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Nine tips for project professionals when changing sector

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Conversation 01

The upcoming summer edition of Project journal includes a deep-dive feature on the topic of ‘sector shifters’ – project professionals who’ve jumped from one sector to another and gained a great deal from the experience.

With the working world currently undergoing fundamental upheaval, more project managers may be considering – or facing – such a switch. So, as part of our research for the journal article, we asked our project and programme managers what advice they would give to others considering shifting sectors. Here are our nine top picks:

  1. Get stuck in

Rather than waiting for your manager to make introductions, embrace being the newbie for a few weeks. “When I go to a new organisation, I know I’m going to have to completely immerse myself in conversation from day one,” says Lexie Smith, senior project manager at Zurich Insurance. “If you’re a good project manager, with strong communication skills, go out there, or pick up the phone, and talk to people.”

  1. Know your worth

Remember that you’re not the only one who stands to gain from your move; the new organisation and sector will be benefiting from your fresh perspective. So, keep that front of mind, not your lack of experience. “Moving sectors, you’ll get a lot of people who’ll say no,” says Smith. “Lots of people said I didn’t have enough experience to switch from permanent to contract, for example. That’s rubbish. If you want to have a go, get out there.”

  1. Get a mentor

Having someone to bounce off, to encourage you, and to walk you through the process, will help alleviate any thoughts of inadequacy. “Going into something new can be a little overwhelming at times,” says Kitty Ho, programme manager at Faithful + Gould. “Having someone to help me navigate through everything has really been beneficial. If you sometimes doubt your capabilities, it’s good to have those people you can reach out to.”

  1. Go easy on yourself

It can be hard if you start in a new sector and you don’t get things right straight away. But making mistakes is all part of the process – and the best way to learn. “Have that compassion for yourself and tell yourself that it’s OK,” says Ho. “Just make sure you take the lessons from it and go from there. Don’t let the fear stop you from being yourself and doing what you need to do. You’ll figure it out somehow.”

  1. Hold on to your contacts

You may be jumping into a new sector alone, but that really shouldn’t mean severing ties from your past. Invest in those old relationships. Remaining connected to that collective expertise will serve you well as you face new challenges. “It’s important to have professional networks that go beyond your sector,” says Jacob Cooper, programme manager at Network Rail. “That way, you can call out to people in other areas to see how they’ve overcome challenges.”

  1. Trust your toolkit

Project managers have a huge range of valuable skills, from communication to conflict management. And when shifting sectors, you’ll bring all these with you. “It’s just a matter of building on that toolkit,” says Niru Thiyagan, head of project portfolio management at Digital Fineprint. “You can just put things in and take things out, no matter the sector. As long as you can manage stakeholders, work with people and manage change, shifting sectors is really a no-brainer.”

  1. Keep listening

Remember, you don’t have to achieve everything single-handedly. The people around you may have been working in that sector a long time, so they’ll have all the expertise you need. Make sure you’re engaging with everyone on the team, your line manager and senior management, and that you’ve got everyone’s buy-in,” says Thiyagan. “Get their input, so you never reach the point where it goes completely, horribly wrong.”

  1. Look before you leap…

Look up the organisation, as well as the latest developments in the sector, online. This will give you a gauge of how you can apply your toolkit before you even start. “I didn’t know about insurance tech before I moved, but I did research it,” says Thiyagan. “Really looking at the organisation on LinkedIn, for example, you can see what they’re up to at the moment, and thus translate everything you’ve been doing in terms of skills and experience, and align it to what they’re doing or hoping to do.”

  1. … But make the leap anyway

The only way to truly know if you’re capable of shifting sectors, and to know what it’s like, is to cross that line and try it for yourself. In the very worst-case scenario, you’ll end up with a bad experience – and those are very often the way we learn best. And what’s the alternative? To remain static, miss opportunities, and be left wrestling with self-doubt and imagined limitations? That challenge is looking more appealing already…


A longer feature exploring ‘sector shifters’ will appear in the summer 2021 edition of APM’s Project journal, an exclusive benefit for APM members.


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