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How to Transfer Leadership Skills from One Industry to Another

I’m regularly asked by clients and executives whether they can shift their leadership skills into another industry. Three decades of experience in identifying, developing and accelerating extraordinary leadership has given me a unique insider view on this issue.

My answer is that it depends on two things: first, whether we are talking about management or leadership, and second, what type of leader you are.

Management Vs Leadership

Rear admiral Grace Murray Hopper was a brilliant scientist and mathematician who once said, “You manage things, you lead people.” She was making the clear distinction between two very different sets of skills and experiences.

Management usually concerns tasks like analysis, judgement, commercial acumen, planning and organising. It is often heavily interwoven with professional and technical knowledge relevant to a specific industry and so may be harder to apply outside that industry. That makes management skills and experience harder to sell outside your industry to a recruiter or prospective employer. For example, expertise as a supervising engineer in the mining industry is unlikely to be advantageous to someone applying for a marketing supervisor role in retail.

Leading People, Not Managing Things

Leadership however is about people, not things. It depends on skills that allow you to get the best out of others such as influencing, coaching, managing performance, motivating, developing others, building teams, and cultivating partnerships. These are skills that are applicable across any industry and people who do these things well are highly valued across all industries. They are therefore often seen as more relevant across different industry contexts because the subject matter is the same regardless of the industry - getting things done through other people.

In this way, people skills and experience leading people is generally more transferable across industries than technical skills and experience in the management of things.

The second factor that affects your likely success in transferring your leadership skills across industries is which type of leader you are: Expert or Enabler.

The Expert Leader

The Expert Leader’s success relies heavily on a deep base of technical knowledge and experience they have built up over time. Their promotion to their very first supervisory role was probably a result of having an above average level of expertise and competence in their specific area of work, and over time they have built upon that reputation.

It’s this expertise that others seek out because they usually have all the answers, with Expert Leaders consequently spending a lot of their time telling and instructing others what to do and how to do it.

Their expertise is their source of their authority and power, and it’s the principal resource they use to exert influence on others, including those that they lead. In this way, their success as a leader can’t be separated easily from their specific expertise in that industry.

The Enabler Leader

The Enabler Leader has a different approach to leadership, believing that the role of the leader is to leverage the full potential and contribution of their team. Their job therefore is not to be the expert and do the work, but instead catalyse the release of energy and commitment of others to apply their expertise and do the work.

Enabling others success is therefore the principal focus of their leadership, so they prioritise their own development in the area of people leadership, rather than technical skills. Amongst other things, they discover how to get others do the heavy lifting through asking questions rather than having all the answers, acquire skills in developing others capabilities and potential, and learn how to leverage technical expertise and advice from others when needed. As they become better at motivating, mobilising and influencing, their reputation builds as an enabler of others, not a technical expert.

The More Portable Leader

A self-evident curiosity and flexibility allow them and their employers to discover that they can be moved between teams, functions and business units because their success is not bound to a narrow and fixed technical domain. As a result their leadership effectiveness and reputation becomes increasingly portable, not just across functions but even across industries.

The Enabler Leader is therefore much more likely to have a demonstrable track record of success that is not dependent on their technical and industry specific expertise, making their leadership skills more easily transferable across different industries.

How about you?

An analysis of your own situation across these two distinctions - manager Vs leader and expert Vs enabler - can help you work out how easy or hard it might be to transfer your leadership skills to another industry.

If you decide that you do want to change industries my advice is threefold.

1. Learn how to lead in your current role without being the expert. Also look for opportunities to move into a leadership role where you are not the expert whilst at your current employer - they dont have to be promotions to access valuable leadership development opportunities.

2. Amplify your people leadership skills and successes in your CV, your applications and interviews. Show them how your success has come from helping others be successful, something that is a highly valued and desirable leadership skill set regardless of industry.

3. Show that you are curious and agile. Research your target industry and bring that learning and insight into your job hunt. It can go a long way to reassuring recruiters and hiring managers of your likely success in switching industries.

If you do decide to jump, best of luck! I hope that this advice is helpful.


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