A Career Makeover for the Young Professional

When you’re busy and you’ve established a routine, it’s easy to put career thoughts on the backburner. It’s like your health. If a body part doesn’t actively hurt, you’re not forced to pay attention. In the same way, your career may seem on track. If you’re doing well and there’s no evidence of trouble on the horizon, it’s tempting to keep your head down, work hard, and maintain the status quo. But if you do that, you may not see opportunities that better match your values and interests.

Once you start looking around you may also find that your concept of career is no longer accurate. Employees now move jobs and change careers regularly. And there aren’t hard and fast rules for getting ahead anymore. Mid-career professionals can learn something younger grads already know: When it comes to finding a path to your ideal position, you’re the one in the driver’s seat. Don’t count on anyone taking you along for the ride.

So if you want a career makeover, where do you start? Here’s a four-pronged approach.   First, examine yourself. Second, identify a good fit. Third, think like an employer. And finally, get your own board.

Examine Yourself

Your first task is to put yourself under the microscope, analyzing your preferences in the context of your career so far. When you consider the positions you’ve held, think about the work itself, the people, and the environment.

  • What did you love? Did you relish, for example, being the go-to person—the one who always got things done? Were you part of a team that worked cohesively and effectively?
  • What did you hate? Did you constantly bristle at the boss who looked over your shoulder? Did being in a cubicle pouring over Excel spreadsheets drive you nuts?
  • What skills did you feel proud to have possessed or developed? Did you learn to be a great manager?
  • What characteristics are important to you in any job? Is work-life balance a critical component? Do you know that you need challenging work?

Identify a Good Fit

Your next task also requires some introspection and investigation. When you’re considering where to work, it’s hard to resist money and prestige. But the savvy job seeker knows that neither factor really matters unless the job opportunity is compatible with your style and personality.

The first step is to size up your current organization, evaluating organizational culture, the nature of your work responsibilities and supervision.   Ask yourself whether your talents are being used effectively, whether you have the opportunity for professional growth, and if the way you’re supervised is consistent with the way you like to work. Ultimately the definition of fit comes down to the question of “are you happy going to work each day”?

Fit is something that may change over time. Perhaps you no longer want to work 80-hour weeks. Perhaps the person who hired you has left and the replacement could kindly be described as “the boss from hell”. Part of having a career makeover is figuring out whether the fit with your current employer is still good.

If your analysis indicates that switching employers is a prudent move, how do you find a better opportunity? Many companies have comprehensive websites that explain their culture and values, so that’s a good place to start. But a much better strategy is to find someone who works in the organization to give you a personal assessment. Your alumni office may be able to point you to an appropriate contact. Sometimes employer rhetoric and reality don’t match!

Finally, you need to identify a series of “fit” questions to ask your prospective employer–questions like “what kind of person does well in this organization?”, or “how would you characterize your management style?”. The time to do this is when you’re in the hiring “sweet spot”–after you’ve been offered the job and before you’ve accepted!

Think Like An Employer

Once you’ve identified where you’d like to work, visualize the hiring manager at your ideal employer reading your resume and cover letter. Imagine she’s reading hundreds of applications and within 10 seconds she’ll make a decision whether to pursue your candidacy.

When most people talk about their experience, they emphasize the areas in which they have achieved the most. But your highly developed technical skills and ability to create top quality websites may be perceived as irrelevant in a sales position. The key to thinking like an employer is to focus like a laser on the requirements of the position, and put your relevant qualifications front and center. Consider the format of your resume and the way you’ve ordered your accomplishments. Do the required abilities show up first? Does your cover letter make it easy for an employer to visualize you in the job?

Obviously your resume needs to be easy to read, up-to-date, with no typos. But your application materials also need to shout out “I have the qualifications, the experience, and the enthusiasm you need. I can add value.”

Get Your Own Board

Everyone can benefit from an outside review when they’re going through a career makeover. Have you set your sights too low? Do you have a major skill, like fundraising, that you developed through your volunteer work but is nowhere to be seen on your resume?

Appoint your own personal board of advisors—people whom you know and trust, but aren’t hopelessly biased in your favor. Often the best people are former bosses or colleagues. Good advisors support, but they also critique and ask difficult questions. They’re the people who can help you identify your competence gaps and suggest how you can make up for a lack of experience or education. They’re the ones who’ll tell you how to strengthen your cover letter or find a “hook” to rise above the competition. An added value is that your advisors will intimately know your interests and aspirations. Treat them well, and you’ll find them a great source of referrals to people in their own network of colleagues.

Many professionals with good jobs in these post-recession days are tempted to stay put. But keeping your head down is a bad career move. The young professionals who succeed in the long term are those who identify how they can best contribute to their organization and can articulate what they have learned from the experience. And if you find that you’re not growing in knowledge and skill, it’s time to move on.

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