Thursday, December 4, 2008

My Blog Has Moved

Please note that my blog has moved to. Just click on the title "My Blog Has Moved" to take you to the new site.

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Looking forward to keeping in touch!

Allison Cheston

Sunday, November 23, 2008

If Not Now, When?

At a bar mitzvah I attended yesterday, the boy spoke eloquently about the idea of serendipity. He described his favorite place in New York City to drink frozen hot chocolate (Serendipity, on E. 60th Street), and how he had just recently come to know the meaning of that word.

Some people believe more actively in serendipity than others, including a great many job seekers, as well as active daters, who spend a lot of time waiting for the phone to ring. When you're looking for a job, or a mate for that matter, it's pretty seductive to think that something will happen without any real, sustained action on your part.

So how to encourage serendipity? The rabbi who followed the bar mitzvah's talk spoke about one of the great Jewish sayings, "If not now, when?" He spoke about the notion of waiting for the phone to ring as counterproductive to the idea of serendipity. Because, it seems, serendipity can be encouraged by activity in a particular direction.

We all resolve to do certain things, and some of us are better at getting on with it than others. The rabbi's point was that the motivation to move ahead should be a powerful incentive in and of itself, without having the person at the other end of the phone (or the email, or any other form of communication) make the decision of when and how something is going to happen for you.

So resolve to take an active role in deciding what you want to do about your work life, and put a plan in place to make the right changes. Why wait for the motivation of the New Year's Resolution to propel you forward, or the friend who calls to ask if you want to start a business together? You won't be able to make the right decision if you haven't done your homework and planned what you need from your work to feel happy and fulfilled.

As I've said in other posts, it's not a great time to make a career move. But it is a good time to explore your values, interests and potential opportunities so when the call comes--or when Obama's economic stimulus plan takes hold and companies begin hiring again--you're prepared for serendipity. If not now, when?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

How To Not Be Down in a Down Market

I'm generally pretty good about maintaining a positive attitude and I know what to do to keep my equilibrium. But man, reading the paper these days makes you want to jump off the nearest bridge. There's just endless bad news.

The thing that always makes me feel better is getting more information so I can make better decisions and advise my clients more effectively. To that end I've been interviewing retained search consultants about their businesses, and while many say that their clients are waiting until January to make hiring decisions, I wanted to share with you that there are still some bright spots within certain sectors.

To give you an idea, in one of the hardest hit sectors, financial services, Betsey Wood of Global Sage told me the following: "Senior roles continue to be needed, but they are changing. There are fewer pure “management” or rainmaker roles, as opposed to hands-on leadership and continued P&L responsibility for clients, even at the most senior levels. For example, in terms of retained search, there’s a lot more emphasis on specialized sales jobs. There is definitely a collapsing and merging of different pieces of the silos. We’re being asked to introduce talent for multi-asset class sales platforms, requiring a different type of salesperson, someone who can cross-sell both fixed income equity and derivative products, across a diverse range of institutions in a specific country or geography."

Management consulting is still doing fairly well, and restructuring is booming. HR consulting is healthy as companies more and more frequently outsource those functions. And healthcare is holding its own and will continue its upswing as people live longer and catastrophic illnesses become more manageable as chronic conditions.

If you are currently employed, the most common recommendation is to stay put; it's too risky to make a move right now, unless you absolutely have to. This is the time to shore up the good will of your employer by working more efficiently and taking on extra projects that may bring you additional experience and exposure at your company.

If you've been laid off or have been out of the job market for awhile, you may want to consider re-tooling your skills to become more relevant in today's market. There are plenty of creative ways to do that and they don't have to include earning a higher degree.

Taking positive action usually makes people feel better, as opposed to wallowing in misery and spending too much time watching the news. So get out there and take a step; it will only make the next steps come more easily and you'll feel good that you're doing something to enhance your future.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Tough Times Are a Litmus Test for Whether You’re in the Right Career

You don’t need me to tell you that the business climate is very uncertain, to say the least. So many industries are taking a hit, and everyone is asking you: “How’s your business?”

It’s likely that you’re busier than ever. If you have clients, they need hand-holding and persuading. If you’re at an organization, it is likely to be very lean at the moment; you may be doing the job of two or three people. The question on the table, that you may be too preoccupied to ask yourself, is: Have you considered your own career lately?

