Career Coach takes your questions

Jan 15, 2014

Whether you work in a cubicle or a corner office, an assembly line or a sales floor, everyone could use a little career advice now and then. Our career coach, Joyce Russell, is here to help you solve your workplace conundrums, from how to ask for a promotion to how to deal with a difficult boss. Ask her your question now!

Want more? Read Joyce Russell's Career Coach columns.

Welcome readers to the new year and to our January online chat. Feel free to send in any career-related or workplace questions. 



After a long pause from the workplace to raise my children, I am finally ready to get back to work. Howeve,r I would like to change careers, which requires schooling. But in the meantime, I need an income. Should I continue to look in my previous field? So far, I've had no luck due to the gaps in my resume. Or should I try another route? I would to like to pursue occupational therapy but have an administrative/marketing background?

Good question. If you can financially afford working part-time, you might be able to work in your previous field while still going to school (part-time). It would be hard for you to find employment in your "new" field without experience or education in this field.  If you can afford to do it, you might be able to volunteer in the field of occupational therapy. This would give you some background and contacts which could help you over time. But, you would need to get someone to really  mentor and help you without a background in that field. It would be good for you to try to start building relationships in this new area though. Best of luck!

I am a paralegal who has worked with the same three partners for over 10 years. None of them exhibit any leadership skills and they all blame everyone else for any shortcomings. They have developed only minimal relationships with lawyers in other offices around the country, who could share work with us. Nor are they interested in hearing my suggestions and questions concerning business development. Short of leaving for a winning team, do you think there is anything else I could do?

Do they have any incentive to really do anything different? Are they  making money and still successful? If so, it will be hard to get them to think about doing things differently. In that case, you might share with them data on how law firms are collaborating more and gaining more clients this way, but it may fall on "deaf ears". They need an incentive to listen to your ideas.

If you do bring in more business, what do they do about this? Are you incentivized to do this? Doesn't sound like they are encouraging to your efforts in this regard. Unless you can help show them how bringing in new business will enhance their own business (or personal wealth, etc), it may be very hard to convince them to try anything new.

Hi, How do you escape a career path that you have just started to hate? I have always been a writer, but the more I do it, the less I like it. I keep going from writing job to writing job (the last one was five years long) in government contracting because that's all I know. But I am getting quite jaded with contracting, and frankly, tired of the hours and the stress. I also really hate sitting in an office writing when I could be out and about, talking to people, or working with clients. I think I need to get out of this back end of contracting and go into some other line of work, but I don't know where to start. All the career tests I have taken say I should be in media and writing, but I hate it!

You mentioned that all the career tests say you should be in media and writing, yet you say you hate it. Sometimes the career tests indicate a field is a good one and yet it could just be the industry itself is a good place for you. In other words, maybe working in a marketing or communications department is appealing while the actual writing is no longer interesting to you. Did you ever take the Career Leader? This is a good career tool that also looks at your interests and can help to map your interests with a variety of fields. It might be helpful.  It also sounds like you now want more interactions with others - maybe hearing stories that can be written, talking to clients, etc. If so, maybe playing a different role (such as reporting or investigating stories) is more appealing and then having someone else do the writing. Have you ever talked with any of your managers to ask about other opportunities in your marketing or communications departments?

Might be good to look at what others in that department do to see if there are other aspects that you might be interested in. If not, and you really want a total break from the field, then you would need to spend some time really exploring other fields. The best place to start would be talking with people in other fields to learn more about what they do. Start with the marketing industry itself since that is at least aligned with what you currently do. Best of luck!

If you are interviewing for a managerial position (I am with a bank, as a team manager) and have never been a supervisor or manager before, what should be said or done to sell yourself to get that position? Thanks!

If you do not have any experience in management at all, then it would be good to learn as much as you can about leadership positions - what is involved, what skills are needed, what makes a successful leader. This would require some research on your part to review this material prior to interviewing. There are plenty of great resources out there on this topic. In fact, I have written many Career Coach columns on attributes of successful leaders.

There are also great resources from various Web sites about the types of questions interviewers ask in these types of interviews. You should familiarize yourself with these types of questions so that you have prepared for the interview itself.  Make sure that you can speak to any previous experiences you have had that make you qualified for a leadership position (from previous jobs, volunteer or community activities and clubs). 

You should also look at the job description carefully to see what specifically they are looking for. What do they hope this new manager will accomplish in the job if they are to be successful?

By looking at all of these resources, you will be better positioned to do well in the interview. Best of luck!

I am a 53-year-old professional female, who is planning to begin a combined graduate program in Cybersecurity and Business Management this fall. I know that I will have to work until I am at least 70 and since there is a critical need for cyber-security professionals (especially in the Washington Metro area) that this will update my skills and knowledge base for the available career opportunities. Moreover, I enjoy learning and I am pretty tech savvy; so this a field that I am genuinely interested in and I have a real interest in performing this type of work. My question is this: Do you think that I might be too old at 55 (when I graduate) to start a new career in cyber-security?

First, let me start by saying that I do not think people are generally too old to start in a new field. Research shows that many of us will be working well into our 60-70s so this is fairly common. It also shows that individuals change career paths numerous times over their lives so we should expect this.

In your case, you said you are just starting your graduate program in this area. How long will the program take you? More than likely, it may only take a few years. You also said you are pretty tech savvy, and you are located in an area that certainly has needs for cybersecurity professionals. Given all this, I would say you should go for it. We can certainly use more experts in this area!

Even if the firm isn't doing well, blaming everyone else for their shortcomings probably means they won't welcome feed back from "just" a paralegal. The writer woul'd know the lawyers' attitudes better, but chances are a job search is their best option.

