One question I often get from candidates with non-traditional, unconventional career paths is how to position yourself as a viable candidate for a role in which you’ve had no direct prior experience. On the surface, someone who’s changed career paths would seem to stand no chance against a sea of well-qualified candidates who have all the necessary experience and skills outlined in a job description.

The good news is that your past experiences, even those that fall outside the skills traditional candidates possess, can give you a unique advantage when applying for a role. While many companies prefer candidates who check off conventional job requirements, many also value candidates who bring more diverse perspectives, experiences, and skills. Your outlier experiences are not necessarily a liability and may actually give you a “right to play” in a completely new industry.

A “Right to Play” Defined

The concept of “right to play” is something I first heard about in strategy classes when doing my MBA. In a nutshell, it refers to bringing enough to the table to give you a reasonably good chance at succeeding. In the world of business, this means having the necessary capabilities, resources, and know-how to compete effectively in a certain market.

Back in my consumer goods marketing days, this term often came up when discussing whether to launch a product, enter a category, or collaborate with a specific customer. For example, before launching a product into the market, we would discuss whether our product had a realistic chance of being one of the top brands in a category or whether an unaddressed consumer need left room for our brand to have a fighting chance to excel amid a competitive mix of existing product offerings.

How To Assess Your Professional “Right to Play”

When changing careers, you can approach the process of finding your “right to play” in a similar manner. First, define exactly which role and industry you’re targeting. Second, research relevant job postings to understand which skills are sought-after in candidates. Third, identify which strengths and weaknesses these more conventional candidates would likely possess. Fouth, hone in on the limitations a candidate who followed a more linear career path might have.

Finally, take an inventory of your own skills and experiences. Make a realistic assessment of whether you possess the baseline level skills to be a viable candidate. Then, identify the non-traditional experiences you’ve had that may give you an advantage in those areas where traditional candidates may be lacking. This intersection of your unique skills and a traditional candidate’s outages is where you want to focus your personal branding.

Lean Into Your Unique Narrative

Once you’ve defined where you want to position your personal brand, the next step is to communicate this positioning to your target employers, clients, or customers. Focus on highlighting your past experiences that give you a unique, competitive edge over traditional candidates as you try to shift into a new space.

To share a couple of personal examples from my own career pivots, many years ago, after dropping out of medical school, I attempted to instead work in consulting, an extremely competitive field to break into. With no formalized experience in consulting, focusing on highlighting my educational subject knowledge related to the medical sciences eventually helped me land a role at a health policy consulting firm.

A decade ago, when I first entered the crowded world of coaching as someone with only limited coach training and experience, I leaned into my brand marketing industry experiences. Upon first glance, my corporate marketing experiences weren’t directly related to coaching per se. However, integrating these very brand marketing principles into my coaching and personal brand positioning helped me carve out a unique space for myself in the career coaching industry.

Embrace Your Past to Create Your Future

Ultimately, when applying for roles as an outlier candidate, you have two choices when talking about your past experiences. You can either dismiss them or embrace them.

You may be inclined to a defensive approach, trying to explain away your past experiences so you can convince a hiring manager you have what other candidates have. However, as an unconventional candidate, trying to compete on the same turf with more conventional candidates is going to be an uphill battle.

Alternatively, you could take a more confident approach. Explain why you’re well positioned for an opportunity not in spite of but because of your unconventional background. Talk about those unique skills you have that other traditional candidates don’t have. Once you convince yourself your background is an asset rather than a liability, you can then use your differentiation as an advantage that gives you the opportunity to land that role you initially thought was out of reach.


This story was originally posted on Forbes.

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About Joseph Liu

Joseph Liu helps aspiring professionals relaunch their careers to do work that matters. As a keynote speaker, career & personal branding consultant, and host of the Career Relaunch podcast, his passion is helping people gain the clarity, confidence, and courage to pursue truly meaningful careers. Having gone through three major career changes himself, he now shares insights from building & relaunching global consumer brands to empower professionals and business owners to build & relaunch their personal brands.

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