Get Your Career on the Right Road

BusinessWeek

October 23, 2007

by Marshall Goldsmith

Maggie Mistal is a career coach who hosts Making a Living with Maggie on Martha Stewart Living Radio. When I met Maggie, I was reminded how many of us make wrong turns in our careers. The good news is no matter how far off course you think you are, there are steps you can take to right your career, whether it’s a case of the job not being a good fit, or you being in a career you’re not suited for or you’re no longer interested in. Here are edited excerpts of a recent conversation we had.

Have you found that even extremely successful people may have sometimes taken the wrong road? 

Wrong turns happen all the time. We never really know what the job will be like until we are in it. Sometimes we find that the job description doesn’t match the actual duties and that even more responsibilities have been added to our plates. Or perhaps the manager who was so kind during the interviews turns out to have a mean streak.

Even people who love a field in school can find themselves disappointed by the daily reality of that kind of work. That’s what happened to me. I got my undergraduate degree in accounting and enjoyed my courses. Thinking it was the right career, I focused on getting my CPA and landing a great job at a top firm. Unfortunately, the lifestyle of an accountant required more travel and longer hours than I bargained for. I felt I had made a serious wrong turn. Yet from there, I have been able to change course to become the career consultant and radio host I am today.

Quite a turn. What’s a key sign that you’ve made a wrong turn career-wise? 

Lack of interest. If you aren’t contributing your best, and are just going through the motions getting the minimum done, it may be that you’ve made a wrong turn. A client I worked with recently found that she just didn’t feel like giving work her all. Her manager was starting to notice as well. As we worked together, we realized her career in finance didn’t play to her interests in reading people and situations. She had valuable insights but they weren’t appreciated or rewarded in her current role. I coached her to approach her manager about creating a client-relationship role whereby her interests and talents would better serve the needs of the firm.

Are most managers sympathetic to changing their employees’ jobs if they’re not happy? 

Some managers are and some aren’t. But whatever kind of manager a person has, they have to be prepared to pitch the new role or job change. First, tell your manager you have an idea that you’d like his feedback on. Next, explain your idea for a new role and how this change will benefit both your manager and the company. It is much more difficult for a manager to say “no” if the change is beneficial to all parties. Finally, ask your manager to pilot the idea for 90 days. Piloting is a great way to test out the new role and show results. It also takes the pressure off your manager because there is a built-in deadline for scrapping it if the idea doesn’t work.

What other signs may point to a wrong turn? 

Lack of energy. I’ve had clients [who have made wrong turns] tell me they feel they have to put in 10 times more energy than their co-workers just to get the job done. They also say their family and friends comment on how tired they seem all the time. If you feel work is a drain on you, chances are you’ve made a wrong turn, especially if you dread going to work every day. Many people accept that work is a meant to be a chore and don’t even recognize their lack of energy as a sign of a wrong turn. The right career fuels you – and gives you energy.

Perhaps, but most people can’t just walk away from their jobs. How do you suggest people get back on the right path? 

Step one is to forgive yourself. Don’t waste time beating yourself up for having made a bad career decision. You’re not a failure. The job just wasn’t a good fit.

Next, don’t blame others. The last thing you’ll want to do is point fingers at your manager or your colleagues for your bad job experience. Bad-mouthing others will only damage your relationships, and in today’s connected world you never know who knows who.

Create an exit strategy. If you need the paycheck from the “wrong turn” job, you can still take steps to move onto the right path. These steps are not usually immediate, but rather more of a process. For instance, work with a coach or mentor to determine the right next step for your skills and experience and get back into job search mode. Next, take time to make a list and document a timeline and don’t be afraid to let your network know you’re back on the market. They’ll want to know why you’re making a change, so be prepared with a valid response that doesn’t make you look like a job-hopper.

Any suggestions on how a person can ensure a good fit and avoid repeating a wrong turn? 

Ask the right questions in the job interview. I coached a client out of a stifling job and into a better fit by helping her formulate questions for her next potential boss. She wanted a manager who was a mentor and not a micromanager, so she asked the manager to share the ways he’s grown and developed previous employees. Luckily, he didn’t give her a blank stare, but rather real examples of successful employees he has developed in the company.

And remember, no turn is completely a wrong turn. You have learned and developed in every job you’ve had. Put a positive spin on your career path and find ways to link your past experiences with your dream job. I was not cut out to be a CPA, but since then I’ve realized that all my career choices have been helpful to me. For example, my CPA degree gives me greater credibility as a coach when working with business people and helps me understand the demands of a corporate career.

Can our readers contact you? 

Definitely. I can be reached at maggie@maggiemistal.com or at Making a Living with Maggie on the radio on SIRIUS (SIRI) Satellite 112 every Thursday at 7 p.m. EST.