Posts Tagged ‘Career’

Resilience In a Tough Times

November 28th, 2012

I live in a town with a high percentage of first generation immigrants. They came to North America in the ‘50s and ‘60s seeking a better financial future than was possible in their home towns in post World War II Italy, Greece, Portugal, Poland, Yugoslavia. Many of them arrived with little money, bare minimum English skills, and the very basic levels of education. Confronted with overwhelming odds against them, they nevertheless thrived. These “economic refugees” are in their retirement years now, and with few exceptions, are retiring not only comfortably, but with a substantial nestegg stashed away that they can leave to their children and grand children.

As a new generation faces its own set of overwhelming economic odds, it is worthwhile looking at what strategies this previous generation used to stay resilient in tough times.

  • Be Mobile: They lived in economically depressed regions, and didn’t wait for the jobs to come to them. They made tough decisions about leaving family and friends – sometimes for a few months, sometimes for years, because they knew they had to go where the jobs were.
  • Work Hard: They considered no work beneath them. Schlepping dirty dishes, washing floors, picking up trash, fieldwork – they did it. Paying their own way was a high priority, and they never let the kind of work they did define their sense of personal worth and value.
  • Master a Skill: Even as they schlepped and washed, they were on the look out for “masters” who could teach them a skill. They didn’t think in terms of career, they thought in terms of value. They were willing to work for low pay, and in back-breaking conditions, for as many years as it took, if it meant that they could acquire a skill that would increase their market value in the workplace.
  • Build a Company Around that Skill: Once the skill was mastered, they built it into a saleable commodity. As a tiler who built a multi-million dollar contracting company told me, “why would I invest all that time and effort into making somebody else rich? Nobody gets rich working for somebody else. You need to own the company.”
  • Make Friends: They didn’t call it networking, they never had a formal strategy for gathering names and following up. They just spent the time getting to know people. A lot of time, and a lot of people. At social gatherings they worked the room like nobody’s business. They found out who was working on what, who had a wedding coming up, whose son or daughter was graduating soon, who needed help. All these little bits of information that they gathered were filed away for future use. They found ways to be helpful. The found ways to connect people, so new friendships and opportunities blossomed. They didn’t think “marketing” or “advertising” or “branding”, they thought business. And business started with people, and handshakes.
  • Diversify Your Income: They always had deals on the go, multiple irons in the fire, both inside their companies and on the sidelines. At any one time they might be considering investing in a restaurant, or some real estate, or another business. They built partnerships – they were the original venture capitalists – and always entered joint ventures with a plan for  how they could get their money out when the right time came. They invested, not in stocks and bonds, but in income generation opportunities. They managed the risk by being choosy about who they partnered with, and  by not putting all their eggs in one basket.
  • Live Frugally: Even after their businesses were successful and their investments began to payoff, they lived with an eye to saving money. Many continued to have large gardens, and canned vast quantities of tomatoes and peppers, long after they could afford to buy all the food they needed in the grocery store. Wastefulness was a sin. They paid cash, and waited until they could afford something before buying it. Going into debt in order to keep up with the Joneses was the height of foolishness. Mortgages were risky business. They knew from their childhood experiences that good times can end with no warning, that banks could fail, and that they needed to be both mentally and financially prepared for the worst.

The values seem simple, perhaps even a little old-fashioned. Only a few second generation kids were smart enough to learn them and live by them, and they too are finding ways to be resilient in tough times. They offer an alternative to the go-to-university-get-a-good-job advice that forms the basis of most career counselling programs in high schools today, and with most college grads carrying mountains of debt and few job prospects, alternatives are needed. I wish these values had been part of the curriculum when I was going to school.


Be Volunteer-Savvy for Your Career

September 19th, 2011

Some of my favorite business entrepreneurs worked pro bono for many months in order to acquire the skills and knowledge they needed to make their next career move.  Others felt deeply committed to give back to the community – locally or globally – in some capacity, or were driven by a passion for a cause. Whether you are motivated by altruism, professional development, or both, volunteerism can be a great tool to boost your value in the job market.

