This week, I interviewed someone very close to me about her career change. I’m delighted to share her answers, along with some points to take-away, and I hope these will inspire you on your career change journey.
What career are you changing from and to, and why?
Although not a direct career choice, I have been a public law solicitor with the same London local authority for more years than I care to remember. I have enjoyed the status, salary, stimulus, and professional camaraderie, and even the hard work and monumental legal studies.
Yet, my true passion is wine. For years, I have been consumed by discerning wine choice and drinking, never-ending wine education, wine tasting, visiting world wine regions, charity wine evenings, and taking wine exams. Last January, I obtained my WSET Diploma in wine (equivalent to a degree), culminating in my graduation ceremony at London’s Guildhall. I may now use the letters AIWS and wear the small, oval red lapel diploma badge. My next big challenge? Breaking into the on-trade or off-trade wine sector through a role in hotel/hospitality, or as a sommelier, wine merchant, supermarket wine buyer, wine educator, vineyard manager, or even wine producer.
It takes courage to ditch a financially-secure and established career and plunge into an unfamiliar job sector, but when you truly know your passion, it’s worth pursuing it.
When did you get your lucky break?
After years of irregular internet searching for that illusive wine job, one day while out shopping I was seduced by the purple façade and wine on display at a newly opened local wine merchant. Lured inside, I chatted to the Australian owner who poured me a glass of Torrontes (Argentinian signature white grape and wine) and I promised to email my CV (panic – I needed to revamp this into a wine CV), with a view to working Saturdays as an intern wine sales assistant. Although unpaid, the reward would be tasting the wines and taking home bottles to evaluate and appreciate. I soon emailed a credible wine CV, thanks to Giraffe CVs, securing this valuable work experience to kick-start my wine career. I worked Saturdays in the wine merchants for two years, learning about the off-trade, regional wines, wine producers, fine wines and champagnes, and wine suppliers, all the while studying for my wine diploma with the Wine and Spirit Trust in Bermondsey, London.
Your lucky break could come when you least expect it, so be ready with a credible and tailored CV that reflects your relevant skills, experience, and motivation for the job in question.
How did you build further experience?
Although I enjoyed my time at the wine merchants, I came to realise that wine retail was not for me. I wanted to try my hand as a sommelier in an upmarket hotel, where I could immerse myself in a huge wine cellar with hundreds of fine and expensive wines, and learn how to deliver amazing hospitality to guests. I wanted to emulate the brilliant service experiences, which I can recall as a guest in a hotel or fine dining restaurant, knowing how this service enhanced the food and wine experience.
Having thoroughly researched the role of sommelier, a couple of years ago I responded to an online job advert for a junior sommelier at a boutique wine hotel. I didn’t hear anything for a while, and the silence brought up fresh doubts about whether I really wanted to leave my secure, long-term role as a solicitor. After much thought, I contacted the hotel and asked to speak to the head sommelier, making an appointment to meet with him one Friday evening, prising him away from his busy work schedule. We agreed that I would work evenings and weekends on a part-time basis, allowing me to maintain my day job. I was willing and enthusiastic to work unpaid in order to obtain this valuable experience. After a couple of weeks’ hospitality sector culture shock and the steep learning curve of hard, physical, fast service work, I was given a zero-hours contract to sign, with copious company policies and workplace information to memorise.
My three months at the hotel, working under the valued guidance of the head sommelier, was far from easy. The long evenings working in the fine dining restaurant/bistro after my legal day job, running to and from the cellar via a dark narrow staircase, and cleaning up at the end of wine service, were exhausting. My expectation of the glamourous sommelier role advising guests and diners about choosing wonderful wines was modified by all the extra menial duties, such as the emptying of bins full of empty bottles into the huge glass receptors. I left the role to concentrate on my final course module and exam for the wine diploma.
Be gutsy about pursuing your goal. It’s unlikely that emailing your CV in response to an advertised role will be enough. Take the bull by the horns, and contact the hiring manager directly, explaining who you are and what you can do.
What happened next?
So to continue my fledgling wine experience in the hotel hospitality sector, in September, I emailed my CV to Gerrard Basset, a formidable figure in the world of wine. The only person who has obtained Master Sommelier of the World (2010), Master of Wine, and a Wine MBA, he is also the president of WSET, and the man who personally presented me with my wine diploma at the Guildhall London. Gerrard and his wife own and run Hotel Terravina, a cosy, fine dining wine hotel in the New Forest, where I celebrated my birthday with friends, last year. He encouraged me to email him dates for doing a one-week stage at the hotel, which I completed in early December.
