Article: Is switching industries a good career move?

Life @ Work

Is switching industries a good career move?

In this exclusive interview with People Matters, Shiv Shivakumar Group Exec. President - Corporate Strategy & Business Development, Aditya Birla Group and author of the bestselling book - The Right Choice: Resolving 10 Career Dilemmas for Extraordinary Success, shares some insights on the dilemma of switching industries in a career.
Is switching industries a good career move?

When it comes to building a career, one can go wrong in many ways. While some decisions you make might prove to be the best ones and help you achieve your dreams, some might take you back to where you started. Hence, it is important to make the right choices. And if someone can help you do that, then there is no looking back. 

Shiv Shivakumar, Group Exec. President - Corporate Strategy & Business Development, Aditya Birla Group recently released his book - The Right Choice: Resolving 10 Career Dilemmas for Extraordinary Success which delves deep into ten frequently faced dilemmas in a person's career. The book today has become a bestseller in no time at all as it touches upon everything we need to know when it comes to choosing the right path in our careers. 

Shivakumar shares his wisdom and experiences from his long and illustrious career as one of India Inc's longest-serving CEOs. In his trademark straightforward and lucid style, he shares lessons and learnings on each of the ten dilemmas. The book also contains insights and perspectives from twenty-four of the best and brightest professionals. A successful career is not a straight line; it has many plateaus where you are faced with difficult choices. Practical and inspiring, The Right Choice will help you navigate the many twists and turns in making the right choice, and winning, in your career.

In this exclusive interview, Shivakumar shares some insights on the dilemma of switching industries in a career and answers some questions around how one can deal with it and make the best out of it. 

Here are the excerpts from the interview. 

How sensible is the decision to switch industries in one’s career? Isn’t it a big risk, especially when you have been in a certain industry for the major part of your life?

I think people move functions or industries in order to realize their potential. Risk and opportunity are two sides of the same coin. If you look at it, there are many common things across industries, like digitization, people management, customer management. Many of these capabilities are applicable  in every industry, maybe with modifications.

Every industry has its nuances and thumb rules and ways of working. However, I believe good managers bring a fresh perspective to every industry they operate in, irrespective of which industry they come from.

Ever since India liberalized in 1991, new industries have come up. New industries go and source talent from legacy industries and that's a big reason for industry movement. The telecom, hospitality, eCommerce sectors are good examples where these new industries have got talent from other industries.

What are some of the key reasons for any individual to think of switching industries during his/her career span? Why should one take this bold step?

I can think of three reasons amongst many:

  1. I think when learning in an industry plateaus, then managers look out.
  2. If the industry is small and you have worked for one of the top three companies in the industry, then you don’t feel like working for anyone else in that industry and hence, you move out.
  3. I think the challenge to test one’s skill set and capabilities in a new industry is another reason.

What are the challenges that one can encounter when shifting industries?

The biggest challenge is not learning about the new industry and trying to blindly apply what one learnt in the previous industry. This is a common sin.

Acceptability is crucial and hence, one has to go and meet the key players in the new industry, get to know the industry bodies, etc. Understanding the new ecosystem and the value drivers in the industry is also important.

Spend time to understand the business requirements and talent in the industry before you make judgements on people vs. your old industry.

Are internal-function moves better than industry change? 

It is good, if the company is large enough and the internal functional move takes you to your desired career point. Also, you must move to functions which add value to your capability base. The mistake people make is that they take an internal move to a function like sales/marketing/customer management/advertising, they like it and want to stay there. They don’t realize that they are now competing for future roles with thoroughbred folks who are specialists in that function and they will possibly never match up for crunch roles without serious effort.

Internal-function moves and industry changes are for different reasons and you should be sure about what you are looking for in the change. 

Could you highlight some advantages as well as disadvantages of an industry move?

Advantages are new challenges, new learnings, new ecosystems and the ability to test yourself. It can help you re-energize in your career.

Disadvantages are that if it doesn’t go well, then there is not much of a safety net. You will have to go back to your old industry in many cases and people might not give you another chance. This is true especially in senior roles.

I think it’s good for the industry because there is cross fertilization of ideas from one industry to another. Almost every industry has gained from branding expertise which came in from FMCG. Also, the banking sector gained a lot from retail development.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of making this switch? How can one deal with the dilemma? 

I think you need to be adaptable and open to unlearn and learn again irrespective of your years of experience if you want to succeed. 

I would say do your homework thoroughly, list out reasons why the move is important for you and also put down how things might look a few years from now if things worked out well and if things didn’t go well. Be prepared for great success, average success and failure, having that thinking will help realize if things have worked out or not.

What are some of the things one must consider while making a cross-industry move? What are those essential skills and attributes needed?

I think a few things to consider are: transferability of skills, the industry characteristics, and your readiness for the pace of that industry, be it fast or slow. Also, you need to ask if the industry is valued by other industries and is working in this new industry a pathway to a good future role.

Can you share some successful industry transition stories?

There are many good examples. Manoj Kohli moved both function and industry, he started in HR and in DCM,  later he led Airtel and is now with SoftBank, all very different industries. Kirthiga Reddy who was in R&D in Motorola, then moved to sales and marketing and then became CEO of Facebook India and is  working for SoftBank. Globally, Lou Gerstner went from American Express and Nabisco to run IBM, Indra Nooyi from Consulting to General management, Nandan Nilekani from private enterprise to the government, and Prakash Tandon, ex -Chairman of HUL moved to State Trading Corporation.


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Topics: Life @ Work, #Career

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