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The Seven Steps to a Better Job

By Marty Nemko

David (name changed), 37, was a project manager for a hardware manufacturer on the Peninsula. In July 2001, he was part of a layoff. Jobs were being shipped to India.

He was partly relieved because he wasn’t really sure he wanted to spend the rest of his life in high-tech. But with his wife pressuring him to get back on the treadmill—she really wants to buy a house--he figured he didn’t have time for a career change, and besides he would love to have traded his 8-year old Corolla for a new SUV, so he started answering ads and asking his network for leads. 18 months later, he was still unemployed—and now scared. That is how David entered my office.

I took David through a process I call The Seven Steps.

Step 1. Do you want to embrace a simpler lifestyle to increase your career options?

I asked David what his happiest moments were. He said that as a child, he loved when his mother woke him up on a school day and said, “School’s closed. Snow day.” He’d spend at least an hour in sitting at the kitchen window watching snowflakes land on the window. As an adult, his happiest moments: the first sip of a cold beer, when he lost track of time on a work project, the first moment he begins to make love to his wife.

I then asked him if he thought he’d likely get enough pleasure from buying a home and an SUV to compensate for having to forever have a job that paid well enough to afford those. Since he wasn’t going to be a doctor, lawyer, investment banker, business owner, nor had rare and highly valued technical expertise, that probably meant commission-based sales. I pointed out that if he were willing to forego buying a home in the Bay Area, many more rewarding career options would open. He said he wanted to consider those options.

Step 2. Identify your career non-negotiables. The traditional career counselor’s approach is to help clients identify their skills, interests, values, personality characteristics, and work environment desires. The problem is that process takes too long and even after it’s complete, it’s usually difficult to find a realistic career that fits.

Instead, I asked David to identify just his career non-negotiables—the things he absolutely, positively had to have in a job.

I told him that many men need to learn a lesson from women: have higher standards for the work they’re willing to do. Most women will not work in an iron foundry. They will not work 60 hours a week. More women than men insist on a job that would make the world a better place. Men too often act like beasts of burden. They’ll do whatever it takes to provide for their family. Too often they end up with unrewarding lives or drop dead of early heart attacks--for every woman who dies of a heart attack in her 50s, four men do.

In light of that, David decided that his non-negotiables were: working for a good cause, a job that used his ability to be persuasive, and a short commute.

I asked David to tell his non-negotiables to everyone: from his parents’ friends to his haircutter to alumni of his alma mater. I assured him that if he spoke to 20 people, at least a few would give him a lead. But he came back the next session admitting he had called no one—he was embarrassed to tell people he was looking. I explained to him that yes, some people will look down on him, but others—who had perhaps fallen into their jobs by chance, not choice-- will respect you for your focused search for good work: “I want an opportunity to use my persuasiveness for a good cause in the East Bay.” He was still apprehensive but my explanation reduced his fear to a manageable level. I said, “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” He did, and a member of his alumni association suggested he become a development (fundraising) specialist. David liked the idea.

3. Train time-effectively for your new job or career.

The aforementioned alumnus suggested that David get a masters in public administration. That appealed to David—a degree program provides a nicely laid-out path.

I urged him, however, to consider foregoing State U for what I call “You U.” I explained that most of what you learn in a university is irrelevant to your career. It’s what those theoretically minded professors care about, not what you need to know. At “You U,” you select one or two experts in the field, in this case successful fundraisers, and ask them, “What should I read? What workshops should I attend? Would you mind if I watched you work?”

But David asked, “Won’t employers much rather see a degree from State U than from You U?” I asked him, “Imagine you got a cover letter from an applicant that said,

I was considering going to State U, but heard that much of what is taught is irrelevant to being a good fundraiser. So I decided to get trained by master fundraisers. I was mentored by three top directors of development, attended two intensive workshops on fundraising, and have read the best articles and books on the subject. I chose to emphasize substance over form, but now comes the moment of truth. Will you interview me?

I asked David, “If you were the employer, would you interview this candidate?” He said, “Absolutely.” Indeed, at the recent San Francisco Chronicle Job Fair, when I asked that question of the audience, nearly everyone raised their hand.

Over just a three-month period, David learned more of real-world value at You U than he probably would have in a two- or three year masters program. And it didn’t cost him a dime.

4. Do a two-week intense job search

Most people do their job search in drips and drabs: each week’s job search may include just answering one ad and telling a couple of friends they’re looking. That is very unlikely to be successful. Make so few inquiries and weeks and weeks are likely to pass without encouragement. So, such job seekers usually give up on their job search or take whatever job comes along, even if it’s a bad one.

Compressing your job search into two weeks brings huge benefits:

-- You are more likely to implement it (You’re more likely to endure it if you know they’ll be over in just two weeks).

-- You’re more likely to receive encouragement within the first few days because you’re making many more inquiries in those few days.

-- It’s more likely to generate multiple job offers at the same time. That enables you to pick the better job—a big plus.

I asked David, in Week One, to answer seven want ads that he was truly qualified for. I gave him enough websites that he’d certainly be able to find seven such openings. I also asked him to recontact the people in his network, now saying that he’s identified a job target: a fundraising job in the East Bay, and might they know someone he should talk with. Finally, I asked David to identify 20 East Bay nonprofits that he’d be excited to work for, to email them a brief cover letter and then follow up a few days later with a phone call “I’m the person who wrote to you a few days ago, eager for your advice on how to land a development position or perhaps figure out a way I could raise money for you. I’m assuming, having not heard from you, that you have no interest, but I know how things can fall between the cracks, so I’m taking the liberty of calling to follow up.”

Within a month after his two-week job search, he received two job offers. Because he had crammed all that job searching into two weeks, it was not surprising that he had two offers on the table at the same time.

5. Negotiate wisely.

When David got a voice mail offering him a position--a job upgrading an East Bay private school’s fundraising operation, I told him: “Don’t negotiate on the spot. Say, ‘I’m pleased you’re offering me the job. Can we set up an appointment to discuss terms in a few days? In the meantime, I’m fortunate enough to have another job offer, so can I speak with a prospective co-worker or two? I want to get a better feel for the position?” That not only made David seem not desperate, which vastly improves his negotiating position, it gave him a chance to get a sense from the coworkers of what’s the most he could reasonably negotiate for, and importantly, have a better idea of whether he wanted the job at all.

6. Instead of trying to fit into the job, make the job fit you. I explained to David that when you’ve selected a career, it’s like having bought an off-the-rack suit. It probably won’t fit perfectly. For a career to really work, you must, like a suit, tailor and accessorize it. So, we figured out how David could tailor the job to his strengths. While had had database skills, he knew he’d much rather spend his time in one-on-one cultivation of donors. David got the school’s Head to agree to outsource the database work to free him up to schmooze more potential donors. I also like to help my clients incorporate their hobbies into their job. David’s main hobby is photography. So, I encouraged him to take pictures of the school’s students in the classroom and put the best ones up in his office, include them in mailings to potential donors, and so on.

7. Don’t look back. Always look forward. Despite landing a new, better-fitting job, David still seemed to have a chip on his shoulder: resenting having been let go, resenting how long it took to land a job. I told David a lesson my father taught me. Despite being in the Nazi concentration camps, as I was growing up, he rarely discussed the Holocaust, and certainly never with bitterness. Once I asked him why. He responded, “The Nazis took five years from me. They won’t get one minute more.” If he can resist looking back bitterly, we all can.

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