I’m so many people: balancing our many sides in job search

"I'm so many people."

“I’m so many people.”

“I’m so many people.” When Mad Men creator Matt Weiner put these words into the mouth of protagonist Don Draper’s teenage daughter Sally, he could have been speaking for all of us.

From the moment we graduate college, and often earlier, we are coached to put our best face forward, showing the side of ourselves that is most marketable to potential employers. The problem is, showing just one side can make us look — and feel — pretty one-dimensional at times.

As we evolve as professionals and as human beings, the many “people” inside of us compete more aggressively to be seen and heard. I’m not talking about a Sybil-like scenario with true multiple personalities, but rather the chameleon-like qualities that allow us to adapt and contribute, on and off the job.

The question is, when it comes to job-search protocol, how can we showcase the best of our many sides without deviating too far from the script? I’ll start by sharing my own multiple dimensions and how they have contributed to my professional identity, and invite others to do the same.

PTA Mom — With my son about to finish middle school, I’ve logged thousands of hours between two schools since he was five. Through this experience, I have met some of the most interesting and accomplished individuals in my lifetime, many who have become dear friends. Moreover, it has challenged — and ultimately strengthened —  my leadership abilities more than 20-plus years of professional managerial roles.

Daughter and Parent Advocate — About 15 years ago, when my own recruiting business was at its peak, both of my parents became seriously ill in the space of six months.  Over the next decade, my magnificent mother lost her life to a rare and wretched form of blood cancer, while my father endured a series of progressively debilitating strokes that left him unable to speak for himself.  As an adult only child and a new parent myself,  I was suddenly navigating unfamiliar and terrifying territory both medical and logistical. I had to put aside my own emotions, which ranged from devastating sadness to resentment at the overnight role reversal. While learning to apply the kind of rigor and persistence that felt more familiar in a business context to increasingly complex medical issues, my ultimate lessons were all about grace and acceptance.

Volunteer Career Navigator — Years of supporting and advocating for my parents  highlighted  my preference for directly helping individuals.  As a search consultant, while I truly cared about the well being of candidates, my primary allegiance, by definition, was to the employers that hired them. My evolution into career counseling felt organic and put a name on what I had been doing informally for the past two decades. Before making the leap, I tested out this premise by volunteering with a local non-profit providing a range of supportive services to women in transition.  I ultimately chose to work with a population of college students, many of them first generation, and this experience was contributory.

Lifelong Learner — While this one might sound cliché, I’ve earned the designation. Returning to school at 50 to earn an advanced degree in higher education counseling, complete with internships, after years of running my own show and speaking and writing as an industry expert, was both affirming and humbling.  It led to my choosing employment at a college career center  versus counseling students as an independent practitioner, yet another learning experience, and one that also allows me to contribute knowledge from my recruiting background.

Relationship Builder —  In a professional context, relationship building is often code for business development. While I have done my share of this successfully as a business consultant, it is the personal relationship building that better defines me.  From a 31-year marriage to real and enduring friendships across geographies, jobs, neighborhoods and volunteer experiences, relationships remain my most deeply held value.

Bringing this back to job search, I recently had the chance to bring all of these “people” to my own search process for my first non-internship role in higher education.  This did not mean that I told these stories on every interview.  What it did mean is that I kept these dimensions alive, introducing them as appropriate, when speaking about a deliberate mid-life career shift. They also informed an internal decision-making process to evaluate potential opportunities and work environments, holding out for one that would honor more than what was immediately apparent on paper. I am so fortunate to have found that.

In the case of the fictional Mad Men character, Sally Draper, life has compelled her to become “so many people” at far too early an age.  One can only hope that in whatever afterworld viewers imagine after the series concludes, that she  grows up to honor and integrate these dimensions into a rewarding livelihood. Personally, I’m holding out for child psychologist.

What about you?  Who are your many people?














