25 years as a business owner – looking back on the road that led me here (Part 5)
Going into the new millennium, many people found themselves unemployed. There were major mergers and acquisitions as businesses adjusted, and these changes led to massive layoffs. Salary expectations for those who had had their first taste of employment during the 90’s were unrealistic. They hadn’t seen truly tough times and had no idea their compensation was exaggerated. Their perceived value had exceeded what was reasonable for many roles, and many remained unemployed as they continued their search for six-figure jobs that didn’t really exist in their fields.
Some people left the market and returned to school. From my experience, going back to school is frequently a knee jerk reaction to unemployment. The theory that a degree would automatically position someone to get a great job persisted, and was widely accepted. But this time, just any college degree wasn’t enough. Companies needed workers with business expertise. So, although pursuing an MBA became a trend, it wasn’t a magic pill. Many people still believed the MBA was all they needed to get a management job. They believed their lack of experience or knowledge of an industry didn’t matter. For many, that didn’t turn out so well. Companies expected hands’ on experience.
Outplacement services were in demand.
During this time, the technology sector continued to grow. But there were many workers lacking the ability or skills to be a computer programmer. People without hands on experience or unable to learn quickly were stopped in their tracks. Many people stayed unemployed for long stretches. With continued layoffs, outplacement services were in demand.
The canned outplacement materials offered during these massive layoffs were off the mark, and the ass kissing that came with the territory was untenable. Instead of helping people get new jobs, the emphasis was on making the (paying) company look good. No one wanted to let candidates know their expectations were unreasonable or that they needed to think about options that were different than what they had left behind. I watched as it appeared to be totally acceptable for outplaced workers to stay focused on unrealistic goals. Employers paid outplacement companies to make displaced workers feel better. The outcomes or lack thereof, were of no consequence.
“Tough love” … didn’t fit the bill inside of an outplacement company.
The fact that people weren’t necessarily moving towards viable employment disturbed me. I wasn’t a dream killer. I simply wanted people to be able to move from where they were to where they wanted (and needed) to be. To do so, they needed to know what was going on in the market and where they stood. I knew we could do it in a more predictable way, within a realistic time frame, vs an imaginary one that left them unemployed months beyond what they could financially survive.
There was more to this process than telling friends and family you needed a job. I helped people to first set realistic goals. We explored paths and career options that may not have seemed obvious. We built paths that may have taken longer, but they ensured plans for meeting financial needs as they moved toward their longer term goals. I recognized my “tough love” approach didn’t fit the bill inside of an outplacement company, so I focused on building my business.
Job Search…the same game.
The entire job search process was a slightly different version of the same game I had experienced 10 years earlier. People wanted to work, and employers still had needs, but they weren’t connecting. There was more competition and the rules had changed as technology developed. I started presenting this concept at career fairs and started growing my client base.
People had less time, and the martini lunches were no longer productive. During this time I created materials and started teaching “Strategic Networking”. My approach is decidedly different from the typical “connect with as many people as you can” networking process encouraged by outplacement companies and other career experts. My background in sales taught me the value of developing lasting relationships based on trust.
“Getting” a job is not the end of the road.
In 2001, I started a networking group. The members meet and actually get to know about each other’s needs, strengths and values. The regular meetings started as a means to discuss and overcome job search challenges, and then morphed over the years. It became clear that “getting” a job is not the end of the road. Some people were only starting on the path that would lead them further toward their goals. The first step was just the beginning. The group is structured and designed for the long term. We provide support to members all the way through the achievement of their long term goals.
Our process begins with establishing target companies and we used networking as a means to research those targets. Our focus was (still is) to learn about workplaces or find out about yet unpublished or undefined opportunities from people we know who have firsthand knowledge. I teach people how to ask questions that would draw information than whether there is an opening at a company. The process can lead to finding unpublished j-o-b-s. The process is similar to how a sales person conducts research to understand their customer’s needs in order to know if their product or service is even relevant. In many cases, I have helped my clients uncover needs and design proposals for filling those needs.
Not knowing what you’re getting into can lead to an unpleasant outcome.
