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Making a Sector Transition

August 2015

Shifting Sectors

Less dramatic than a full career change, transitioning to a different industry or sector affords the opportunity to take on a new challenge, grow professionally and make a difference. Successfully making the leap from say, a financial officer of a medical products manufacturer to one at an online retailer requires certain key qualities. Based upon our assessments and analysis of numerous executives, we have identified four major characteristics that help smooth the way for executives crossing into new career territory.

Functional excellence

Simply put, being good at what you do can translate quite easily across different types of businesses. Financial experience, strategic thinking and technology savvy are all valuable skills regardless of industry. At the same time, executives must be sensitive about how they apply their specialized knowledge in a new organization. For instance, extremely detailed customer data analysis may be perceived as a negative in a less marketing-focused organization. Similarly, information officers entering a company that has been plagued by email and system outages should focus on fixing problems and rebuilding IT’s reputation before introducing ideas to adopt more advanced technology.


Working across different business units or leading cross-functional teams within the same industry or company can provide a solid foundation for a future sector change. International experience also has advantages, exposing individuals to different cultural experiences and requiring them to adapt to and appreciate new ways of thinking. In addition, involvement in joint ventures or acquisitions (and their subsequent melding of organizational cultures) can also help lay the groundwork for an eventual move.


Previous expertise in a different sector can bring much-needed fresh perspective to a new role. However, messages can get lost without the ability to demonstrate strong leadership qualities, such as being able to evangelize and communicate new ideas to different audiences. Assembling and cultivating a strong team is also crucial in effecting change, as well as building credibility. Soft skills such as interpersonal relations and relationship-building are the underpinnings of leadership success.


Approaching a transition with the correct mindset — a blend of both confidence and humility — is critical. We have witnessed firsthand what makes a “best-in-class” executive in the eyes of companies across industries: The ability to learn, adapt and influence in new settings is highly prized. Candidates can use their previous experience to convey their mastery of this three-pronged philosophy. Again, international assignments attest to adaptability; and a track record of promotions showcases experience in adapting and excelling in new roles. General management consulting experience on a range of projects can also speak to an executive’s prowess in shifting gears to new areas. Intellectual curiosity and learning agility help accelerate the process of familiarization, but these need to be coupled with an ability to adapt skills and style to the culture of the company. The respect you will have gained by listening before taking action will serve you well.

Look before leaping

Having a toolkit of these valuable and transferable skills can contribute greatly to success, but only after the implications of a shift have been thoroughly evaluated. Before you make the transition to another sector, here are some questions to consider:

  • Does the company have a clear strategy that I can help support, reform and deliver?
  • What are the common threads between my current sector and the new one?
  • Am I comfortable with how big a stretch it will be to work in this industry?
  • Will the experience contribute positively to my career and position in the marketplace?
  • Is this a one-way ticket? How easy will it be to return to my current industry if this move does not work out?

Ultimately, candidates must weigh not only their skills and fit for the industry, but also the industry’s fit for their skills and goals.