My friend Louise at Nova asked me to write this blog because, as she put it, “your career has been a bit odd”. I wasn’t convinced. I’m a lawyer who went to law school. I worked for a few law firms before moving in-house. So far, not exactly a crazy career trajectory …
But as she’d promised me wine as compensation, I gave it some thought and realised maybe Louise has a wider point. My career path has been around the houses a bit. My first degree was in Film & Literature, which has fairly limited relevance to what I now do. I converted to Law in the UK and worked in competition (anti-trust) law, a discipline that doesn’t exist in Cayman. When I moved to Cayman during the financial crisis, I had to temp for a while before finding a role as a litigator. In 2012 I left law and began to work for DMS as Operations Manager. Four and a half years later, I’m their Global Head of Legal.
I think the message Louise took from this is that taking a chance or making a change in your vocation won’t necessarily cause harm. Changes in your career plan can feel very dramatic and inevitably you’re going to worry about the consequences of getting them wrong. And when I say wrong, I guess what I mean is hard to justify to future employers.
But rather than justifying or defending a non-linear career path, I wonder if we should instead be promoting any peculiarities as being what sets us apart and distinguishes us from the herd? Employers will inevitably notice and interrogate gaps and oddities, so maybe we should make the most of them instead of making excuses? If I’m interviewing a candidate with an unusual or non-linear path, I’m often rooting for them to convince me that the more offbeat aspects of their CV are what will make them an interesting fit for the role. But if a candidate is going to convince me, they must believe it themselves first.
So why might change be a good thing?
You decided to make a U-turn career change: So, you decided to move from accountancy to marketing. To me this indicates bravery, self-awareness and the maturity to identify that you’re no longer bringing your enthusiastic best to your original profession. You’ve also chosen not to be dissuaded by the reasons not to take the risk (a pay cut, more exams or just a giant learning curve), which suggests you’re determined and unafraid of hard work.
You took a temporary break from your profession to do something different but then decided to return: For me, this meant moving to a completely new role, but for others it could mean parental leave, travelling or any other temporary employment gap. Whatever the reason, a different experience can give you new perspective (on an unfamiliar culture or industry), opportunities (time to volunteer or learn a language) or enhanced skills (multi-tasking or better budgeting). On paper, a move from law to operations might seem detrimental to a lawyer’s development, but it increased my understanding of the workings of the business, which meant that when I transitioned back into a legal role, I had a much better commercial understanding of how DMS operated than I would have had if I moved directly into the in-house legal role. Without that interruption, I wouldn’t be in my current role.
Your change looks or feels like a change in title or offers lower pay*: Particularly if you’re senior, making a career U-turn might mean having to “suck it up”, in terms of salary, title or support resources. But if you’ve stuck with it, that tells me that you’re probably not precious, you’re keen to learn, happy to take advice and to roll up your sleeves.
(*salary is of course one of the main reasons people avoid change, and understandably so. But, whilst it’s true that following your passion may result in less pay, my personal experience has been that choosing a job based on culture rather than salary can enhance your earning power. If you’re in the right role and you align with your company’s values, you are more likely to do good work, be valued and paid accordingly.)
I’m not suggesting that you can flip a positivity switch and the world will view an unusual CV through rose-tinted glasses. There will always be employers who struggle with the concept of career change and are looking for cradle to grave employees (although, can you honestly say you want to work for one?). I’m certainly not saying you shouldn’t continue to use the traditional toolkit to enhance your CV (at DMS we really value voluntary work and people who have a passion for learning and development) as these are going to be vital skills whatever your career path.
But I do think that if you let your career freak flag fly and try to treat vocation changes or gaps as examples of what makes you a more interesting and developed candidate, you’ll have an easier road to success. My trajectory proves that some diversity in a career path can sometimes work to your advantage when you find the right employer. Identify and promote whatever it is that makes you unique rather than excusing it.