by Martha Heller

The Last Word: Switching Industries

Jun 01, 20063 mins

Martha Heller responds to readers’ comments.

The majority of readers who posted online or sent e-mail in response to my column Switch-Hitting: How to Change Industries agreed that with the right effort it is possible—and even advisable—to switch industries. As Scott Hicar, CIO of Maxtor, writes, “An opportunity is created in switching industries where you can represent ‘out of the box’ thinking amongst a team of industry veterans. Many best-in-class IT solutions have some portability that might not have been seen as standard practice in an industry with a different history.”

But others were less convinced of the upside to industry switching. “You can change industries if you want to, but at what cost to your career?” asks Mike Anderson, CIO of Cosmetic Essence. “There is an unspoken ‘birds of a feather flocking together’ philosophy in business that means a retail CEO would rather pick a CIO with retail experience than one without it.

If what truly differentiates one CIO from another is business prowess, then specific industry expertise is imperative for any CIO who wants to sit at the big table with all of the other grown-ups.”

These competing opinions did not surprise me since I encountered them during my column research. What did surprise me was how often readers mentioned recruiters as a major obstacle to switching industries.

“I am interested in making a switch from the technology services side to the client side,” a reader comments.

“I think my relationship-building and project leadership skills are transferable, but I am having a hard time convincing recruiters.”

Recruiters are hired to execute on their clients’ wishes. Any good recruiter will do her best to broaden a client’s horizons about the talent pool for a particular job at the outset. But if a retail CEO—who knows his business better than the recruiter—is set on a retail CIO, the recruiter would be failing in her service delivery if she brought in nonretail candidates.

Getting recruiters to change their criteria is not the real challenge. The real challenge is to get in front of companies in a new industry by other means.

Dust off your Rolodex and see who you know in that field. Brand yourself as an expert in a skill that transcends industries, like supply chain management, and attend related events to network with peers from your target companies. These contacts may refer you to their CEO as a potential CIO candidate.

If the CEO is willing to look outside the box, he will typically ask the recruiter to reach out to you to assess your candidacy. Now you’re halfway over the industry hurdle.