Network Your Way to a Second Career

Gaining knowledge, networking with those currently in your e-mail list, and tapping new resources—combined, these elements pave the way to a second career

Career-changers who have been in the workforce for 10 to 15 years have an important asset when it comes to moving to greener pastures—namely, their personal and professional networks. But as a would-be second-career launcher reviews his or her contacts database—whether that’s an Outlook (MSFT) address book, a list of contacts on LinkedIn, or an old-fashioned Rolodex—they may find that almost everyone they know works in the same industry. That’s not unusual, but it can present a daunting hurdle to a professional seeking to launch a second career. How, after all, do you move into a new arena when everyone you know is here with you in the old one?

But that’s the great thing about networks. Your contacts know people you don’t know, and, even with tools like LinkedIn, Xing (another popular business-oriented social network), and your trusty memory, you just can’t keep track of who your friends know. So when you’re starting your move to a second career and want to make contacts in that realm, the first place to start is your own trusted network of colleagues and friends. And here’s some advice on how to proceed.

Put Yourself Out There

First, you’ll send out a blast e-mail message, using a tool like the Mail Merge feature in Microsoft Word to make sure each recipient receives an individual message rather than a group broadcast. Let your contacts know that you’re pursuing a career change, reminding them of the experiences you’ve accumulated so far, and sharing with them as much concrete information as you can about the new direction you’re taking. And, in the same message, you’ll ask them for help.

Remind them that their assistance could take any of several forms—an introduction to another contact who works in the area you’re heading toward; a recommendation to a professional organization, Web site, or newsletter that is relevant to your chosen second career; or even a tip about an actual job opportunity.

Be sure to tell them that you’d be happy as well to help them out with anything they’re working on. And, if it’s been a while since you connected in person, suggest a face-to-face lunch or coffee when it’s convenient for your friend. Very often, an in-person meeting will give the two of you the chance to dig into the topic of your career shift in more depth than e-mails could, and the perfect contact, resource, or pearl of wisdom may pop out at that moment.

Networking: The Name of the Game

Once you have alerted your friends to your second-career plans, there are a few more steps to take. Update your LinkedIn profile to reflect your new career direction. Browse Yahoo! groups to find e-mail discussion forums devoted to your new, chosen field, and join those groups (and read the conversations!) to learn about current topics and trends in the profession. Conduct a LinkedIn keyword search on a term that is relevant to your new direction—say, “corporate social responsibility”—in order to locate other LinkedIn users who work in the field, and reach out to them via mutual contacts, suggesting a quick phone call.

Networking is all about reciprocity, and even if other networkers never take you up on your offer, you always want to make it clear that your networking outreach is not a one-way proposition.

Find the local chapter of the trade association by Googling (GOOG), for example, “technical writing association, Chicago”—that search will lead you to the Society for Technical Communication, a/k/a STC Chicago. Find the group that focuses on the career you’re moving toward and attend a meeting or two to make contacts and soak up information. When my friend Kate switched from managing marketing at a radio station to leading career development workshops some years ago, she joined every career-development organization she could find, and volunteered as a board member on several of them. “It was tedious at times,” she says, “but it was worth it, because I was able to meet people and build credibility in an area where I hadn’t known a soul.”

Dues and Credibility

Kate did more than her share of typing and distributing meeting minutes, calling sponsors to troll for funds for these groups’ annual confabs, and other board-member duties. In other words, she paid her dues. These tasks, while not central to her quest for a career change, also allowed her to make important contacts and establish herself as a credible player in a field where her past experience was nil.

Your twin goals as a career-changer are building contacts and establishing a base of knowledge about the career realm you’re moving into.

You should expect to spend hours online, attend a number of networking events, and meet a lot of people in a short period. But above all, you’ll want to focus your energy on creating strong relationships with people who can refer you to plum opportunities, and staying in close touch with your growing network to keep them posted on your movements. You never know where your best lead may come from—it may come from the person who cleans your house, or a fellow who dated your sister in high school and now lives near you, or the ex-wife of an ex-boss of yours.

The great thing about a second career is that when people refer you and make introductions, they’re not doing so because of your credibility in your new profession. You don’t have any of that. What you do have is personal credibility and a track record of success in other environments. You have your integrity and your winning personality. Those assets, plus the network you bring to your second-career planning and the network you build along the way, will take you far.

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