Now you may scoff at this question. After all, you may have logged many years in your position or industry, it may feel like your calling. And perhaps it is. If it is, you can stop reading here, no need to consider this further, you have more than enough on your plate.

But if this question strikes a chord, or at least gives you pause, you may want to read on.

The truth is, it’s never a bad time to assess your career. If you’re forward-thinking you make it your business to do it periodically, just to make sure you’re on the right track. There are many ways to conduct a career assessment, and I’ll address that later. The point is: right now, in a down economy, do you have the time and inclination to work on yourself?

That depends on how satisfied you feel in your career today. You may say: How can I feel satisfied in my career when the market is in such bad shape? There’s so much pressure right now, how can I really enjoy the work I’m doing?

What would you say if I told you that the right career is one that feels that way most of the time? It should not feel right when business is up and wrong when business is down. You should feel confident most of the time that you are engaged, growing and making a contribution, whatever that means to you. I’m not ignoring the fact that work may be frustrating right now, but that shouldn’t bring you down, day after day. If you start your days feeling challenged and regularly end with a sense of failure, something is definitely wrong.

You may not be in one of the few industries that is currently growing. But putting aside that you might not be as financially successful this year as during the last few years, what does your career really mean to you? What aspects of the profession keep you charged up and ready to dig in each day? Do you have the interest, skills and talent to stay where you are or should you invest your energies elsewhere?

If you are feeling frustrated and enervated in a tough market, you may want to explore some new career tracks. It’s never a bad time to investigate, you don’t have to make a move until you’re ready.

Join me here next time as I provide some ideas on conducting your own career assessment. Meanwhile, I welcome your questions and comments.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Edit Thyself

I have a new client who sought me out to help her package her information for a position she's very excited about. She is a highly accomplished non-profit professional with 25 years of experience, and has an extremely impressive resume. But damn is it long.

This is possibly the most common question I get from people: how long should my resume be? The truth is, there are really no clear rules today, especially since many resumes are posted online, and there are no real criteria for those. The rule of thumb, in my mind, should be: Put yourself in an employer's (or search consultant's) shoes.

Imagine you are a senior manager, under a lot of stress at the moment, with an open position reporting to you. Perhaps you've hired a search firm to conduct your search, or you may be spending more hours than you'd care to name trolling websites and reading resumes. You are starting to feel desperate; it seems counterintuitive that with so many people out of work, the ideal candidate has not presented him/herself.

With your employer hat on, think about the kind of communication you would like to see from that ideal candidate. Would you be interested in someone who merely attached a resume as a response to your posting, no cover letter in sight? Would you be inclined to respond to someone who wrote to you as Dear Sir/Madam, when you had clearly listed your name and title? Would you give someone a call if they wrote a 2-page cover letter and their resume was 10 pages long, including addenda and footnotes?

I can tell you from the perspective of both employer and search consultant, all of these examples are more common than you would expect.

So going back to this client of mine, she's having some trouble seeing the forest through the trees. She's afraid to leave anything off her resume, lest it be the one thing that will spark interest.

My job is to help her package herself so that she's done the hard work for the search firm and the employer. She needs to share the right amount of experience to get the employer to ask for more detail. If she fails to edit her material appropriately, it will be seen as a red flag and she won't get a call.

If you have done your homework, your resume will be an effective sales document, showcasing your unique selling proposition and providing the proof you can continue your successful track record with your next employer. If you don't do the work upfront, I can tell you for sure, you won't get a call.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Keeping Your Career Healthy in a Sick Economy

Today's New York Times features a piece called "Staying Healthy in a Sick Economy". It caught my attention. This particular article talked about staying fit, a particular obsession of mine, but it got me thinking about other wellness issues that can crop up during times of stress.

One of the reasons I became a career advisor is I strongly believe we all need other people to help guide us and boost us on a regular basis. I've mentioned in other posts the idea of selecting a personal "board of directors", because we all benefit from the advice of those we respect. It is not a sign of weakness to ask others to help, but the ask should be specific. And that is where coaching comes in.

Finding a partner during a time of change or crisis is an excellent investment in your mental health. Making a career or life change is always tough, but it doesn't have to be debilitating. It's incredibly helpful to have someone in your corner.

Now most of us don't have to hire people to be in our corner, we have friends and family members who love and care about us. But having a coach is very different from having a spouse; this person is focused on a particular aspect of your life--in my case, your career--and is bringing his or her professional experience to bear on your issue.

