Career Development—Moving to a New Market Sector

Transcript

Narrator

The future of project management is changing fast. On Projectified with PMI, we’ll help you stay on top of the trends and see what’s really ahead for the profession—and your career.

For an easy way to stay up to date on Projectified with PMI, go to iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play music or PMI.org/podcast.

Stephen W. Maye

Hello, I'm Stephen Maye, and this is Projectified with PMI. I'm here with my co-host, Tegan Jones, and in this episode we're talking about project management career paths that span multiple sectors.

With all of the change that’s happening in the marketplace, there are a lot of new job opportunities out there. And that’s got a lot of project and program managers wondering what it takes to jump from one sector to another. So we’ve got a few guests lined up who’ve made the leap and can discuss the hows and the whys of this type of major career move.

Tegan Jones

And so many people are opting for this type of pivot right now. I saw a recent LinkedIn survey that said that more than 40 percent of professionals in the U.S. are interested in moving to a job where they fulfill a different function or are working in a different industry altogether. 

And of those who do ultimately change jobs, half of them do switch to a new sector.

Stephen W. Maye

Those numbers are certainly higher than I would have guessed. When these people make that move, is everyone flocking toward the same set of sectors, or is it more dependent on their skill set or geography? 

Tegan Jones

You know, that’s a really good question. It does depend a bit on geography, as does everything. But there are definitely a few leading sectors that are creating the most job opportunities globally. 

According to PMI’s Project Management Job Growth and Talent Gap report, there are actually three top sectors that will create the most job openings between 2017 and 2027. First is manufacturing and construction, where we’ll see nearly 10 million new jobs by the end of that decade. Following that is information services and publishing, and finance and insurance—each of which should add about 5 million jobs in that time. And just to reiterate, these are all specifically project-related job openings, so this is really relevant for project and program managers.

Stephen W. Maye

In a lot of ways, people who work in project management are much better suited to switch sectors than people in other types of roles. And that’s because so many of the skills are highly transferrable. Whether it’s technical skills or soft skills, the tools and techniques you use to manage projects really do apply across industries.

And that’s something that we’ll hear a bit more about from Sarina Arcari, who is the vice president in charge of the EPMO at Amtrak. Amtrak is the national railroad in the U.S., but Sarina actually built her career in healthcare before switching sectors to take on this executive-level position. 

So she’ll talk about what that process looked like, and what she’s learned since the move a little later in the show. 

Tegan Jones

I also had the chance to talk to Narasimha Acharya, who is an assistant director for Ernst & Young based outside of Atlanta, Georgia in the U.S. He’s going to discuss how his experience working in different sectors helped him land his current role.

Stephen W. Maye

But we’re going to start with Phil Pavitt, who is currently the consultant executive vice president of business transformation for Safelite AutoGlass. Before this position, however, Phil held leadership roles in public sector, retail, healthcare and finance organizations.

So let’s hear what he has to say about the skills you need to succeed in a new sector.

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Phil Pavitt

I think the first thing you really get to know, as you have the experience across sectors, in fact, is the problems they face—and the problems you’re hopefully there to resolve—are much more similar than they are separate.

What company does not have a desire to extract more from their digital process? What company does not have problems with mapping and understanding their processes, and trying to get efficiency from them? What organization does not have licensing issues? What organization does not have an understanding of how to lead change? Everybody has network issues. Everybody has comms issues. Everybody has talent issues, for example. So there’s actually more common across sectors than there are differences.

I think the biggest challenge, actually, is the culture. How do they do business? How do you effect change? Because, if it was easy to do change, they’d have already done it. But how do I bring the level of change I deliver into that culture? You can’t just turn up and say, “Well, it’s this way or the highway.” You’ve got to almost use or work with the culture, to get what you know they need to have.

But you have in your toolset a playbook. And then you adapt it to the culture and the circumstances and challenges you face. But you are going through, to a degree, a playbook. You know what you’re going to do week one, you know what you’re going to do week ten, you know what you’re going to do, you know, week whatever. You’ve kind of worked out the process and the structure to deliver. So, the playbook is important.