VolunteerA LinkedIn survey found that 41% of professionals considered volunteer work equally as valuable as paid work experience when evaluating job candidates, and 20% of the hiring managers made a hiring decision based on a candidate’s volunteer work experience.

Drawing on the success stories of my clients, some kinds of volunteer work are more valued by potential employers than than others, particular in terms of demonstrating transferable skills and experience. Some things that you can do to maximize the “market value” of your volunteer efforts when it comes time to find paid work:

  • Choose volunteer opportunities that align with your career objectives, and allow you to develop and showcase your professional skills.
  • Have a clearly defined and documented deliverable (ideally with metrics or evaluation criteria that can be verified), or a specific problem to solve, and know how you are contributing to the big picture goals and mandate of the organization.
  • Look for opportunities to lead a team. As challenging as it can be to build and motivate a paid team, overseeing a group of volunteers can be ten times harder, and many employers know it.
  • Ask your team leader or supervisor if they would be willing to give you a performance review, which can be particularly valuable if you don’t have a lot of professional experience under your belt yet.
  • Cultivate your network. Volunteer organizations bring together people from a wide range of industries and backgrounds, and you will never have a better chance to broaden and diversify your network of first degree contacts.
  • When it comes time to write your resume, describe your contributions using the terms and keywords of your career target – if your goal is to be a project manager for example, speak in terms of project management; if your goal is marketing manager, speak in terms of marketing and marketing communications.

Ready to become a volunteer but not sure where or how? Check out the website of your favorite cause for information on how to volunteer, or visit sites such as (USA) or (Canada) or (UK)** to see who may be able to benefit from your passion, expertise, and time.

** Thanks to Paul Williams (@PaulWill1977 on twitter, who works with the UK Stroke Association) for this link.


Fresh Start – Books Worth Looking At For Your Job Search

September 7th, 2011

(Part II of my September Fresh Start series)

September marks the start of a new reading season for me. While my summer reading list typically includes flights of fancy and fiction, I find myself drawn to business, strategy and how-to books by the time autumn rolls around, books that will teach me something I didn’t know, challenge my assumptions, and give me new ideas for my business.

I also like to add to my library of resources that I can recommend to my clients – books that offer genuine value and time-tested ideas on managing an effective job search.  Additions to my recommended reading list this year include:

Job Searching with Social Media for Dummies

(Joshua Waldman, MBA) – $19.99 US / $23.99 Canadian

Fresh off the presses, Joshua presents a wealth of tips, how-to’s, and things-to-think-about for managing the online portion of your job search and professional profile.  There’s a ton of information packed into an easy-to-browse  format, and as with most books in the Dummies series, it is an all-you-can-eat buffet rather than a seven course meal. Readers will appreciate being able to pick and choose which sections are most relevant for them, and quickly apply the techniques and strategies to their job search.

The book covers everything from defining your personal brand (what you want to be known and respected for professionally), creating a blog, and using Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, to planning and executing a proactive social media job hunt.  I particularly liked the Chapter on Setting Yourself Up for a Successful Job Search, with tips on using online tools such as JobKatch, Becomed, JibberJobber and CareerShift.  It can take jobseekers weeks to figure out a productive “routine”, and these tools can fast track that learning process so that you can be immediately productive in your search and stay focused and organized.

Job Search Magic

(Susan Britton Whitcomb) – $18.95 US / $22.50 Canadian

Published in 2006, Susan’s book is one of the most comprehensive guides I’ve come across on planning, executing and managing the entire job search cycle – in fact it is required reading for the Certified Job Search Strategist accreditation program.  At 500+ pages, with each chapter building on information from previous sections, skipping around isn’t recommended, but the book lays out all the building blocks that a jobseeker will need, in a logical sequence that takes the guess work out of planning a job search and career marketing campaign.

There are chapters on figuring out the right target for your job search, getting (and more challenging – maintaining) the right mind set, writing great keyword copy, managing active and passive job search streams, researching companies using online and offline resources, mastering assessments tests, handling interviews, negotiating salaries, and getting off to a good start in your new position.  With worksheets, quizzes and checklists for each section, this is a true do-it-yourself guide for somebody who is ready to get serious about their job search.

