All of us have been in situations where we are anxiously awaiting some news (hopefully positive) and get impatient for the phone to ring.
However, the impatience gets much more heightened when your career and livelihood depends on it.
I have recently come across several situations where marketing oneself (or blowing your own trumpet as some people call it) is not part of one’s DNA and the fact that the phone doesn’t ring causes huge frustrations someone embarking on an uncharted career path. Some examples:
- Solo Consultants – there are many senior executives who get the entrepreneurial bug or have had enough of the hectic corporate life in their mid 40′s or later and decide to set up a consulting practice in their area of expertise. Many find the first few months extremely stressful from the frustrations of cold calling, lack of brand equity of being part of a bigger organization, having unproductive time on their hands, irregular cash-flow, etc. The situation can be exacerbated if the person has not been in a sales or marketing role. E.g. one of my clients had spent his entire career building a solid track record in the supply chain function where he was used to having vendors approaching him all the time to solicit for business. When he decided to venture on his own, my client found the reversal of roles very unfamiliar territory
- Recently retired C-suite professionals seeking Board and advisory roles – Here too, the professionals have all the credentials needed to be an excellent advisor or on the Board of a large company. I recently spoke to a CEO of one of the large Indian business houses who felt that his credentials should speak for themselves and companies should seek him out for Board or advisory roles. The reality is that there are many professionals retiring at the C-suite level all the time and unless one is visible, the phone will not ring
- Aspiring coaches – Coaching is an emerging sector in India and there are many who strongly feel that they will make excellent coaches after being credentialed as a coach (and rightly so). However, I have met many aspiring coaches who have realized only after investing their hard-earned money getting trained as a coach that marketing their nascent coaching practice is more important than their credentials, at least till they build their reputation in the marketplace. Many of these aspiring coaches have focused their business development efforts on coaching corporate leaders (which is where a lot of executive coaches are focused on as well). The aspirants have not taken into consideration what attributes in their background and experience could be attractive to clients and then focused their coaching practice accordingly. While the potential for coaching corporate leaders is quite vast and the market is still largely untapped, it could still cause a lot of frustration to aspiring coaches who don’t have the gravitas to compete against more experienced coaches and end up having to push very hard to make a breakthrough. On the other hand, if the practice is focused on an area where clients could be attracted to the aspirant, there is a pull effect which will result in the phone ringing and while the segment may be relatively small, the coach gets his/her practice up and running much faster.
- HR professionals trying to reinvent themselves as headhunters – These professionals have the credentials to make super headhunters since they have solid skills and experience in assessing new hires. However, selling is not a natural skill for an HR professional and this causes a block for them to be successful in building an executive search practice either on their own or under the umbrella of a larger firm
If your story is somewhat similar to the four examples I have cited above, here are some practical steps you can take to make the phone ring (apart from giving your number to a tele-marketing site ):
- Start with an anchor client - this is an ideal situation since it means that you have some productive activity and cash-flow going from day one. However, this is not easy to achieve when one is making a switch into a very different area
- Create a niche that you can “own” – this is the key ingredient for success and I cannot emphasize the importance of this exercise enough. You need to think through carefully what it is about your background and experience that would be attractive to clients and is very different from what others can offer them. Sit in your client’s shoes and decide on the niche from their viewpoint. Talk to a few potential clients among your circle of friends to get ideas. Remember that it is not about what you would like to offer your clients but about creating the pull to attract clients to you. Also, the size of the potential market and statistics about market share are irrelevant. You just need to have enough clients to stay fully productive and have a regular cash-flow and this could very well be a miniscule share of the market. I recently met a consultant who has operated on his own for a few years and he told me that maintains the belief that he has 100% market share all the time, because as long as his plate is full, he has captured all the business he needs and everything else is irrelevant
- Position yourself correctly - Once you have decided on your niche, it probably is best to stay as high-end as possible so that you get the best trade-in for your most precious commodity – your time. There is a natural tendency to pitch one’s pricing too low initially in order to get in your first clients but it is a fact that most of your clients will not appreciate the value of what you are giving them if they are getting it cheap. By staying at the high-end, chances are that there will be a better recognition of the value you are providing your clients and in the process you are creating a brand for your business as well. However, clients do expect differentiation from cheaper alternatives and therefore you need to be able to demonstrate this to your clients constantly. A very senior CEO coach recently said that clients pay the highest price they can afford and they do not go for the cheapest alternative available and this principle could apply to any service offering
