People switch careers all the time but there are some who are spot on about their choice. They arrive at their choices after research and conversations with people who know them and the new career. And when they switch careers, they know they must carry with them the knowledge and skills they have garnered in the previous profession.
We spoke to three professionals who have successfully manoeuvred career shifts and asked them what they took from the old job to the new one, and how they managed the move.
Mr Madhavan, 42
Now: Head of research, PRS Legislative Research, New Delhi
Before: Principal and senior strategist, Asia region, Bank of America, Singapore
In his previous job, Madhavan spent days (and some nights) researching international currency movements and writing papers on them. It was a great job, with sky-high bonuses, but Madhavan was bored. “Currency research gets repetitive; at the end of the day there are only so many factors that affect currencies,” he says.
M.R. Madhavan. By Priyanka Parashar/Mint
It was around this time (in 2005) that Madhavan’s Indian Institute of Technology, Madras batchmate C.V. Madhukar, who was completing his master’s in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, US, floated the idea of setting up a research service institute in India. He asked Madhavan to partner with him in setting up PRS Legislative Research (PRS), a centre that would provide background research on legislative and policy issues to members of the Indian Parliament across party lines.
“I had worked in research at ICICI Securities and at Bank of America for about a decade and that actually gave me training on how to do research. And more importantly, it taught me to communicate research in an easy-to-understand format,” says Madhavan, explaining why both he and Madhukar thought he would be able to do this job.
So in September 2005 Madhavan quit his job and moved to Delhi to set up the research cell at PRS. It was a radical career shift, and meant less money. But Madhavan says he has managed to make it work. “It’s never boring now. Today I might be researching the government’s foodgrain management policy, tomorrow we may be evaluating defence expenditures. When Parliament is in session, I have MPs calling me at all hours for information. Sometimes I have as many as three meetings a day—some are at the Constitution Club, others at MPs’ houses.”
Keep your contacts alive: It was staying in touch with Madhukar, an old batchmate, that gave Madhavan the opportunity to switch careers.
Leverage existing strengths: The discipline of clear, well-researched reports for institutional clients while at ICICI Securities and Bank of America stood him in good stead. “I find it easy to cull the essentials of a complicated situation like the government’s subsidy policy, and am able to design an informative note on it that people can understand,” he says.
Keep the research going: Madhavan says he examined research models in the US, like the Congressional Research Service reports, and spoke to friends and colleagues as to whether PRS was workable. “After several conversations with them and with Madhukar, I felt this was something we could do.”
Ardeshir Contractor, 45
Now: Founder CEO, Kiran Energy, Mumbai
Before: Managing director, KPMG India, Mumbai
Ardeshir Contractor has changed careers many times. “I like building new things,” says the CEO of the solar energy company, Kiran Energy. Contractor began his career in project management in a firm that dealt with agriculture, moved on to investment banking and later worked as a consultant. In 2009, he moved from consulting to the alternative energy sector. “Being in a sunrise sector like solar energy as early as 2009 gives my firm the chance to be in the leading position. There is a message from the Centre and state governments that they will support solar power and it is clear to me that, like telecom, solar will come to India in a big way,” he says.
Ardeshir Contractor. By Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Take risks: Moving out of a comfort zone to start from scratch can be difficult. But for Contractor, taking the risk of moving into new industries, from investment banking to consultancy to alternative energy, was easy because he knew his strength is building new things.
Know when to give up: Contractor has in the last 10 years been involved in ventures in legal outsourcing and tried to do something with the education sector as well. But he says that when he realized these ventures were not doing well and he was losing money, he left rather than hanging on and trying to make things work against all odds.
Tap old connections: Often, existing connections can give you a kick-start in your new industry. For Contractor, this has meant being able to partner with the right people to build ventures. At Kiran Energy, he partnered with Alan Rosling, chairman of Griffin Growth Partners Ltd and former executive director of Tata Sons Ltd. “We have known each other for a long time; Alan has been focused on climate change and green projects, and was the perfect partner for this venture,” he says.
Ritu Kochhar, 38
Now: Principal, Korn/Ferry International, Mumbai
Before: Executive director, JP Morgan Chase & Co, Mumbai
When Ritu Kochhar stepped into her second-floor Peninsula Corporate Park office at Korn/Ferry, a talent management company specializing in executive search, talent solutions and leadership development, the first thing that struck her was the silence. The hardest thing to do was getting used to the quiet of this office initially, she says.
Ritu Kochhar. By Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Kochhar, who has spent most of her working life in the hubbub of a trading floor—in Bear Stearns Cos. Inc., New York, US, where she was an economist and researcher for the Indian market—moved to India from the US in 2008. She worked at institutional sales at JP Morgan Chase & Co. but in 2010 she made the shift from investment banking to talent management. “I had been doing the same thing for too long. I realized if I don’t make a shift now I never will,” she says.
Though Kochhar’s relocation to India triggered this career shift, she finds that this line of work is “so much more personal. I enjoy meeting people from different backgrounds and find it fascinating to talk to them, and understand their motivations and decisions.”
Changing locations: Sometimes moving out from one country can also be the catalyst for effecting a greater change in life. Kochhar believes that in her case it was a combination of fatigue at her previous assignments and the move to India that gave her a chance to explore a new career in a totally unrelated field.
Play detective: “My background of equity and economic research at Bear Stearns Cos. Inc. made me a compulsive researcher,” says Kochhar. She says this skill helps her a great deal when she has to find the right talent for her clients. She uses a combination of the Internet, company websites and her network of contacts to gather information about people.
How to make the switch
Here’s a list of things that will help in a successful transition
• Look for opportunities. Subscribe to magazines that talk about smaller , rapidly growing companies. Attend business meets.
• Once you identify a particular industry, try and attend trade shows or industry meets.
• Research the industry; read company websites, news on the companies, and details of the management teams and their backgrounds.
• Meet senior people in the industry, preferably a few levels higher than the level you plan to join at, in order to research prospects.
• Ask open-ended questions like “What do you like about working in the oil and gas industry?” or “What are the prospects for a career in the real estate market?” or ‘If someone wants to work in the aeronautical industry where should he start?”
• Prepare a 60-second elevator speech as to how your existing skills can work in the new industry .
The speech, which you should be able to say verbatim, should also talk about what drew you to the industry like “I know x ( say, wind energy ) today is an industry that is at the forefront of development. It will help India transform. I’d like to be a part of this transformation . I feel the skills that I have picked up in my existing profession can help me be successful.”
• Give yourself time to make the decision. But taking too long like, say, a year doesn’t work either. This means you are taking energy away from your present job.
• Try not to burn bridges at your existing place of work. Try and get colleagues and bosses to come on board with why you need to try something different. Help ensure the transition to your successor is smooth.
• Some recommended reading that deals with these issues : ‘The Power of Purpose’ by Richard Leider, ‘The First 90 Days’ by Michael Watkins.
He is a Singapore-based career coach.
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