Changing Careers – How to Do it Successfully

Research and determination are the keys to success, whether you’re 25 or 65

When Wendell Hall was asked to relocate for the 13th time in 31 years, he realized how demanding and unfulfilling his corporate life had become.

As a vice president of operations for General Motors Acceptance Corp., he oversaw lending activities among GM dealers throughout the Western U.S. The job required lots of travel and, at age 55, another transfer, this time from northern New Jersey to Detroit.

“I wasn’t willing to do that again, so I left,” he says.

Mr. Hall accepted an early retirement offer, then wasted little time before launching what he considered career #2. “During all those moves, I always liked buying and selling homes,” he explains. “It’s a hell of an interesting business, so I decided to give it a try.”

After completing a real-estate course and earning a license in less than a month, Mr. Hall signed on with a local realtor as a sales associate. When asked why he thought he could make such a major change — from corporate bigwig to lowly sales associate — Mr. Hall says that taking a complete inventory of his strengths and having a strong motivation to succeed were key ingredients. Mr. Hall eventually owned a multi-site brokerage firm in Oakland, N.J. that employed dozens of associates, before deciding to retire and move to central New Jersey with his wife.

“I enjoy working with people, and that’s the greatest similarity between the two careers. In both, it’s important to build trust and mutual respect with others, which I like doing,” he explains, adding that if he were an engineer or scientist who enjoyed working alone, “real estate wouldn’t be a good career choice.”

The biggest difference between Mr. Hall’s two careers reflects the source of his motivation. “In a corporation, you’re paid a salary whether you have a good year of not, so some people lay back on the oars if they want to. In real estate, everything is on commission, so you’ve got a real incentive to do well. If you’re not a self-starter, you won’t earn any income.”

To be sure, there are trade-offs. “What I really miss most about corporate life is that I have to do my own photocopying,” Mr. Hall adds with a laugh.

The New Trend

Everyone is changing careers these days. Teachers become financial planners. Airline pilots buy fast-food franchises. Middle managers learn to write software programs and sell them at trade shows. The list is endless, and for good reason. There’s no excuse for sticking with a career that you no longer enjoy, aren’t good at anymore or has been taken away from you.

The restructuring of corporate America has hastened this trend. Entire layers of management — as well as whole departments — are being eliminated willy-nilly, tossing long-tenured employees at all levels into the volatile job market. Some of these folks are so eager to find new corporate homes, they’re squeezing themselves into restrictive job requirements just to earn paychecks. But many more are putting a positive spin on the situation. They see this as a chance to launch more meaningful, exciting and potentially challenging careers.

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Yet choosing which careers to try next is rarely easy, whether you’re 25 or 65. Some folks have second jobs that can be expanded to fill their now-available time. But most are at loose ends. Fortunately, selecting a new career direction isn’t difficult once you understand the process.

“If you’re conducting a fundamental career reappraisal, you must pay attention to three distinct areas of inquiry,” says Douglas B. Richardson, a leadership, communication and career management consultant in Narberth, Pa. They are:

 

  • What am I capable of doing?
  • What am I temperamentally suited to do?
  • What will the world let me do, given what I’ve done before?

 

“This last point often is ignored by idealistic or highly motivated career changers,” says Mr. Richardson, who has worn many occupational hats thus far in his career, including lawyer, headhunter and outplacement executive. “They overlook the fact that their future career options are dramatically limited by past choices.”

Overcoming other people’s stereotypes of what you’re capable of achieving will probably be the biggest obstacle you’ll face as you attempt to change careers, Mr. Richardson says. It’s easy for potential employers to hire known quantities: a tax accountant at an automobile dealership can probably handle the taxes for a nursing home without much difficulty. But would he succeed as an emergency medical technician? And would any ambulance company give him a chance to try?

Perhaps the best way to boost your odds in a new career field is to research it so thoroughly before making your entry that you know as much about it as people who have been in the field forever. That approach worked well for Gary Blum, a financial planner in Los Angeles. A lawyer by training who spent four years trading options on the Chicago Board Options Exchange, Mr. Blum saw an opportunity to enter a new career just as demand was growing.

“I could see lots of people gathering lots of wealth at young ages, but not knowing what to do with that money. They needed financial counseling, especially in regard to tax issues,” he explains.

Not knowing anything about the financial-consulting and estate-planning fields, Mr. Blum recreated his law-school days and started cramming. He attended multiple seminars and read every book he could find on both subjects. Then he did lots of networking, which included several informational interviews (defined as meeting with people primarily to pick their brains on a specific career field, as well as gather names of others who can help).