Q: I have an MBA and have spent more than a decade in sales and marketing at a major corporation, where I became head of a profit center.
Last year, to broaden my horizon and learn more skills, I joined a startup as head of support units. Human resources, administration, purchasing, and other such departments report to me. I've learned a lot through projects such as setting up new foreign offices and launching major recruiting efforts. After a year, however, I find I miss my old work, where I was in the driver's seat and generating revenues while growing the business.
Unfortunately, I fear my time away from sales is hurting my ability to return to the field. I went for an interview recently and the interviewer kept talking about my current job. Am I now being perceived as a support head only, and will that stymie my getting back into executive-level profit center jobs? If so, should I take the first first sales job I come across? Or wait and then pick up the correct opportunity?
----Name withheld by request
A: First, breathe easy. In sales it's often true that companies prefer fresh experience, says Lew Altman, CEO of the Dynamic Positioning Group, a marketing strategy company in Pleasant Hill, Calif. But, he adds, you've been away from sales and marketing for only a year, and that's hardly enough time for an indelible "support person" mark to appear on your forehead.
Try to eliminate any defensiveness you feel about your adventure in support, so that you refrain from dwelling on it, Altman says. "If you draw attention to support, people are going to cast you as a support person," Altman adds. Instead, look at things this way: You've gained some broadening experience in the past year that will make you a more capable sales/marketing executive. Now, in ways about as subtle as a Times Square billboard, you have to show that you are enthusiastic about a sales job.
How do you do that?
FRONT AND CENTER. Begin with your resume. It has to scream "sales/marketing." That doesn't mean fibbing about your background. It does mean a re-write to make sure you highlight sales and play down support. In your brief work profile at the top of the page, for example, see to it that your sales, not support, skills and accomplishments are given top billing, says Louise Kursmark, president of Best Impression Career Services, a resume and career guidance company in Cincinnati.
Another technique is to re-jigger the order in which you display your jobs on the resume to make sure the reader sees your sales experience first. Many employers prefer resumes that list jobs in reverse chronological order, so that the most recent job is mentioned at the top, the oldest job at the bottom. You can modify this style somewhat, and organize your professional experience in part by function, says Kursmark. First, under a heading of something like sales/marketing experience, would be your listing of sales/marketing jobs, in reverse chronological order. Further down the page, would be your support category.
Your next step is to network with friends, former colleagues, former supervisors, or anyone else who might know of or have a way into a marketing job. Don't put people off by asking them for a job. Instead, try to enlist their assistance in your job hunt, while alerting them to your true interests. Here's an approach suggested by Mark Jaffe, a partner at Wyatt & Jaffe, a Minneapolis executive recruiting company: "Would you be a reference for me? I'm thinking of making a change, and this is what I'm looking for..."
"BUILDING A BRIDGE." Finally, take charge of the job interview. With every question about your support experience bring the conversation back to your sales and marketing expertise, says Wendy S. Enelow, president of Career Masters Institute, a Lynchburg, Va., company that trains professionals in the career services industry. "Anyone in an interview will talk about your current job," says Enelow. "Address that, but bring it back to sales and marketing."
Enelow calls this building a bridge. The interviewer asks you about your time in purchasing? You show how that experience will make you a better sales exec: "Yes, I successfully negotiated a contract to buy a multi-million dollar product or service -- and having sat on the buyer's side of the table will prove invaluable when I sell in the future." Human resources? "Now that I've learned what goes into hiring, I've assembled some new techniques for luring ace salespeople to the sales and marketing department."
Remember, a job search is largely an effort to sell something -- namely, you -- to a customer: your prospective employer. So think of yourself as a marketing challenge, and go out and sell yourself.
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