[ A few thoughts on putting your best foot forward vis-à-vis career coaching, executive coaching, resume writing + professional development ]
Some people seem born knowing exactly what they want to do with their lives. “When I grow up, I want to be a chef” they assert as youth—and then they go out—voila!—and become a chef. If only it were so easy for the rest of us.
The truth is, the career path for a good number of people is roundabout, circuitous, and anything but direct. People experiment, explore, and pivot from industry to industry, from one job function to another, relocating from one geography to another—and sometimes they do all three changes at the same time, which can be thrilling and terrifying all at once.
As a coach, I know that career uncertainty is a common dilemma for professionals out there, and one that often leaves individuals feeling stuck in a rut and unsure about their next professional move. Unfortunately, all too often it keeps them in dead-end or otherwise toxic jobs for months, years, and sometimes even decades.
So, here we have our big, hairy problem: you feel stuck in your career.
You may be disillusioned or detached from the work, and the quality of your performance may suffer, or you may even be working TOO hard and throwing yourself too deeply into your work, all in an effort to avoid wrestling with the bigger question of what you should do next with your (professional) life.
Sadly, there are no secret potions or magic pills to make the problem suddenly disappear. Sometimes time and patience solve the problem, but chances are you’ve been patient long enough, and you’re ready for a change—you just don’t know the specifics about what form that change should take.
Enter the superhero of career exploration: informational interviewing (if you’re rolling your eyes or cringing, I’d love to know why).
What Is Informational Interviewing?
First, let’s quicky define it: what is informational interviewing? In a nutshell, informational interviewing is a very strategic and rather proactive approach to career exploration and networking, and the good news is that it’s not very complicated: at its simplest, informational interviewing involves seeking and conducting interviews with professionals in your field (or fields) of interest to gain insights, advice, and a deeper understanding of the industry. The stakes are usually lower, and the stress is lower too, because unlike in job interviews, the primary goal is not to secure a position but rather to gather information, build connections, and explore potential career paths.
It's a valuable tool for individuals seeking guidance, clarity, and mentorship in their professional journey. You may think it’s only for entry-level professionals who are just starting out, but you’d be wrong. Informational interviewing has proven useful for many of my mid-level and even some senior-level clients. All of which to say, don’t knock it ‘til you try it, even if you have 10 or 20+ years of work experience under your belt.
Unleashing the Power of Informational Interviewing
Imagine possessing a key that unlocks doors to otherwise hidden insights, guidance, and newfound clarity about your career. That key is none other than informational interviewing. If you bring your whole self to the conversation, it's not just a mundane Q&A session; it can be an enjoyable journey of discovery that can clarify and even transform your career trajectory. Feeling lost in your career is like navigating a maze blindfolded. Informational interviewing can act as a valuable guide.
It may not answer all of your questions, certainly not immediately, and it can even beget more questions in some cases, but most of my clients who take up the task find that informational interviews help them start to peel back the layers of uncertainty. It gives them a sense of purpose, action and momentum—a focus where previously there wasn’t one. By connecting with professionals who have walked similar paths, you gain a clearer understanding of industry trends, potential opportunities, and the skills required to thrive.
There is not just one way to informationally interview. Finding what works for you (and is sustainable) is key. Some people do this naturally, keeping tabs on former colleagues and bosses as people disperse into new companies, industries, and locations. For other people, it requires a bit of intentional effort. It is indeed an investment of your time: you have to reach out to people, ask if/when they’re available, and then you have to show up (virtually or in person), have the conversation, and possibly send a thank you/follow up. This all requires energy, yes, but the potential ROI is often worth it. Keep in mind that some conversations will be more enjoyable than others. Some will be energizing, and others may feel draining. That is okay. It's part of the dance. Keep going.
The Surprising Joy of Networking
Networking as a general concept often gets a bad rap for being too formal or intimidating or transactional. Informational interviewing, on the other hand, adds a touch of ease to the process. It may involve having coffee with a mentor who shares similar experiences (or wildly different ones!), sprinkled with anecdotes and laughs and tears (depending on how emotional the person is). The focus is on the other person, so that helps to take the "heat" off of you. You’re there to ask about the other person’s journey, about their career or current company and role, about why they’ve made the career decisions they have.
Sometimes people think of informational interviewing as a selfish act. But, remember, that by being an active listener and lending an ear, you are giving the other person the "gift" of your attention. Most humans love being listened to, and it is indeed a wonderful gift to give someone your undivided time and attention--even if it is for just a few minutes. It's a form of respect, friendship or even love, depending on the relationship.