Over my career, I learned too well that not knowing what you’re getting into can lead to an unpleasant outcome. Vetting a company or a specific role first is an integral part of the process. Going through a RIF or reentering the job market after an extended absence presents a great opportunity to reassess what you want and need. It’s a great time to develop a strategy for getting both. Shot gunning 500 generic resumes to unknown contacts at any major company was really big then. I’m sure there were favorable odds reported by someone that made this reasonable. But I saw no value in playing a numbers game and hoping things turned out well. One of the most important parts of the strategy for moving in a new direction is to know what a target organization needs. The next is to find different ways to present relevant value.
Another opportunity to contribute to something that really mattered.
During the time I was regularly traveling to military bases, I learned through a person in my network that a community college wanted to develop the state’s first pre-employment training program for job seekers’ who were transitioning off public assistance. I had already developed materials that could be easily adapted and was elated at the prospect of helping people who really needed the help. It sounded like another opportunity to contribute to something that really mattered. The first time I contacted the program director he didn’t respond. The 2nd time I sent him my resume and he replied. He asked me to come in the next day and bring my license and social security card. I thought that was strange, but obliged. In just minutes after arriving, I joined a meeting with the program development team.
Sometimes the rules can be broken.
It was only after the initial program meeting that the director read my application materials and realized I didn’t have a Master’s degree. The school required all instructors to have a Master’s degree. He shrugged, and that was the end of that discussion. Turns out one of the team members had just quit and they were ready to get started. Sometimes the rules can be broken. It just depends on how much pain the decision maker is in.
As much as I wanted to contribute the training materials I had diligently produced, I hadn’t expected what came next. Even though the team met regularly, there was little participation from many of the members. They held full time jobs at the college, and this work was outside of their job responsibilities.
On the very first day of class, I brought the materials I had put together and expected the other instructors to do the same. But a local incident interrupted everything. A person firing a gun had caused a closure of the main freeway and many of the streets surrounding the school. At least half of the students were unable to get to class. Instead of having three separate classes, we combined the students into one class. It turns out that I was the only instructor who had brought materials, so I volunteered to instruct the class.
…in no mood to play games.
About a year later, although I hadn’t continued with the program, a colleague contacted me and asked me to come in and take over a class he was unable to cover. I traveled 2.5 hours after a full day’s work on a military base to deliver his class. There were no materials provided, and the students had serious chips on their shoulders. I was exhausted and in no mood to play games. Students were upset that someone new was taking over their class. They complained about having different materials. I let them know they could stay and get the benefit of my time, or leave. I wasn’t putting up with the complaining and push-back one minute longer. They straightened up and we proceeded. It came as a surprise to me when they asked me to come back and take over the next several classes.
Later on a student shared with me that someone on the leadership team was having an affair with a student and they all knew about it. Their unruly behavior made sense. They were sick of the abuse and the politics involved in this special program. It was outrageous to me that someone in a position of power would behave this way. When I contacted the Dean to share what I learned her first and only question was “tell me about your educational background.” She had no interest in learning more. I was speechless. That was the end of the conversation. I was so naïve.
Qualify potential clients better to avoid wasting time.
Down the road, a new director contacted me about delivering other types of training (goal setting and time management), but the start dates kept getting moved out further and further. It finally became clear to me that he didn’t really have a budget or the power to add to existing curriculum. By this time, I had about enough of this academic environment. I chalked this experience up to learning to qualify potential clients better to avoid wasting time and moved on.
Through word of mouth I learned of new training opportunities. I actively looked for different opportunities to get paid better and expand my sphere. In addition to the classes I did for the military and The Graduate School USA, I created and delivered classes for the Unites States Army Core of Engineers (USACE), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), healthcare organizations and manufacturing companies.
Close to impossible to avoid workplace politics.
Eventually things changed within the Transition Assistance Program, and the flexibility I had experienced in bringing my materials to class ended. I was required to present a version of job search that mirrored some of the nonsense I had initially been expected to use ten years earlier. It was outdated and somewhat irrelevant. Although the people I worked most closely with appreciated my efforts, working with insufficient materials and not being allowed to bring my own, was a deal breaker. I decided it was time to end that ten-year run.
It’s funny how it seemed close to impossible to avoid workplace politics, even though I was my own boss. It was refreshing to be able to focus on my own practice and develop long lasting client relationships. Not long after I gave up all the added outplacement work, my coaching and training business tripled.
Next month I’ll describe the next leg on my path and my eventual focus on small groups and 1:1 coaching.
Click here if you missed Parts One through Four.
For more career advice, check out my Career Assessment, Goal Setting, Strategic Networking and Joy Search webinars and follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter.