Career Coaches Coax Change

Carol Want Ross (McC83, GMcC87), of Louisville, Colo., brings a particular expertise to her job coaching midcareer professionals: she’s walked in their shoes.

After a nearly 20-year career in engineering — first as a chemical engineer, then as a software engineer — she realized that what she found most fulfilling was the people side of the business: building teams rather than computer programs. After being laid off from the telecommunications company Avaya, she started her own business in 2003 and has seen her satisfaction — and her professional reputation — soar.

“I was a perfectly competent engineer, but I didn’t contribute to my field at all,” she says. “Now, after coaching for only three years, I’ve been published and have spoken at national conferences. It’s not an overnight process, but when you find the work you’re meant to do, your prominence takes off.”

Ellen Lubin-Sherman (C75, GJ76), of Short Hills, N.J., has walked the same path. After graduating from Northwestern she worked in marketing and communications for 20 years. When burnout set in, she struggled to discover the next logical step.

“What I liked doing was helping the younger people who worked for me become more successful,” she says. “It gave me a chance to talk to them on a much deeper level.” Still, she didn’t see how that would translate into a full-time job until she met a corporate coach while on a biking vacation. Lubin-Sherman had found a job title for what she wanted to do. “It’s a way to fuse my expertise in marketing and packaging and my love for helping people operate at the top of their games,” she says.   

Through her coaching service, Launch, she teaches clients the importance of self-marketing, an especially important skill for those transitioning into a different field. “You have to send out a great message and make sure you have good packaging,” she says. “Most people will go with attitude over aptitude. If you come in with the right attitude, even if you don’t have as much experience as another candidate, it gives an employer the benefit of the doubt that you can catch up.”

Marilyn Moats Kennedy (J65, GJ66), of Wilmette, Ill., has been an independent management consultant and career planner for 30 years, and she’s seen significant generational differences in career changers’ goals. “If they’re younger than 35, they’re wondering, ‘How do I find out what I really want to be?’ If they’re older than 45, they have some idea of what their goals are, but they’re looking for a road map to get there. People in their 50s will say, ‘I’m not ready for retirement. This is my time to break out.’” 

The key to making a successful transition, say all these career advisers, is the right preparation. “It’s one thing to dream, but you need a reality check,” says Moats Kennedy. “People will say to me, this is what I really want to do, but when I tell them what it takes, they say they don’t want to do it after all. For example, people will tell me they’d love to do what I do, but they’re not willing to travel so much. Well, then, you can’t do my job.”

Ross suggests taking short “field trips” into your potential new profession, whether it’s meeting with a colleague in a different department or volunteering at a nonprofit on weekends to see how you fit in. “See if your energy goes up or down when you’re there,” she says. “Does it make you more curious?”

Another important element is to build up a new network, even if that means calling people you don’t know to suggest a meeting over coffee or lunch. Lubin-Sherman suggests setting up a personal “board of directors” that you can call on for advice on taking the next step. “People love to be tapped for their expertise,” she says.

For objective advice and guidance, you can also consult a coach. Ross and Lubin-Sherman both work via phone and e-mail, making them available to clients all over the country. Coaching can be as simple as a one-time, hour-long conversation or regular monthly or bimonthly appointments that help you navigate your way through a transitional time.

The crucial element, all agree, is to follow a career path that fills you with energy and purpose. “It’s got to enthrall you intellectually,” says Moats Kennedy. “Here’s the basic test: when you’re doing this job, can you be distracted?

If not, that’s when you know you’re on the right track.” — E.C.B.