Sometimes people avoid informational interviews because they don’t know what to talk about. The good news is that you just have to show up… and listen. If it helps, below are a few sample questions you can ask—but make sure you’re listening to the other person, and asking questions customized and based on their responses to demonstrate that you are listening, and that you care:
Sample Informational Interview Questions to Get The Ball Rolling:
Introduction and Background:
Can you tell me a bit about your career journey and how you got to where you are today?
What sparked your interest in industry X?
Industry and Company Insights:
How would you describe the current trends and challenges in our industry?
Can you share your perspective on the company culture in your workplace?
What was your favorite place to work at, and why? And your least favorite place?
What does a typical day or week look like in your role?
How do you prioritize and manage your tasks?
Skill Development and Qualifications:
What skills do you believe are crucial for success in this field?
Are there any certifications or qualifications you would recommend for someone starting in this profession?
If you could give one piece of advice to someone exploring a career in industry/function X, what would it be?
What do you wish you had known when you started your career?
Networking and Professional Growth:
How important do you think networking is in this industry, and do you have any tips for effective networking?
What strategies have you used to continue learning and growing in your career?
Industry Changes and Future Outlook:
How do you see this industry evolving in the next few years?
Are there any emerging trends or technologies that professionals in this field should be aware of?
How do you manage work-life balance in a demanding profession?
What advice do you have for maintaining a healthy work-life integration?
Mentorship and Guidance:
Have you had mentors throughout your career, and how have they influenced your professional development?
How do you think mentorship contributes to success in this field?
Is there anything else you think I should know or any resources you would recommend?
Can you suggest other professionals in the industry who might be open to informational interviews?
These are just some sample questions. As you get into the swing of things, chances are you will get even better at asking thoughtful, powerful questions that engage and maybe even impress the other person.
So, taking all of the above into account, if you find yourself at a career crossroads, feeling a bit lost or unsure about your next career move, consider the (potential) transformative power of informational interviewing. It's not just a professional tool; it can help inject energy, momentum and hope to light the way as you to navigate the often overwhelming maze of career choices.
Consider the value and benefits of taking the plunge, connecting with professionals who inspire and energize you (I repeat: even if some informational interviews are less exciting and feel less useful than others--keep going!), and watching as your career path unfolds with newfound clarity and purpose. Best of luck!
Note: I have coached hundreds of professionals on numerous continents, and the *only* people who have found informational interviewing to be unhelpful are (1) the people who haven’t yet tried it, or (2) those who go into it expecting immediate results. Building relationships and gaining clarity can take time, and patience + persistence are your friends in this equation. So don't wait. Get started, especially if you've felt stuck for far too long. And if you’re feeling rusty and looking for support and guidance around how to network and interview confidently, I am here to help.
With up to 40% of Americans experiencing a job loss at least once in their lives, layoffs are a common occurrence, but that’s hardly reassuring in the moment when you get the boot or in the days and weeks that follow. Mindset here is (nearly) everything, and how you define and perceive your layoff can make or break you and greatly impact the type of actions you’ll take to bounce back and secure gainful employment.
Reflecting on my many years of career coaching, I’ve compiled a non-exhaustive list of thoughts and tips that have helped my clients thrive—yes, even after a particularly painful layoff. Keep in mind that what works for one person may not work for another, but diversifying your post-layoff approach and doing as many of these things as possible tends to increase the chances of a successful outcome.
Acknowledge the event.
Layoffs can be traumatic experiences, shaking some people to their core. Even if you didn’t love your job and were already looking for greener pastures, becoming suddenly employed is the least-fun surprise and can surely take the wind out of your sails. Acknowledging the reality of what’s just transpired and accepting, rather than resisting, any initial waves of discomfort, doubt, or fear for the journey ahead is perfectly natural, and indeed an important first step to eventually climbing out of the rut of unemployment.
Realize that you are not your job.
Occasionally, I work with clients who’ve just been laid off (or, yes, who are daydreaming about a layoff because they’re miserable but indecisive) on separating their identities from their jobs, which is sometimes very difficult in this country where many people derive so much of their sense of worth from their employment status or job title. If the following sounds hokey, then perhaps it’s not intended for you, but some folks find it useful to just utter out loud: “I am not my job. I have worth outside of my job.” Sometimes this tiny affirmation takes the edge off and helps folks begin to refocus their energy on the job search ahead, as opposed to wallowing too long and wasting one’s energy on trying to undo the past (spoiler alert: that last part is impossible).
Take stock… of everything.
