By Caroline Ceniza-Levine '93BC of the Columbia Career Coaches Network
Originally published on Forbes.com
Hannah asks: What are the best ways to determine alternative careers based on one's skills and experience, careers that might not be obvious?
The best way to learn a job is to do the job, but you can't try out every single career idea before settling on one—who has the time or energy? So, you need to find a way to learn about a career from the outside looking in. Then you can make an informed choice about whether to commit your efforts in that direction. Here is an eight-step process for identifying viable alternative careers:
Strengthen Your Inner Compass
Even before you learn about what's out there in the market, you need to know what's inside you—your interests, your priorities, your preferred lifestyle. If you're unhappy in your career and it's been that way for a while, you may have lost touch with your inner compass, and your ability to make good choices has atrophied. Before making any other choices, and certainly the big choice about your next career, you need to strengthen this inner compass by practicing good choices—i.e., making choices that honor your interests, priorities, and preferences. You may not be able to make big moves in your career immediately, but you can do this for your free time and personal pursuits. Focus on fun, meaningful activities to remind yourself what you enjoy and strengthen your inner compass.
Keep an Ideas List (Separate from a To Do List)
As you start paying more attention to what brings you joy, take notes. Keep an ideas list where you jot down anything that sparks your interest—a company you hear about, a project your friend is doing, even general business news. Just make sure this ideas list is completely separate from your to do list. You are not to do anything with your ideas except collect them. Too often, an overly ambitious job seeker will quash a new idea by jumping too quickly into how they can use the idea in their next professional move. Then they take all the fun out of the idea by focusing too hard on how to do something with it. For now, don't worry about the practicality of your ideas—just focus on what interests you.
Look for Interesting Stories
Proactively generate more ideas by looking for interesting stories. Go to a business library (your local college may let you use theirs) and skim through the table of contents for general news and business magazines. Don't read cover-to-cover; just make note of the headlines that grab you. What industries do they cover? What issues or concerns catch your attention? Don't worry about how much you know about these areas. Don't worry if your curiosity is taking you far away from your current work. We're still just collecting ideas, not acting on them.
Look for Interesting People
In addition to industry and company stories, look for stories featuring people. Business publications typically feature people lists—highest-earning, most effective managers, most admired by peers, 40 under 40—and these overviews offer good anecdotes of career trajectories. LinkedIn profiles are another way of seeing how others navigated their career. If you have an inkling that you might want to be in corporate communications, look at those profiles and see what early jobs, education, and skills these people have. Finally, business books often have case studies featuring real people. If you're looking to make a career change, read books on career change, paying particular attention to the people stories.
Look for Interesting Problems
As you learn about what other industries, companies, and people are doing, take note of the problems they face, especially the ones that you might want to work on. Are you fascinated by stories of companies entering a new market or offering a brand new product? Are you moved by people who manage teams and build culture? Is it a turnaround situation or come-from-behind story that gets you? What are the problems you care enough about to want to solve?
Find Out What Your Favorite Company Looks Like Behind the Scenes
By now, your curiosity should be fully engaged with meaningful activities, reading, and learning about what's going on in the world, and thinking about real-life problems where you can make a contribution. But how are these problems actually solved? When a company enters a new market, who does what? Until you know, how a company works on the problem you want to solve, you won't be able to find a place for you on the solutions team. So pick one company (I recommend a company you admire so you'll be interested enough to find out about them) and find out how they do their work. What markets are they in now? What market did they recently enter? Who made those decisions? What were all the steps? This type of information is not readily available so you'll have to talk to people—e.g., employees of the company, people at competitor companies, industry experts, journalists who cover this topic. Try to get an organization map of who does what and a process map for all the steps involved. It doesn't have to be exact, but enough information on what the roles are that you can find one for yourself.
Keep Adding Ideas, Stories, People, Problems, and Companies
When you can research one company for one business problem, you can research more. You want to do more—more ideas to collect, more stories to read, more people to study, more problems to identify, and more companies to dissect. You want multiples in play at all times because you won't get perfect information for any one target, and information you get about one company can be helpful with another. Ideas will beget other ideas. You want to get as broad an understanding of the different projects and roles that people work on—this is the definition of a job: to solve a problem for the employer.
Practice with What You Already Know
While your ultimate objective may be an alternative career, or getting out of whatever it is you're doing now, a great way to further hone your research skills is by practicing on the industry you're in now. You already know it, so you know the problems, the competitors, and the people. If you had to advise someone who wanted to break into your industry, how would you map it out for them? What are the critical problems, and who does what? Even as you collect information on your new areas of interest, stay on top of your current industry, company, and role. There may be more overlap than you realize, and the mechanics of staying abreast of your own area will strengthen your skills in branching out to new areas.
These eight steps will help you become more aware of what's out there, what interests you, and where that intersection lies. From here, the typical job search process takes over where you need to market yourself for these opportunities, build your network of contacts, interview effectively, follow-up to move the process forward, and negotiate your offer. That's a whole other series of steps, but once you identify possible alternative careers, at least you'll be inspired to make the journey.
Caroline Ceniza-Levine '93BC is a member of the Columbia Career Coaches Network. For more career resources, visit her website, SixFigureStart, career coaching by former Fortune 500 recruiters.
Learn more about the Columbia Career Coaches Network.