Seven years ago, I began my career underemployed on an inpatient mental health and addiction unit making $13/hour in a job that required a four-year degree and a nursing assistant certification.
Changing careers is hard. Once underemployed, I had limited success applying to new jobs online until I started building engagement outside of work. After three years in that role, and a measly $2.50/hour raise spread out over those three years, I began to design a new way forward.
After leaving mental health four years ago, I’ve transitioned from food service to conference planning to economic development to workforce development to talent acquisition, where I’m now an executive recruiter working with values-driven leaders across the country. Yeah, I’ve been busy.
I serve on local boards, became a philanthropist, helped start a local partnership to catalyze social justice work in Phoenix, and I’ve successfully transitioned from surviving to thriving.
The five steps below explain how I engineered and continuously improved my career pivots over the past four years. I’ve transitioned from underemployment to gainful employment and landed in a role where my basic need to make the world a better place is supported.
1. Gather real-world intel
Conceptualize where you want to go and begin to sketch it out. After feeling underutilized in my first job post-college, I started thinking more in-depth about the impact I wanted to have and if I could achieve that impact in my current position.
Don’t expect to have all of the answers at the beginning, I sure didn’t. If you told me four years ago that I’d be working for a B Corp, I would have asked you, “what’s a B Corp?” Your sketch will continue to evolve as you begin to gather more information and may not contain a specific title or organization.
I started by taking a few classes, but quickly realized I needed timely real-world information about what careers options were out there so I searched for experiential learning opportunities.
Public administration piqued my interest, so I participated in my city’s “citizen academy” program to learn more about how our local government worked and meet the local players. I wanted to learn more about diversity and inclusion work, so I utilized LinkedIn to connect with recruiters and ask for a 30-minute conversation to learn more about the day to day work involved in diversity recruiting.
I came across an ad for a social impact and corporate responsibility conference in Seattle, so I decided to attend. The knowledge and connections I made at the conference (scholarship and volunteer opportunities to attend at discounted rates are often available) were pivotal to my current B Corp employment.
After my experience at the conference, I took a step back in the form of an unpaid internship in Oakland. I took out a loan to support myself while gaining work experience that I could leverage to start building a career.
In hindsight, I wish I gained this knowledge through a paid opportunity and I’m savvier at identifying those opportunities now, but taking the risk to move to Oakland was instrumental in shattering the glass ceiling that my mind had unconsciously constructed. The time I spent in Oakland connected me to my people and my purpose.
Taking a bit of uncomfortable risk — from financial to social — may be necessary to help you both understand and get to where you want to go.
2. Build a functional resume
Rework your standard resume into a functional resume to highlight experience that is transferable to your target position.
If recruiters have to puzzle together alignment between previous work and the field you’re hoping to move into that may be why you feel pigeon-holed into a specific type of work. A functional resume should make it easy for a recruiter to see that you have translatable skills.
Having spent three years in mental health and six months in an internship, my traditional resume looked like I lacked experience. My functional resume highlighted the communication skills (both written and verbal), project management, and content creation skills I built instead of the employer names and titles.
While unemployed, I worked with a nonprofit helping place young professionals in nonprofit roles. The program coordinators encouraged me to change my resume from functional to traditional. Given the success I saw converting cold applications to first-round interviews after submitting my functional resume, that was bad advice.
My functional resume got me interviews at organizations like B Lab, Code2040, Kapor Center for Social Impact, and Stanford Graduate School of Business.
3. Build relationships (authentically)
Three years ago, I didn’t know I had a “network”. Now, I recognize the impact authentic relationships have in my daily work and on my mental health. Every success that I will achieve moving forward (these goals are currently written on paper on my fridge!) is dependent on relationships that I’ve already built or will build in the future.
The first career fair I visited was at the conference I mentioned earlier and it was a disaster. Starry-eyed and optimistic, I approached the recruiter from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. I shook her hand, said hello, and after hello she just looked at me blankly. I didn’t realize then that she was waiting for me to deliver my elevator pitch so she could decide if I was special or not.
I didn’t have a pitch, so I said something about admiring the organization’s work and went on my way red-faced and embarrassed. Since that experience, I’ve been intentional about sitting in the front row, raising my hand to ask the first question at a public event, waiting in line to introduce myself to speakers at conferences, and following up on LinkedIn with a personal note after an event.
Job referrals are a great way to get in the door for a career opportunity, but unfortunately, women and people of color don’t get as many as white men. According to recent data from PayScale, “white women are 12 percent less likely, men of color are 26 percent less likely, and women of color are 35 percent less likely to receive a job referral.”
People of color are often underestimated and undernetworked. I’m actively working against this by unapologetically showing up to spaces I don’t think I belong in and bringing others with me.
Connections I’ve made through attending events — from sustainability conferences to a policy fellowship at a market-oriented think tank in D.C. — led to an internship in Oakland, spending two weeks in Costa Rica building solar panels, and a referral for an interview with Google self-driving car spinoff, Waymo.
4. Leverage the community (authentically)
Community work can be the supplemental bridge between where you are and where you want to go. If you want to have big impact, start by how you show up in the community.
Realizing that you can start doing the work that you want to do, without a complimentary job title attached, is step one. Having the confidence and audacity to take on work independent from an employer, is step two. For me, this came with practice. I continue to step further outside of my comfort zone and into my power every day.
Getting involved at a deeper level will probably take both time and money. However, I’m willing to bet that the change you’ll drive, the relationships you’ll build, and the knowledge you’ll gain will be well worth the effort.
I’ve participated in traditional volunteering, attended events put on by local professional groups, joined local boards, started paying into a local giving circle, signed up for a citizen committee, canvassed for a local political candidate, and started plugging Phoenix into national conversations that I’m interested in.
5. Tell your story
Let people know what you’re involved in and what you’re interested in accomplishing. Growing up, I developed a prideful independence that often prevents me from asking for help or leveraging the relationships around me. I now understand the power of human connection and see the good that can come from investing in the community I live in.
Last year, I attended a luncheon where we went around the room introducing ourselves. I went first and quickly gave my name and employer. As other participants gave their introductions, they listed off multiple groups and projects they were a part of.
How are people going to know about the many other activities you’re engaged in if you don’t tell them? Tell people what you care about and where your energy is invested. Sharing more of your story when you introduce yourself will help others remember you and quickly identify points on commonality.
What are some tips you’ve used to successfully make a career pivot? Please share in the comments.
Katelyn Harris Lange is a current leadership search specialist (executive recruiter) with Y Scouts working to reorient hiring around values and fulfillment. She is a philanthropist involved in the African-American Women’s Giving and Empowerment Circle and the current Diversity and Inclusion Director with Net Impact Phoenix Professionals.