Layoffs can sting, but they can also be powerful eye-openers, helping us see more clearly what it is we want either immediately (e.g., what does the next job look like?) or in the longer term (e.g., how do I see my career evolving in the next decade or two?). This is especially true for folks who’ve been laid off from jobs they hated anyway, where the environment was toxic, the boss was a jerk, the job itself was not challenging or rewarding, or perhaps the pay was far too low. Getting laid off can help you crystallize what you didn’t love about your prior company or job function and clarify what you want in the next one. Layoffs are also a great opportunity for you to take stock of your current skill set, whether technical or so-called “soft” skills (a misnomer since we know how hard, difficult to improve, and highly impactful they can be), and then identify areas for growth and development (more on that below).
As you consider your next job move, the more specific that your list of pros and cons or likes and dislikes is, the more useful it will be for charting the path forward. Saying you want a “healthy work environment” is fine, but knowing that you want a boss who (a) doesn’t email you after 6pm and (b) gives you flexibility to work from home at least once a week is much more specific, detailed, and actionable in terms of defining your job search. Get clear and specific on your wants, your needs, and your non-negotiables—as well as where you might need to compromise in a competitive job market. The clearer your vision is, the more focused (and less fragmented) your job search can be. It will also make it significantly easier for your network to understand and remember what you want--and potentially help you get there.
Up-skill and up-level your game.
If there are skills you’ve neglected over the years, or specific competencies that you see are highly regarded in the current market, now’s your chance to up-skill and up-level your game. You probably know the drill by now: Read job descriptions carefully, taking note of what skills are required or preferred. Talk to industry professionals casually or through more formal informational interviews to get a sense of what companies are seeking these days.
Then act on that information: for some people, this means going back to school for a degree, for others, it’s as simple as taking a small-scale online course (often free or low-cost). Make sure you have the skills and credentials, because some companies won’t talk to you until they see that on paper. That is, they won’t get to see your awesome energy, passion and experience until they first see that your LinkedIn and/or resume reflect the core skills required for the job they’re seeking to fill.
Build new connections—and rebuild old ones.
Ideally, networking should be an ongoing practice, not just when you’re laid off and looking for work. Some people think it comes across as desperate if you’re only networking when you’re unemployed. That depends on the energy and expectations you bring to the conversation. If you’re asking everyone you meet whether they know of any job leads, that might come off as very transactional and brusque, even possibly downright rude depending on the relationship and sociocultural context. But if instead you approach networking as a way to catch up, lend an ear and listen to someone else’s story, as an opportunity to have an organic conversation where you value the other person’s time and attention, that’s usually a recipe for a positive interaction—one that may, one day, lead to job leads or other professional benefits.
Some of my clients feel like they’ve tapped out their existing network, and it’s because their social circles are quite small. In reality, they usually have a sizable social network but they’ve perhaps lost touch with a lot of people (think friends or acquaintances from high school or college, from previous jobs, from the local community). There is generally no bad time to network. Some of my clients worry that the experience will be awkward, and they’ll come across as desperate, but afterwards they often share their surprise at how well the conversation went, how glad both parties were to catch up on life (not just on career matters), and how the chat led to further positive action steps (professional introductions and referrals, job and interview leads, future fun hangouts, etc.).
Put in the work. Especially into networking.
In a competitive market, where some job listings receive hundreds of resume applications per opening, networking is what helps candidates gain an edge. But it does require time and energy. It’s a numbers game: talking to one person once a year probably won’t amount to much but reaching out to dozens of folks each month (or week, if you can muster it) tends to reap bigger and better rewards. Think: in-person coffee chats, Zoom calls, even thoughtful texts. Where appropriate and feasible, you might want to treat the other person to coffee or demonstrate your gratitude in some other appropriate way.
If all this sounds a little bit daunting, remember that the job search can indeed feel like a full-time job, and it often takes a serious commitment (and sometimes a bit of luck) if you want to build momentum and land interviews. If you identify as an introvert, and large-scale conferences or networking mixers give you the creeps, find smaller social opportunities, possibly ones that involve your hobbies or passions so that you’re more likely to be your natural, relaxed, excited or happy self—that’s when networking can often feel effortless.
Consider a pivot. Explore new options.
Some layoffs amount to nothing but writing on the wall. If the reason behind your layoff was that your job has been largely automated/replaced by AI, perhaps now is the time to shift gears. Not just learn new skills (it is generally a good idea to keep learning throughout life), but perhaps pivot into a new industry or job function. It’s important to remember that the job landscape isn’t some monolith. Some sectors and industries get hit hard by layoffs, and others thrive. For example, in 2023, tech took a tumble while healthcare and construction seem to be going strong. Some of my clients take a layoff as a sign from the universe to carve out an entirely new path, going from non-profit to corporate (or the other way around), pivoting from back-of-house to customer-facing positions (or vice versa), switching disciplines (job functions) but staying in the same industry (e.g., going from tech sales to tech marketing), swapping one industry for another, or moving from one city/state/country to another (and often some combination of many of the above).
