As I’m packing up and getting ready to head out for the Christmas week, I’ve decided I simply have to cart my laptop along with me, since I’ve got at least 8-10 burning blog ideas that I feel compelled to express by the end of the year.  It’s an artificial deadline, I realize, and probably knocks me out of contention for being somebody one could hold up as a role model of healthy work/life balance, but hey, if you’re an acquaintance of mine, you probably knew that about me already!  All I know is that if I don’t get these ideas out of my head, and on paper (so to speak), I might burst.  The meetings I’ve held with clients this past week have provided SO many insights and fresh “teaching moments” that I want to express heading into 2010, relative to the networking, job hunting, and career management process.

The first one I’ll prattle on about relates to one’s ability to gracefully accept — and apply — feedback from other people.  For many professionals in transition, one of the biggest challenges they face (not that they always recognize it) is the difficulty of getting other people to provide them with direct, honest input in terms of their presentation skills, the clarity of their goals, their marketability, and how they’re coming across, in general.  Think about it.  Unless they’re sadistic by nature, your close friends and family certainly aren’t going to want to “go there” in terms of pointing out your flaws, mistakes, and blind spots — especially when they know you’re going through an emotionally-sensitive unemployment period.  As for employers and recruiters, well, their legal advisors warned them long ago not to dare sharing any useful feedback with candidates, lest they open up windows for litigation.  And compounding these factors further is the fact that most of us writing/reading this blog live in the beautiful, passive-aggressive Pacific Northwest, where even the most well-intentioned piece of constructive criticism can lead to the creation of a mortal enemy, hell-bent on your social and political destruction!

And yet, most job hunters desperately NEED candid feedback, since they usually ARE exhibiting certain actions, attitudes, and behaviors that are limiting their effectiveness to a certain degree in networking/interviewing situations.  Think I’m wrong on this?  If you’ve attended a networking event or social function recently, just ask yourself whether  everybody you encountered conducted themselves properly, professionally, and made a winning impression.  Were there some people who seemed distant, arrogant, or unapproachable?  Others who came on TOO strong to the point it seemed obnoxious or insincere?  Others who blew you off?  Or didn’t dress appropriately?  Or kept interrupting you when you were talking?  You get my point.  Given these realities, most of us can’t afford to assume we’re the epitome of perfection when it comes to our interpersonal interactions, especially when in job hunting mode, where networking is king — and it doesn’t take all that much to turn people off or to dampen their enthusiasm for making quality referrals on our behalf.

And yet, as judgmental as we all probably can admit to being about other people, most folks, myself included, usually assume we’re exempt from this same level of scrutiny.  After all, do you ever leave a networking event thinking “Boy, I bet I really turned a few people off tonight!” or “Geez, while everybody I met seemed to be perfectly pleasant, I bet a bunch of them are talking behind my back right this moment and saying some unflattering things about me!”  Of COURSE you don’t.  (or at least I’d really hope you don’t.)  Trust me, though.  These conversations are taking place and these types of winner/loser impressions are being formed about you, whether you like it or not.  It’s an immutable law of human nature.

So again, when somebody (especially a coaching professional you’ve hired for this purpose) has the guts to give you some tough love they know you don’t want to hear, don’t argue with them.  Don’t get defensive.  They’re giving you the gift that most of the people around you don’t have the courage to supply, and the input they provide could turn out to be just the ticket that makes/breaks your job search — or at least improves your success rate to a considerable degree.

Is the feedback they offer always right?  Yes.  It is.  I’m not, however, saying this from a point of arrogance.  In fact, I’m sure a certain percentage of the advice I’ve dispensed to people over the years has been downright god-awful.  But if we limit the discussion to the type of feedback relating to a person’s perceptions of you and how you come across, then guess what?  I’m going to win on a technicality — since when you think about it, such perceptual observations are ALWAYS 100% correct, by definition.  They’re beyond dispute.  All that matters is how your actions were interpreted by the other individual — not what your intentions were, how you thought you came across, or how you like to think you present yourself, in general.  It’s just like when a job candidate walks out of an interview, thinking they aced it, and then is called back the next day to be told they didn’t make the cut.  One doesn’t have to be a genius to realize that in such cases, your perceptions and the employer’s perceptions about your performance probably turned out to be slightly different…

Here a few cases in point, pulled right from the coming and goings of Career Horizons.  For starters, I meet quite a few people who choose (and yes, it’s a choice) to talk about their career situations from an angry, fearful, or highly negative perspective.  They lament about how their last company “screwed” them or how unfair it is that they haven’t been able to find a job yet.  And yet, when I point out that this toxic attitude could easily be the very thing that is pushing people away and costing them valuable networking leads and opportunities, they typically say something like “Don’t worry, I hide it well.”  Well, I’m sorry to tell you this, my friends, but you obviously don’t, or I wouldn’t be sitting here pointing it out to you!

Another example?  I had a frustrated job seeker come in last week who was exceedingly gruff, stormed into the office, and seemed bothered by the fact that I attempted to start the meeting off with a moment or two of small talk.  She wanted to get right down to business.  No chit-chat, no pleasantries, and no sharing of what we each had planned for the holidays.  After a few minutes of watching this “I’m in charge — dance for me” pattern continue, I asked whether she’d be open to some candid feedback.  She said yes, so I sucked up my courage (this stuff isn’t easy!) and told her that based on the brief interaction I’d had with her so far, I’d be absolutely unwilling to refer her along to any useful contacts or decision-makers I might happen to know in her field — and that I strongly suspected the other people she’d been encountering were withholding their best contacts from her, as well.  She was stunned by this.  It hit her completely out of left field.  And when she asked for an explanation, I pointed out the simple reality that when you don’t treat somebody with common courtesy, and respect, it’s a safe bet they’re not going to fall all over themselves to make introductions for you.  To her credit, she took the feedback in stride, and actually turned out (like in so many cases) to be a very nice person at heart who just didn’t realize how she was coming across — or that there were consequences to ignoring the impressions she was making on those around her.  Like many people these days, for obvious and unfortunate reasons, she was just totally absorbed in her own little “I desperately need to get a job” world — and as somebody she’d entrusted as her coach, I felt compelled to point out that this attitude was probably costing her dearly on the networking circuit.

I could share numerous other examples, of course, but I’m sure you all more or less “got the idea” nine column inches ago.  At the end of the day, we’re ALL stumbling around in the dark, interpersonally-speaking, having to overcome the challenge of having near-zero perspective on how we’re truly perceived by those around us.  So when somebody musters up the courage to give you some feedback, I’ve got three words of advice: listen to it.  It’s a special gift.  And if it helps, keep in mind the point I made above, which is that any feedback somebody gives you about how you come across is always indisputably true, as long as they’re speaking about their own perceptions!