Guerrilla Marketing for Job Hunters 3.0

(Jay Conrad Levinson, David E. Perry) $21.95 US / $25.95 Canadian

This isn’t really a new addition to my recommended reading list – I’ve been suggesting it to my clients for several years – but since there is a new edition I’m including it. The rebel of the job search guides, as you would expect from its name this book offers unconventional advice for standing out from the crowd and tapping into the hidden job market.

I first came across the second edition when I was launching Resume Confidential, and it was love at first read. With ideas on how to network for greatest impact, circumvent the gatekeepers, and write extreme resumes that get noticed, it was just the book I was looking for to add immediate value for my clients and break through the body of “presumed wisdom” that has become outdated and ineffective in today’s job market.  I am now on my fourth copy of the book (I keep lending and losing it), and continue to incorporate David and Jay’s ideas into my practice – including the networking resume, modeled on the Extreme Resume.

With the most recent edition, published this spring, the authors add social media advice to an arsenal of nearly 1000 tips and tricks, all of them tested and validated in some of the most nobody-is-hiring-right-now job markets in North America.   Be warned, the ideas are not for the faint of heart, and you can expect to get push back from HR professionals and recruiters who like to keep the hiring process traditional and take control out of the candidate’s hands. But if you are ready to shake up your thinking about what a job search is supposed to look like, then this is the book for you.

How about you? What great career books and resources have you found this year?


Jobseekers, Bland Is Not a Good Look for You

August 17th, 2010

I was ready for a change. There were things that weren’t making me happy. I was bored with the same-old same-old. How hard can it be, I thought. People do it themselves all the time. If you listen to the ads, they make it seem so easy. Just buy the right off-the-shelf product, follow the easy instructions, and voila, a brand new me. At a fraction of the cost of hiring a professional. So I did it. And now, I have orange hair. Orange is not a good look for me.

There are some things that are worth spending money on to get the right professional. For me, hiring a colourist is clearly one of them. For a jobseeker, hiring a professional resume writer may be another.

Why Hiring a Professional to Write Your Resume May Make Sense for You

  • Having worked with hundreds, if not thousands of clients, an experienced resume pro will have a good idea of who your competition is likely to be. This means that we have unique insights on what it will take to make you – specifically – stand out from the crowd. We can be objective about what to include or exclude from your resume, and can create a profile that grabs the right kind of attention from the right target audience.
  • Our skill isn’t just in the writing, its in the questioning. Good resume pros know what questions to ask you in order to get the gems to put in your resume. We have honed the art of interviewing, probing, pulling out the details that can be used to create a compelling career story.
  • Good resume pros dedicate hours each week on researching the job market. We know what skills are in-demand, what keywords are becoming passe, which employers use which job boards, which employers don’t use job boards at all. These insights mean that we can fast-track the time you would otherwise have to invest in getting ready for your job search.
  • While we typically work arms-length from recruiters in order to be a neutral advocate for our clients, good resume pros take the time to nurture strong networking relationships with recruiters. This means that we can get a heads-up on hiring trends. We can tell you why calling yourself a Farmer instead of Hunter right now will leave you dead in the water if you are looking for a sales position, for example, or why using “Public Relations” instead of “Public Affairs” could result in greater hits on your resume.
  • By leveraging our recruiter and HR network, good resume pros are able to get independent feedback on our product, in order to make sure that it’s going to work for our target audience. After all, it doesn’t matter if you are tickled pink about your new resume, if recruiters aren’t impressed.

Just like off-the-shelf colour kits, there are many books on how to write your resume. You can find tons of samples, many of them submitted by resume professionals. You should be aware though that we rarely submit our best work for publication. Why? Part of it has to do with protecting competitive intelligence. An edgy format, a unique design, really meaty content, loses its edge if its copied by 10,000 other jobseekers. Mostly, it has to do with the target audience for the book – in order to appeal to as broad a range of jobseekers as possible, the samples tend to be fairly generic and bland. Jobseekers who copy them end up looking fairly generic and bland too. And jobseekers? Bland is not a good look for you.


