, could be a valuable team member?
Myers: It has often been said that technical skills can be readily learned, but character traits cannot. Talent is inherent – a deeply-rooted character trait. And talent is much more difficult to find than “trade skills.” Therefore, the smart employer hires primarily for character, potential, intelligence, motivation – and then provides the resources to bring the new employee up-to-speed with the specific skills that are necessary to do an exceptional job. The way to determine if a candidate has these inherent traits (even if some of the skills are missing) is to ASK. The employer should probe at the interview, to discover how the candidate has handled a broad range of relevant challenges in the past. How did the person think? What steps did he or she take to resolve an issue? To what extent did the person solicit the help of other team-members, or leverage available resources? What sort of results did the candidate consistently produce? By asking accomplishment-related questions like these, employers can get to the heart of the matter and decide if they’re sitting across the desk from the right candidate.
ExecuNet: What specific leadership skills are most transferable? What skills can be valuable regardless of the industry in which an executive works?
Myers: There are “trade skills,” and then there are inherent strengths. There is industry jargon, and then there is “plain English.” The leadership traits that are most transferrable are the ones that ANYONE can understand, and that can be applied successfully in any field and at any company. These strengths include: organization, analysis, problem-solving, management, innovation, communication, persuasion, observation, team-building, and follow-through. When you “boil it all down,”  any candidate who offers a balanced combination of these strengths can transfer them into almost any leadership role.
ExecuNet: What skills are the most teachable? More specifically, what skills can a leader lack when accepting a position because those skills can be learned on the job?
Myers: Trade skills and technical proficiencies can be taught and fine-tuned to any company, professional role or project. Qualified candidates do this every time they change jobs or switch assignments. But the core personality traits of a leader cannot be readily taught. They must be born within the individual and developed over a lifetime. It is unfortunate that so many employers confuse technical mastery with leadership ability. When accomplished technicians are promoted into leadership roles, serious management issues inevitably ensue.
ExecuNet: When seeking to hire new talent, should an executive turn to a matrix (which charts “must have” vs. “nice to have” skills.)? What tools can an executive use to assess if a candidate has the right background and skills to succeed (despite that lack of industry experience)?
Myers: Using a “must have/nice to have” chart is a fine idea – depending on what’s on that chart! The “must haves” include all the leadership strengths listed above, along with a history of dealing successfully with challenges and issues like those that will be present at the hiring company. The “nice to haves” include such things as technical skills and experience in exactly the same industry or role for which the candidate is being considered. Character and leadership traits, however, are more critical than “trade skills” in any senior hiring decision. Therefore, if the employer wishes to use evaluative tools to determine “fit,” the best assessments would be those that address personality preferences rather than vocational abilities. These would include such profiles as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, DISC, and Personal Directions, among others.
ExecuNet: As a Career Coach, do you find that an increasing number of candidates are reaching out to you with the goal of switching industries? What advice do you offer as you begin working with these individuals?
Myers: There are now more clients who report being dissatisfied with their current industries than there were just a few years ago. As a Career Coach, when I encounter this situation, the first thing I do is determine where the problem really lies. Is it truly the industry that’s causing the pain? Or is it the company? Or the boss? Or the compensation? Or the workload? Or some other matter? More often than not, I find that the core problem is NOT with the industry – but with some other irritant. It is important for the Career Coach to find out what is RIGHT with the client’s current industry; not just what’s wrong. The candidate has spent many years building experience, skill, reputation and seniority in his or her field. Unless it proves to be absolutely necessary to make a significant career change, it is always best for the client to remain in the same industry – even if this means switching companies. By remaining in the same field, the client can enjoy the benefits of more senior-level positions and higher pay. Shifting to a new industry almost always requires a significant drop in job-grade and compensation. Naturally, if we determine through the career coaching process that a change of industries really is indicated, I commit all my skill and experience to helping my client make a successful transition to the new field.
ExecuNet: Overall, what should an executive do in the current position to ensure that he or she further develops transferable skills?
Myers: Every executive should practice “Perpetual Career Management.” This means continually expanding leadership strengths to higher levels. It means seeking-out greater challenges and producing stronger results. It means documenting accomplishments and using the stories at interviews. It means building a larger professional network and a higher level of visibility. It also means pursuing professional education and training, and continually growing intellectual capital. These activities, approached continually and synergistically, ensure that the executive will develop transferrable skills to optimum levels.
ExecuNet: What can an executive do on his or her own to hone these skills?
Myers: In addition to what is stated above, the executive can take classes, read and study independently, engage in dynamic conversations with smarter people, teach, give talks and presentations, publish articles, assume leadership roles in professional associations, earn new certifications or academic degrees, and reach out to others in the network.
ExecuNet: If an executive is serious about transferring to a new industry, what can he or she do to build knowledge of that industry? How does he or she learn industry language, and get a better idea of what opportunities really exist in that new industry?
Myers: Any executive who is serious about transferring to a new industry should commit to learning as much as possible about that field – on every level and from every angle. This can be achieved primarily through structured networking with accomplished individuals who work in the new field. There simply is no better way to acquire knowledge and “real world” insights about a new industry. Secondary strategies for learning about different industries include joining associations, reading professional journals, attending conferences and trade shows, taking classes and training, contacting recruiters within that field, visiting companies in the industry, and using the industry’s products and services. Another tactic that has worked well for some candidates is to do volunteer work or take apprenticeships within the new industry.
ExecuNet: How/why is networking such a crucial activity for an executive seeking to transfer his or her skills to a new industry?
Myers: Make no mistake: it is VERY difficult to make a successful transition into a new industry. As one who has done it (and who has helped hundreds of clients do it), I know of what I speak. The simple fact is that no matter how good your resume looks, or how practiced you are at interviewing, or how much career coaching you’ve had – most employers are narrow-minded about job candidates. They only want to hire candidates who “fit the mold.” They don’t want to get into trouble by making a hiring mistake. Going through “normal channels,” such as Internet job postings, human resource departments and even recruiters, will only lead to frustration. Indeed, the ONLY way around this dilemma is to leverage your network! Someone who already knows, likes and trusts you is much more likely to “take a chance” and give you an opportunity – even if the new role is a bit of a stretch. Having a strong and diverse professional network is critically important in career management, especially if you’re planning to make any significant career changes or shift industries. This is why I tell all my clients, “Your network is your MOST valuable career asset!”

About the Author:
Ford R. Myers is an award-winning career coach and President of Career Potential, LLC. He is author of the best-seller, Get The Job You Want, Even When No One’s Hiring. Ford’s firm helps clients take charge of their careers, create the work they love, and earn what they deserve! He has held senior consulting positions at three of the nation’s largest career service firms. Ford’s articles and interviews have appeared in hundreds of magazines, newspapers, television and radio networks. He has also conducted presentations at many companies, associations and universities. Learn more at www.CareerPotential.com or contact Ford directly at 1-800-972-6588.

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