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Liz Ryan: The Workplace

Making Sense of Your Career Path

Dear Liz,

I've had a variety of roles in operations and sales management, as well as product management, finance, and HR. In 26 years since college, I've been with six companies—not an alarming number, I wouldn't think, from an employer's standpoint—but I've had a total of 17 different job titles. I am afraid that this career progression (if you want to call it that) makes me look somewhat directionless.

I've learned a tremendous amount through all these twists and turns, but I must confess that to a great degree, I took the jobs that were offered to me and didn't follow a particular career plan. You could say that I bounced around my companies like a pinball, and now that I'm job-hunting again, I've got to put together a compelling story that will convince my next employer to hire me in a managerial or senior-individual-contributor role, although I don't have deep experience in any one function.

How should I proceed?



Dear Marcus,

Interestingly enough, your background may be right for a number of employers, whose needs now often focus less on very deep experience in one function than on the ability to solve thorny business problems. Your broad experience may be very useful when it comes to overcoming business obstacles (global competition, suboptimal distribution schemes, or the need to create new channels, for example) that require the participation—and knowledge—of more than one function.

There is a fallacy that the best jobs go to people whose rÉsumÉ trumpet "Twenty-five years of experience in merchandising,&quot for example. It's much more powerful to be able to say "At Capitol Products, I spearheaded the launch of our solar hot tubs, capturing 27% of the market in the first year" than to say "I've done the same seven things for years and years on end."

That being said, your meandering career path needs to make sense on paper, because that's where a prospective employer will first encounter it. I'm talking about your rÉsumÉ, of course, and the cover letter that draws parallels between the employer's needs (as described in the job ad) and your background. You didn't have a forward-looking career plan while you were moving around and about in your six organizations, and that's O.K.

What's imperative now is that you study your own background in order to make sense of it. You've got to be able to say "From this assignment I gained X, and the next logical step for me was the move to Y department." You've got to be able to explain to an employer, in just a few sentences, why your twists and turns equip you brilliantly for the challenges that this particular employer is facing.

Sought-After Employee

It's not a bad thing to be sought after, and if many or most of your career transitions were occasioned by a headhunter or hiring manager seeking you out for an assignment, say so. Don't let a rÉsumÉ screener imagine that you're a directionless leaf, blown about by the four winds. Say right in your rÉsumÉ: "Was recruited from this job to lead the Production Planning group at XYZ Healthcare." If people were coming after you to slay their most fearsome dragons, make that plain.

By the same token, if you got into a function and quickly realized it wasn't for you, and/or you didn't do well there, I'd downplay that role or remove it from your rÉsumÉ entirely. With a complicated career history, you should take advantage of any opportunities you've got to simplify the story. For instance, you can smash together two consecutive roles at one company.

There is no legal or moral requirement to specify every title change and each specific assignment you were given at the same employer, as long as you don't claim for yourself at any point a loftier title than the one you actually worked under. Read your rÉsumÉ with a newbie's eye: Does it look like the story of a person in command of his own destiny, or the tale of a hapless wanderer? That's the question you've got to answer as you put words to paper.

Many great adventurers have carried the day by setting out in search of problems in need of solving. A stepwise career plan isn't a prerequisite for a successful career. At the same time, "Man without a purpose" is not an appealing job-search brand. Use the million-plus words in our versatile English language to paint one picture in your rÉsumÉ and not the other.



Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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