Friday, November 19, 2010

Myth of Knowing What You Want to Be

My client is angry.  "I DID all those exercises you gave me, and I STILL don't know what I want!"  She's a brilliant analyst, able to synthesize complex data and create impressive solutions. . .except when it came to her own career.  One reason was she had neglected to spread out those pages and see what conclusions she would draw from her own information.  There were two larger possibilities, however:  fear of deciding about herself and the possibility there might not be some one grand career for her.

Fear of Deciding

When we begin our work life, we seldom know what we want to be when we grow up.  We don't know our strengths, weaknesses, ambitions and capabilities because we haven't been in the work world to know.  And we certainly don't want to close off any options.  As we learn about ourselves we begin to understand what works for us and what doesn't; what we're willing to do and go for; what our "No's" are.  We also admit - with great reluctance - we may not be as ambitious as we thought we were. . .not that we'll reveal it in a performance evaluation!  The self-knowledge process can be delayed or stymied because we're afraid to admit who we are.  "I'm never going to be good at:  managing up, playing politics, filing, details, technology."  When you declare what you're good at, you can go for what will give you that and avoid situations that require doing what you're NOT good at.  We are fearful because we don't want to lose any opportunity.  Maturity is acknowledging:  "Here's who I am, strengths and weaknesses, dreams and limitations; and I'm going to live who I am."

Myth of the Grand Career

About three-fourths of new clients will tell me they want "to know what I want to be when I grow up," and as I've watched how few of them are willing to go through the self-analysis process or to go for what they want because of obligations or obstacles, I wonder if it isn't really a myth that there's ONE BIG THING we should be.  Some find a word for what they want:  doctor, lawyer, missionary.  So many of the rest of us live in less defined worlds of manager, sales rep, contract administrator.  It's not what we aspired to; it's what we became as we were waiting for the dream to show up.  What I know about doctors is they get MBAs so they can get out of restrictive medical environments.  Lawyers want the heck out of a punishing, boring field.  Missionaries want to be professional speakers.  In other words, few of us remotely know what we want to be when we grow up; and we live vaguely frustrated lives believing we should know, feeling we're not quite living up to our possibilities.

The Solution

What if we took a different look at our career?  Look at your life as lived thus far.  Did you have a clue ten years ago that you'd be doing THIS today?  Twenty years ago?  No way.  Some people are living what they want; I promise you, they're rare.  Maybe we should take a shorter view than the Career Grand Slam.

It's important to do that self-assessment, to know yourself, warts and all; to know what would make you happy.  Why don't you get as much of that into the job you have now?  Why don't you insist on it in career discussions with your manager?  "I'm happiest when I can be a subject matter expert working with higher levels in the company."  It gives management something to chew on rather than slot you anywhere as they've done to date.  Your indecision has been their convenience.  Change that dynamic.

Rather than staying frustratedly unaware of the Big Career Goal, what if you just decide and go for what's your right "Next."  For example, you love horses to your toes.  What if you move to Kentucky and get as close as you can, with your existing background and experience, to those stables and velvet muzzles?  A "Next" like this could be way more interesting than the program for the elderly that has you languishing.  I believe that if you keep living  toward your interesting "Next," you can eventually find yourself living in your Career Dream. 

The Conclusion

Know yourself, commit to giving yourself what makes you happy right where you are now, focus on your right "Next" and keep your antennae up so you'll recognize The Dream when it sneaks up on you.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


You may be asking someone to write a reference for you; someone may be asking you to write a reference for them.  How is it done?  These are the steps:

1.  The letter should state:

            Who the reference is for - you.
            In what capacity they know you.
            How long?

2.  What did they observe about your strengths (have reference-writers focus on your behaviors)?  This covers things like drive, determination, reliability, intelligence, problem-solving abilities.  Can they give specific examples?

3.  What areas of improvement?  This one is a toss-up.  Some organizations ASK you to speak to this.  If not, let it be so the reference is all positive.

4.  Why you would be a good employee, student at their school, receiver of award, etc.

5.  Say they wholeheartedly recommend you.

6.  Send the reference to YOU unless you were asked to have it sent to the organization (give the reference-writer that information).

A few notes about the above:

1.  If the organization gives a specific format, have your references follow that.

2.  If this is a general reference - for employment, for example - have the letter-writers give you several copies on letterhead.  These are typically addressed:  To Whom It May Concern.

3.  Don't ask anyone whose letter won't be gung-ho.  The boss that fired you (a) may not be able to write a letter because company policies forbid it, but (b) who wants a letter from the guy who kicked you out the door?  Find someone else in the company.

4.  If you were fired but the company agreed to write a reference letter, birddog those drafts till you're happy with the content.  You don't want to be damned with faint praise.

5.  You can scan and email a reference, but snail mail is still a better idea.

Who do you ask for references?  Bosses (or clients) are best; former bosses if the current one drop-kicked you; co-workers; community leaders if they're known and know you well.  Students often use professors and the clergy; I was always less impressed by these than the fast food line cook you sweated next to while getting your degree.  The rule of thumb:  People who know well how you work and who are well known. . .an unbeatable combination.

What if one of your references asks YOU to write the reference letter?

The first time this happened to me, I was stunned.  Is that kosher?  I wrote the draft and have done it on numerous occasions, realizing that I was asking busy people to spend considerable time on what was more important to me than to them, a task they don't feel comfortable doing.  I would write the draft, send it to the reference, who always added to it (I don't toot my horn enough), finalized and sent it to me.  You may have have a sterner ethic about this - and some reference-seekers have declined to write their draft - but I believe in getting the job done, AND quality control.  You don't want to live with an ineptly crafted reference.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Young Kids at Home

Will a potential employer hold it against me because I have young children at home?

Yes, but employers have fears about employment candidates whether they're single or married. If you're single, they worry you'll get drunk after work, come in too late and show up the next day hung over and unproductive. If you're married with kids, they're afraid you'll be off work all the time taking them to doctors or hovering over fevered brows or coaching soccer. And if you're married without kids, they'll worry you haven't settled down and will run to another job for the slightest reason.

The point is, you can't win in the potential-employer-worry game. Just focus on presenting your best self.

You can choose not to say anything, but this is what you say in the interview, if you decide to talk about your children.  Employers are not supposed to ask if you have them, but most candidates bring it up. Once they do, the kids are fair game in the conversation, if the questions are work-related.  Talk about your arrangements for child care (which matters if the job requires travel), about sick care (if being on the job at particular times is vital), about car-pool (if the job has flex-hours). 

The more the employer feels you’ve anticipated and handled such situations, the more attractive you will seem for the job.