Executive Leadership Across Industries: Making the Switch at the C Level Print E-mail

by Alesia Benedict, CPRW, JCTC

A Bureau of Labor Statistics survey conducted over a span of twenty years of workers born between the years 1957 and 1964 and found that these younger boomers held an average of 9.6 jobs from ages 18 to 36. This study was one of the few longitudinal studies conducted by the BLS on number of jobs held over a lifetime. The study confirms what most Americans already knew – their careers are following paths more akin to those of an ATV rather than the straight line, train-like paths of the careers of their parents. Gone are the days of thirty years with one company and a gold watch at retirement. And this trend isn’t necessarily limited to those still in the hard-driving years of their thirties.

A study conducted by Korn/Ferry International in October found that 62 percent of executives found it “highly likely” that they would make a major career change before retirement. Citing lack of employer loyalty, increased mobility, and decreased tenure as factors, executives are as likely to be looking for greener pastures as any other worker. Opportunities to learn new industries and gain additional knowledge are also key factors for executives to be joining the job search ranks.

Ean Rankin, Chief Executive Officer of the Austin Cancer Center in Austin, Texas is an executive who jumped industries in search of new opportunities to expand his knowledge. Rankin had spent twenty years steadily climbing the career ladder in sales and marketing in the telecommunications/IT industry, working with both industry giants and small start-ups. He was involved in cutting edge technology development, including key innovations in the early days of ARPANET, forerunner of what is now the Internet.

In 2003, Rankin, a Vice President in a five-year-old high tech company in Austin, was a victim of a lay-off after the company was acquired by a larger competitor. While decompressing after the lay-off, a network contact mentioned that Austin Cancer Center was seeking a CEO. Interested in moving away from the telecom/IT industry and into new challenges, the health care industry was an intriguing new field of endeavor for him. Rankin met with the board and was hired almost immediately.

The jump from sales of IT services to services of healthcare was not as precipitous as it would seem. Both industries are highly competitive and success in both industries is predicated on delivery of top-notch services that are time-critical, and with keen attention to delivery of excellent customer service. The job of the CEO is to make sure the business succeeds, is profitable, and grows. Rankin’s background in sales and executive management was exactly what this privately owned company needed in a leader.

“What I didn’t expect in this industry, and what is different from IT services, was the absolute cutthroat attitude of the insurance companies,” stated Rankin when asked about what he has found to be different from his past experience. “The bureaucracy, obfuscation, and incompetence among the insurance carriers are unbelievable. And of course, that adds to cost.”

Managing costs is something Rankin has had plenty of experience in having worked in two venture-capital-funded companies in the past ten years. Delivery of personal customer service is also a benchmark of his career.

“Customer service has always been a key issue I’ve paid attention to in my career in IT,” says Rankin, “In healthcare, customer service, training of personnel, and outstanding delivery of services are vital. Competition for patients is heavier than any competition in the IT industry. If you don’t treat your patients/customers well, they will go elsewhere. And if you don’t have the most cutting-edge treatments available, you lose the race.”

Keeping the company at the forefront in technology is a career trait that helped Rankin cross the bridge between the IT and healthcare industries. It is important for executives who are looking for new opportunities in different industries to look at what they have in their career experience portfolios and be able to present those skills in the context of the new industry to prospective employers. Leadership skills span industries so executives should concentrate on effectively communicating how they would lead in the new industry using skills learned in the old.

An executive at the highest level of management should be able to articulate how they would manage problems that arise in the new industry using proven leadership techniques. By this same token, the resume must speak in terms of the new industry and not loiter on the specifics of the old. If a COO in a mortgage services company wants to change industries to pharmaceuticals, the resume of that individual needs to address the operational needs that plague the pharmaceutical industry. The job seeker must be knowledgeable about arising issues in the target industry and be prepared to discuss management scenarios with potential employers.

Executive job seekers should also leverage their maturity in seeking a new position. Their years of management can be considered a valuable commodity to wise employers who need leaders at the helm who have “been there, done that” and won’t lose their composure when the going gets tough. Highlighting a job seeker’s ability to use years of hindsight to the benefit of foresight can open doors in new industries. The Korn/Ferry International study found that eight-four percent of respondents reported that “street smarts” is more important in business than formal education or advanced degrees. Street smarts can only be learned from experience.

Most executives realize that there are few truly unique problems or challenges in business; they simply vary by size or impact. Knowing ahead of time how to handle these issues by applying lessons learned from the past, regardless of industry, can be very valuable to the job search efforts of an executive seeking an industry change. Being able to articulate these lessons learned, and apply them to new scenarios in both the resume and the interview is priceless in winning the new job.

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“Number of Jobs Held, Labor Market Activity, and Earnings Growth Among Younger Baby Boomers: Results from More than Two Decades of a Longitudinal Study.” Bureau of Labor Statistics. September, 2004.

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