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Career Changers & the Invisible Brick Wall…

Last Thursday, we were treated to another tour de force from the excellent John Lees. He was with us to launch his book, How to get a Job you Love, now in its eighth edition, and the audience was peppered with career coaches and other experts in the job-hunting field, as well as job seekers themselves.

Despite the fact that John was playing to such a knowledgeable audience, there were still several ‘light-bulb’ moments for most of us in the room, and one of mine was the reminder about not exhausting one’s ‘high-level’ contacts too quickly, a common mistake amongst those wishing to change jobs. It got me thinking more specifically about my own networking and when is the right time to call in a favour! But first, a little context…

The Invisible Brick Wall

For most job seekers, the biggest barrier to finding a job which you really want to do is knowing what’s out there. In fact, it’s not even the research itself, but knowing where to start the research. I recently successfully coached a client – let’s call her ‘Alison’ – who had always worked in banking, but desperately wanted to do something else. At our first meeting, she had no idea what she wanted to do, no clue as to what she could do, no notion of who might want her skills – and no thoughts on how to proceed! In fact, she had built a kind of brick wall, invisible to others but very real to herself. It had grown over the years to the extent that it had become an insurmountable obstacle, and Alison, unhappy as she was, couldn’t see past it to a new career somewhere else. Being told that one should do research is all very well, but research what? And How? And where does one start?

In Alison’s case, the way to dismantle the invisible brick wall turned out to be, unsurprisingly, brick by brick. We started by exploring the elements of her roles which she enjoyed, and the reasons why she enjoyed them. We also performed the same thought-mapping processes for the negative aspects. We also looked at motivators and demotivators, values and passions, as well as her ambitions and the skills she possessed which she felt were not being used – a form of ‘frustration’ to some.

Examining her career under a microscope, dissecting it and exploring the various elements which led to her feeling dissatisfied led invariably to questions and new avenues to be explored. It’s at this point that you can take the research one step forward, and start to seek the opinions and advice of others. It’s probably also at this point of the process (or even beforehand) that John Lees was referring to people reaching out, and exhausting their high-level contacts before they even know what to ask.

How to Reach Out

For me, networking is the obvious place to start. Networking in its simplest form is about talking to people and building connections. To this definition, I would also add ‘gathering information’.

The common misconception about networking is that you have to be able to offer something to somebody in order to network, but it simply isn’t true. However, everybody – including somebody in Alison’s position – has something to offer: knowledge, insight, connections, a point of view or judgement – even a willing listener on whom one can practise an elevator pitch – so don’t be put off from going to a networking event, just because you’re in a state of limbo.

The best sorts of networking events should not be at all intimidating. There should be no ‘ulterior motive’ and no pressure. At The I Am Group, we try to create what we would like in the ‘perfect’ networking event: a blend of different, interesting people, from all walks of life, who are there simply to meet other, like-minded people. We don’t believe in labels or preconceptions, so our name badges offer a first name only, allowing delegates to say as little or as much as they want, and giving them the opportunity to re-invent their elevator pitch several times throughout the evening.

But networking doesn’t have to be about an event. As John Lees reminded us, networking can also be about reaching out to somebody else you know, and asking them the question “Who else should I be talking to?” In fact, you only need to know one other person in order to start a network, provided that person knows somebody else and so on. What matters more than the number of people in your network is both the questions you ask – and the way in which you ask them!

The Pyramid of Usefulness

As a recruitment consultant and careers coach, I love using visuals to help candidates, and the pyramid is a favourite shape of mine. My solution to Alison was to get her to think of a ‘pyramid of value’ in terms of her contacts and connections, and mentally sort them into different tiers in terms of how valuable they might be to her in her research, so that she knew at what stage to contact them.

The objective of the exercise was to twofold. Firstly, it was to stop Alison rushing in and – like John Lees explained – squandering her higher-level contacts (busy, influential or connected people to whom one might only be able to occasionally turn). Secondly, it was also designed to help her recognise the value of talking to everybody in her networks, to explore what they loved about her roles and why.

At Stage 1, Alison was encouraged to speak to as many people as possible, to broaden her own horizons and explore different opportunities. This invariably led to some dead ends, but also to other avenues which Alison had never before considered, and it was these possibilities which she carried through to the second stage

At Stage 2, Alison was encouraged to delve deeper, exploring potential career paths, necessary retraining, hurdles or barriers to her new potential career paths, as well as to talk to as many people within those industries as possible. By the end of this stage, Alison had narrowed down her options to two very different careers which she never would have considered, had it not been for the first stage and the information gathering this entailed.

Stage 3 is all about asking for specific help, such as introductions to potential employers, shadowing and work-placement opportunities and building even more contacts with people involved in the two very different careers Alison had identified. Contacts at this level are often too busy to ask for different things – so you may only have one shot!

However, several coffees with well-connected people later, Alison was offered a work-shadowing placement, which ultimately led to an offer of work. If she hadn’t started at Stage 1 of the pyramid, Alison may have had an entirely different experience, and either stayed in banking, or started another role without exploring what was really out there.

Of course, if you’re really lucky, you might meet Alison at one of our monthly networking events, and she can tell you all about how she broke down her own invisible brick wall!

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