About 100 years ago when I was a soon-to-be college graduate, many people asked me what in the world I was going to do with a degree in English. Some of the more typical paths for English majors (teaching, journalism, book publishing) lacked luster for me, since starting salaries were on the ocean floor. I decided instead to apply my writing and editing skills to the business world—and, at what was then a “Big 8” accounting firm, I learned that skills don’t need to follow a straight and narrow path.
Math had never been my strong suit and accounting was even more out of my realm. But fresh out of college, I started editing and then writing training programs for bespectacled men twice my age–on internal auditing and other topics that had never before passed my lips. I found that I could write about any dry subject if I asked enough questions, knew where to research answers and understood the general communications parameters the accounting field would expect.
Once I had my fill of the accounting industry, I jumped at the opportunity to triple my salary and move to the conference division of an investment publication. This required an entirely new vocabulary of stocks and bonds. To get the job I had to draw strong and clear parallels between writing training programs and creating investment conferences. I was not their ideal candidate because I did not have a degree in Economics or any knowledge of or experience in the investment industry. But I did have the ability to connect all the dots.
I didn’t just say that I had the research, writing and event planning skills to do the job—I connected the dots, showing that the way I applied skills to responsibilities X, Y and Z for the training job would be applied the same way to do A, B and C in the conference planning job. To make this case, I carefully analyzed similarities in the way, for example…
- Conferences and training programs are divided into time and topic segments
- Key topics are chosen through written research and discussions with industry experts
- Outside experts are recruited as speakers
- Agendas are designed to promote interaction among speakers and attendees
- Programs are promoted as continuing education.
From my recruiting days I know that even senior-level candidates who want to downsize high-powered careers and transfer their skills to new industries rarely go through this exercise of connecting the dots. They assume (often with some measure of indignance and exasperation), for example, that marketing skills are marketing skills in any industry. There are, in fact, 52 types of marketing in use today—and each industry has different ways of using, say, social media marketing. Prospective employers want the comfort level that your social media marketing skills and experience have strong parallels with the social media campaigns typical in their industries. Flexible jobs often involve “silo” responsibilities—within a narrow skill set—rather than the generalist agendas of full-time employees. When you’re looking for a non-traditional position, it’s even more important to sell very specific, translatable skills.
When you use the “connect the dots” approach for a job at any level, you widen your career possibilities to the nth degree. The fact is that it’s easier for employers to settle into default mode and hire cookie-cutter candidates who all have the same background and experience. The trick is to remind employers that quick studies can learn the language of a new industry. Then through research and networking, prove you know the very specific ways your skills can be transferred to get the job done. —KAS
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