Career Transition as a Garden Party

This is the story I wrote up for the journalist writing the Career Makeover series for The Seattle Times. As a former journalist, I couldn’t just send her notes, I had to write the story, too!

At 54, Mike has had a successfully solid career in supply chain management. For three decades, he’s been the guy that figures out how to get the raw materials — across oceans, on time – that manufacturers turn into things that you and I might buy.

But he can’t shake the feeling that it’s getting to be time for him to do something more personally meaningful. Time to use his experience to directly help people (disaster relief comes to mind). “I don’t need to work for a big salary anymore,” he said. “I want to do something more beneficial.”

When he and I talked about how he might make the transition from manufacturing to an international nonprofit, I suggested a two-pronged approach:

The first prong is to educate himself on roles that might interest him by perusing job boards and gathering a list of job titles and language around skills and experience that could be relevant. This is the due diligence of gathering information and data to make a thoughtful decision, the necessary chore of a career transition and a job search.

Looking at job descriptions is an important piece of networking, regardless of whether he actually applies for any posted jobs. It’s a way of efficiently gathering information about what he might do with his rich bank of skills and experience. And borrowing language from job postings is a logical place to start formulating a solid, confident answer to the difficult question, “So, Mike, what kind of work are you looking for?”

“You’re going to be like a kid in a candy store when you see what’s out there, what you could do with your career experience,” I said.

The second prong is to start talking to people about what he wants to do. These conversations stir luck into the mix. And this is where the fun part starts – the talking to other people about his dreams and plans.

I shared a metaphor with Mike that I often use with my job search coaching clients.  Across my street is a beautiful house with a large, lush garden and deck overlooking Lake Washington. These neighbors often host classy parties in their back yard. Their guests sometimes ring the front doorbell – and wait awhile – or are welcomed in through the side gate – a pretty little green gate in their hedge.

If that garden party is a metaphor for the nonprofit that Mike wants to be a part of, he can dutifully ring the front doorbell and politely wait for someone to answer. That’s like filling out an application to a job posting and waiting for a response. It can be worth doing – you never know, someone might be in the kitchen and will hear the bell.

But he could also call his friend who is already at the party out back and ask to be let in the pretty little green gate. I asked Mike to come up with a list of 10 people who are somehow involved in the nonprofit sector – or know people who are. These could be coworkers, old friends, people from church, parents of his children’s friends – it doesn’t really matter at this stage. He’s gathering information about what kind of organization he might want to jump to, honing his answer to that question, “So, Mike, what kind of work are you looking for,” and tapping into their networks. Maybe someone in this list of 10 is – what luck! – already at the party he wants to go to; if not, maybe they can get him an invitation. By talking to a lot of people, he’s stirring luck – unpredictable variables – into the mix.

To widen his search, I also suggested he identify 10 nonprofits he would like to learn more about. To stretch the garden party metaphor to a breaking point: This is where the party’s at. If he doesn’t know people there off the top of his head, he can use LinkedIn to identify and begin a conversation with more distant contacts at those organizations. This list of 10 targets can change and evolve as he gathers information and moves up his learning curve of where he wants to work.

A networking project like this can get very complicated very fast with lots of threads to follow and balls to potentially drop. I often suggest to my job search clients that they track their networking activities with post-its on a wall in their house so they can see the connections, follow the leads, and possibly spot the intersections – and show off the progress they are making, even if it doesn’t feel like progress at the time.

Getting into that party – into that interesting organization doing meaningful work – all starts with a conversation. Mike is embarking on an interesting journey of conversations as he figures out how to transform a career in manufacturing supply chain into meaningful humanitarian work. It will be quite a party when he gets there.