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Career Coach: Managing internal career moves

By Joyce E.A. Russell,

I have gotten many calls from people who have told me they are considering making a job move — not to a new firm, but rather, to a different department in their current firm. They wonder how this is different from moving to another company and what unique issues they will need to navigate.

There are some similarities between preparing for internal and external job moves:

•First, remember that any new position, even an internal move, requires you to take the process seriously. Prepare for interviews and meetings just like you would for an external job. Polish up your resume and prepare for those interview questions.

•Second, research the people who work in the other department to learn more about them and the goals of the department. Find out why the opening exists. Such research is especially important because they will expect you to be even more familiar with their department than external candidates.

•Third, dress professionally and be at your best. Often, individuals don’t worry about how they look and act because they are so more relaxed when applying internally. This is a mistake. You are often being evaluated against external candidates.

•Send thank-you notes after the interview and follow up within 24 hours with any additional information requested. This is also a good chance to share other personal strengths you forgot to mention.

There are some unique issues that arise when applying for an internal position:

•Don’t apply to everything – this makes it seem as if you have no career focus. Do some preliminary research to learn more about other departments and gain information that will help you determine how you can make a contribution.

•Prepare a strong message for why they should hire from within the firm for this position, and why it should be you. Make sure this is linked to the department’s strategic goals and priorities.

•Have a frank discussion with your own boss, letting him or her know about your longer-term career interests and reasons for joining another department. This can be a difficult conversation, yet it is important. It’s not a good idea for your boss to be the last to know. You need your boss to help smooth out your pending transition or to help you get the new job. If you don’t have a great relationship with your immediate boss, it is important to have other managers who will support your move. You also need to make sure to keep the performance in your own department at a strong level before you make the job move. Declines in your performance can send a negative message to the new department about your overall commitment to the firm.

•It is critical to have mentors or trusted advisers in the firm. Many an employee has gotten stuck in a tug of war or stepped on a political land mine when trying to change departments. It is critical for you to have some higher-level advocates or mentors who can help smooth out the waters.

•Build your internal network long before you attempt an internal move. Make sure others in the firm know about your contributions. By serving on project teams or company-wide teams with employees from other departments, you enable them to learn more about you and your performance.

•Keep current with what is going on in the firm. Keep up to date with major organizational changes and strategies. Make sure you know what your new boss’s style is like and what the culture of the new department is like.

•Be prepared for the question, “What will you do if you don’t get this job?” You need a thoughtful response to this question. In addition, even if they don’t ask this question, you need to think about it for yourself. What will you do? I advise people to look in the external market for opportunities at the same time they look internally. Not only does this give them more leverage (assuming they have multiple opportunities), but it also helps them to see how marketable they are. This can enhance their confidence when applying for internal positions.

•Be open to feedback. Maybe the hiring manager will tell you that you aren’t suited for the specific job. If you are open to his or her advice and insights, you might get information about other jobs where you would be a better fit.

•If you do switch departments, be sure to maintain good relations with your old boss and colleagues. You never know when the firm might reorganize and you might be working with them again!

Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership, negotiations and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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