Three Obstacles to a Career Move


March 7, 2007

by Marshall Goldsmith

Rachelle (Shelley) Canter is a career expert with more than 20 years of experience. She has coached many leaders and professionals through successful career moves in virtually every industry, function, and geography. Shelley has just published a career guide, Make the Right Career Move. We recently talked about her new book. Edited excerpts of our conversation follow:

Why did you write Make the Right Career Move? 

Each of us will likely make several major career changes in the course of our careers, yet no one teaches the essential skills needed to make them. Even many highly successful executives feel trapped in jobs they don’t enjoy, without the time or tools to make a change.

There are tons of books out there, but I never found one written for executives and professionals who have little time but need to make a big impact in a competitive marketplace. I couldn’t find that book, so I wrote it.

That sounds like a good reason. What are the primary obstacles to finding a dream job? 

There are three: your mind, your brand, and your focus. The first place people get stuck is in their heads – they believe their career possibilities are limited and never even try to identify, much less land, their dream job. While there is a reasonability check on dreams – for example, I’m not getting a job as a Cirque du Soleil performer, no matter how hard I try – if my clients had listened to all the naysayers, they wouldn’t have had a fraction of the career satisfaction and success they achieved. We all have more career possibilities than we realize.

How do you go beyond the blocks? 

The best way is to submit them to empirical scrutiny. For example, when you say there are no opportunities for marketing analysts without MBAs, is this factually true (no) or just a reflection of your own discouragement?

Once you’ve differentiated your emotional reactions or interpretations from objective fact, the next thing is to do a reasonability check: Would an employer hire me for my target job, based on my previous accomplishments and experience? Or is there an intervening job that will strengthen my candidacy? Dream, but dream realistically.

For example, a lawyer client of mine wanted to leave her corporate law firm practice for the more personally fulfilling work of being a law-school professor. Everyone told her that this was impossible, especially at mid-career. Had she simply approached law schools and applied for teaching jobs, it probably wouldn’t have been possible. But through a combination of writing a ‘sum’ that showcased her oral and written presentation skills (particularly in the courtroom) and tutoring experience, taking a teaching class, and volunteering to teach in a couple of programs, she was able to line up an adjunct teaching position at a local law school within a few months, and eventually compete successfully for a permanent teaching position. Her path from unrealized to fulfilled dreams is one that others can follow.

What else stands in people’s way? 

Too many people, especially people well-established in their careers, mistakenly view a job search as an opportunity to announce their availability when it’s really about marketing themselves. A successful job search is a marketing challenge. And if you don’t have a brand, you have nothing to market.

Can you define “brand” in the context of job search? 

Whether you’re starting out a career or have been in it for years, no one is the same chief marketing officer, nurse, litigator, or stock analyst you are. Your brand is a factual statement of your unique and valuable way of doing things. One way to define your brand is through the specific set of accomplishments in your ‘sum’. Your goal is to present the strongest brand you can.

Perhaps you’re a COO who’s a productivity booster – the person who takes mature or declining companies and finds new ways to streamline operations and motivate employees. By presenting specific instances in which you improved productivity, your ‘sum’ showcases your brand through measurable results and makes your ‘sum’ stand apart from a generic COO resume.

Whatever your career stage or career level, this branding strategy can help you stand out from the competition. If you’re in an entry-level, customer-service position and you’re the go-to person for handling unreasonable customers and fulfilling unreasonable, last-minute demands, showcase that with accomplishments that show different kinds of customer-service results. Branding is an effective strategy for anyone, and the sooner you master it, the more help it can provide throughout your career. Employers are rarely looking for generic employees. Branding ensures that you don’t inadvertently create a generic sum.

Tell me what else people do wrong. 

Many clients have made their own efforts to find work they love but they focused on the wrong things or did the right things the wrong way and ended up stuck in place. They mistakenly concluded that they weren’t marketable and gave up. The problem wasn’t with them, it was with their focus.

Despite the temptation of the Internet with its lure of a great new job only a click away, the fact is that 70% to 80% of jobs come through contacts, particularly for more senior people. There’s a huge opportunity cost in emphasizing the Internet for your job search, because, while it takes little time to apply for a particular job, it’s time that could be more profitably spent with your network.

Search consultants provide an alternative, but their clients generally direct them to identify candidates who have done the same job elsewhere, a problem if you’re looking to make a change.

So how do we focus on our network? 

By making it a priority to do outreach to a broad array of your contacts, whether or not they’re in your target profession or location. While your network is likely to be the source of your dream job, it’s the hardest job-search strategy to pursue. Many people are so busy with their jobs that they’ve let their networks languish.

Even people with active networks are reluctant to ask others for assistance. You can overcome this reluctance by remembering that you have something valuable to offer as a candidate, and also by looking actively for ways to reciprocate. That’s how you can turn networking into an enjoyable and valuable part of your search.

Can you give me an example? 

I recently had a client, a very intelligent, talented executive whose company had no room for him higher up the pyramid. He was frustrated and had been looking on his own for months, getting close to some interesting jobs but never getting the job. His company hired me to work with him, and a mere few weeks into our collaboration, he landed a dream job with a famous Silicon Valley company.

From the outset, his future boss tried to sell him on the [unadvertised] job. Why? According to the boss, the combination of a terrific ‘sum’ and a personal endorsement – from a not-very-close colleague – were enough to grab their attention, and then my client closed the deal by his personal presentation through the interview process.

By making a career move to a different kind of company and role, in a highly sought-after company, he demonstrated how overcoming the three obstacles of mind, brand, and focus can lead to a great new job. Watching others turn seeming impossibility into possibility and dream jobs – I’ve got the best job in the world!

Thanks for these tips. I think that any of us can benefit from reviewing how we may be creating our own obstacles of mind, brand, and focus – and how we can overcome these obstacles in our own lives.