The Career Change Handbook (4th Edition)
What Do You Really Want To Do?
This opening chapter shows you how to take a detailed, in-depth and all round look at yourself, how to discover your strengths through examining your experience and how to present these to others. It looks at the differences between people and points to exercises in the appendices. It shows you how to construct a ‘label’ for yourself that others will recognise and value. Finally it sets out how the job market functions and what you need to do to set about achieving a successful career move.
Do you know what you are looking for?
A surprisingly large number of people looking at the job market do not. They leaf through the job pages in the paper or surf the net, hoping to come across something that looks attractive. There is nothing wrong with doing this provided you are doing other things as well, but the chances of the magic job appearing before you are slight.
Once upon a time this didn’t matter. In the public sector there was security with regular pay increments and a clear promotion route. Most companies in the private sector grew their own managers from regular intakes of trainees; it was common to find senior managers and board members with 20, 30 and 40 years’ service behind them. At Bloggs United & Co many careers blossomed through the good offices of senior managers, who recognised their juniors’ talents and moved them on.
It is not that things were necessarily better in the old days, and to a degree this kind of talent spotting and fostering still occurs, but it is getting rarer all the time. Many people do not know what career path to follow and drift through a series of jobs; they may be flexible and talented (or just plain lucky) and have a good career, or they may miss out badly, never finding the right choices to make.
Why you need the right job
It is possible that some people will recognise the right job when they find it. Others just cannot work out what would be possible or best for them, so they stick to what they are doing provided it is not too irksome. It does not have to be that way. Serious problems can arise leading to severe stress or breakdown when people drift or get pushed into the wrong job and cannot find the way out. If you tolerate being in the wrong job not only will you suffer but your partner and your family will suffer too.
The secret is to know yourself, to know your key needs and wants and the difference between them, and to be able to find out how these can be met in a suitable and enjoyable career. Or, as the grandfather of one of my clients put it to him, ‘Find out what you are good at and enjoy, and get someone to pay you for it!’ It is as simple and as difficult as that.
Know and appreciate your strengths
People who know themselves well are those who over the years have had the benefit of perceptive feedback from others. Without this and without access to the value judgements that others make about us it is hard to get an accurate fix on our strengths and weaknesses; it is particularly difficult to evaluate properly our most obvious (to others) natural talents. Why for instance should someone place great value on an ability to create instant order out of a chaotic mess when for him/her
a) ‘it is so simple just to arrange neat piles of items which go together’ and
b) ‘it is so much easier then to keep everything in order’?
How powerfully the truth of part (b) hits home to those of us who do not possess this ability. We find it little short of miraculous, because our experience after a serious attempt at part (a) is to find ourselves in more chaos of a different kind with items left over, which do not seem to belong anywhere in the new chaos!
We most of us tend to devalue what we find easy and forget that in certain contexts what we find easy and are good at is precisely what others want to know about us.
Employers in particular want to know what we are good at. They have a very good reason for wanting to know. They want to find out how much use we might be to their organisation. So to sell ourselves as effectively as possible we need to know ourselves and give proper weight to what we do well.
Who are you? What have you got to sell?
‘Who am I?’ This is one of those fundamental questions that philosophers have been asking themselves for centuries. Nevertheless it is one you need to make an attempt at answering if you want to enjoy your work. To set about this task you need to break things down a little. We all have:
These are things we have learned to do such as riding a bicycle, tying our shoelaces, operating the mouse on our computer. There are much more complicated ones too, which are more obviously career oriented, such as editing, or bookkeeping.
Attitudes or characteristics
These may be part of our make-up or derive from life experiences, e.g. optimism, pessimism, enthusiasm, determination, loyalty.
There is no need to be coy about these. They may be the most important part of your make-up even if with time they may develop and change. Potential employers may or may not have mission statements. However, most organisations have a style or a reputation, which they are anxious to promote and in which they believe. Indeed they have values too, and it is important that they are consistent with your own.
Abilities are natural talents we possess without having to learn them, they are things we are just good at. Doing jigsaw puzzles, dancing, or with reference to work, thinking logically, making a speech, persuading people to do things.
Experience includes past work of all kinds including achievements great and small. Appropriate analysis of achievements is the key to identifying abilities. (See also Appendix I.)