Getting past “Blue Monday” — and getting real about New Year’s career resolutions

Tradition holds that the turning point on the calendar is January 1, a time when resolutions to be lighter, healthier and better employed will transform us when the clock strikes twelve.  However, just this year I learned of two other milestones.

The first is January 6, officially considered the most depressing day of the year. January 6 apparently marks the convergence of some pretty gloomy forces:  return to the daily work grind; realization that dreary weather is here for the foreseeable future; an avalanche of holiday bills; and for many mortals, the acknowledgment that well-intentioned New Year’s resolutions are already far in the rear view mirror.

And if that wasn’t enough, we’re coming up on the dreaded Blue Monday, “celebrated” on the third Monday of every January. The term was coined by Cliff Arnall, a British psychologist and academic researcher specializing in seasonal disorders, who correlated the date with variables ranging from debt levels to plain old post-holiday mood deflation. While his findings were met with skepticism by some and the seven-variable algebraic equation he used is too elaborate for this former English major, it does raise the question of why we humans choose this time of year to set the loftiest of goals.  Does this feel like self-sabotage?

But here’s the good news:  we survived January 6, and Blue Monday  — January 20 this year — is almost a memory.  While it may feel like we are barely slogging through daily obligations, there is now a window, albeit frosted, for more clear-headed consideration of attainable career goals for the year ahead.

As a lifelong dieter, I see many parallels between weight- and job-related resolutions.  For starters, there is the pressure, internal and external, to go for broke, to set larger- (or smaller-!) than-life goals that set us up to feel like failures if we miss the mark.  In the dieting realm, this might look like “I will lose 30 pounds in 6 months,” or more tactically, “I will cut back to 1,000 calories a day and commit to daily workouts.” In the career space, it is often expressed in big-picture statements like “I will have my dream job by the end of the year” or more tactically, “I will set up three networking meetings every week.”

It’s not that setting blockbuster goals is inherently bad.  In both the weight loss and job gain spheres, the problems come when we don’t have a concrete – and this is the key – sustainable – path to achieve them.  And even before finding our path, we often need to answer the bigger questions: Whose goals are these anyway?  And, what are meaningful measures to assess my progress?

There is a classic saying in business that you can’t manage (or by implication, change) what you don’t measure.  In something as individualized as career search, we need to design measurements that are meaningful and not self-defeating.  This means setting goals — and milestones — that are both affirming and elastic.  Affirming means having just the right balance of challenge and achievability, and elastic means that every resolution is malleable and subject to human adjustment. Career exploration in your own voice ultimately means setting goals and tracking progress on your own terms.

As an example, someone contemplating a job change for the first time in 15 years might not feel immediately ready for a steady diet of weekly networking meetings.   Perhaps a more reasonable and helpful milestone would look like scheduling a couple of sessions with a career counselor to define goals and priorities.  For someone exploring a brand new field, a career resolution could be as simple as committing to attend a few meetings of the local chapter of a specific professional association.

Still more liberating, we can resolve to take these steps any time of the year, maybe ideally when we’re feeling warmer, less debt-laden and more acclimated to the cadence of regular work weeks without visions of Christmas cookie platters everywhere!

With Blue Monday almost behind us, let’s first resolve to shift our outlook on resolutions.

When your job search sounds off key — finding the right pitch for you

You know when you’re singing out of your natural vocal range.  Maybe there’s a crack from straining to reach a high note or a grunt from landing too low.  It’s the same with searching for a job.  You know when you’re off key — and probably others pick up on it as well.

Job searching off key means singing so far out of your natural range that you hear it from the very first note.  But how to reconcile this twinge of recognition with the seemingly one-size-fits-all advice coming from every direction? Without meaning to belabor the metaphor, a simple sound check is a good place to start.  Start with the tactics you probably use  most often — your finely honed “elevator speech,” your LinkedIn profile and the resume you painstakingly crafted before customizing it for specific roles.

