A Different Approach to Career Counseling

18 years ago, when I started as a career counselor, I wasn’t happy.

Although I carefully followed the traditional advice to help clients identify their skills, interests, and values, encourage them to dream, and land a job by networking, I failed with many clients.

Since then, I have been developing and refining new approaches, and over the past five years, now enjoy a 97% client satisfaction rate.

Here are things I do differently from when I started. Perhaps you might want to try one or more.

Career Finding

As soon as a client makes the first appointment, I email a new client questionnaire, which asks The 25 Most Revealing Questions. These are the questions I’ve found most likely to tease out what the client should be doing and what’s interfering. Clients love this because it gives them time to reflect on the questions. Plus, they feel they’re getting for free what other counselors might have taken two sessions to ask. Some of the questions:

  • What are the non-negotiables in your next job?
  • Do you know a wealthy, well-connected, eminent, or highly skilled person who could open an interesting career door for you?
  • What's something you're afraid to admit, even to yourself?
  • If you didn't care what anyone thought, what is your most deeply held aspiration?
  • What tasks have brought you the most success?
  • What do you want? What do you really want?

When prospective clients tell me they’re looking for new options, in addition to the questionnaire, I have them browse The Cool Careers Yellow Pages in my book, Cool Careers for Dummies. It provides punchy one-paragraph introductions to 500+ careers, including many little-known ones. It’s a fast way to give clients what they often most want: lots of new options. I ask the client to come to the first session with a list of their favorite few of the 500+. We use those and the questionnaire responses as springboards for our first session.

I begin the first session by reading their questionnaire. I defer addressing emotional issues such as depression or procrastination until later. I often find that if we can develop a career goal that’s exciting enough and create a plan for landing the job that isn’t scary, the depression or anxiety doesn’t end up impeding their efforts to find good work. If the emotional problem does impede the career finding or job search, then we address it—in context--where it’s easier to figure out what’s going on and how to solve the problem.

After reading their questionnaire, I start the CD or audiocassette recorder (I record all sessions for clients—they find listening to it invaluable.)

If the client is interested in coming up with a career goal, I typically begin our interaction with The Meter Technique. I say, “We’re going to create a (insert client’s first name) Meter. It goes from 0 to 10 with zero meaning the idea makes you puke and 10 means it gives you ecstasy. How would you rate (insert a career possibility that I come up with based on their questionnaire responses) on the Meter? Unless the client rates it a 10, I then ask, “What keeps it from being a 10?" Based on their answer to that question, I come up with another career suggestion for the client to rate. When a rating is 7 or higher, I ask, "Do you want to put that on your list of possible careers? If the client says yes, I ask, "Have you considered that option before?" If yes, I ask, "Have you fully enough investigated it?" If not, I ask why. Finally, I ask, "Okay, do you want to figure out a baby step to investigating it for homework or would you rather not?" I keep playing the Meter Game until the client has one or more careers that score 9+.

If a client says, “I don’t know enough about a career to rate it,” we use, the OOH, google, or my book Cool Careers for Dummies’ Cool Careers Yellow Pages to get some information about it. If it’s a career I know a fair amount about, we do a virtual informational interview in which I pretend to be the person in the prospective career.

I include self-employment ideas among my list of proposed careers if the client:

  • is a self-starter
  • makes a good first impression
  • isn’t afraid of selling him or herself

I always focus on low-risk/high-payoff self-employment ideas, for example, counseling college-bound students from her home, helping website owners to improve their presence in search engines, or own a small chain of espresso carts near busy train stations or other high foot-traffic locations. These businesses are notable for requiring low investment and offering high profit margin. Note also they are NOT new ideas. They’ve already been proven successful. Novelty is risky. My motto: Don’t innovate; replicate. Unless you have deep pockets and can afford to lose a lot of money, confine your creative desires to hobbies, where they’re less likely to cause you to go broke.

If the Meter and related questioning don’t elicit any careers that excite the client, I often move to less intellectual approaches. For example, I might say, “Let's be quiet for 30 seconds, then tell me what you're thinking and feeling.” Sometimes, while the client contemplates, I might play the piano—a gentle improvisation based on my sense of that client. A client, Leslie, said "It relaxed my muscles. Then it made me feel like I'm climbing a mountain. It made me realize I don’t need a career change. I need to leave my husband."