These are the things we can ‘sell ’ to an employer, either naturally if we have the ability to sell, or when we have learned how to, if this is a skill we need to acquire. Let’s look at them in turn:
As well as useful strengths in their own right skills can be indicators of abilities. The skill of watercolour painting could indicate an ability to observe. Only ‘could’ because a skilfully executed watercolour might have little resemblance to the subject and could therefore point to inability to observe. A recent client of mine claimed to be untalented and put any success down to ‘just hard work – I have to work hard to learn and keep up with people who have real talents’. I put to him that he had ‘an ability to work hard in all circumstances’ which is not given to everybody. This is not only a genuine ability it is one of the best. I for one can only work hard under very restricted sets of conditions.
When you make your list of learned skills add some potential abilities that might go with them:
|Needlework||Ability to work with detail?|
|Dinner party food preparation||Creative presentation? Co-ordination?|
|Reading balance sheets||Analytical ability?|
None of the above necessarily follow but they may in your case.
Attitudes or characteristics
We all have characteristics of which we are not proud, even perhaps ashamed. It is hard for many people to accept that it is permissible to be frightened of physical violence or to be shy and therefore hopeless at public speaking. These are ordinary human failings. Some we may be able with time and effort to do something about. We’re concerned here with the more positive ones. These are real strengths, core bits of our personality that come through in a wide variety of circumstances. They characterise how we do things.
It is a fact that enthusiastic people do things enthusiastically (nine times out of ten at least). If you are such a person do remember that some people find this wearing on occasion.
They come in degrees of strength, as illustrated by the old irregular verbs:
-I am firm.
- You are stubborn.
- He/She is pig-headed
- I am tolerant
- You are easygoing.
- He/she is lax.
If you class yourself as a pessimist, remember that there are undeniable virtues to be found in pessimism. Privately you may go through life never disappointed having always expected the worst. More positively with respect to the world of work your natural pessimism may help you to inject wise notes of caution into the wilder plans and projects of your more optimistic colleagues.
What you value is by definition extremely important to you. Your fundamental values guide your behaviour, or protest at it, in all aspects of your life. If you do a job which is constantly at odds with your values it will sooner or later become a burden, a penance or just a terrible bore. The effects of this will carry over into the rest of your life and may turn you into an embittered individual, unappreciated by friends and family. You need to get out of such employment. Here is a small example from my own experience.
Today is Wednesday so it must be Brussels
I once worked for a tour operating company as Tours Planning Manager, an overly grand title that kept my salary low. I was asked by the Managing Director to see whether some of the cheaper coach trips run by a subsidiary company could be improved. On investigation I discovered these trips to be as bad an example of ‘Today is Wednesday so it must be Brussels’ as I had seen or have seen since.
I suggested to the boss of the coach tour subsidiary that she make a number of minor changes to cut down the length of travelling time between some of the overnight stops. She rejected my proposals completely. When I protested that no one would ever book another tour after such a rushed experience, she said, ‘It doesn’t matter. They’re cheap tours. At those prices there is always another mug.’ This was in straightforward conflict with my ideas about good design and giving value for money and a significant contributory reason towards my decision eventually to leave the company.
On the positive side it is perhaps worth adding that firms who set out to provide cheap (they might prefer ‘affordable’) goods or services, which by definition are not of the highest available quality, are often aware and proud of providing a valuable service to people who otherwise might have to do without them.
Nowadays I would expect most corporate websites to provide some strong clues about how organisations see themselves in terms of values. If, however, you have still not gained a clear idea by the second interview you can simply ask: ‘How would you sum up the organisation’s values?’
Abilities and experience
I have run these together because experience is the place where we find our abilities. Sometimes clients have asked me to help them discover their latent abilities or hidden talents, on the basis that these have never been used but are somehow lying dormant within them. I cannot think of a single client where this has been the case. They have always used them but ‘as yet’ in unrecognised ways.
Achievements as a source of abilities
What frequently occurs is that people either do not recognise their own abilities, or believe they are unremarkable, or common to all. There is more about all this in connection with CV writing in Appendix I. The experience which helps you identify your abilities is the experience of achieving things. Not world records or reducing company costs by 50% but anything you have done which gave you satisfaction and which privately at least you feel you did well. Anything will do.
