Counseling Job-Seekers Facing “PLAN B”
By Robert White
It’s great when the client lands her dream job, calls or emails to let you know how happy she is, and how much she appreciates the help you gave. Sometimes though, the conversation is more like “well, I guess it beats not working - it’s fine. Thanks.” And perhaps you beat yourself up wondering if you should have pushed harder for holding out for a job which aligns with the client's values and interests; one that doesn’t even feel like a job. You may wonder if somehow you failed to help the client.
As both a personal coping mechanism, and a proactive plan to better help clients struggling with their job search, here are three things you can focus on:
Prepare clients in advance to deal with a “Plan B” if “Plan A” doesn't work out
Have specific tools or ideas for clients about how to use the “Plan B” job as a stepping stone on the way back to “Plan A” or their ultimate career or life goal
Exercise self-care in accepting what you can and can't control and/or achieve for your clients.
A. Setting Expectations - Planning for Possible Disappointment
Bryon is a very smart, charming young guy with a sharp resume full of prestigious positions and academic awards. After two years at a high profile New York firm he is ready to blaze new trails as an international war crimes correspondent. He confidently expects that you can help him launch his new career. One bump in the road - Bryon hasn’t written a news article since working for his high school newspaper and although he was at the top of his class in grad school, his degree wasn’t in journalism or anything close to it.
Caught up in Bryon’s optimism, I splash about in an idealistic discussion of how so many people never think outside the box, how you have to take chances to succeed. I spend an obligatory few minutes talking about his plans if he doesn’t become a war crimes correspondent (did I mention that he also wants to make this career transition without relocating or re-educating himself?) and look briefly at his elaborate plan for pursuing the other careers he feels he is qualified for based on his general ability and interests. Months later he is doing some freelance work in journalism locally and also applying for corporate law positions. He doesn’t seem to really have a plan.
Career counseling is about coaching and inspiring, but it’s also about strategizing and building a game plan that includes provisions for disappointing results. While spelling out all the risks and the counter-moves can be tedious and potentially negative, having a concrete plan for set-backs and rejection may actually be more comforting to clients. This approach doesn’t need to be negative or combative. Instead we can methodically help to identify weak spots in his or her career plan, and come up with satisfactory alternatives. Asking “What if this doesn’t work?” or “How long would you be willing to stick with this plan before you’d feel you had to abandon it?” Working through these questions until the client gives an answer which she or he feels good about is key.
B. Dealing with Making the Difficult Choice - Take the Long View
Irene has a full-time position, runs a consulting business on the side, and has a new business idea which is looking like it may turn into a new enterprise. But she never got her graduate degree and feels like she hasn’t really achieved professional success without having that. Her question is should she walk away from all the other activities to get her degree?
I took her through pros and cons, and tried to give her a fair view of the current job market and her prospects for a late entry into the field after getting her degree. It wasn’t fun and while she kept listening she looked resigned. Then I asked how she felt about her current life, not just her main job but all her professional activities. I asked what she thought was missing, and most important - what she ultimately wanted. The lights popped on, she re-engaged, and suddenly we were talking about ways for her to get more out of her current job, and appreciating the varied and interesting professional life she has already created. With that perspective, we re-assessed the importance of getting her degree both as a practical tool and as a symbol of professional achievement.
Ask about the big picture and stay with it, even if the client wants to focus on the here-and-now, even if she says she doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up - and LISTEN versus trying to fix the problem. Share success stories, your own and other people’s experiences of turning lemons into lemonade, or just paying their dues until the right opportunity emerged.
C. It’s Not All About You – But It Kind of Is
I check in with Armand, a year out of school with no job and now with a baby on the way. I really hope he’ll say he’s landed a good job finally - he just seems to deserve a break. But his email back is terse: “Took a temp job just to pay some of my bills. Pay just barely covers my expenses - in fact it probably doesn’t but it is (barely) better than sitting home in front of the computer waiting for that magical job to show up.”
I asked myself if I failed.
I didn’t fail; I just didn’t get the ideal result. The capacity to care is what makes a counselor good at this job, but if you don’t balance it with a philosophical acceptance of how hard life can be at times, you won’t be any good to anyone. People are a lot tougher than they look (how else did they get this far?), and life is much richer than appearances indicate. Compassion fatigue is an occupational hazard, but let’s face it - sometimes what’s also hard is feeling inadequate to overcome the challenges that are outside of our control. We need to remember that our role is to facilitate the process by which clients find happiness and success. Even though the outcomes are often beyond our control, we can help make the process more efficient and more prosperous.
Setting reasonable expectations and making rainy day plans are less fun than some parts of our jobs but are true assets for the client. Helping the client stay excited and committed to the goal requires effort but can make you and the client feel more engaged and upbeat. Maybe hardest of all is accepting what you can and can’t do for your client, and preserving your ability to greet the next client and the next challenge with the same enthusiasm and dedication which first brought you to this career.
Robert White is Director of Alumni Career Services for UC Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall) in Berkeley, California. He also consults as a trainer-facilitator and coach for career development programs through the nonprofit Wardrobe for Opportunity in Oakland, CA. Prior positions include working as an attorney at a law firm and at Wells Fargo Bank, being an independent consultant, and serving as Manager, Corporate Services Training, for Robert Half International, Inc. He is a graduate of Stanford Law School, holds a Masters degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Golden Gate University and received Bachelor’s degrees in English from Morehouse College and the University of Kent (England). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org