If you’re attempting a career change — from one industry to another, from one functional role to another, from a sabbatical or family leave to getting back to work – you will be telling employers, recruiters, and others in your network your STORY. You are often asked for a general story: Tell me about yourself. Walk me through your career. Or you may be asked specifically about your career change: How did you come to this new sector? Why are you returning to work? Either way, as a career changer, you need to convincingly and compellingly get the listener excited about you in your new career. Notice how I said you in your new career, not thinking about your new career or testing out your prospects or anything but you 100% all-in with your new career. Career change mistake #1, then, is talking too much about hopes and dreams and not enough about actions and results. Dreams over actions is one key mistake career changers make when they tell their story. Here are three more mistakes to avoid when you tell your career change story to employers and recruiters:
Giving the “real” reasons for your career change
I coached a career changer who transitioned from analytics to communications and from financial services to healthcare. She loves her new career but actually fell into it accidentally – after having her first child, she wanted to leave banking, so she started freelancing, and her first project happened to be healthcare communications, but she loved it and kept going. So being the honest person that she was, her story always included how she fell into her new role, how the change was prompted by her newborn, and how she NEVER expected to be in this new career…The story, while factually correct, just underscores her outsider status (and her working mom status which isn’t a selling point with most employers).
Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. – Soren Kierkegaard
I love this quote for career changers. We live life forwards – picking up opportunities as they arise, adjusting to circumstances such as parenthood. These forward-moving actions put us in the career we have now. But when you construct your story, you want to take the backwards view and pull out the threads and patterns that make your transition story understandable, even inevitable. In the above example, the career changer could absolutely have acknowledged that the first healthcare communications project was opportunistic, but her choice to remain was deliberate, not accidental. And while personal reasons are always part of the choices we make, why reveal them? That’s TMI – too much information. Get to know your new career story looking backwards, and tell it that way.
Emphasizing your newbie status with the words Change, Transition, or New
Another good reason for making your move into new career sound deliberate and planned out is to give you credibility and make you seem less like a newbie. The employer, recruiter, or even a networking lead who wants to refer you needs to be assured you have arrived and can 100% do the job. They don’t want to hear about your change journey, just the destination. They are not hiring you (or referring you) so that you can learn on someone else’s dime and time. If you’re used to telling your story apologetically, “I just started…” or “I have only one project…” or “I’m new…” build your story around results, not time. “Currently I’m working on X.” Talk about projects, activities like memberships, expertise-builders like conferences. Tell your story in the thick of the new career you’re in to draw the listener into seeing you in that new career and out of your old one.
Sure, you may be asked about your former career, especially if you’ve had significant time and accomplishments in that area. Don’t get drawn into talking about your old career on its own. Always draw a parallel to how it’s relevant to your new career. Do not assume that your listener will know how it relates. If you get absorbed into your former career, you will sound like you miss it. If you are much more accomplished in your old career than new one, you will just underscore how raw you are in your new area. Never spend the majority of time talking about your past; always drive the conversation back to the present and your future contributions to this new employer.
Getting defensive about your career change story
Yes, you will have to proactively design your story, practice telling it to stay on message for your new career and prepare yourself for reluctance, even suspicion from recruiters and employers. Don’t get defensive, don’t assume you’re hiding it well. When I have clients who are frustrated or anxious with their job search (and career change is a tougher job search), the clients often think people don’t notice the frustration or anxiety. But these negative emotions are very noticeable.
You must prepare for pointed questions about why you left your former career – repeated questions, disbelief at your initial answers, and additional probing. Expect this and practice staying on your message in a neutral, confident voice. The recruiter or employer you’re talking to at that moment may have made a very different choice – maybe they’re an aspiring career changer. They may secretly be rooting for you, and the doubts they express could be their own personal projections.
You need to have a career change story that satisfies all types of listeners – the ones who probe for the “real” reason, the ones who test your credibility, and the ones who put you on the defensive. Practice a positive story, and stick to it!
This post originally appeared in my Forbes Leadership column.