Let’s take the elevator speech, your opportunity to wow anyone in front of you in 30 seconds or less.  The challenge is, unless you are a pitching an investment opportunity on the reality show “Shark Tank,” many of these can sound too canned and ramped up for most listening ears.  Try describing something that sets you apart from the crowd in a couple of sentences and talk in your most natural voice, cadence, pitch and all. If your natural speaking style is fast and animated, great. If it’s thoughtful and a bit lower key, bravo as well.  Your goal is to deliver a message that gets attention — but also one that you can stand behind and reinforce without sounding strained or phony.

Ditto for your resume.  Does yours sound like an endless string of “keywords” but devoid of soul —  words that describe you and not a thousand interchangeable others? While you want to use appropriately chosen key words reflective of both your field and the roles you are targeting, your own voice has to chime in as well.  Try this  simple test:  read your resume intro aloud.  If you find yourself tripping over the words, or worse, eyes glazing over from a jargon-laden monotone, you’ve likely lost the reader as well.

As a recruiter specializing in the communication field, I’ve probably seen some of the most eloquently written resumes out there.  And yet, even the former journalists and poets who have channeled their talents into corporate communication roles can easily fall prey to using indistinguishable resume-speak rather than the crisp, compelling language that made them successful in the first place.  In this case, if your role as a communicator is to translate jargon into readable and actionable language for diverse audiences,  the resume presents a golden opportunity to illustrate your ability to do just that.

Finally, your LinkedIn profile offers an unparalleled opportunity to put your real voice out there. Here you can actually talk about yourself in the first person, and there are no time or space limitations.

Bottom line:  the key to finding the just-right pitch — in every sense of the word — is to make your job search an extension of your most comfortable self. Consider the alternative: if you sell yourself to a prospective employer in someone else’s voice, what happens when you’re on the job and they ask you to sing?

Your turn — asking the right interview questions for you

You’re anticipating an interview for your dream job. You’ve done your homework — researched the organization’s website, searched the blogosphere for commentary, and tapped your network for the inside story. You’ve practiced telling your stories in a problem/solution format in anticipation of behavioral interview questions that probe details of your past experience to better predict your success.

But there’s still one really important item on your preparation checklist: coming up the “right” questions to ask your prospective employer. Typically, you’ll have at most 5 or 10 minutes to address your questions, so you want to ask the ones that really count. So what are the right questions? OK, that’s a trick question. The truth is, there is no one-size-fits-all list of questions for every interview scenario. The only right answer is to ask the questions that if given the opportunity will help you decide whether this job is really the one for you.

Here are some guidelines to help get you started:

Think about behavioral interviewing in reverse. Just as an employer asking you to list your strengths is less helpful than asking you a question that demonstrates them, asking a prospective employer a general question such as “what is your culture?” will likely result in a pretty general, superficial response. If you want to understand the culture, why not take a page from your interviewer’s book and ask about, say, a time when the company went through a very stressful period and how they handled it?

Interested in whether the company promotes from within? Instead of asking the question in a yes/no format, you might ask for examples of people who came up through the ranks in the department where you are interviewing. What is the interviewer’s own history there? Remember, you don’t want to come across as an interrogator. You want to demonstrate healthy, completely appropriate curiosity.

Show you’ve done your homework but be wary of asking “showboat” questions that won’t really add to your own decision-making process. For example, if your role will have an international focus or you are interested longer term in an international assignment, you might learn a lot by asking your interviewers to expand on the website description of their presence in Tokyo or Sydney. But if this is not a focus of either the role or your longer-term interests, you probably don’t want to use one of your precious question opportunities there.

Strike a balance between questions that show you have done a thorough research job and those that reflect your true interests. Not only will you come across as more engaged and sincere — because you will be! — but you will also come away with knowledge that will inform your career search. Besides, employers can usually detect formulaic questions, the ones that sound like “I’m asking this because I’m supposed to,” a mile away.

Any questions?

What’s your career music?

I was reflecting the other day that certain songs put me in the best frame of mind to push forward. Whether it’s helping a client push through an obstacle to applying for a dream job — or just inspiring me to push past personal lethargy on a blah day — certain tunes never fail to change the momentum.

