Career Makeover—2007 Style

For both young grads and midcareer pros, here's a four-step approach to identifying and successfully pursuing a job that's a good fit for your skills

Curran on Careers is a column for a new type of job seeker: the one who's constantly evaluating options and opportunities and identifying uniquely personal paths to success. Careers in the 21st century require creativity. They're custom-made, not off the rack, and the way you try them on may differ depending on whether you're a twenty-something new grad, a midcareer job changer, or a boomer looking to reinvent your career. This column will appear every six weeks and will integrate your observations and questions into an article. So make it yours—whatever stage you're at. Send your ideas and questions to

The holidays are coming! What's on your wish list? A Caribbean cruise? PlayStation 3? Tickets to the revival ofLes Misérables? All great choices. But the best gift—the one that you ultimately appreciate the most—may be the one that you give yourself: a career makeover.

When you're busy and you have established a routine, it's easy to put career thoughts on the back burner. It's like your health. If a body part doesn't actively hurt you're not forced to pay attention. In the same way, if you're doing well professionally 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. Midcareer 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? I recommend 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 "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. Maybe 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 your current employer is still good for you.

If your analysis indicates that switching employers is a prudent move, how do you find a good "fit" somewhere else? Many companies have comprehensive Web sites 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. They're questions like "What kind of person does well in this organization?" or "How would you characterize your management style?" You'll want to have these questions in mind throughout your job search. But if you're still in doubt about the real answers, the time to ask direct questions 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 résumé and cover letter. Imagine she's reading hundreds of applications and will decide within 10 seconds 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 Web sites 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 résumé 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 résumé 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 résumé?

Appoint your own personal board of advisers—people whom you know and trust, but who aren't hopelessly biased in your favor. Often the best people are former bosses or colleagues. Good advisers 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 advisers will intimately know your interests and aspirations. Treat them well, and you'll probably find them a great source of referrals to people in their own network of colleagues.

The job market is robust and excellent opportunities abound, particularly for those with college degrees, making 2007 a great time for a career makeover. But that doesn't mean you have to move on. After you've done your homework, you may decide that the best place to be is exactly where you are now.

If that's the case, don't think you wasted your time going through the four steps. This work will help you be much better prepared when you are ready to make a move. Anything that makes you count your blessings is truly a gift! Happy holidays.

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