Stepping Stones

(I met with Heather as part of a Seattle Times “Career Makeover” series and wrote the following summary of our conversation for the journalist writing the story.)

Heather was feeling dated. She was sitting in my office, a Seattle Times Career Makeover subject, and worrying about the eight-year gap in her resume – a gap filled with raising kids, earning her B.A., and working retail to help pay the bills.

“I have eight years of intellectual property paralegal experience,” she said, “But I’ve been applying for entry-level jobs since I’ve been out of the job market for so long. It’s such a long gap.”

I looked at her, this nice, pulled-together woman who had gotten her B.A. in Law, Politics and Economy as a 44-year-old with two kids (how amazingly cool is that?!). I considered going off on her, but she’d only just sat down in my office.

“You are a highly experienced professional and you will find work – and compensation – aligned with that experience,” I told her. “Now let’s figure it out.”

She described applying to the big local employers – Microsoft, Nordstrom, Amazon – and hearing nothing back. “It’s like a black hole,” she said. “There has to be a different way to connect with these companies.”

I decided to share my “Stepping Stones” framework with her.

“Sometimes people come into my office and want me to help them figure out what their purpose in life is,” I explained. “I think that’s BS — I think we have many purposes in life and they change over time. As your coach, I’m interested in what you’re going to do next. And maybe have an idea of what’s next after next. Those are the stepping stones and our job here is to find the next one for you.”

Heather described ideas she has for what could be “next” for her: a paralegal at a law firm, or in-house for an interesting company, or at a government agency. She talked about working in the court system, or owning her own business. “What would be really cool,” she mused, “is to be an event planner.”

As she talked, I drew squares on a sheet of paper – each square representing a possible stepping stone.

“Now we just figure out the next small, doable, sustainable action you can take to move each stepping stone forward,” I told her. “You know how you can move a mountain a pebble at a time? We’re looking for those pebbles. They drive action, and we want lots of action.”

“What’s one small thing you can do to find work as a paralegal at a law firm?” I asked her. She thought of an old, dear boss who could introduce her to lawyers in Seattle. She also decided to join a paralegal professional association.

“And if you could work in the court system, who might help you find that job?” I asked. She talked about a former state senator whom she’d recently and serendipitously befriended who might be helpful (!) and a judge whom she had stayed in touch with.

We stalled when we got to the “in-house paralegal” stepping stone. “I don’t know anyone at any of these big companies,” Heather said.

“Of course you do, you just don’t know it,” I argued. “You’ve lived and worked in this city for a long time – you know a lot of people who know a lot of people. And that’s where LinkedIn comes in.”

I gave her my standard LinkedIn advice:

  • Good content. Once you’re happy with your resume, drop it into your profile. If you have writing skills, be creative and personable with the intro section.
  • More is better. Send out 10 invitations a day. The larger your network, the more likely it is that you will know someone or can be introduced to someone who works at a company you’re interested in.
  • Default language. Just use the standard LinkedIn invitation language; if you personalize the message then the recipient may feel obliged to write you back, which just slows everything down.
  • Fearless connection. Send that invite if you think the recipient will remember your name and have a positive association with it. Stop second guessing whether you think the recipient could be helpful or whether they’re going to reject your invitation.
  • Good photo. Put up a nice picture of yourself. It humanizes your profile.
  • Good recommendations. Proving that real people have liked working with you also humanizes your profile.
  • Job alerts. Set up job alerts to receive emails from LinkedIn (and other portals) when jobs are posted that match your search criteria. If nothing else, those job postings are a great place to “borrow” language for your resume/LinkedIn profile/interview, and to see who’s hiring.

And then what?

I suggested Heather come up with a short list of, say, 10 companies that she’s interested in, based on criteria like culture, product/service, mission, location (don’t downplay the impact of a bad commute!).

And then go make friends there. Drawing on her LinkedIn network, she can request introductions to people at those companies and start scheduling conversations. The goal is to be top of mind when a hiring decision comes up.

“But these conversations feel kind of awkward,” Heather said. “I haven’t talked to some of these people in years.” (I hear that a lot in my coaching practice.)

“Well, look at it this way,” I suggested. “If a credible, professional person sent you a really nice note and you were in a position to help – would you? Of course you would and most people would. Most people are nice and are happy to help — if properly approached.”

“You’ve got to just swallow that discomfort and go for it. Otherwise, you’re limiting yourself to sending your job applications into that black hole.”