That means that your change will probably happen a lot faster, more efficiently, and with better results. And you will protect yourself from spiraling downward during a stressful time.

Now that's a good investment. So drink your milk, go to the gym, and if your career is under stress, find a good coach.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Getting the Phone to Ring

I received a comment on my last entry--about my friend who recently went back to work -- which I believe deserves its own topic. Here is the question as posed:

"It's just intimidating that she was getting all these calls about jobs - didn't she have to do SOMETHING to make that happen? Otherwise I am lost - my phone never rings with job offers!"

First of all, let me say this: The number one way people get jobs is through their network, and a very high percentage of jobs comes not from your first-line network, ie. the people you communicate with regularly, but the second and third tiers. This means that you need to work hard to get that phone to ring--and it needs to be a way of life. Networking is not something to be done in your spare time; it should be a regular part of your work and social life.

There's been a great deal written about networking's finer points and I won't get into the detail here. But suffice it to say that you want to be someone others think of when an opportunity arises, whether you are perfect for it or not. And if you're not the right person, ideally you want to be helpful and recommend someone who might just be. This goes, of course, for search consultants, who always remember who was helpful (and who wasn't). If a search consultant calls to pick your brain, it behooves you to provide as much information as you can, assuming they're from a reputable and ideally, retained firm.

What else can you do to get noticed in your field, or in a field you are considering entering? You can blog, you can speak, you can volunteer, you can intern. You can do a "vocation vacation" and try out a new career idea. You can create or join a group on Facebook or on LinkedIn, you can call attention to your industry knowledge by asking and answering questions on these business/social networking sites. You can follow prospective employers on Twitter.

There are so many ways to get noticed, and to link back to my friend and her new job, she was always doing these things because it came naturally. To others it may feel like work, but in the long run it will pay off.

I'd be happy to hear other ideas on how to get noticed and get your phone to ring.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Going Back to Work: The Thrill

A friend of mine just went back to work after having spent many years doing lots of other things: raising multiple children, consulting, contributing as a board member to her pet causes. She is a person of great energies and interests and always felt that when the time was right, she'd return to full-time work.

Her main concern was that she had so many responsibilities outside of work that ultimately she would be derailed. Or go crazy.

Because this friend is someone who knows everyone and keeps up with her giant rolodex, opportunities have been coming at her for years. But earlier this year, she got a call about a job that seemed tailor-made for her. Plus it offered some flexibility.

To make a long story short, after a great many interviews and lots of hand-wringing and soul-searching, she took the job. And the interesting thing is that she reported to me the other day that she actually feels she is more productive, happier and even calmer, than she was before.

She attributes this to a couple of things which I want to share with you. First of all, the fact that she is now employed in her dream job means that she no longer spends the emotional energy worrying, fretting and feeling guilty about putting the fulfilling her potential piece on hold.

The other thing she reports is that she is amazed at how helpful her family has been. They understand she's working and they are pitching in--much more than previously. They were all supportive of her taking this job and they are stepping up to the plate.

The third thing she says is that she now has a space to call her own where she can do her work, return calls, pay bills, all under a work umbrella.

She feels she is more efficient and generally happier. And she's working four days per week, very close to where she lives.

Now I realize she's in the honeymoon period. But even if during her tenure with her new organization she regularly gets 50% of these benefits, it's still a good tradeoff. And don't forget, she's getting paid too.

If this is motivating to you, it should be. Even in a down economy, there are jobs that can be adjusted to meet your particular situation. It's up to you to package your credentials and advocate for yourself. Let me know if you need help!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

What They're Doing Now

In the past month I've spent time planning something I never thought much about: my 30th high school reunion.

While I went to a really good small high school where everyone knew each other, I never really felt like my high school years delivered the optimal experience. Call me a late bloomer, but I have always preferred my adult life to the years that came before.

So I didn't really keep in touch with people, even though I had some good friendships lasting throughout.

Then a couple of months ago, an old classmate found me on Facebook, and we decided to organize a reunion. And so I've been spending much more time on Facebook than I ever dreamed and secretly enjoying it! (This may not seem relevant to careers but be patient, dear reader...)

As I tracked people down and got back in touch, I found that many people I was either peripherally or really friends with, and even those I didn't like, were doing very interesting things in their 40's. Not only interesting things, but things that seem like they fit the people they were beginning to be, even way back in the 70's.

