Career Positioning: When to ditch your old mind-set

Published: Monday, January 8, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 7, 2007 at 11:28 p.m.
Q: You, among others, have advised against taking jobs that detour from your overall career goals and also against staying less than two years in a job. I understand that strategy is intended to show that you are not a job hopper and have an unbroken upward track record. I'm wondering if this goal is still possible to achieve.
I was doing just great in my career until May, when my employer closed up. I could not find a job in my field (conference planning and special events promotion) in my city. As a single mom with multiple generational responsibilities, I am in no position to quickly relocate and so, needing to work, took a job in an unrelated career area. It was a mistake all around and won't lead anywhere I want to go. A new opportunity in my original field has opened, but the hiring manager is concerned that I left the industry, even for a short time. I feel like I've blown my career chances when it wasn't really my fault. Suggestions?
A: One clarification: I've always advised readers to quickly cut losses when they find themselves in Total Mistake Central.
Make an early course correction - weeks or months is OK - as soon as you realize you're jammed up in a job you detest.
Otherwise, your understanding of career positioning strategy used to be spot on in times when employers rewarded those who showed a pattern of consistent advancement by leaping from pad to pad in the same lily pond.
And indeed you were awarded extra points when you stayed about two to five years on each lily pad. That brand of career positioning infrastructure is still the gold standard, but times are changing as fewer job circumstances cooperate to allow an unbroken, straight-up career history for every person who wants one.
  • As your situation illustrates, big cracks in the ideal infrastructure are showing up in a drastically changed world where involuntary job change is commonplace. In a single example, some 38,000 Ford workers - about half of Ford's U.S. hourly work force - say they'll soon take a Ford buyout package. The career pinch doesn't end there. Tens of thousands of Michigan workers in other industries - from advertising agencies to consumer businesses - are being forced to look for new lily pads and new ponds.
  • Job loss (sometimes the result of cheaper competition from imported visa workers) isn't the only reason people stray from straightforward career progression. Sometimes what looked like a promising opportunity wasn't. Yesterday a reader e-mailed this: ''I was an information technology recruiter for 20 years before taking early retirement to launch a memorabilia business. I just turned 54 and have been giving consideration to resuming my career, as I'm bored with what I'm doing now. It's tough out there, Joyce. Everyone wants young and cheap.''
    When your career positioning plan turns out to have a trap door and you want to climb back onto your former lily pad or at least into your former pond, start by ditching your old mind-set. You have nothing to be defensive about. Instead, be positive and persuasive.
  • Most employers understand the need to meet family responsibilities when a candidate has leaped, although temporarily, into another pond. But because some won't be empathetic, make your explanation more enticing by offering the benefit of high performance through rediscovered enthusiasm.
    In a thin job market, you chose not to become indebted or ruin your credit rating, and to provide for your family by accepting an untried type of employment that didn't pan out. While you were in the detour job, you had the opportunity to compare the two career fields, and you are now more committed than ever to your original choice. You love the work! You're great at it. You can hardly wait to get back to your first-choice pond on a lily pad that needs your proven experience. Ask, ''How soon can I start?''
    And if you learned anything at all in your recent experience that can benefit your original career field, mention it as a benefit: ''While in my detour job, I mastered an advanced software program that could be very useful in this position.''
    Don't let a classic career positioning strategy sap your confidence when you need a time-out.
    E-mail career questions for possible use in this column to Joyce Lain Kennedy at; use ''Reader Question'' for subject line. Or mail her at Box 368, Cardiff, CA 92007.
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