- Be visible – this is the third most important ingredient after finding your niche and positioning. Being visible is not about cold-calling all the time or creating a public persona, both of which may be very contrary to your personal style, if you are someone who prefers to be low-key or is publicity shy. Visibility is about being seen among your potential clients and this can be done through a variety of means which best suit your personal style – it includes speaking at or attending a conference which your clients attend, joining an industry association relevant to your target client market, actively participating in various LinkedIn networking groups, publishing a blog or a thought leadership piece in the press, informal socializing with potential clients or their influencers, sharing very useful and topical information with your potential clients, etc Once you select the visibility methods that best suit your personality and approach, you should be able to get past the blockages that many of us have to marketing ourselves. Once you have created the right amount of visibility for yourself, the chances of a client remembering to call you when she/he has a need will be very high. And being invited to pitch for the role means that the client has decided to hire you (subject to the commercial terms being acceptable) or is very close to deciding to hire you and is only evaluating what you have to offer against a handful of other choices
- Aspire to achieve trusted advisor status - All service related businesses are built on trust and reputation. Hard selling most often doesn’t have any impact and could be counter-productive to generating business, since no one wants to hire a slick salesman. Clients want to see results, certainty of excellence, someone who listens & tells them the truth in a candid way and holds a different viewpoint and most importantly is able to deliver a very high return on investment as compared to the fees they will be paying you. Therefore, your ability to showcase success stories from your prior engagements or past experience (if you’re at a start-up phase) will give clients the comfort that you can be a trusted advisor to them and if you maintain the highest level of excellence when executing the assignment, it will definitely lead to repeat business from that client or the success of that assignment becoming a showcase when pitching for others
- Never lose any opportunity to evangelize – our new business venture or professional preoccupation needs to be an intrinsic part of our daily lives and therefore we should use every platform available to evangelize. This could be a social gathering with old friends or a dinner engagement where you may not know many other guests. By constantly evangelizing, you receive more encouragement for your new venture and you may also meet someone who has a close connection to a potential client or is a key influencer to many of your potential clients. I have had many opportunities emanate from conversations with a passenger sitting next to me on a flight or from someone I met for the first time at a dinner party or an old friend who I bumped into by chance after a long time. I term all these as “synchronistic meetings that lead to opportunity”
- Remain flexible – while staying focused on your niche area is very advisable, there is also a need to remain flexible to opportunities that come your way. E.g. my main focus is on career coaching for senior management professionals and these are typically 3 to 6 month engagements. However, I am also flexible to have one-off sessions with mid-career executives where their need may be just to clarify their thoughts around a work-related issue that needs to be addressed immediately. I have also remained flexible to have shorter coaching engagements with participants of a program offered by INSEAD (the leading European business school) since it offered me the scope to coach a relatively larger number of clients across industry sectors. The message I am trying to convey is that it good to stay focused but one also needs to be nimble enough to respond to specific client needs as long as it fits into the overall vision for your business
- Patiently tighten your belt – patience is a virtue that is severely tested during the start-up phase of any business, especially if it is service related. However, one needs to keep this in mind and find non-work related things to fill up those spare hours during the initial phase so that you remain preoccupied and don’t run out of patience. We also need to become more mindful of our expenses. While we hope that our business will take-off immediately, we need to budget for several lean months without cash-flow and cut down on our non-essential expenses if needed
Am hoping that if you adopt the above steps, you will create sufficient pull to attract clients very soon and not have to face the frustrations of cold-calling on potential clients who give you a few minutes of their time after several weeks of trying to get an appointment and then never revert
As always, would love to receive your perspectives and comments on this subject. If you have other pointers to share or have viewpoints that are very different from mine, please post them as a comment below. Feel free to share this on your social networking pages if you think the blog could be useful to your social & professional circles. You can email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org as well
This is my pet subject since I ‘ve reinvented my career several times over the years – moved from the finance function of an MNC to selling financial services in the mid 1980′s, then became an investment banker and made a huge career shift into the headhunting world 7 years ago and more recently flying solo building a career coaching practice.