If the questionnaire or conversation reveals that a client is religious, I invoke their religiosity, for example, by asking, “What would Jesus tell you to do?”

I also have helped many clients get unstuck by conducting part or even all of a session outside my office. Sometimes, we simply continue the session while walking around the block. Other times, we take field trips. For example, one client loved mountaineering but couldn’t imagine how he could make a living related to it. We drove to Marmot Mountain Works where we explored and he found brochures for a training program for mountaineering guides. He was ecstatic.

When we’ve come up with two career ideas that seem equally good, I play The Court Game. First, I pretend I’m an attorney giving all the reasons why Career A would be wiser for that client. Next, I play the opposing attorney and give all the reasons why Career B would be wiser. Last, the client plays the judge and renders a decision.

At the end of a session, I usually ask clients to summarize what they got from the session. Then I say, “If Marty Nemko vaporized, what homework assignment, if any, in addition to listening to your CD, would you give yourself?” Creating the homework that way brings three advantages: gives the client ownership, greatly increases the chances of the client actually doing the homework, and is more likely to be the homework the client really needs to do. Only if a client is stuck and asks for help, do I offer a suggested assignment.

Landing the Job

I’ve found it a mistake to encourage all job-seeking clients to heavily use networking to land a job. The main reason is that many people who come to career counselors don’t have great networks and aren’t good at building them. In earlier years, when I did urge networking, most of my clients resisted trying it, and those who gave it the ol’ college try rarely got a job as result. Usually, after a few unsuccessful months, they gave up on their job search.

Instead of that one-size-fits-all approach (network, network, network), for each client, I develop an individualized job search plan based on the client’s job-searching strengths and weaknesses. I draw it on a pie chart: one wedge each for: answering ads, networking, cold contact, and recruiters. The size of each wedge depends on the client’s characteristics and preferred mode of job seeking. If the person has a strong network and enjoys networking, fine, then networking gets a big wedge. But if not, the other job search methods, especially answering ads, get a larger wedge. In those cases, I then devote particular effort in showing that client how to find on-target ads and how to compellingly apply (see below) and later, interview.

In all aspects of a job-seeker’s pitch (cold call, network email, cover letter, resume, interview, and negotiation) I stress the importance of creating connection. That means using human, emotional language such as “I’m excited to be applying for the job.” It means avoiding job-seeker jargon such as “Self-starter seeking an opportunity with a dynamic organization.” In all conversation, I urge very careful listening to discern what the person is saying, how he’s saying it, and where there are changes in emotion. Good listeners also ask good follow-up questions. They’re also often playful.

My clients have had great success using what I call the point-by-point cover letter. Here’s the template I use:

Dear (Insert name of employer)

I was excited to see your ad for a (insert job title) on (insert where the ad was listed) because I fit all the requirements, it sounds like I’d enjoy it, and it’s just 10 minutes from my home.

(Then quote each job requirement listed in the ad followed by a one-line explanation of how you meet that requirement.)

There’s more to me than I can put in a letter—people say they really like working with me--so I hope you’ll interview me.


Joe Jobseeker

Conquering Phone Phobia

Many clients have a tough time picking up the phone, especially making a cold call to a prospective employer. I use a number of techniques to make it easier:

I usually demonstrate the process by actually making a call to one of their potential leads. Even if I just get voice mail, I leave a message such as,

I’m Marty Nemko, a career counselor who’s working with a great guy (insert name of client). He’s a cost accountant who got great performance evals, but he just got laid off as part of a downsizing. I’m doing a little advance work for him. If you’re willing to talk with him—even if only to give him a little advice as to where he should turn—he’d really appreciate it. His number is (insert number.)

Demonstrating that to the client and having it on the CD for the client to listen to usually makes the cold calling seem less scary.

Then I role play the call with the client, with me playing the employer and the client playing herself. After being The Nice Employer a few times, the client gains confidence. Then I play The Employer From Hell to show that even, worst case, the client will survive.

