Visualize a career change several steps ahead

By Vickie Elmer
Sunday, February 7, 2010

After growing up traveling as an "Army brat" and studying in Spain while attending James Madison University, Kate Heffley decided that international business would be a great career choice. She moved to the District jobless but before long landed a job at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as an international assistant on European issues.

Fast forward a couple of years, and Heffley had gotten a job working on the Chamber's Web site, part of the communications department. "That looked pretty good to me," she said. So she decided to change career directions, aiming for a corporate communications post at a tech company.

Heffley knew that the communications field is crowded, so she kept working at the Chamber in various communications roles while working on her graduate degree. At American University, the weekend master of arts in public communication program took 20 months and helped her build a network of professionals in the field. "We should always be looking a step or two ahead," she said.

Repositioning yourself means more than rewriting your résumé -- it can require months or years of outreach and training.

Connections matter. Many people, including Heffley, develop a "personal board of directors" -- family, friends and co-workers who advise on career and life questions. They also can help open doors.

"They're competing with people who are already doing that job. So networking is so important," said Katherine Ponds, Right Management senior vice president in the global transition center in Fairfax. Alumni associations, interest groups and volunteer connections can be useful as you're laying the foundation to change fields.

Heffley actually met her next employer while working for the Chamber. The chief executive of Education Options, an online curriculum company, was a member and knew of her career transition efforts. He also needed someone to build his communications department from the ground up. So he hired her.

Before repositioning yourself, dive into the data and research on your new sector. "Get as much background information as possible," Ponds said, by discovering what sectors and companies are growing and how they describe job openings. Consider joining a professional association or doing volunteer work related to your target area.

You also want to look inward to identify the tasks and assignments that have brought you satisfaction. What provided value to your employer? "You're identifying your interests and your skills," Ponds said.

Be prepared to explain why you're switching tracks, Ponds said. You need to show you understand yourself and the job you're seeking and how the change really is drawing on expertise you've developed.

Ponds considers herself a "poster child for making career changes," but most of her switches came naturally. She started as a buyer for Bloomingdale's and then Sears, and moved into executive search, a job she enjoyed. "But people always come to you for career advice. I filed that away for future reference -- I enjoyed giving that advice," she said. So after a stint as chief of staff for a D.C. council member who was not reelected, she went into career coaching and started consulting projects for Right Management. That led to more consulting work and eventually a full-time job in her new field.

Heffley said it's important to get started on your change quickly. "If you have an inkling that it's time to move, don't wait," she said. "Get the ball rolling," even if you can spend only 15 minutes a day on your career goals. "One thing will lead to another, once the ball is in motion," she said. Heffley joined Booz Allen as a senior consultant in May 2008 as a way to expand her skills into "a larger playground" and a company with a reputation for work-life balance.

Elmer is a freelance writer.

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