On that point, I also think you need to find good partners, which could be third parties, companies, could be individuals. So you can say, “I’ve arrived here. I don’t know about this. Educate me. Teach me. Show me. Help me. Come and work for me.”

I think you’ve got to learn, a strong skill is to learn how to be a business, and in my case, technology and process, broker. So it’s actually understanding what the business wants, what the technology wants, and how you combine those things together to get the right answer. I think that’s absolutely critical.

Every move is a huge risk, because you don’t know the sector. You don’t know the organization necessarily. But to be honest with you I think switching from private sector to public sector, and then back again to private sector, that first switch into public sector, lower government and central government, that was huge. People told me it was a mistake. People told me your style won’t work in central government. The speed you want to do things and you’re known for won’t work in central government.

All of it turned out to be rubbish. I understood the culture. I understood the context. I modified what I do and how I do it, and had huge success in those places. But that was a risk. There was the odd day you just think, “Good grief, I’m not sure this is the right thing to do.” Looking back, it was fantastic. Best thing I ever did for me.

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Stephen W. Maye

You know, it’s always satisfying to hear stories about people proving the naysayers wrong. But is there anything to this argument? When do you actually think it’s a bad idea to make this kind of career move?

Tegan Jones

Well, I think it comes down to how frequently you’re changing jobs. I did some research, and I found a survey from a job site called Indeed, which looked at how employers in Australia view what they call “job hopping.” And according to that survey, more than three quarters of employers said that they decided not to interview a candidate because they had a history of short-term positions.

Stephen W. Maye

Short-term of course is pretty vague and can mean a lot of different things. Did the survey really define that?

Tegan Jones

Yeah, they did. They defined a “job hopper” as someone who held a position for seven months or less on at least three different occasions. So it was pretty specific. But this was also a survey of the professional workforce in general, so it might not translate 100 percent for people who work in project management. You know, many projects are just naturally short-term.

Stephen W. Maye

Yeah, conventional wisdom has certainly conditioned us to think of a series of short gigs as being a red flag, but we’ve been hearing for a while about the gig economy and this uptick in temporary and short-term assignments.

Tegan Jones

And that brings us to our next guest. Narasimha Acharya, who’s the assistant director in the client technology practice at Ernst & Young, says cross-sector experience can really help set candidates apart in the current job market. He had some great advice to help people kind of navigate the hiring process and showcase their skills. So let’s go to that now.

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Narasimha Acharya

So, in my opinion, there are certainly a few advantages people like me or project managers who have worked or have experience in multiple sectors, which makes them really attractive candidates in the job market. Their diverse experience in multiple sectors make them really good candidates, attractive candidates, to organizations who are looking for flexible and adaptive workers for some temporary assignments in the new gig economy that we have.

Tegan Jones

That’s Narasimha Acharya. Over the last 20 years, his career has carried him across sectors, from telecom to retail to financial services. He says the business acumen and market awareness he’s developed through these transitions is part of what made him the perfect candidate for his current role at Ernst & Young, also known as EY.

Narasimha Acharya

I believe the business and technical knowledge that I have gained working in these different sectors, and the opportunities that I’ve had to build a broad professional network across these sectors, these have definitely helped me become a successful project manager and a project leader in my career.

And these were definitely useful when I interviewed for this particular position at EY. I did my four interviews and when the final interview with the hiring director, I spoke for about 15, 20 minutes and he said, "I see you have a very diverse experience. You have worked in different sectors. I think you get it. I think you are the kind of person who definitely be successful for the role that I’m looking for."

Tegan Jones

To find opportunities that would be a good fit, Narasimha recommends linking up with local professional organizations—and taking a closer look at the people in your network. 

Narasimha Acharya

First, there’s a pretty good possibility that you at least know one or more people in your network that either work in that particular industry or are already working there or maybe you will have experience in that sector that you are considering, right? Tap into them and use them as your trusted advisors.

Tegan Jones

But even when you find the right fit, switching sectors can mean making a lateral move—or even taking a step back. Still, Narasimha says it’s best to look at the big picture.