Despite all that, some clients still suffer from call reluctance. Here are things I tell clients that have helped:

  • The Asking-for-Directions Metaphor. “You’re only imposing for 30 seconds, the time it takes to ask if the person is willing to talk with you. If he agrees, then he’s not feeling imposed on. He’s an adult. He is fully capable of saying no. You’re not afraid to stop a stranger and ask for directions, are you? It’s not any different when you make a 30-second pitch to a potential employer.”
  • The Karma Concept: “There will be times in your life where you’ll be in a position to help a job seeker. As long as you promise yourself that you’ll be kind when they call, there’s nothing wrong with you asking for a little kindness now that you’re a job seeker.”
  • Undersell. “There’s no need to oversell yourself. In fact, slightly undersell yourself. You’ll appear more credible as well as be more relaxed.”
  • Put yourself in the employer’s shoes. “If the employer you call ended up hiring you, would s/he end up happy with the decision?” (If the client says yes, the client will feel more confident in making calls. If the client says no, it suggests we need to reassess whether the job target is appropriate.)

Sometimes, a client shows up for a subsequent session having procrastinated the job search. If so, I start with kind supportive responses, trying to help the client to overcome the practical and psychological stumbling blocks. However, I have found that when those tactics are unsuccessful and I know I’m dealing with a client who is reasonably “together,” The Jerk Technique can help. Here’s how it works. I say, “Now, I’m going to transform myself from Marty Nemko, mild-mannered career counselor, to the biggest jerk imaginable.” I then proceed to—in bombastic tones—confront the client, accusing her of laziness and the like. Then I change my voice back to normal and say, “Of course, I don’t really think that.” Usually, the client says something like, “You know, that jerk wasn’t really wrong.” Often, that motivates the client to move forward.

Making the Most of Your Current Job

Often, clients decide to stay in their current job. We then turn our attention to how to make the most of that job. Here are a few techniques that have worked well.

The Suit-of-Clothes metaphor. I say to the client something like this: “Think of the job as like a suit of clothes. Off the rack, it may look okay, but to really look terrific, it usually needs to be tailored and accessorized. Same is true of your job. Should we try to figure out if your job description should and could be changed to accentuate your strengths and deemphasize your weaknesses?” For example, one of my clients is an attorney who freaked out in trial but enjoyed doing research. She traded responsibilities with another attorney in the office who had opposite preferences.

Does the client want to prioritize work or love? A surprising number of my clients are more motivated to look for a romantic partner than a job. I’ve had considerable success in helping them. For example, I ask, “Which of the following do you think are most likely to find you Mr/Ms Right: classes, online matchmaking, in-person matchmakers, asking friends to be set up, flirting in bookstores and supermarkets, volunteering, conferences, cruises, group hobby activities?”

I then teach techniques for how to make the most of the approaches they choose. For example, here’s part of what I told a woman who would soon be attending a professional conference and wanted to meet a potential husband. I said, “Arrive at each workshop five minutes early. Don’t sit yet. Stand around and see if there’s a guy you could picture being with. If so, stand 10 feet or so away, in his line of sight. Without staring, try to establish a moment or two of eye contact. If he doesn’t respond the first or second time, don’t yet give up. He may be shy or clueless. If his face responds positively, approach him and introduce yourself. If after a couple of minutes, the chemistry feels good, ask if he’d like to sit down. If not, shake his hand, say you hope he enjoys the workshop, walk away, and see if you can find another candidate .”

Career counselor as photographer. I have often helped my clients write ads and even taken the photos for their listing. Even though I’m not much of a photographer, the pictures come out great because my clients feel open with me so they are able to look natural and relaxed.

Replace bitterness with gratitude. There’s a message I try to convey to many clients: work on replacing bitterness or anger with gratitude. I believe that the meaningful life consists mainly of creating and/or appreciating lots of little moments, including all the moments you’re productive, even when the work is mundane. I’ve found that cultivating a sense of gratitude increases a person’s contentment more than even finding a cool career.

© 2007, Marty Nemko

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Marty Nemko holds a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and subsequently taught in Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. He is the worklife columnist in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle and is the producer and host of Work With Marty Nemko, heard Sundays at 11 on 91.7 FM in (NPR, San Francisco), and worldwide on . 400+ of his published writings are available free on that website and is a co-editor of Cool Careers for Dummies. and author of The All-in-One College Guide. E-Mail.

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