When it comes to making a career change or tracking down a new employment opportunity, you’ll find most people concentrating on scouring the web, tuning up their resume, and attending lots of haphazard networking meetings in the hopes of turning up viable leads. Honestly, though, there’s an even simpler concept that might make an even bigger difference in your eventual success. I’ll sum it up succinctly in two words.
I realize this statement doesn’t seem all that profound at first. And you won’t many people out there talking, writing, or speaking about it. But when it comes to all the people I’ve seen sink or swim out there in the modern marketplace, I’d suggest that this concept is more important than most people initially recognize.
Simply put, job hunting today is not a solo activity. It’s a team sport. Given that the majority of positions these days are filled underground through word-of-mouth, versus seeing the light of day in published form, serious professionals need to get comfortable with the notion of reaching out to people and asking for assistance. Rugged individualists don’t seem to get very far in today’s world, from what I’ve witnessed.
Being willing to ask people for help is only half the battle, however. Actually being helpable-slash-coachable is another important part of the equation that often gets overlooked. So whether you’re a senior executive or a professional just starting out, I’d encourage you to think hard about how you’re currently fielding advice from those around you and whether you’re consistently following through on other peoples’ suggestions, once offered.
Obviously, I have some skin in the game on this issue being a professional coach, myself. But I don’t offer up these principles only in the context of working with a formal coach or adviser. I think they’re equally important on the informal networking circuit, when you’re out seeking advice and referrals from other types of acquaintances including recruiters, various colleagues in your field, and/or possibly some mentors or past supervisors you’ve worked with.
Here are seven specific tips I’d throw out there for your consideration:
1) Clarify your needs. Before asking anybody for a helping hand, do your homework. Think hard up front about the specific issues, questions, and topics you feel you specifically could benefit from guidance around. If you ask somebody to take time out of their busy day to assist you, it’s your job to make sure it’s not wasted. Come up with a clear agenda. For example, just saying to somebody “I need help finding a job” won’t likely get you very far, but if you instead were to say to them “I’m not very comfortable with the networking process, but have noticed you seem to be very good at it, naturally, and great at connecting with people. Any tips, insights, or recommendations you’d be willing to share about how I might improve my skills in this area?” you might walk away with some killer suggestions.
2) Identify information gaps. When you’re hunting for work, it’s easy to run out of steam or get paralyzed with indecision. If this happens, try to identify the specific data you’re missing that would help you get unstuck and start confidently moving forward again in pursuit of your goals. For example, if you can’t decide whether or not to pursue a career as a real estate agent, pin down the information you’re missing that’s preventing you from making a firm decision. Do you need to get a better sense of what real estate careers potentially pay? Do you need to better understand the schooling and certification required? Would it help to ascertain how many new real estate agents entering the field actually succeed in it, long-term? If you can figure out the “knowledge gaps” holding you back, this will go a long way toward determining exactly who you need to be talking to—and the type of feedback you need to solicit from them.
3) Don’t advice-shop. As you might imagine, or possibly have experienced, there are a healthy number of people out there who ask for help with all manner of issues—both personal and professional—but are clearly not open to changing their ways, adjusting their thinking, or adjusting their behavior one iota. Instead, they’re just looking for somebody to confirm their current thinking or validate their pre-existing notions. Don’t be that guy. Or girl. If you’re truly out there asking for help, be ready to get out of your comfort zone and try some new approaches related to the challenges you’re facing. As one therapist I know remarked once, when we were talking about how many people ask for help but seem resistant to new ideas, “When I run into these kinds of people, I call them on it and say ‘so you’re going to just keep doing what you’re currently doing, it sounds like. How that’s working out for you, again?‘”
4) Respond to the advice offered. This is a hot button one for me. Far too often, I see amazing career possibilities get squandered due to passive-aggressiveness. In a nutshell, when you ask people for advice and they offer you a suggestion, you’re pretty much obligated to respond to it. Ideally, you might acknowledge their advice and commit to giving it a try. Or if you’re unclear about what they’re proposing, you might ask for further clarification. Heck, you might even push back and explain why you don’t think the advice in question will work in your particular case. But whatever you do, the worst thing you can do is respond with a blank stare, change the subject, or humor the person with a nod even though you’re not tracking or understanding them. This type of non-answer will short-circuit the dialogue and derail the coaching process to the benefit of no one, including you!