Narasimha Acharya

People change careers, change jobs, at almost every stage in their personal life. So it could be that, let’s say at age 40 I could decide, “You know what, I’ve been working in IT for too long. I want to shift a little bit. I want to shift careers completely. I want to shift sectors completely.” If, for example, something as simple as if you have lost the passion for doing what you’re doing, and you know you want to have a professional career for the next 20 years, it doesn’t make sense to continue because you have to continue there. Right?

You may be taking a step back financially, but if you’re going to have a more fulfilling career, don’t you think it makes more sense to make the move or shift, rather than continuing for the sake of continuing? That’s what I would say.

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Tegan Jones

You definitely want your career to be fulfilling, and keeping your work fresh is a great way to make that happen. I know I always want a new challenge. Once things start to feel repetitive, I definitely need to look for something new to learn.

Stephen W. Maye

Yeah, when you get too comfortable in a job, there’s a risk of just going through the motions. But pushing yourself to learn new skills and seek out new experiences is a great way to prepare yourself for a senior leadership position.

This is something our next guest learned when she moved from healthcare to the transportation sector. Sarina Arcari is the vice president of the Enterprise Program Management Office at Amtrak in Washington, D.C., where she oversees multi-billion-dollar capital investment projects.

Tegan Jones

She has a really fascinating job, but I know she was kind of hesitant to make that move. So it’ll be interesting to hear her thought process. Let’s go to that now.

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Stephen W. Maye

Sarina, it is great to have you here today. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation. I know that you spent quite a while in healthcare and insurance before switching over to the transportation sector. When you think back on that and you think about that transition, what are the skills that you developed over your career that helped you take on an executive-level role in an entirely new sector?

Sarina Arcari

Well, I think that the skills that were most transferrable are my project, program and portfolio management skills. I had heard that said—that those skills were sort of industry agnostic—and I’ll be honest, I didn’t quite fully believe that, until it happened to me. I was recruited out of the healthcare industry. I wasn’t actually looking to leave. But those skills were recognized in the transportation industry, and I was sought after to make that transition.

And so I think that those project management basic skills—being able to problem-solve, to quickly address a situation and come up with a good solution that adds value or removes obstacles for an organization—are really transferrable. And I think that along with sort of technical project management skills, the skills that people say are soft skills, which I personally believe are the harder skills to master, the people management skills, the negotiation skills, the conflict resolution skills, executive communication skills, understanding what executives are looking for and need, I think are the things that really helped me make the leap from healthcare into transportation.

Stephen W. Maye

We’ve heard a number of people on this show and in similar forums say, in recent years, look, in addition to the deep technical skills that people need from a project and program management perspective—and in the technology that they may be implementing—that people actually need to be increasing their expertise in their industry. And for you, as someone who has switched sectors, I’d love to hear your commentary on that. Would you agree with that? Would you take a very different view on that? How does that strike you?

Sarina Arcari

Three years ago I would have completely agreed with you. I would have told you and have told others that when I was working in healthcare that I was looking for project managers who had project management expertise. That was sort of the point of entry. But I also wanted them to have healthcare expertise. And I still think that it’s helpful. It just, it’s helpful if you understand the lingo of the industry and the way that the industry works.

And, having made that transition somewhat surprisingly, I’ve proven to myself that the skills that are transferable can add value in any industry, regardless of whether you have that deep subject matter expertise in the industry. Now does it help? Absolutely. And I have worked very hard to acquire as much knowledge as I can about transportation, especially rail transportation, as fast as I can. And in fact, I asked for 90 days to have a deep immersion and work across a broad swath of the organization to at least get an understanding of how the organization operated, what their pain points were, what the inputs and outputs were, all the business drivers, etc. And I think that that really helped me make the transition as smoothly as possible.

Stephen W. Maye

Sarina, as we think about project and program managers—perhaps they’re early in their careers, maybe they’re mid-career but still thinking that they want to move across other sectors eventually—what specific skills are most important for them to work on developing or to prepare to showcase?

Sarina Arcari

I think that it’s very important to make sure that your project management technical skills are solid, topnotch, because when you’re transitioning industries people are going to have a natural sort of skepticism of you coming in from the outside. So I think that, for me specifically, the thing that I think has served me the best is my ability to communicate upward into the organization. And I think that that’s a skill that all project managers really need to hone.

