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Challenges of moving sectors for HR Professionals - Solutions from Sheena Macdonald

Posted by Akhil Yerneni

Having spoken with candidates and clients over the past couple of weeks, one of the pervasive topics was the challenges of moving sector within HR. I wanted to get a better insight into this matter and so I asked for the advice of a few senior HR professionals who we work with, who have successfully navigated multiple sector moves within their extensive HR careers

It seems that on the candidate side, the concern tends to be that they feel ‘pigeonholed’ and must follow the work, rather than be able to work in a variety of sectors and diversify their experience. On the client side, the view may be that they want candidates who are able to hit the ground running, who understand the challenges of the sector, and despite having empathy for the candidate’s position, the clients have their business needs to consider. 

Here, I speak with Sheena Macdonald – previous Global Head of Talent Management at British Council, Current HR Interim/Consultant - to get her thoughts on how to best navigate a move in the HR sector.

How have you managed to move sector effectively? Do you have useful tips for application or interview?

Great questions. I’ve worked in retail, travel, mining, local government, charity/third sector & most recently a membership organisation. My top tip for those who want to diversify their experience (whether to have a wider range of future opportunities available or for learning and professional growth or both) is to use interim assignments to build your experience. 

I’ve found that, depending on how specialised the skills needed are, the employer’s criteria can be a bit different than with a perm role. If you are immediately available, have at least 75% of what they need, are willing to operate outside your comfort zone for the rest, and they perceive you to be a good fit for their culture & immediate team, there is a chance that you will be able to pick up interesting and different work. 

Having a mix of perm & contract assignments has helped me to broaden my experience, even though it would probably have been more psychologically comfortable and financially predictable to go for long term perm roles in the sector I started off in. Obviously, not everyone is able to leave the safety of a job to up and do this but if you are between roles, interim could be an option you wouldn’t normally consider. If so, your application and interview need to really sell the transferability of your skills, as you may be up against people already working in that sector, and employers are understandably inclined to minimise the perceived risk of things not working out, by sticking to what they know or what has worked in the past.

What I have always done in this situation is pick out the aspects of my skills & experience which would not only be a strong fit for the role but could give me an advantage over people already in that sector. The obvious one is promoting commercial and business skills gained in the private sector, for public sector roles where other candidates may not be able to offer this. I've also tried to make full use of my network (Linkedin is helpful here) by talking to people I know (or even approaching connections of connections) about what it’s like to work in that organisation/sector, what advice they would give someone seeking to move into it, how could your kind of experience be an advantage etc. You just won’t know this unless you ask, as we all suffer from various stereotyped notions.

Do you have any advice for candidates who feel ‘pigeonholed’?

Make sure your CV/LinkedIn profile (including what you post about, like and share) highlights your transferable skills/experiences/credentials/interests so that you are not defined purely by the organisation or sector that you work in (and the preconceptions that may go with it).

Go to events and meet people from other sectors, read widely so that you can ’talk the talk’ and genuinely know what the big issues are. It is hard to talk persuasively in an interview about the value you could bring to this new environment if all you have done is a little bit of research just beforehand. 

There is a stereotype that public to private sector movers would struggle to adapt to the pace of work and in turn, that private sector to public movers would feel frustrated with the red tape, bureaucracy and different nature of stakeholders. What is your experience of this?

Although there's some truth in these stereotypes, I have found them misleading. It depends on what kind of public or private sector organisation you find yourself in, at what stage in its development it is, under what kind of leadership, even how large it is. I have seen very bureaucratic private sector organisations and fast-paced, decisive public sector organisations. I would urge candidates to keep an open mind. If clients have a perception that a public sector candidate would struggle to adapt to the pace of their private sector organisation, there is a lot that a candidate can do to counter this, using examples which demonstrate pace and tangible outcomes, asking great business questions if interviewed 

What change would you like to see from a client perspective – whether it is what you’d like to see from potential employers or what you as an employer would like to see in a candidate wanting to move sectors?

I've always seen a great temptation among hiring managers to use past sector/employer experience as a shorthand for how easily the candidate would ‘fit in’ and be effective. This is a form of unconscious bias that I fear legislation will never reach! A candidate seeking to move sectors will probably have to offer something compelling to overcome this. It could be (as mentioned above) immediate availability along with a strong if not perfect fit. It could be a very well-articulated case for why the skills they have are not only transferable but offer an advantage over the more familiar sector skill set. 

When announcing a new hire, a hiring manager will normally be expected to give some details about their professional background (the more senior, the more this is the case). A more risk-averse manager may, therefore, gravitate towards 'no-brainer' candidates whose past CV makes them appear a 100% safe bet, even if they don’t turn out to be. A smart manager (assuming they have a decent candidate field) will choose someone who can bring not only what’s needed but maybe something new. In this situation, the candidate could help them understand what this is - maybe even give them the language to express it. Then, of course, they must perform well and justify the relative risk that the hiring manager may have taken! A cross-sector hiring fail could reduce future confidence, and at worst, turn into an organisational cautionary tale - which will only make the situation worse.

I hope the above has offered some guidance and reassurance to HR Professionals in this position, and perhaps offered a new perspective for employers. I look forward to sharing more insights in this series.

For more information about this article, or to speak to Akhil about your recruiting needs or HR jobs in London or Nationwide, contact him on 02072696350 or 



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