Why it’s not a disaster if you have a ‘non-traditional’ career path

Many leaders have what I would call a traditional career path. If we take the world of Human Resources this may have been an HR training scheme rotating around a number of areas, into an HR Advisor role, working up to HR Manager leading a team, then Head of HR and HR Director.

It is likely this was via a couple of specialisms like time in a reward, training or recruitment role. (If you are a specialist like me, it may have been the other way round, progression in resourcing and talent roles and being ‘encouraged’ into a generalist HR Business Partner role because it was ‘good for your development’.)

You will likely also have been exposed to a range of client groups, for example partnering head office functions as well as operations.

In some of the more forward-thinking commercial businesses you may have done a stint ‘in the business’ running an operational region or a sales team; something totally different to HR so you experience the world of those you are partnering first-hand.

The same type of traditional route could apply for leaders in finance, marketing etc.

But what if you are a generalist? Perhaps you come from one of the big blue chips that expose their high potential individuals to as many areas as possible – sales, marketing, digital, operations, different countries and wide-ranging projects. You were encouraged to broaden your commercial experience and go where was needed, rather than ever finding your niche or developing deep expertise in one function. This is great for internal progression, development and networking within that business.

It is not so great when you hit the external market years later and don’t ‘fit neatly in a box’. Yes, you have been an HR Director, but also Head of Germany, you led the Sales Team and the acquisition of a company in the US, then sidestepped into Digital.

What do you do if you are new to the external market after a long time in one business where you have been a broad generalist leader?

Here are 8 steps for managing your job search when it isn’t clear to others where you fit:

1. Start by understanding YOU.

  • Identify your strengths (not just the things you can do, which in your case is likely a lot of things, but the things that energise you and where you love spending your time.)
  • Work back through your career so far and pinpoint the projects and activities where you have been happiest and at your best. What do these things have in common?
  • Reflect on your values and what really matters to you. Where do you want to be focusing?

2. Work out what you want to do next. What is your perfect next step? What are your desirables and your essentials?

3. Own your path! Tell your story. Be loud and proud. Make your journey your USP and don’t hide from it. Focus on your breadth, your commerciality, your adaptability, your ability to learn and your bravery. Talk about your strengths and the threads that link your different career highs.

4. Articulate it clearly; on your LinkedIn Profile, in your Elevator Pitch, when talking to your network.

5. Align your CV to it. Draw out your most relevant achievements for the direction you want to go in next. Take time to craft it so it really captures you and what you bring.

6. If you find that recruiters you talk to struggle to ‘fit you in a box’, they are not the right one for you. Ask people in your network who have come from a similar background who they have found helpful. And when you find an awesome head-hunter, cherish them! Recommend them and keep in touch with them.

7. Focus on using your network to look for roles. Talk to other former colleagues who have moved on and find out what has worked for them. Ask them for introductions. Look at the sorts of organisations they have moved to.

8. Get a coach to support you through this change. There are lots of fabulous ones out there.

It is more common than you might think to have a ‘non-typical’ career journey, but it is rare for people to use it as a positive. Stand out! Own your path.

My earlier blog shares tips on how LinkedIn can help you when you are looking for a new role.

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