Identify those who can help you with your new career, and find opportunities to develop the relationship. A confident yet polite approach can open unexpected doors.
How did you find your next experience?
I arrived on a Sunday evening and was met by the head sommelier, who I would be shadowing that week. What a fun first hour! I was invited to watch the dramatic performance of the Sabrage, a guest experience that involved slicing the neck of a chilled champagne bottle with a long, curved sword/sabre. It looked magnificent on the garden veranda as the head sommelier expertly demonstrated the swift sword action, skimming up to the thin neck of the bottle and the cork catapulting into the garden.
The head sommelier had planned an interesting week for me, and I learned many aspects of the sommelier role that I had not covered during my previous experience. The wine service element actually only represents 20% of the role. I experienced the office and paperwork; ordering and checking deliveries; stocktaking of wine, spirits, and glassware; cellar work; cleanliness and care of the different glassware and equipment; meticulous wine service; the bar (I had to taste all the wines by the glass from the Enomatic wine dispenser!); wine tastings; and wine education. I was anxious not to put a foot wrong, but inevitably made a few, luckily not disastrous, mistakes. My role was not as autonomous as before, but this hotel was even more prestigious, with meticulous standards, so I was happy to shadow and observe.
Once you have secured a placement, throw yourself into it and learn and experience everything you can. The next step is to capture that experience on your CV and use it to secure your next position.
How will you progress your career change?
I am currently reflecting on my weeks’ experience and the myriad responsibilities involved in being a sommelier. There are lots of advertisements for sommelier jobs but, for now, I plan to carry on building up my experience in the wine sector until I find the right wine job for me.
My experiences have taught me that it is possible to pursue an entirely new career from a passionate interest while retaining your existing role, giving you the courage and motivation to educate yourself and build up a great new CV.
With a second career, give yourself the time and space you need to carve out the right path. Don’t rush headlong into a job that feels wrong. It’s worth giving your choices due consideration before making a leap.
Tips for wannabe career changers
Here are some practical tips to help you convert your career dream into career reality:
Be clear in your own mind what you want from your career. Start to manifest it by telling yourself aloud and, better still, by writing it down. If you are unsure what it is that you want, here are some ways to uncover your inner career desires:
Picture your perfect working day, capturing as many details as possible to bring the scene to life. Get as clear about your aspirations as possible, then work towards every element.
Leverage online career tools, such as the brilliant Plotr. Free to use, Plotr was established to help 11 to 24-year-olds discover and explore careers they’ll love. In fact, this engaging tool is extremely useful for adult career changers, leading to some true light bulb moments.
Conduct your own skills audit, clarifying your strengths and interests to define your target career path. Challenge yourself to write down every skill you can think of, and then group common themes. It should become clear where your strengths lie.
Establish your ‘zone of genius’, a phrase originally coined by psychologist, Gay Hendricks, in his book, The Big Leap. Hendricks said, “In your Zone of Genius, though the time you spend there produces great financial abundance, you do not feel that you are expending effort to produce it. In your Zone of Genius, work doesn’t feel like work.” Note every skill you have under the headings of genius, excellence, OK, poor. The items you list in your zone of genius should become the most important requirements for your next role.
Recognise the potential challenges and obstacles standing between you and your dream career. By facing potential problems and fears, you will be in a better position to seek support and plug any skills gaps. Do you need to find and enrol on some relevant training? Do you need to build your network? Do you need to find out more about a specific industry or role? Do you need more training? More hands-on experience? Is there something you struggle with and you know it is an integral part of your desired career, such as giving presentations or managing a team? Is there anything you can do to boost your confidence in this area? Is there training you can undertake to improve your management skills? Would working with a mentor help you tackle the challenges of a desired role?
Use your end-game picture to set clear, time-defined immediate, medium- and long-term goals. This can help to ensure you are always making the right choices and devoting your energy and resources to an action or path that directly relates to what you want. Frame every decision in terms of the question: “Will this take me closer to my goal or further away from it?”
Once you have defined your goals, take focused and consistent action to bring you closer to your career dream. As you achieve each set of tasks, cross them off and move down the list. You don’t always need to make huge leaps, it’s enough to move forward one step at a time.