Looking for a new job? Got a big pitch coming up? Reentering the workforce after an extended hiatus—or after getting fired?
It goes without saying that career transitions like these are tense experiences for anyone.
I coach creative professionals through many of these moments, and I often find that the biggest obstacles to each of them are self-imposed. Sometimes all it requires is widening your perspective a little in order to surmount some of the biggest career challenges. Here's what that takes.
It's usually in my very first coaching meeting with clients that I find a narrow set of concerns defining the conversation. The client typically:
- Focuses on their perceived lack of credentials
- Limits their view of the opportunity
- Limits their search (or pitching process) to a single opportunity at a time
This is pretty normal. A study published this year in the journal Thinking and Reasoning suggested that stressful situations, such as running out of time (always a factor when you’re job searching or pitching projects) can impair problem solving and increase the frequency of wrong guesses. This leads to tunnel vision that narrows our thinking, actions, and sense of our options.
My first goal is always to get the person I’m coaching to understand the power they have in the relationship with whatever prospect it is that they're going after. The assumption that the other party holds all the cards is startlingly common—and it's a belief many of us hold deeply without realizing it.
The reasons for that vary from person to person, but it's rooted in our unconscious acceptance that a prospective client or boss is an authority figure we need to stay deferential to in order to impress. But it's possible to steadily dismantle this implicit hierarchy through a gentle line of inquiry that first builds confidence and then addresses fears.
I start by asking my coaching client to tell me their story—what they do professionally right now, but also what events and experiences early in their lives led them to this career. I want to know about what part of their work they feel most connected to and what they feel that connection is rooted in.
Running over this narrative often starts renewing some of the confidence that big career moves tend to deplete. Then I ask about the challenges and opportunities they’re facing—but in a way that turns the tables: "Why are they interested in you?" Trying to answer this question can help remind you that you've got something going for yourself—that the prospect thinks you're special—even if there are other contenders in the running.
The other thing I do early on in coaching sessions is ask clients what fee or salary they expect to receive. No matter what they say, I just take note of it for future reference. Interestingly, that number is consistently lower at the beginning of our work together and climbs higher later on, as they get more confident.
It's often the case that what a potential employer or client says they want is far from the only need they have to fill. With enough knowledge of the company, many pitches, proposals, or even job descriptions can actually be recrafted in a way that gives you a leg up on the competition.
To do that, ask yourself these three questions:
- "Why do they want to fill this position at this time?"
- "How are their competitors succeeding (or failing)?"
- "What market forces are driving their actions right now?"
Few of us think to widen the lens this far when we're facing daunting career changes. And even those of us who do aren't always able to answer questions like these right away. If my coaching client doesn’t know the answers, I encourage them to do their own research, but I also press them to talk to the prospect before their interview or first pitch meeting—and I do mean talk, either by phone, Skype, or in person, not via email. You may already have a formal meeting on the calendar, but reach out anyway and ask for a quick chat before then.
This is the first step to setting yourself apart from the competition. Once you’ve gathered all the information you can, it’s time to change the context. Present your research and insights, then begin working with your prospect to redefine the scope of the project or job so that you and only you can meet their real needs.
Looking for a job or pitching new projects can definitely feel like full-time work itself. That might be one reason we limit ourselves to pursuing one gig at a time. The problem with that singular focus is it removes you from two things you need in order to succeed: a broader understanding of the context of the offer, and any reminder that you have options.
I’ve seen coaching clients get really desperate to nail down the offer at hand when, from my more relaxed perspective, it’s clear that they could have more offers and even leverage multiple opportunities at the same time. If you find yourself doggedly focused on only one gig, spend 15 minutes of each hour you put into your main search on finding other possibilities. You'll want to have at least one other viable option to pursue alongside the main one you're gunning for the most.
With eyes wide open—both of them—the thinking, options, and range of actions that once seemed narrow can open up for you. With that comes more opportunity that you can go after and, most important of all, work that you actually want to do.
Ted Leonhardt is a designer and illustrator, and former global creative director of FITCH Worldwide. His specialized approach to negotiation helps creative workers build on their strengths and own their value in the marketplace. Follow Ted on Twitter at @tedleonhardt.