Building Your Career Question 1: “What Can You Do?”
As you consider what direction to chart your future actions, you might become overwhelmed with the myriad possibilities you have.
Good news- that’s normal.
Bad news- you still have to pick a path.
Now this isn’t always true for everybody, sometimes career paths are prescribed by circumstance, previous choices, education/experience, or the simple fact you know where you want to go. Choices here are easy, because there isn’t much of one. But some have a strong desire to blaze their own path and, knowingly or unknowingly, welcome the opportunity to choose. Sometimes a person skips back-and-forth between both feast and famine of choice. Regardless of which camp you fall into, the necessity for using both goals and a strategic action plan once that choice is made is not optional, even if the goal is ‘whatever’ and the strategy is blind luck.
You don’t have to be alone in the process though. Seeking assistance outside your own point of view is helpful along the way. This might take the form of reading books, listening to TED talks, podcasts, school career centers, or getting advice from family and friends. Some will take the path of enlisting the services of a personal career coach to help guide them.
But what does a career coach do exactly?
Coaching is a difficult profession to nail down because it may not be a profession that we come in contact with every day. The word ‘coach’ conjures up images of someone on the sidelines of a sporting event calling out plays into a headset. It can also imply a ‘life coach’ which is closer but not the same. Throw in the added specialization of ‘career’ and it can be confused even further with a career counselor such as you’ll find in an educational setting. Some expect results in the form of “take this magic aptitude test and you’re supposed to be a lumberjack, automotive salesperson, or cake decorator”.
No, Career Coaching is something unique.
Career Coaching is a specialization in the field of performance. Coaching in this context means to apply the process of personal development, helping individuals achieve performance goals and build strategies, to the field of career management, investing personal effort into advancing in a professional direction. This involves learning a lot about the person (what the person does best, what they’ve done prior, why they do it, and what goals they have) then helping them formulate strategies to move them forward.
Earl Nightingale once said that achieving goals boiled down to a simple process: “All you need is the plan, the road map, and the courage to press on to your destination”. The role of the career coach is in helping to create the road map. It’s the guide that the client uses to direct their actions and, in time, achieve the results they want. Then they also help you find the courage to get moving.
What a coach should not do when working with an individual is to tell them what exact career path they should or must follow. The focus of coaching is on individual goals, dreams, and aspirations. Just as no two people are alike, there are no two job paths that are the same. What a coach will do is assist in unlocking your personal preferences and abilities through a process of questioning. This will help you get a better understanding not just on where you’re going but where you’ve been and what you have to offer. Why all the questions? Because it’s the best way to find the answer to personal problems. Robert Kiyosaki said it best: “A question opens the mind. A statement closes the mind”. Asking questions opens up the possibilities of what a person can do.
While not every coach follows the same process, I have found that before you set a goal it’s best to start by understanding the person as they are now. In a simple sense, it’s determining where you’re at before figuring out where you’re going. Trainers and educators will do this to ascertain at what level the learner is working and what knowledge they possess before deciding on the instructional challenges to give them. If you want to be CEO, but you’re currently working the in mailroom, you’ll naturally set different goals than someone who’s already a Vice President.
And that’s where Question #1 comes in.
We start with “What Can You Do?” to help us get to know what talents and skills the person already possesses. This is the foundation of our coaching practice because not only do we get a better grasp of the whole person, but the process also gives the client a better understanding of themselves. This honest look at themselves is not always a comfortable process at first. By going through it, the resulting inventory of internal resources is helpful in understanding both your present position in the job market and giving you insight into how you engage in the workplace.
One of the best tools we have found to start process is Gallup’s CliftonStrengths assessment. Unlike traditional personality tests, the CliftonStrengths (formerly StrengthsFinder) is truly centered on the individual in their career or work setting and is based on solid data. We use it to help discover how clients do their best work and what approaches they can use to develop their talents into strengths. Focusing on what’s right, instead of what’s wrong, allows a person to lean into their strengths and fix them as the directional guide for their goals. We call this ‘Fixing what’s right with you’. Knowing how you work helps to find interests, patterns of behavior, and possible pitfalls that emerge out of these traits to display a bigger picture of how you ‘operate’.
Beyond internal resources, we also do an inventory of the professional skills a person has developed. While education and technical skills are important, professional habits always win out over them both. If you’ve ever hired the wrong person for the right reasons, meaning they worked out great on paper but were a hot mess to work with, then you understand this principle all too well. This piece of the puzzle helps to determine how a person engages with their work. This engagement element is a critical factor in future success. In the business sense ‘engagement’ has many definitions, but it ultimately it boils down to how much you actually care about what you’re doing. From the career coaching standpoint, this engagement is critical in the job change process because it drives the outcomes of the effort. Some would call it a ‘brand’, but branding is what you do for a product or livestock. In a career-sense it can be thought of as a personal culture that serves as a hallmark to your work and is the fuel for all strategic advancement towards a goal, so it’s important to understand how you show up. As Peter Drucker correctly surmised: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Having an understanding of what you care about gives you insight into your cultural style so you can know what to look for, and what to avoid, when weighing your career options.
“What can you do?” is a broad enough question that it could almost be the only one to use when planning a career strategy. Like a building’s blueprints however you can see the outline of what could be, but not the entire structure. An architect once told me that only a small portion of the general population can look at a floorplan or blueprint and visualize the resulting building. Career goals are like that as well. Goals serve as great endpoints to direct the trip, but unless you know where you’re starting from, you’ll never know what route to take.