Here is something lots of people will have done:
Building a pergola in the garden (a classic approach)
1. I consulted my wife and agreed an overall design.
2. I measured the area and made a plan.
3. I worked out how much wood I needed in the different dimensions and how many nails of different sizes.
4. I ordered the wood and the nails.
5. I looked up in a manual the best sort of joints to make.
6. I laid my materials out in order of use and cut the timber according to the plan.
7. I cut the joints carefully and assembled all the pieces of timber.
8. I nailed them together.
9. I tidied up the site. My wife agreed it looked great.
The italicised words (the verbs or what he did) represent the potential abilities of the pergola builder, perhaps:
- working to a plan
In fact I built a pergola recently and my achievement follows.
Building a pergola (my style)
1. I gave in to my wife and promised to rebuild the pergola.
2. I persuaded her we could use some old oak timbers we had stored in the barn.
3. I guessed we would have enough and visualised how it might fit.
4. I realised a very practical friend was shortly coming to stay and reckoned I could persuade him to help.
5. He agreed to help.
6. I found seven timbers of which six were OK and rescued some old bent nails.
7. I told him my plan (to re-create the old pergola) and asked him how best to marry the timbers.
8. Under his instruction I cut the joints by eye. (They fitted more or less.)
9. I showed my wife the finished result. She was amazed and impressed, but told me to clear up the mess.
It reveals a completely different set of potential abilities, perhaps:
Your approach would doubtless be different again. Think of anything you have made or assembled and write down the steps you took in the process.
Achievements at work are usually easier to relate to readily saleable abilities and may be taken also from projects where you played only a part in the achievement. Your personal contribution is the bit you need to mine for abilities.
We also have preferences. Most people have a number of very clear preferences about how they like to perceive the world and how they like to make judgements. I refer here specifically to the Jungian theory of personality types used by Katharine C Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers as the basis for creating the Myers Briggs Type Indicator* (MBTI) assessment tool, a fascinating and valuable means of understanding the work implications of our individual preferences. The MBTI instrument is one of legions of so called psychometric tests – it is more properly described as a personality inventory – and within its clearly defined limitations amongst the best. (See Appendix II for more details.)
*Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and MBTI are registered trade marks of CPP Inc.
It is important to remember that any means of identifying personality traits does not imprison you in some set manner of behaviour. Frequently an individual does not fit neatly within the ‘type’. Also we all remain responsible for our choices and are free therefore to act against type.
Another element to identify is what ‘drives’ you. What do you really want to achieve? What motivates you? Interesting work based on Professor Edgar Schein’s theory of career anchors has identified nine distinct career drivers, each one being a blend of wants and needs. The nine are:
- material reward
- power and influence
- search for meaning
These drivers are held to be basic components of individual identity. (See Appendix II for more details.)
If you have difficulty working out what career path you should follow you will need help, ideally from an experienced career counsellor. Ultimately however you will be doing the hard work, whomever you go to for help. You need to think, talk and probably write about your working life in detail, the good bits and the not so good.
How do others see you?
How would your boss describe you to his or her boss? How would your peers describe you to a new colleague joining the organisation? How would people reporting to you describe you to their partners or friends away from work? You are likely to get only partial, possibly less than truthful, answers if you ask all these people such questions, but they are worth asking yourself and considering what the answers might be. There is always more you can find out about yourself and it is usually easier to set about it with a third party.
If you cannot find, or afford, a suitable professional career adviser, coach, counsellor or consultant, use your friends; include your partner or spouse if you have one. Two or three people who know you well, and whose general opinion you respect, can give you valuable insights if asked the right questions. (See Exercises in Appendix IV.)
In asking questions of yourself you might start with the following list:
- Who am I?
- What have I done?
- What is wrong with where I am?
- What am I good at?
- What am I good at that I enjoy doing?
- Who might want to employ someone like me?
- What am I prepared to trade off?
- What must I avoid at all costs?
- What direction do I want to take?
- What would I really like to do?
You may not be able to answer all of these now. By the time you get to the end of this book and have done some serious work you should be able to. Whenever you can answer most of them you will be ready to make a start dealing with what for many is the key question:
How do I make this next career move?
