How to Succeed in a New Industry

October 3, 2014

In today’s job market, mid-career industry changes are becoming ever more common.  In part, the increase is driven by workers as they are forced to re-tool themselves in our persistently tough labor market.  But it’s also driven by companies as they look to diversify their talent base, avoid group-think, and adopt best practices from other industries.  A college graduate joining the workforce today can expect to work in 15 – 20 jobs on average over the course of his or her career, and increasingly these also span different industries.  We’ve known for a while that the days of single-employer careers are behind us…so too it seems are the days of single-industry careers.

The prospect of a transition can be intimidating, and the personal stakes are often high.  I have seen some people do it quite seamlessly, while I have watched in horror as others have failed miserably.  Both groups consisted of smart, capable, hard-working professionals.  So what was the difference?  Why such different outcomes?  The differences can be subtle, but if you find yourself in such a transition, there are a few basic guidelines that will give you the best odds of succeeding.

Remember why you were hired

You were brought in from another industry for a reason.  If you were honest in the interview process (and you always should be), then your employer understands perfectly well what skills you have and why the company needs them.  When you start your job and set expectations with your boss, talk about that explicitly.  Doing so sets context and anchors the two of you on a common framework.  Then really focus on delivering value from those specific skills and experiences.

Research the basics

Before you start your job, spend some time understanding the fundamental economics and business model of your new industry.  These dynamics vary a lot by industry, and it’s critical to understand what the real drivers of profit and shareholder value are.  Read your company’s annual report and a few of its competitors’ reports as well (management’s discussion of results is a particularly good place to focus).  If Wall Street analysts cover your industry, read a few of their reports.  Trade publications also provide good background — you can even infer a lot from the vendors that choose to advertise there.

Ask lots of questions (especially dumb ones)

The first time you hear that new acronym in a meeting, speak up and ask what it stands for.  You’ll have a million questions…ask all of them.  Somehow corporate America has developed a pervasive myth that ignorance is ineptitude, but it isn’t.  If you try to fake it, it will eventually catch up with you, and the consequences will be much more awkward than simply asking a genuinely motivated question.  The newer you are, the more latitude you have to ask, so take advantage of the opportunity and don’t be shy.  It’s amazing how fast the puzzle pieces start to come together when you don’t have to rely on ESP to figure them out!

Respect the veterans

Probably the single biggest mistake switchers make is to assume they’ve been hired because the veterans are useless, so management needed to go in a different direction.  New blood is often a motivation, but the goal is almost always to complement industry experience, not replace it.  The industry veterans should be your biggest allies.  Not only can they help you get up the learning curve, they can give you good context for your fresh ideas.  They also probably understand the company’s culture better than anyone, which is critical in any job change.  Those veterans are proud of their accomplishments and their expertise, and they should be.  Let them know you appreciate that.

Embrace subtlety

Finally, give some thought to your approach, especially in the early days.  Let’s be honest, nobody likes their colleague who starts every sentence with “Well at my last company…” or “Isn’t it obvious…”  You may feel like there’s a lot of low hanging fruit, especially in the area you were hired for, and indeed you might be right.  But your ability to bring others along and get them excited about your ideas is as important as the quality of the ideas themselves.  So by all means shake things up and make change happen, but play the long game.  Introduce your ideas thoughtfully and constructively.  Be an agent of change, but in a way that makes rooting for your success irresistible to others.

None of these tips guarantees success, but they will put you in the right frame of mind to manage a transition and improve your odds.  It looks like the career transition has become a permanent part of the employment landscape…make sure you’re ready if it happens to you!

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About The Author

Ben Walter is President and Chief Executive Officer of Hiscox USA, the US arm of the global specialty insurer. Ben joined the company in early 2011 as COO and served in that post prior to taking his current position in April 2012. Prior to joining Hiscox, Ben was a Managing Director at BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, where he focused on global strategic and operations issues. He joined BlackRock via its acquisition of Barclays Global Investors, where he held a similar position. Ben’s previous experience spans a wide range of industries and functions. He ran the credit and loyalty business for Gap Inc.’s Banana Republic brand, worked with leading financial services and fintech companies as a consultant with the Boston Consulting Group, and served in a number of strategy and marketing roles at Continental Airlines. Ben has an MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and a BA from Washington University in St. Louis. Ben is a member of the New York City chapter of the Young Presidents’ Organization, and he serves on the boards of the Property Casualty Insurance Association and the Parris Foundation.

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