For example, let’s say you’ve approached a professional acquaintance for advice on how to identify potential job leads in a new field you’re targeting. And let’s hypothetically suppose this individual, who has held a long and successful career in the industry, gives you a few time-tested pieces of advice on how to go about things. In this scenario, there are really just three appropriate responses:
a) “I’m clear about what you want me to do, will give it a shot in the near future, and will keep you posted on how things go and what results from it!”
b) “I’m not clear about what you’re recommending; do you mind if we talk more about it so I can fully understand what you’re encouraging me to do and how specifically to go about it?”
c) “I appreciate the suggestion, but honestly, I’ll probably wait a little while before attempting it for various reasons—for example, there’s another approach I might first try as an alternative.
Again, all of the above responses, even the third one, are acceptable. They do the “helping” party the courtesy of letting them know their advice was received, valued, and didn’t fall on deaf ears. When asking for help, that’s your part of the bargain. Acknowledge the input you received, one way or another, and let the other person know what you plan on doing with it. Don’t be shy and again, don’t be a passive participant in the process.
5) Take notes. Taking the above concept farther, I’m shocked by how many people approach others for assistance, but then fail to write down any of the information shared such as referral names, website suggestions, action steps, and the like. Even if you have a photographic memory, you’ll send an important signal to the person helping you that you are taking their advice seriously if you pull out a notebook and jot some of their ideas down on paper. Or you might even whip out your cell phone and record the conversation, if appropriate and you ask the other person up front for permission. Act like they might say something useful and worth remembering.
6) Avoid assumptions. This is a subtle one, but it happens frequently. I’ve seen many folks fail to act on advice simply because they don’t understand the thinking behind it—and are too afraid to ask for clarification and context. For example, let’s say a helpful soul invites you to “call so-and-so in my network, using my name” but you don’t understand the reason behind the referral, since the person in question doesn’t appear to work within your target field. When this happens, remind yourself that the referring party likely had a good reason for making the suggestion, but perhaps didn’t express it effectively. Perhaps the suggested individual used to work in the industry in question and still has lots of contacts in the field. Or dabbles in the industry on the side. Or is related to somebody who is a heavy-hitter in the field. The bottom line? If you’re unclear on why a person offered a specific recommendation or piece of advice, ask them. They’re usually not crazy. Instead, they probably just assumed you understood or failed to walk you through their thought process, out loud, leading to a missed opportunity.
7) Don’t drop the ball. Last but not least (and you know where I’m going with this!) once you’ve hit somebody up for advice, and told them you’re going to act on it, you’re saddled with a singular obligation. Give their idea a full-faith try, see what transpires, and then report your results back to them. This will supercharge your efforts on a great many levels. It will not only confirm to the assisting individual that you’re truly coachable, and not wasting their time, but it will also help the other person brainstorm with you further and course-correct your efforts if the initial results you achieved weren’t positive. What’s more, it rewards the other person psychologically, letting them feel helpful, which is ultimately why so many Good Samaritans out there continue to be willing to go to heroic lengths to lend a hand to those around them!
So there you have it. While admittedly not the sexiest topic you’ll ever see talked about regarding career success, the concept of coachability, I believe, is a vital ingredient in getting ahead today. Whether you’re asking for help from your friends, some professional networking contacts, or a formal “paid” coach in some particular area of endeavor, you’ll get farther, faster, if you follow the tips above and learn to receive advice in graceful, accountable fashion.
P.S. Want to read some even tougher love on this particular issue? See the rather provocative article here I spotted a few months ago. While I think the author takes things a little too far, and isn’t accounting for some of the emotional ups-and-downs that takes place during the job hunt process, his message follows a similar theme…