As a career consultant, I'm always interested in what people gravitated to as children, because those proclivities tend to stay pretty much the same. We just don't tend to change all that much.

To give you a bit of an idea of what I found through my informal study, here is a short list:

-The fiery and intensely competitive athlete with one of the boldest personalities I've ever encountered, first re-named herself and opened a restaurant in the theater district and years later founded a successful yoga studio with branches around the country. She is now a poster child for the yoga and wellness movement and lives on the West Coast.

-The cerebral and intense daughter of a psychiatrist who was always fascinated with analyzing people is now a PhD research scientist studying the workings of the brain on behalf of a major NYC hospital group.

-The athletic, outdoorsy and no-nonsense basketball player who attended an East Coast state school and majored in biology, and is now a toxicologist living on a houseboat with her family in Northern California.

-The intellectual and incredibly articulate friend who was always an iconoclast, is a history professor in the Midwest focused on the issues of race, culture, immigration and citizenship.

So you see where I'm going with this. You too can do your own ethnographic study among people you've known for many years. It is definitely revealing. I suggest that doing a looking back exercise on yourself may be time well-spent. If you don't recognize what you are doing today as an expression of who you once were, you may in fact be on the wrong track.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Pinching Yourself

I had lunch with a colleague yesterday, a woman named Suzanne Zemke, whom I met through coaching. Having worked in big corporations for most of her career, Suzanne was given the "gift" of a layoff several months ago.

Instead of going back to the same type of job with the requisite steady paycheck, she decided to take a risk. Now this is someone who is very organized about everything in her life. So, she has done a budget to plan how much she will spend in a year, and has saved enough to cover her expenses while she checks things out a bit.

She's decided to become a management coach. And it turns out, she's an excellent one.

Within a few months she has created a plan, built a website, put together a seminar and has a small stable of clients. She has analyzed how many clients and seminars she needs to have each year to make enough money to support her lifestyle. She is flying.

She said to me over lunch that she never imagined, while toiling away at big companies over the years, that she could create the kind of life for herself she is now in the process of creating. She described the feeling of leading a coaching session and being in that perfect state of flow--like when she got to a certain point of her training for the marathon.

She jumped off a cliff, and she feels amazing.

So can any of us. It's all about creating and executing a plan that makes sense, one that enables you to take the risk, but limit any negative fallout.

I would love to hear your cliff story, if you'd like to share it with other readers.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Tips for Job Seekers

I am consulting with an organization called Nexxt Phase, for women in career transition. We are in the process of redefining the vision of the group and determining ways we can help women achieve their career goals.

We put together a list of tips for job-seekers, with special focus on women returning the workforce. I thought I'd share them here.

• Your career effort should be a PUSH, not a PULL. This means you should avoid getting absorbed in trolling the Internet and applying for positions, which will give you a false sense that you are doing something productive. Instead, the focus should be on determining what you want to do, what organizations might hire you and finding contacts in those organizations. This is a marketing effort and the brand is YOU.
• Put all of your information on your resume. You want to manage expectations about you, and that means including pertinent dates such as when you graduated from college. Hiding your age will not prevent ageism and may backfire since employers could make an assumption that you are significantly younger than you are and be surprised when they meet you.
• Be opportunistic, prepared and strategic. Get out and attend things, consider everyone a potential lead. It is typically your secondary contacts—friend of a friend, etc.—that become the ultimate conduit to a new job.
• Know that there is no one perfect job that will fulfill all of your needs. Know what your skills and interests are and seek out positions that meet at least 2-3 of your key criteria.
• Define what you are looking for and ask your contacts for what you need from them. Be specific, give people a hook. The onus is on you to define your own needs. You will get a much higher response rate this way than asking “for any ideas you may have”.
• Just get started. Get off the fence and commit to something and take steps. It is very easy to postpone a decision until everything is well-defined, but that day may never come.
• Establish criteria, test and modify as you gain feedback.
• Package what you’ve done and what you are seeking in an effective elevator pitch. This pitch should put into 3-4 sentences, your background and what you are seeking in a job. It should be polished, confident and memorable. The elevator pitch is designed to catch someone at a random moment and provide them enough detail and impetus to be helpful to you.
• Show your strength in interviews. Remember: You are interviewing them too, it is very much a two-way street.
• If you are interested in creating a flexible work schedule, define what that means to you and package it as a win-win for both yourself and the organization. Don’t rule out positions that are full-time; once you’ve gotten beyond the preliminary interviews you can begin to investigate flexibility.
• Create a personal Board of Directors. This should include people who care about you, are willing to speak the truth and who have complementary and desirable skills.
• Never turn down a meeting, you never know what will come of it. Network by joining professional associations and support groups where you can expand your circle.
• Be okay with where you are right now; be positive. And take steps to move forward. This process requires patience, commitment and discipline.