Some clients want to avoid future layoffs and aim to become freelancers, consultants, or business owners. Of course, chasing your own leads and clients or starting your own business is hard work and not without its challenges, but at least you can try to make sure that you won’t fire yourself. The point is, there are options out there. Another possibility that is often overlooked? Boomeranging. Some folks actually return to the companies that laid them off. Keep in touch with the company. While it may be tempting to burn bridges and resent the company that terminated you, keep in mind that it’s not unheard of for people to return--to boomerang--and end up back at the same company months or years later--
sometimes for significantly more pay or in more interesting job roles.
Fuel your confidence. Put yourself first, but don’t go it alone.
Your mindset affects nearly everything about the job search: how often and to which jobs you apply (e.g., are you only applying for jobs for which you’re clearly overqualified), how frequently you network, how energetically and confidently your interview. If your self-esteem is in the gutter, the entire job search will feel like a slog. Layoffs can make you feel like crap (that is the technical term), so make sure you invest in activities that energize you, because the job search can very quickly deplete you (that’s if you weren’t already burned out at the company that just laid you off). Define—and stick to—your boundaries with family, friends, and random LinkedIn connections. "No" is a full and complete sentence. Hang with people who support you and boost your self-esteem and overall well-being. Practice self-care, tending to your mind, body and spirit (yes, that includes eating well, exercising, getting good sleep, socializing, etc.). Rest. Have fun. Explore. Make space for new adventures--whether traveling across the world, hitting up the new restaurant down the block, or cooking your own meal if that’s something you’re not used to.
A long-haul job search can make you feel defeated, and it’s important to nourish yourself in all ways so you can keep up your stamina for the road ahead. Social interactions are key here. Being laid off can be an isolating experience, but talking to others often holds the key to getting out of the fog and getting clear (and maybe even excited) about next steps. Keep a brag sheet of all the noteworthy things you did while laid off—everything from classes you took, neighborhoods (or countries) you’ve visited, kids (and/or pets) you’ve raised, events you’ve organized or attended, books you’ve read, podcasts you’ve listened to, relationships you’ve built, hobbies you’ve started, organizations you’ve volunteered for, people you’ve mentored or otherwise made time for, etc. Take stock of how you've grown and invested in yourself, and how you have added value to others.
Put yourself out there.
Networking is an important tool, but it’s not the only way to send a signal to the world that you are (1) awesome and (2) ready for a new job. Platforms like LinkedIn (or personal blogs) offer you a chance to share your expertise, insights, and passions with the world. You already know this, but people read and consume content, even if they don't always comment on it. And when that content is even half-decent and resonates, people do notice it, they do share it. This doesn’t mean everyone needs to write a book (even if it feels that way sometimes). But if you have a unique take on your industry or job function, or even if you have some common tips to share with others (e.g., junior professionals) that may seem obvious to you but aren’t to others, don’t hold in all that wisdom. Pen an article or two. Find ways to write, speak, or dance it if you have to. Not everyone will be a keynote speaker, but you can find ways to connect and speak at your local organizations, business chambers of commerce, libraries or bookstores, shops, and of course online.
Don’t be limited by what you’ve done until now. Chances are, what got you to this point isn’t what will get you to the next one. Sometimes you really do have to step out of that comfort zone. And you don’t have to be a “thought leader” or “expert.” In fact, sometimes it’s the unvarnished, unembellished and plain truths that capture readers’ attention the most. If you’ve been laid off, and your default is to disconnect from the world (e.g., due to shame, discomfort, lack of focus or energy), sometimes putting yourself out there is the thing that will reenergize you and help you make the connections that lead to good things for your job search. As trite as it sounds, you simply won’t know if you don’t try.
Volunteer. Mentor. Give back.
This might seem like the opposite of the advice earlier of “put yourself first”—but it isn’t exactly. Sometimes the job search makes folks obsess and over-think, retreating inward and navel-gazing to the extreme. But focusing some of our time and energy on others can be immensely helpful. Volunteering feels good, providing us with a sense of purpose and fulfillment and a great reminder that we are on this planet not just for ourselves, but for those around us. Beyond maintaining healthy social ties with family and friends, donating our time to strangers is a great way to feel useful, especially when unemployed. There are countless ways, formal or otherwise, you can mentor and volunteer—whether it's through Zoom internationally, or in person down the street in your local community. You can of course add these volunteering experiences to your resume and LinkedIn, but the real value is in the human connection.