I agree. Thanks reader!

I am interviewing for a few sales positions in the next few days. I have never worked in sales. What are some things potential employers are looking for, and catch words they like to hear? Thanks!

You did not say what field you come from, but if it is in a field related to the sales group (e.g., you were in health care and the sales job is in pharmaceuticals), then that would give you some technical expertise so that you could be more successful in sales. Having some background related to the sales field enhances your credibility with customers. You can mention this in your job interviews.

For general sales questions, there are plenty of resources out there on questions you may be asked in job interviews. They may ask about previous experience. You say you have never worked in sales, but think more broadly - haven't you ever had to persuade or influence others or tried to convince others about possible opportunities in front of them? What about other leadership positions you have held? Those mght indicate some persuasive skills or communication skills.

Skills and abilities around persuasion and influence and communication skills (oral communication, listening) are all critical and may be areas they will focus on. Also, are the sales jobs individually-based or team-based? Depending on what is the focus, you could speak about your abilities to work independently or with a team. In general, check out various career Web sites to also learn more about the underlying skills required in sales positions so you can speak to how your skills match those.  Good luck!

I've been out of work a year, and my stellar resume (others in my field say) never gets past HR. A friend's career coach helped him, but she's retired now and offered another name. The new person's Web site makes her out to fix everything from career entry to midlife to retirement to, who knows, your love life?  I don't need a pep squad; I need specifics for getting hired. If going to such a person is a good move, how do I find one? Or any other suggestions?

A few issues ago, I wrote a Career Coach article specifically on how to determine the value of various career coaches. One organization is the Professional Association of Resume Writers and Career Coaches (Parcc). You might want to check them out to gain assistance. It seems you may want to get someone to review your resume since you said your resume never gets past HR. It is critical to have a well-written resume in order to "get past HR." That is the first step. Also, are you using a generic resume that "fits for every job" or are you tailoring it to specific jobs? It is important to show in your resume how it fits the unique job skills needed for the job you are applying to. At this point, I would first devote some time to making sure my resume was up to date and a good reflection of your skills. You should also be joining social media networks such as LinkedIn. Just these two steps alone would be a good first start. Good luck!

What kind of Leadership Development Programs/Courses does Robert H. Smith School of Business provide in its curriculum for the Full-Time MBA? I am applying for the Fall 2014 batch at Robert H. Smith School of Business, hence I am really interested in gaining awareness about the program. Thanks!

Great. We look forward to your application!

There is a strong focus on leadership development at the Robert H. Smith School of Business. Courses in leadership and teamwork, negotiations, leadership development, understanding and managing change, and building networks are only some of the courses you could take. You could also visit and meet with professors as well as sit in on classes to learn more. That is always welcome and a great way for learning more about the faculty, courses, and program. Pretty easy to set up as well. We hope you are able to do this, and we hope to see you in fall!

I'm a federal attorney looking to move into an industry in a practice sector in which I just received an LLM. How do I handle questions about leaving? Morale in my office is beyond low, work is nonsensical paper pushing, and there is no upward mobility or opportunities for leadership experience. Plus, authorization for details are being denied by paranoid managers worried about losing other words I'm miserable and have been. Five of seven hires behind me are trying to get out too. How do you spin that?

Congrats on your LLM degree!

I would focus on what you see as new opportunities at prospective firms (when you interview) rather than focus on what problems are at the current firm. No one really wants you to focus on the bad aspects of your firm. They really just want to hear how excited you are about working at their firm. So, do your research on the new companies (as I am sure you will) and then share with them your views about how you are looking forward to working at their company in order to fully contribute to their goals, mission, etc.  Good luck!

My wife is an employee of a government agency and for various reasons, we've decided she should seek a transfer to her group's other office in Denver. Such transfers are easy to arrange and can be good for career advancement in her agency. I've been an employee for 10 years at a large IT contractor. There are people doing what I do in Denver, just fewer of them, and I have to find employment either before the move or as soon as possible after we move. My company has offices in the Denver area, and occasionally openings for my job occur there. My wife thinks I should approach my management and tell them that the transfer is occurring- we are targeting this summer unless I find a job sooner- and make them aware I will be moving. This would be as a courtesy since I'm going to be job-hunting, and at least would open the possibility to discuss an arrangement for remote work.  That kind of set-up might have been under previous management, as I work in the building with my management, but support people all across the country. However, a reorganization less than a year ago gave us new management and I'm unsure whether such an arrangement would be possible or acceptable. I can see the professional point of advising management about this early, but I'm also concerned that it's basically giving notice earlier than usual and might expose me to termination so they can move on, when I need to stay employed until right before the move and/or job transfer. Any thoughts or advice?

Great question. Sounds exciting for both of you, but lots to plan and think about.

Since you have worked at your firm for 10 years I am assuming you have a good performance record. If this is the case, then I think it is fine to talk with your firm about opportunties in the other office in Denver. As a good employee with 10 years of experience in your firm, they should want to keep you and help you move to the Denver office. This will also be much easier for you to at least have this opportunity rather than having to start from scratch when job hunting.  Of course,  I would also look at other opportunities as well. This is a good chance to do this.

You did not say what your current manager is like, but if you feel comfortable with him/her, then I would go ahead and have the conversation. But, I would also do some due diligence (and make sure you can speak to all of the contributions you  have made over the past 10 years - especially in case this person does not know you as well). That would give you more leverage. Good luck!

Thanks readers for your great questions and insights today. I look forward to responding to more of your questions at our next online chat from 12-1pm on Feb 19, 2014.



In This Chat
Joyce E.A. Russell
Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist.
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