Some elements can come only from you. You need some talent, the will and the patience to identify other people’s needs as well as your own, and a good deal of persistence.
Find yourself a label
However you go about discovering all of the above, including skills, abilities, drivers, experience, etc, you will need to assemble from these elements some kind of ‘label’ for yourself. Forget the idea that labels are bad. This only applies when someone else attaches a label to you. This label is going to be carefully crafted by you to fit the needs of your next career move; it will also be true, as far as it goes. There is a tendency for us to remain stuck with what we have been or been doing in life. It is quite easy for someone to start a self-description with ‘A qualified solicitor. . . ’ having forgotten that she or he is about to give up the law to try to become a hospital manager or whatever. One of my favourite labels was produced by an ex-client who managed to extract the maximum help from a past occupation by starting with ‘An escaped academic’ thereby claiming enterprise and brains in quick succession.
Ideally you need to find something which either goes to the core of you or which is unusual in some way; if it does both it ’s a bonus. It may be extremely simple. If you are an international patent lawyer looking for a new job as an international patent lawyer, you’ve got your first four words. Otherwise more thought will be needed. The same person wanting to make a career change might start with any of a number of different labels, each accurate as far as it goes:
- ‘A fluent French speaker, with a legal background. . .’
- ‘A practised negotiator with fluent French. . .’
- ‘An international civil servant, with a background in patent law. . .’
- ‘A hardworking and reliable individual. . .’
What follows will be skills and abilities or maybe a description of the role sought depending on the context. Your ‘label’ will appear on your CV, in letters and in conversation both formal and informal.
This label will need to expand in order to describe you to others on paper or electronically or face to face. It is all part of the business of finding focus. Even if you know what you want to do in terms of a role, you may not have identified the ideal size, location and culture of organisation you are looking for. The more precise your fix on the career move you want to make, the easier it is to find – assuming it exists at all.
There are two good ways of finding focus. Firstly by reading newspaper, magazine, trade press and Internet job advertisements assiduously. You need to look at the words that the advertisers use (see exercises in Appendix IV). Secondly by networking – see Chapter 3.
Before going much further you need to understand how the market works.
The ‘job market’
A useful way of thinking about job search is to use the analogy of a marketplace, where there are buyers and sellers. Crudely put you are selling your skills, and employers are buying labour to help them survive and prosper. But job search works both ways round. Employers also search for people. When you appreciate this you can start to take control of your own job search properly. It means making yourself known where employers can find you – in the job marketplace. It may be only a virtual marketplace but many of the features of ordinary markets can be found there – supply and demand effects on prices, negotiating, importance of goods display, people ‘just looking’, etc.
By understanding how employers conduct their search you can carry out the best possible campaign of your own and meet them in the marketplace.
Job search methods
Once you know, precisely or approximately, how you want your career to develop you can begin your job search. There are five routes.
- advertised jobs
- recruitment companies
- direct approaches to employers
- advertise yourself.
(This last is mainly for the self-employed, but is now also used, especially on the net by skilled technicians, to look for contract jobs. Unless you know your skills are in great demand and scarce, it is probably a waste of time – but see Appendix III. Also, if your skills are in demand, both the press and the net will be full of advertisements seeking them.)
The fact is that most people do not do much searching. In most cases ‘job search’ is a misnomer, where the activity implied in the word search is limited to turning the pages of the appointments sections in the press or clicking the mouse at the computer. What they are doing is waiting for someone to place an ad in the press for a position, which would match their abilities and aspirations. They are waiting for others to find them. Waiting will be forced upon you often enough during the job search process. Useful activity is generally better for you.
Employers, who are in buying mode:
- advertise in the press
- engage recruitment companies
- read direct approach letters with interest
- sometimes look for specialists on the web.
You therefore need to:
- get yourself known on their network
- scour the advertisements and respond intelligently
- get on the books of as many recruitment companies as possible
- write letters direct to organisations you might work for or with
- scour the web.
- Get to know yourself better, especially what you are good at.
- Find out what motivates you and try to accommodate your preferences.
- Look at your achievements. They reveal important things about you.
- What is your style? How do you like to do things?
- Take account of how others see you. Perceptions are real even when ‘wrong’.
- Find yourself a label you like that others can recognise.
- Appreciate how the market works and what employers are looking for.