With the world rapidly changing, all professionals need to frequently reinvent their careers. As Thomas Friedman recently wrote in the New York Times: “What is most striking when you talk to employers today is how many of them have used the pressure of the recession to become even more productive by deploying more automation, outsourcing, robotics — anything they can use to make better products with reduced head count and health care & pension liabilities. That is not going to change. And while many of them are hiring, they are increasingly picky. They are all looking for the same kind of people — people who not only have the critical thinking skills to do the value-adding jobs that technology can’t, but also people who can invent, adapt and reinvent their jobs every day, in a market that changes faster than ever.”
On a similar note, LinkedIn’s co-founder, Reid Garrett Hoffman, has a book coming out called “The Start-Up of You,” where he argues that professionals need an entirely new mind-set and skill set to compete. “The old paradigm of climb up a stable career ladder is dead and gone. No career is a sure thing anymore. The uncertain, rapidly changing conditions in which entrepreneurs start companies is what it’s now like for all of us fashioning a career. Therefore you should approach career strategy the same way an entrepreneur approaches starting a business.”
Therefore, I thought I should share a few pointers based on my personal experience of reinventing my career:
- Do you really need to make a switch?: Many people make a career switch because they are dissatisfied with their existing role. However, it is important to understand that the reason for dissatisfaction with a career usually lies within. Therefore, do not be hasty. Make sure you thoroughly explore your feelings of dissatisfaction with your current career before you start looking for solutions.
- Discover your passion: This should be the first item on your “to-do” list when you want to reinvent your career. There are many methods to discover what you enjoy doing in terms of professional work – go with what works best for you. For some, it may involve spending hours meditating or soul-searching. For some others it may mean speaking to close friends and mentors or reading books or online articles on this subject
- Broaden your career objectives: The second thing you should do is getting clarity on your career objectives, which should be broad enough to be applicable across sectors. These are not career alternatives but a list of the 5 to 10 broadly defined things you would like to have in any career role, it is the check-list that you use to evaluate any new career opportunity that comes your way. If you havent defined these already, spend time with a mentor or career coach to do this exercise
- Look for emerging sectors: Making a switch in careers is much easier into sectors that are just emerging and therefore need to look for “out-of-the-box” talent. If you try to switch into a career where there is a well-experienced pool of talent available, it will be an uphill task competing in a beauty parade for any job role. You may then need to make an entrepreneurial move – either by setting up your own shop or by joining a start-up where most of your compensation will be performance-linked
- Fungible skill set sectors: When I made the big shift from banking to headhunting, I focused on doing search work in the financial services space where my domain knowledge and contacts in the banking & financial services world could be brought to use to source and evaluate talent. Moreover, I needed to be self-driven to generate fee revenues, something that I was used to doing for many years as an investment banker. Therefore, when you evaluate the emerging sectors that you could consider moving to, it would be useful to analyse where your existing skill-sets and expertise could be brought to use in those sectors
- Money is important: Blindly following your passion may not be a good thing. We need to remain practical as well. Do not believe that if you love what you’re doing you’re bound to make money. Recognize that you need a sound career plan and a comfortable financial plan to co-exist in order to have a successful mid-life career change experience.
- Be Proactive: It is unlikely that you will receive calls from headhunters or prospective employers when you are making a career switch, because you are in the “out-of-the-box” category. You need to be proactive in first figuring out who could be hiring in the sector(s) you want to switch to and then dig deep into your network of contacts to make the connections to those prospective employers. It would be ideal if you could find a contact who would make a strong recommendation to a key decision maker at a prospective employer. However this may not be possible in all cases, at the very least you need to find a contact who can help you get an interview with a key decision maker so that you can present your credentials personally and hopefully convince that person to hire you
- Burn your bridges: This is a tough one. It is normal human tendency to keep an escape door open so that you can go back to your earlier career path in case the switch doesn’t work out. However, this will make you ambivalent about the switch and you will not be 100% committed to make a success of your new avatar. Therefore, I suggest that you burn your bridges to the past and only look ahead. Reinventing your career is not easy. It requires a lot of extra effort and dedication to come upto speed in the new sector in the shortest possible time frame. Therefore, you need to be totally focused and committed to become successful in your new role and this often happens when there are no safety nets and to survive, you have no choice but become successful
- Create Positive Energy: For those of you contemplating a career switch when reading this blog, I wish you lots of luck. Stay passionate about your move and the positive energy you create will definitely bring good fortune your way!!