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Organizing Principle

As a consultant, I find it tough to get organized.

I am not shy about mentioning this, since I talk to other consultants all the time, and they usually have the same problem.

Not that being super organized about my work has ever been a great strength! My tendency is to work in a more stream of consciousness way, which means that I stay open to opportunities that present themselves, which can be good except...when the day ends and I scratch my head and think "What did I do today?"

This is not a great feeling.

So I've been working with a coach. Yes, a coach who is a project manager and clearly gets a lot done herself. With her help, I am disciplining myself to create some "chunky goals" during the week, and to write down the steps to getting there. And this has definitely improved my productivity.

This of course is not rocket science. But it makes me feel better.

The truth is, some of us are better at idea generation and some at execution. And when you work on your own, you have to learn to do both.

I'm a big fan of getting help when you need it--maybe that's one of the reasons I became a career coach. So I encourage all my clients to figure out what they're good at, and get support on the things that don't come as easily. There is no shame in this; we can't all be good at everything. And as Marcus Buckingham says, the more time we spend focusing on our strengths, the more impact we'll ultimately have.

If you're in the market for a coach and you'd like some advice, email me and I'll give you the names of some people I think are really good.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Lunching Ladies

Yesterday I was the lead speaker at a seminar for women considering going back to work.

This was the first in a seminar series called Mind Your Own Business Moms, started by two women I know through my kids' school.

It was held in a restaurant, and there were about 25 women there, prosperous and engaged in their lives but looking for a career to complete their fulfillment.

My presentation was entitled "Why Work?", which I felt was apt considering these women are making a choice to work, and income is likely a secondary factor.

I feel very passionate about women working as a protective measure. The truth is, 50% of us will get divorced and many of us will be widowed. Women outlive men by seven years, and that number is growing. A horrifying statistic: In the first year a woman is divorced her standard of living plummets by 73% on average.

So one of the things I always stress to women is this: You never know.

If you start planning your career now, in a few years you'll be making enough of a living to re-invigorate your earning power in the long-term.

I shared many, many thoughts and tips with this group, and I will share a couple here:

-Figure out what you want to do, what companies interest you, and then find the right person to contact at those companies. Never go in blind.

-Don't use the Internet to apply for jobs; unless you can prove that you fit the exact profile of what they are seeking in the ad, you will be ignored. Women who haven't worked in years and/or are seeking part-time work do not qualify. Answering ads only makes you think you're making progress when you're not.

-You never know where you might find a job so be prepared. Have an elevator pitch, and use both old and new networks to talk with people.

Anyway, there's lots more in my presentation. If you'd like to view more of it, just email me and I'll get it to you.

Happy hunting!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Making Your Resume Squeaky Clean

Today I was interviewing a search consultant for a project I'm doing: a series of interviews about the current hiring climate in various sectors, for the career management website

We were talking about a common acquaintance who recently took a very senior job. It turns out that this particular search consultant had been considering this candidate for another very senior job, and at the very last minute the company withdrew their offer.

Why? Because in conducting their due diligence, the search firm found that the candidate had inflated his graduate degree. He said he had an MBA, but it turns out he had something different.

Now that's embarrassing. It turns out the search firm that ended up placing him in his new job either didn't check his credentials thoroughly or, more likely, he changed the description of his degree after his gaffe was discovered. So he got a job; no harm done, right?

Not so. The search firm that caught the degree detail will have notes in this candidate's file, and they happen to be the pre-eminent search firm in his industry. So the next time they have a hot opportunity, they're unlikely to get in touch with him. Too bad.

I mention this because it's a common occurrence. And when we've been working a long time, sometimes the early career details can seem a bit fuzzy and we find we're able to convince ourselves to tweak a resume detail to favor our current situation. My advice: Be careful. Don't do it. It could come back to haunt you.

When it comes to resumes, project a strong, positive image for sure. But don't embellish the facts--in the end, it's not worth it.

Fast Company