M ost of us will be in a career transition at some point in our professional lives. It is becoming increasing rare to find professionals who have spent a majority of their career at a single company. The generation currently entering the work force does not expect to stay. They believe strongly that growth, development and career advancement is achieved through change. If they are not happy in an employment situation or feel that they are not growing professionally, they leave.
When I was a child, most of the adults in my life had worked for one, or maybe two, companies their entire life. As part of the group which straddles the Baby Boomers and Generation X, I grew up with dire warnings against job hopping (defined by my mother as not staying at least five years with each employer). I was told never to leave one job without having first secured the next one. And yet, in February 2019, I found myself unemployed and searching for a new job after having spent the prior 22 years with one company. I was clueless as to how to go about a job search. The last time I interviewed, we worried about the color, thickness and texture of the bond paper on which we printed our resumes, which we then mailed to potential employers. How times have changed! I pause here to wonder about whether all readers even know what bond paper is?
Now that I have come out on the other side, I wanted to share some of my learnings. The fact is that change can be good, for individuals and for corporations. For me, this period of transition brought the opportunity for enormous personal growth. For the corporation, it brought a new leader with new ideas and experiences, and the ability to implement change. At the end of this process, I find myself grateful for this opportunity to grow, change and follow my dreams. Obvious legal disclaimer: individual results may vary. Every person’s transition situation is different. These are just my thoughts and your experience may differ.
First, the job search process is emotionally challenging. Someone told me that the highs are incredibly high, and the lows incredibly low. What surprised me the most was cycling through the highs and the lows in the very same day. If you are preparing to embark on a job search, focus on taking care of yourself. This is more than just the obligatory trip to a beach or abroad. Take the time to recover and say goodbye to your old position and former life, especially if the circumstances of your departure were less than pleasant. Finding a new job might involve relocation or other significant changes in your personal life. Talk to trusted friends or an executive coach. Seek professional help if necessary. Even if you left your role voluntarily, there will still be emotions to process. It is very hard to interview for a new role when there is unfinished emotional business that ties you to the old one, or you are emotionally so shattered that you do not project confidence. Working through these emotions also can help you figure out what type of role you are seeking, remembering that this time off is an opportunity to explore new possibilities. You do not have to do the exact same thing as you did before.
For me, networking events were an important part of managing my emotions. Before I left my job, I booked my calendar for the next several months to make sure that I would be busy. I volunteered to speak at continuing legal education events and other conferences. I threw myself in to speaking and writing on topics of personal interest to me, including mental health in the legal profession. (Caveat: I love public speaking. If you do not, then find other ways to stay connected.) I spent more time on not-for-profit work. I attended events that were of interest. I took some training courses, most recently finishing the University of Chicago Booth Executive Education program on High Performance Leadership – something I had always wanted to do. I became a certified diversity professional, another development wish list item. I had the free time to meet others for lunches or coffee, and spent time mentoring others, including helping some in their own transitions. Networking was critical in helping remind me of who I was, both personally and professionally.
It is important to establish a new life routine and a plan for job search activities. Set up a home office area, and decide when you will be in it. For me, being in my home office by 8:00 a.m. (even if still in pajamas) was important. I know others who treat their home office as they did their work environment, arriving at the same time as they started work, fully dressed for a day at work. Searching for a job is a job in itself, but now you have control over your schedule. You likely will not be spending eight hours a day, every day, doing job search activities. Figure out when to do all of the things that you used to have to do in a rush during the weekend. It is ok to grocery shop at 10:00 a.m. on a Wednesday. Schedule physical activity and opportunities to enjoy nature. If you never had time for the doctor or dentist, make those appointments now. Do projects around the house, or try a new hobby. Plan time to be with your family and friends. Accept social invitations. Travel if you wish. Do not let the anxiety of seeking a new job prevent you from relishing your freedom. You will be back to work soon enough.
My first step in my job search was to introduce myself to recruiters. Here, I have to add a note. I had been so happy in my role that I had never really spoken to recruiters. I felt that I would be wasting their time if I was not actively looking for a new position. Looking back, this was a mistake. Even if you are not looking for a new role, when recruiters call, take the time to speak with them. I am so thankful to the recruiters who helped me in this process, even when they did not have a position available. For example, a recruiter helped me with my resume, even though there was no immediate job opportunity to discuss. Another recruiter opened my eyes to the possibilities of relocating, something that I had longed to do for years, but would not have had the guts to pursue had I not met her and realized that it was a very real possibility.
When working with recruiters, ask for their advice. A couple of things that I remember: “don’t spend time where there is already alignment,” and “you do not have to sell your resume.” I asked each recruiter for feedback on my interviewing skills both before and after the interview. Too often, we hear that another candidate was a ‘better fit.’ Is there more to it than that? Not all recruiters are comfortable sharing feedback, but when they do, they are helping you become a more marketable candidate. This is especially important for those who have not been on the job market recently. I should also add a caveat here that I worked almost exclusively with recruiters. I found the online application process to be incredibly challenging (sorry, I do not remember the month and day of each promotion in my twenty-plus year history with my former company). I never got an interview or in person contact from an online application, even though recruiters later called me on some of the same jobs.
Prior to interviewing, it is helpful to write down the answer to the question, “Tell me about yourself?” The answer is not a recitation of your resume. Based on the advice of an executive coach, I prepared a concise three bullet-point answer, designed to tell an interviewer who I was personally and professionally. I also prepared a longer version, which included highlights of my career. In both cases, and unless you were truly not looking when a recruiter contacts you, it is important to address why you left your former position or why you are looking. Interviewers did not always ask this question, but I learned that it was always on their mind. I also prepared talking points about the five things of which I was most proud in my career, after having received incredible advice from the Senior VP of HR at one of the companies at which I interviewed. Obviously, if anyone offers to provide feedback, say yes. Whether you agree with the feedback or not, it is still valuable to get the perspective. In my case, this individual’s feedback was a turning point in my ability to sell myself as a candidate.
You also have to prepare for the style of interview questions likely to be asked. Behavioral interviewing appears to be the current rage. “Tell me about a time when you had to give your boss bad news,” or “tell me about a time when you failed.” A Google search will turn up many examples of both questions and answers, and if you have an outplacement coach, they will provide this to you as well. I found many of the recommended answers to be very stiff and formal – not really me. I had to figure out how to answer each question in a way that was true to who I was, but still within the realm of what was expected by the interviewer. One challenge for those interviewing with several companies is how to appear fresh and spontaneous when you are being asked the same questions over and over. I remember being told that I was “too practiced” and appeared to be “anticipating the question.” That silent voice in my head said, “Of course. That was the sixth time I have been asked the same question in as many weeks.”
The job search process can be a wonderful time of personal growth. Early on, I had the chance to explore different career options – move into the non-profit world? Work for a start-up or spinco? Work in a different industry, or locate to a different geography? Joy was the key driver for me, and I developed my own criteria for defining joy. It can be challenging to hold onto those criteria, especially if you are looking to make significant change or do something unexpected. It is hard to explain to many interviewers why you might be looking for a role which seems smaller, or with a smaller company, or in a totally different industry or position. All I can say, from my personal experience, is that when I met the company that shared my definition of joy, it was an obvious fit.
As you walk through this process, remember that whether you have a job is not a reflection on who you are as a person. Many others have gone through this process and have found jobs they love, even more than the one they left behind. Even if you were fired or laid off, and no matter how bad your former work environment might have been, no one can take away or diminish what you have done in your career, or limit your happiness in the future.
Until next time…