As always, would love to receive your feedback and comments on my blog. Also feel free to share this on your LinkedIn or Facebook profile or pass it on to anyone who may find this blog useful
You can email me directly at email@example.com as well.
Did you click on the link to this blog because you have aspirations to be the CEO of your company?
All of us have dreams about our professional careers and when we embark on our careers, fresh out of college or MBA school, we may have lofty ambitions which may seem fuzzy in the long distance and are more focused on the next step or two, perhaps because youngsters can only take baby steps. However, when one enters into one’s thirties, the longer term goals could become clearer and I have come across many who make a move to have the possibility of being on the fast track with a new employer, since he is falling behind in the race to the top at his present employer. By the time you reach the end of your thirties or in your early 40′s, it could be clear whether you have a reasonable chance to make it to the top job or not ….
However, those dreams of becoming CEO don’t die so easily and I have encountered quite a few senior management professionals during my headhunting days and now as a career coach, who want to find some way of fulfilling that dream before they retire,,,,
And more often than not, they make a move that is quite risky or even foolhardy – just to fulfil that dream
I am going to narrate four stories, which some of you who are in the second half of your career may find familiar, not because you may know the characters involved but because you may be in a similar situation. Hopefully there will be some learning and a rash move will be avoided in the process
Ravi’s story: (all names changed though the stories are real) – Ravi was my classmate who had worked for a few years before enrolling at IIMA. After his MBA, Ravi joined a large PSU and moved up in seniority to the middle management cadre. However, he wanted a slightly faster career path and decided to join a large MNC in India. Being the hard-working, non-political person that he is, Ravi’s career plateaued, perhaps because he was not a good upward manager, and he decided to leave the company when he was in his early 50’s to try to achieve his dream of becoming CEO elsewhere. He initially tried to run his own boutique consulting firm (where he was naturally the CEO), but that didn’t take off and by then when he was already in his late 50′s. In order to fulfil his dream of being CEO, he joined a small ITES company (a sector that he was completely unfamiliar with). The company was too small to have any sort of critical mass and hired him at a very low salary just to play the role of an administrator. Though the stint didn’t last very long, Ravi achieved his dream of being CEO but at a huge price. The decision to leave the MNC was not well thought through and he should have either decided that he would be more focused on “upward management” (a very difficult ask since it was against the grain of his personality DNA) or he should have recalibrated his dream and instead counted the blessings of a steady income and a retirement nest-egg, by remaining at that MNC for the next 5 to 10 years till he retired
Ashok’s story: Ashok was my business associate in the mid 1980’s and we have remained in touch as friends since then. He was a finance professional who had a steady career, made a few moves and rose to become the CFO of a multinational in India. When he was in his mid 50’s a couple of years back, he was passed over for the CEO’s job which went to the Marketing Head. Ashok was very disappointed because his ambition of becoming CEO at that MNC disappeared. Ashok then met an entrepreneur who was in his late 60’s and wanted to retire from running his SME manufacturing unit. The entrepreneur’s sons were not ready to take over the reins and he therefore invited Ashok to step into his shoes on a profit-sharing basis. Of course, the SME unit could not afford to pay Ashok’s relatively huge fixed compensation at the MNC and he would need to take a huge hair-cut in fixed compensation in exchange for the share of profits. Ashok was very tempted to take up the offer because of the opportunity to be CEO combined with wealth creation potential. We chatted over coffee about this move a few months back. He told me that his wife was very averse to the move – apart from there being no necessity to create a larger financial nest-egg (both his daughters were married and he had saved a fair amount over the years), she felt that their stature in the wider friends’ circle would be drastically reduced since he would be moving from being the CFO of a well-known MNC to the CEO of an unheard company. I asked him how other members of his immediate family and his close friends felt about the move. This set Ashok thinking and he told me that quite a few of the significant people in his life didn’t seem to be keen about the move. Since some of them had not expressed their views openly, I requested him to have a frank conversation with a few of his friends whom he considered as mentors. After speaking to them, Ashok decided that he should not make the move and will continue to ride the wave at the MNC till he retires in 2014.