Stephen W. Maye

Sarina, as you describe that, you remind me of a guest that we talked to, could have been as much as a year and a half ago now, a guest named Oren Klaff, and he wrote a book called “Pitch Anything.” And you just reminded me of that, this idea of sometimes, even though the primary job may be project management, on certain days we’re pitching. You know, we’re pitching a plan, we’re pitching a budget, we’re pitching the need for a change, we’re pitching a new direction, we’re pitching a risk. And that ability to influence and to influence up, I think, becomes incredibly important.

Sarina Arcari

I couldn’t agree more. I always tell people that I get paid to tell the truth, which is not always the popular message. And I think that it’s essential for project managers to have an element of fearlessness when it comes to communicating with executives. You have to be confident in the data that you have, and you have to present it even though it may not be what everybody wants to hear in the moment. But I think that over time, executives come to rely on you for the truth, and you become a trusted advisor. But it takes courage.

Stephen W. Maye

So how do you know when it’s time? Are there certain milestones? Are there certain particular successes that are good indicators it’s time to move? What’s your guidance around that?

Sarina Arcari

From my personal experience, I think that my guidepost has been when I feel like I’ve come to a point of mastery. I think when, you know, you’re on a learning curve, you get to a point where you sort of plateau. And I think that project managers are very achievement-oriented. We get bored very easily. And I think when we recognize some boredom starting to creep in, when things start to feel a little too the same, it might be time to take a leap and get into something different.

And as I mentioned earlier, I really did not seek out this opportunity. It sought me. But I certainly had reached a point of mastery in the healthcare space in what I was doing, and when I considered this opportunity I thought it would be foolish for me to pass on it. It was just such a huge chance for me to expand my project management practice and to learn something completely different, at a point in my career where, frankly, I would never have imagined making that kind of transition.

Stephen W. Maye

When you reflect back, if you were doing it all again, is there a chance you would say, you know, actually, knowing what I know now, I would move sectors earlier?

Sarina Arcari

Yes. Based on what I’ve learned. And that’s not to say that it’s easy. So I don’t want people to think that moving to a new sector will be a simple thing. It requires persistence and courage, but it’s doable, and it’s exciting, and I think it’s good for you.

It’s good for your career. I think that it speaks to your ability to learn, to be flexible, to adapt. It just makes you a better professional, because you get to experience not just different companies within the same sector, but different sectors and how different businesses operate—and how they are similar, which, you know, is usually reserved for the realms of the consulting world. And I think in today’s business environment especially, with so much transformation and disruption going on, you know, the more tools we have in our tool kit as professional project managers, the more marketable we’ll be. 

Stephen W. Maye

So when you need to hire someone for a leadership role, are you looking for someone that has experience across sectors?

Sarina Arcari

Well, I would say, again, my approach has changed with my own personal experience. But yes, I think it’s an advantage if you’ve had a broad range of experiences.

I’m not the only person from healthcare on my staff at Amtrak. I was the first one, but I’m not the only one. And I think that not only am I surprised that we can make this leap, the folks that I brought forward with me have surprised themselves, but I think the folks at Amtrak have been surprised that for a bunch of, quote, unquote, non-railroaders, we’re able to really make a difference for the company, even though we haven’t been working on the railroad for our entire careers.

Stephen W. Maye

So if you reflect back over that transition that you’ve made—and you said you’re only three years with Amtrak, in some ways you’re probably still making that transition—what is the single most important piece of advice for project or program managers who are looking to make that kind of a big career move?

Sarina Arcari

I would say, don’t ever let fear be the thing that stops you. Just because project management skills feel like second nature to you, things that you might take for granted, don’t underestimate the value of what you bring to the table already. You are already equipped to do great work no matter where you are placed. I truly believe that of project management professionals. And I think that, you know, have confidence in the abilities that you have as a project management professional, and know that you can make a difference no matter where you’re dropped.

Stephen W. Maye

Don’t let fear be the thing that stops you, and don’t underestimate your own value. Great advice. And with that, Sarina Arcari, vice president, enterprise program management office at Amtrak in Washington, D.C., has the last word. Sarina, thank you so much. It has been a pleasure talking with you.

Sarina Arcari

My pleasure as well. Thank you.

Narrator

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