One of my can’t-miss favorites is “You Get What You Give” by the New Radicals. It reminds me that leading with positive energy (some might say good karma) is always the best way to re-fuel and replenish. As the song says, “you’ve got the music in you…don’t give up.” There is always “one dance left,” and if “you feel your tree is breaking,” you can “just bend.” Having just come through knee surgery, that line especially resonates for me!

Of course, “You Get What You Give” could also be the mantra for job exploration, and networking in particular. It speaks to the power of placing giving ahead of getting, and looking for opportunities to do so. The current best-seller “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success” by Adam Grant hits hard on this theme, positing that givers not only come out ahead at the end of the day, but build richer, more meaningful relationships, personally as well as professionally.

If you could set your own career search to music, what would it sound like?

Career exploration for middle schoolers: mock trials, rock stars…and frosting

This week nine months of planning came together at the annual Career Day — called Dimensions in Living — at my son’s middle school. As the parent chair of the committee that produced this extravaganza with 45 speakers for some 900 students aged 11 to 14, I can honestly say it was both an energizing and humbling experience.

Energizing, because as a recruiter and career counselor, I took some voyeuristic satisfaction in trying to figure out which types of speakers would both inform and engage this challenging age group. Humbling, because I couldn’t have predicted which speakers would draw the most interest — even for my own child!

Here’s some of what I learned:

Most middle schoolers (there are exceptions) aren’t yet thinking long term about careers. While sessions led by experts in practical fields like dentistry and accounting were challenging to fill, more than 400 students selected the cupcake baker as their number one speaker choice. With due respect to the talented and very successful baker we tapped for this career option, I think it’s fair to say that many kids were in it for the frosting.

Show and tell still counts. My son attended sessions led by a locally prominent news anchor and a well-known architect. He enjoyed both of their presentations, but the one that drew total raves was the team of police chiefs that packed some pretty impressive equipment.

Middle schoolers still like — and need — to move. From a local golf pro to a personal trainer to a professional soccer coach, the students attending these sessions were fully engaged. And there was a somewhat related career option that was also wildly popular: physical therapy!

They also crave creative expression. We had no less than three professional actors, two fashion designers, a rock musician and an interior designer, all of whom played to packed houses. All of these professionals took care to engage the students through interactive exercises or projects, giving them a platform of their own for future consideration.

They are inspired by those who serve our country. Two separate members of the military attracted filled-to-the-rafters audiences of both boys and girls.

They’ll even eat healthful foods if you make it fun. While the above-mentioned cupcake baker and a very popular caterer topped many students’ wish lists, I was pleasantly surprised that the less sexy-sounding “food educator” drew many fans as well.

Traditional professions captivate as well — the technology engineer who talked about finding inspiration in philosophy and chemistry in college, the vet who brought an irresistible large plush canine, and the judge who brought an entire entourage to enact a mock trial which students described as just plain “awesome.”

At the end of the day, when the speakers circled back to the library for a little R and R, I asked the accountant when he first became attracted to his field. “When I was about 17, he replied.” How about at age 12? “I never really heard of accounting.”

Perhaps the most interesting comments came from the adults, including many of the speakers: they wished for a “career day” for grown-ups. They wished they could attend many of the sessions offered for the kids.

In reflecting on that, I think it’s actually an awesome idea. Instead of sending adult career-changers out on informational interview after informational interview, what if we could bring the info to them? Not a job fair complete with resumes and applications, just a forum to exchange ideas and share experiences.

For middle schoolers, the goal of career day is to provide exposure to a broad range of options — and to resist the temptation to draw long-term conclusions from the students’ choices in the moment. For adults, the time urgency may be heightened, but there is also more life experience and wisdom to draw on. Career day could feel a bit more like speed dating, quickly ruling out options that just don’t feel right.

In any event, I’m all for infusing career days with a taste of frosting. Some experiences are just ageless.