And now, here is a shorter hodge-podge list of the other perhaps more commonly seen post-layoff tips, many of which we know about, but the value is in doing them (not just knowing them).
Update your resume. Make sure it’s something clean, impactful, error-free, and generally something you’re proud of. Bonus: update your resume even if (especially if) you haven't been laid off, so that you're always prepared.
Keep your LinkedIn updated and attractive. While LinkedIn is not heavily used in some industries, it’s a broadly used networking and job/talent search tool by recruiters, business owners, and professionals in general. Make sure your “brand” is clear and aligned with what you’re seeking.
Polish your interview skills. Record yourself. Practice in front of a mirror if you have to. But it’s best when you can get feedback from others, for example, a trusted friend, mentor or professional coach. Interviewing is by its nature a social act, so it’s best to not (just) practice alone.
Manage layoff anxiety. There’s quite a bit of layoff anxiety floating around given the post-COVID world and the hard-to-label economy—it seems we’re always at the precipice of another crisis. Remember to take care of your anxiety, if you’re experiencing any post-layoff. Whether your ideal solution to combat anxiety is vegetable, mineral, chemical, physical-kinetic or spiritual (or all of the above) remember that layoff anxiety is common, that you’re definitely not the first or last one to experience it, but that ultimately you’re the one who can take steps to manage it and emerge from it stronger.
While there is no fool-proof solution to land a job faster and no way to prevent a future layoff, these are some of the steps you can take to future-proof yourself best you can and mitigate some risk for the uncertain road ahead. No single tip or strategy is better than another, but doing as many of them as you reasonably can together may help increase the chances of success. Both from my own experience and from the journeys of countless clients, it is often the case that when one door closes another one eventually opens. Sometimes an unpleasant layoff leads to incredible career opportunities and thrilling life adventures that otherwise might have been impossible.
Like the busy bee weighed down with pollen, you too are burdened.
You don't need anyone to list the challenges in your day-to-day existence. You are all too familiar with them.
If you don't experience daily burdens, congratulations (you need not keep reading).
Perhaps you lament, complain, and kvetch online, or you tell a few close souls, or you keep the burdens selfishly all to yourself, bottling up the rich and toxic sludge of immature or downright unethical boss behavior or crappy coworkers and meaningless projects and unrealistic deadlines and personal doubts and imposter syndrome and "achievement dysmorphia" (a term I borrowed from Jaime Ellis, ACC) or disrespectful clients and miserable leaders... oh, dang, I thought I was going to spare you the list.
How much of that extra weight is thrown upon you unfairly by external forces, but how much of it do you automatically (maybe absent-mindedly?) pick up and carry just to please others, or because you're a workaholic, or because you were never (ever) shown a healthy + viable alternative, or because you simply don't allow yourself some time to explore it?
It's impossible to avoid all burdens in life--that much we can agree on.
Some burdens make you stronger.
Some actually do make you weaker--at least physically.
Some shared burdens will allow you to connect with people and even inspire countless others, both loved ones close to home, and strangers many mountains and seas away.
"Shared sorrow is half sorrow, shared joy is double joy"--I discovered this phrase online years ago and it keeps coming back into my life at just the right moments.
When it comes to work, perhaps some of your burdens are educational and constructive for a time, a reason, a season. They propel and motivate you--to a point. Until they don't.
How many of your professional burdens have you carried now for far too long, to the point that it's become tragic... or comical?
Netflix recently released a show called Human Playground, taking some of these often self-induced burdens to their extreme (I didn't say it couldn't be beautiful). If you haven't seen it, Idris Elba's narration alone is worth experiencing.
What burdens are you carrying at work that no longer serve you?
Great news: You don't need to answer.
After all, a life examined can be scary, fraught with more questions than answers.
But, as some say, the unexamined life is not worth living...
What is coaching, in a nutshell?
The world's best career coach is not the one who gives you the answers, but the one who helps you realize that the answers are already within you, hidden under layers of dust or rust.
The world's best executive coach is not the one who "trains" you on how to communicate or lead more effectively, but the one who unearths your existing leadership skills and strengths, helps you explore and experiment, and empowers you and you alone to leverage your innate resilience and resourcefulness to find creative solutions to some of the most challenging problems in the modern-day workplace.
Why Working With a Career Coach May Not Be For You
Poly-creative and complex human who fills up his days as a career coach, executive coach, resume writer, and personal brand / communications specialist. Conqueror of excuses and doubts. Bakes a mean éclair and snaps thought-provoking photos, but is best known for helping clients achieve personal + professional growth and fulfillment.