Five Essential Rules for Changing Careers

Changing careers is a leap of faith, but with a little preparation and groundwork, you're sure to stick the landing. Here are five ways to succeed.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #567

Today we’ll be discussing how to change your career successfully with Fast Company editors Kate Davis and Anisa Purbasari Horton, hosts of the Secrets of the Most Productive People podcast.

When you change careers, it's a leap of faith. Sometimes, it's like cliff diving—it's a terrifying leap from a tall cliff, but you quickly catch an updraft and soar. Sometimes, it's a leap from the municipal pool high dive. You do a belly flop into the pool and someone posts the video on Instagram, where it goes viral and gets 15 million humiliating shares. 

But with a little preparation and groundwork, you can stick the landing and increase your chances for a successful career change.

Think of yourself as skills, not jobs

We’re taught to think of ourselves in terms of our job title. But when you’re changing careers, people in your new field may not even recognize job titles from your old one. Even if your new field has roles with the same title, the actual definition of those roles could be very different. A producer in the film industry does very different work than a theater producer does. Both roles are in the entertainment industry, but you can't count on them needing the same skills or involving the same responsibilities.

When you’re preparing to explain yourself to prospective employers, to explain yourself in terms of:

  • The skills you bring to the table
  • The results you can achieve when you put those skills into action

Flaunt your credentials

If you have a college degree, professional certifications, or awards, let people know. While the specific credential may not be transferable, it can show that you’re capable of mastering and applying skills.

For example, let’s say you went through W. Edward Demings’s Quality College. It’s a course in how to improve quality in organizations. Even if you’ve never been an official process engineer, including that course on your resume signals that you’re comfortable with those concepts, and you can probably apply them to your new field.

Share your clips

Examples of your work are even better than commendations. Photographers, designers, and illustrators have portfolios that show off their work. Computer programmers have Github repositories where prospective employers can see real, live code samples. Reporters and other writers have clips of stories they’ve written. (Fun fact: They’re called “clips” because long ago, newspapers were printed on paper, and they would clip out the printed copies of the stories they wrote).

Think in terms of how to transfer the skills that underly your work samples to your new job.

Work samples show a new employer what you can really do. Again, think in terms of how to transfer the skills that underly your work samples to your new job. If you have a design portfolio, and you’re getting into the software business, you could use your portfolio as evidence that you can design visually compelling user interfaces.

Job boards will be of limited usefulness in changing careers

We’re living in very puzzling times. There’s a wonderful narrative that we job hunters will each have seven different careers. And companies, who do the hiring, all want innovative, out-of-the-box thinkers who bring great new ideas. 

Sounds like a match made in heaven, right? If only. Even though this is what's said about the job market, when you look on the ground, what you see is that almost no hiring process is compatible with this idealistic vision.

No matter how skilled, creative, and innovative you are, they’ll never even talk to you because the matching software will never connect you with them.

Thanks to the innovative young minds in Silicon Valley, who don’t have a clue how to do anything except keyword matching. Most hiring is now done by keyword matching. And HR departments love it because it gives them the illusion that they’re getting the right candidates. And they are—as long as those candidates are inside-the-box, 20-year cookie-cutter-career-path kinds of people. 

No matter how skilled, creative, and innovative you are, they’ll never even talk to you because the matching software will never connect you with them. You have seven careers, not one, and you have keywords from the wrong industry. So if you depend on the Glassdoors and LinkedIns of the world to help match you with jobs in your new field, you’ll likely end up dying alone in a gutter, highly skilled, with multiple careers, having been eliminated by the very software designed to make hiring easier. Viva la innovación!

Network to enter your new career

Since computers won’t get you onto your new path, you’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way: through people. Be prepared to network your way into the new career.

  • Talk to everyone you already know, and let them know what kind of opportunities you’re looking for.

  • Talk to people in your new industry or field, and ask them about knowledge. Don’t ask for a job, ask for their opinions on trends. Ask for them to share their knowledge with you. Ask for their advice.

  • Follow people on Twitter and LinkedIn whom you want to meet. Engage with them when they post articles or information.

  • Join professional groups where the people you’ll need to meet hang out. Those might be industry associations. Special interest groups, and so on.

Changing careers can be big and scary. Click the audio player above to listen to Anisa and Kate’s advice in this episode, and learn how you can make your career change go smoothly … like butter.


I’m Stever Robbins. Join the workplace success conversation on Twitter and Facebook. If you’re an executive, entrepreneur, or sales professional and you want to boost your business results, talk to me about coaching. Learn more at SteverRobbins.com. Stay in the loop! Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts to listen to each new episode as soon as it drops.

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.