Changing Industries

Many senior executives desire a new and different challenge that will utilize acquired leadership skills. Marketing yourself for opportunities in a new industry requires a higher level of preparation, confidence, and a well-defined game plan. The career pay-off as a result of a successful industry shift can be big.  New and emerging industries, technology, and business models can represent highly desirable growth opportunities. Your playing field becomes much larger once you have proven that your leadership skills are transferable. The new challenge may be just what you need to boost your motivation and refresh your skills. If you want to change industries, consider the following advice:

Target Adjacent Industries

Choose industries that have some of the same success factors or similar key performance indicators. Plan and perfect a persuasive case on how your present industry skills and track record are the preferable background for the new leadership role. One of my clients, a 20 year consumer products CEO, pursued entertainment industry companies that were entering or had mediocre performance in merchandising. He was able to make the case that his blue chip marketing experience would be a huge asset within an industry that wasn’t as skilled at retail and internet marketing. In addition, he already had some of the key retail relationships his target companies desired.

Don’t randomly pursue every opportunity outside your present industry just because you want a change. With your persuasive case, your new marketplace will respond to your candidacy. If you pursue other industries, your search will lack focus and you will appear weak.

“If you wouldn’t hire yourself for the job, don’t invest time. Go back to the drawing board to identify the right industry or industries and subsequent opportunities.”

Fit In

Consider the first impression you will make and the lasting impression you will leave behind.  Make alternations to fit in. This includes your image, message, business terminology, and communication style. Each industry has its own walk and talk. If an employer cannot see you fitting, you will not be considered.  A CMO client came to me after a 15 year tenure in the alcoholic beverages industry. Retained executive search was calling him with big opportunities in the alcoholic beverages industry. His attempts to develop activity in other industries was not working. He desired a CEO/CMO role in travel or hospitality; both adjacent industries. One necessary alteration became immediately clear during a practice interview session.  When speaking about his accomplishments as a CMO at his present company, he repeatedly refered to his customers as “drinkers,” essentially branding himself an alcohol beverages executive. He came to understand that referring to “drinkers” sounded out-of-place and possibly offensive to new industry executives.  If you use business terms and jargon associated with your present industry, your interviewers won’t imagine you anywhere else.

“Help your prospective employer make the leap. Spend time with successful executives within your targeted industry. Observe them in person and in media. Ask lots of questions and spend some time within their companies. Keep your eyes and ears open for similarities and differences. Be sure to highlight similarities, and whenever possible, change the differences.”

Retained executive search firms may not help you

Check the box, but spend 10% of your time with retained executive search firms. Retained firms are paid large fees to find a panel of executives that fit the requirements their client has defined. Very few of their clients open up the playing field to non-industry players-up to and including CEO positions.

“There are two notable exceptions. The company may hire retained search because they can’t attract from their own industry, or they want a new and different perspective at the top of the company.”

Your present network matters a lot

Rely on members of your present industry network. Your network is familiar with your skills. Specifically, they will know about your leadership ability in new and unfamiliar circumstances, learning curve, flexibility, tolerance for ambiguity, and speed of adapting to new environments.  All of these qualities will be key when shifting industries. Not only will they be important references for you, they will know people in your targeted industry. A once removed introduction, endorsement, or referral is powerful.

“Be aware that some influencers in the marketplace may question your motives for changing industries. They will look for burned bridges or an unfavorable reputation.  Your present industry network and references can squelch inaccurate assumptions.”

Consider hiring help

Changing industries at the senior executive level usually translates into a more challenging search. Consider hiring an expert to prepare you, guide you, and prevent you from making strategic and tactical mistakes. Some consulting firms have the ability to establish a new network of contacts for you within your target industry, reducing your search time significantly.

“When hiring help on a senior level job search, conduct thorough due diligence on the consultant/firm who will be working with you-most importantly, speak with multiple clients who have completed their search with the firm. Never hire a firm that solicits you.”

Stay the course

It takes time for the market to respond. If you want to realize your goal, you must resist the strong temptation to settle for less.

“Employers and their agents will test your commitment to make an industry shift by continuing to offer opportunities in your present industry.”


As a C-level executive, I shifted industries-from technology to healthcare/pharmaceuticals. I received several offers from new industries during other career moves which I ultimately declined. The interviews for positions within a new industry required a much higher level of preparation. They weren’t as comfortable, and relevant accomplishments and examples required a higher level of analysis and definition. I was competing with candidates immersed in like industry current events, culture and history.  And my network was relatively uninformed when it came to evaluating the quality of new industry opportunities. As the founder of Waterman Hurst, I have been the navigator for C-level /senior executive industry changes for over twelve years.  When targeting a new industry, it often makes sense to get expert help.

                                        -janice waterman

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