John’s story: John is an IIT engineer who has had a fast track career in sales and marketing. He didn’t feel the need to do an MBA because he was a high-performer at work and his role was constantly expanding, through promotions and by a couple of job moves that turned out to be excellent ones, in hindsight. He moved to the telecom sector when it was just emerging 15 years ago and is now part of the senior management team at one of the Indian telecom companies. He is almost 50 years old and feels that the lack of a management qualification has closed the door to the CEO’s corner-room suite. John decided to quit his job recently (partly because of fears that he may become embroiled in the legal cases related to 2G scam) and is very actively thinking of doing a short-term Senior Management Program at one of the leading US business schools. He is going to finance this expensive program himself (approx USD 100K, which in pre-tax income is a lot more) and consulted me before taking his decision. I spent several hours playing devil’s advocate with him, so that all the key factors for his decision would emerge. I did this because I felt that his heart was all set on the program and his head was being completely over-ruled by his heart. There were two factors that finally emerged which will probably lead him not to do the program – Firstly, I asked him to think of a couple of dream jobs that he would like to have and assess the attributes needed for those roles. It became clear that his experience and track-record would be paramount and that his academic qualifications (or lack thereof) may not be an important factor. Secondly, he had not factored the loss of salary income he would incur by attending the program. In actual fact, the cost of attending the program was more almost triple the USD 100K he had initially computed and he could buy a small apartment in Mumbai for one his young-adult sons, with the same amount. John is probably not going to the US to do the program and will instead focus on how to be selected for his dream job
Rashid’s story: Rashid is an IIT Engineer who did his MBA at one of the IIMs and then was selected by one of the leading FMCG MNCs in India. He was an above average performer (just a notch below the top performer category) at the MNC and was deputed on some excellent roles, with a couple of international postings. However, his career plateaued when he was in his early 40’s (3 years ago) and he decided to look for another role. Since making a move would mean a loss of 2 decades of “brand equity” that he had built up at the MNC, he felt that only a CEO level type of role would make his move worthwhile. He didn’t make it on the initial shortlist for any such roles at other FMCG companies (because there were always candidates who didn’t need to make such a “big step-up” move and so were better qualified than him for the job). Rashid was then offered an SBU Head role at a retailing company, which was part of one of the major Indian business houses and just starting up. There was a dearth of relevant talent in the retailing space 3 years ago and Rashid was a sought after candidate with his pedigree qualifications and his track-record for almost 2 decades at a major FMCG MNC. However, Rashid didn’t enjoy the stint and has recently decided to move back into the FMCG sector. Three issues that he didn’t envisage when he made the move were – the very different work culture between the MNC and the Indian business group, the fuzzy code of ethics at the Indian business house and the lack of support systems, partly because it was a start-up situation and partly because the Indian business group wanted to limit its investments & overheads till returns were at least on the anvil.
So what are some of the common themes of these perhaps familiar stories?
- One needs to do a periodic reality check on your career aspirations. It may be helpful to speak to mentors or trusted friends, especially when your thinking is clouded by emotions. Only very few make it to the CEO’s corner-room suite. The rest of us need to recalibrate our expectations or reinvent our careers from time to time
- Keep all your career goals in mind simultaneously. Don’t just focus on just one of them and shrug off the others as unimportant (E.g. you may fulfil your dream to become CEO but lose out on financial savings towards the end of your career or your social stature)
- Academic qualifications become almost irrelevant toward the latter part of your career and taking time off to attend a short-term programme can be very costly
- Never lose sight of softer factors like cultural fitment and that your employer’s ethical standards need to be totally in synch with yours. These softer factors are not easy to define but the reputation (or lack thereof) of certain business groups is well-known. If you are unfamiliar with the business group, ask some of your friends, I am sure some of them will give you invaluable advice
If you have other learnings or insights from these stories, please post a comment below so that others can benefit from them. Also, feel free to share this on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter or pass it on to anyone who may find this blog useful