Don’t Fill Your Resume With Sea Junk

July 30th, 2010

I am an inveterate beachcomber. One of my soul-satisfying delights when I’m on vacation is to find interesting bits of sea glass, seashells, broken pottery, and rusty something-or-others, and at the end of a seaside walk I will inevitably return with a few new treasures in my pockets. Over the years I’ve amassed quite a collection of odds and ends, which until recently have been tucked away in boxes, baskets and whatever is handy around the house. This week I decided to consolidate my collection into a single location, and was dismayed to realize exactly how extensive it was. If I didn’t want to be overwhelmed with sea junk, I needed to cull, and I needed to be ruthless in doing so.

Beachcombing Collection

Beachcombing Collection

Maintaining your resume over the years can be like that. You create a document to land a job, add bits to it as you progress through your career, until one day you realize you have six or more pages of “sea junk” and no clear idea of how to cull it down into a useful document again.

If you don’t have a clear career brand, if you don’t know who your target audience is, if you don’t understand what their buying motivators are, then it can be hard to decide what to include and what to cut out. Your resume is your career marketing document, a key component of your job search arsenal, and every word, every phrase, every formatting decision must add value from the reader’s point of view. The better you know your target audience, the easier it will be to decide what to include and what to exclude from your resume. By researching your target companies and understanding their pain points, you will be able to go through your resume with a ruthless “so what” editing pen, to ensure that what remains provides a clear and compelling picture of why you are the perfect solution to your target audience’s biggest challenge.


Bad Professional Habits that Can Harm Your Career, and What To Do About Them

November 30th, 2009

When I have a pause in my day, I slump. Literally. I lean forward in my chair, rest my chin in my hand, and ponder what I’m reading and writing about. It’s a posture that feels right to me. It requires no thought or effort. It’s the pose I used for my online picture. You might even call it my comfort zone. As it turns out though, my slump is not working for me, and has actually been doing me some harm.

I got my wake up call last week when I went to the chiropractor for a pinched nerve in my neck. By slumping in that particular position, I have managed, over time, to knock my neck, jaw and shoulder out of alignment. So now, in addition to enduring some sounds-like-gun-shots chiropractic adjustments, I am having to do ‘sit up straight’ exercises so that I don’t fall back into my slumping habits. I can tell you, it isn’t easy.

Our careers can be prone to slumps – professional bad habits that become our comfort zone, but are highly detrimental to our long term career health.

Ten Signs You May Be Career Slumping

  1. Your answer to ‘How was your day?’ usually involves gossip or complaints about your colleagues and clients.
  2. The last workshop you took was a company-mandated workplace safety course two years ago, and you can’t remember anything except the chocolate-chip cookies that were served.
  3. You haven’t added any new people to your network of contacts in the last month, and some of the contacts you do have won’t take your calls anymore.
  4. You used to belong to an industry association, but you dropped out because FILL YOUR OWN EXCUSE IN HERE.
  5. Your response to people’s suggestions automatically starts with ‘Yes, but…’
  6. When asked to get involved in a special project at work, your first thought is ‘oh no’, ‘why me?’, or ‘does this mean I have to stay late?’
  7. Your boss’s boss has no idea what you do. Or worse: Your boss has no idea what you do.
  8. You are under 45, and are already day-dreaming about your retirement.
  9. The only person you’ve thanked in the last week was the person who handed you your change and cup of coffee.
  10. Your reputation at works has started to include the preface, ‘Oh. He’s an interesting guy’.

If your answer is ‘Yes’ to any or all of the above, you are either in or headed for a career slump. The longer you let it go, the more painful will be the adjustment when you get the ‘sit up straight or else’ wake up call. The good news is that there are simple steps you can take immediately to de-slump yourself.

‘Sit Up Straight’ Exercises to De-Slump Your Career

  • Hop off the gossip-train. The power trip you feel when you have ‘the dirt’ on somebody is nothing like the strength you feel when you really get to know them.
  • Make learning a priority. If you can’t afford to enrol in a course, then look for free webinars and downloadable courses. Learning isn’t just about acquiring new skills and knowledge, it’s also about shaking up our stale assumptions and misguided preconceptions.
  • Talk to somebody new each week. Ask them about their interests, their challenges, their families. Business may be powered by money, but it is nurtured by personal connections.
  • Join an industry association – and not just so you have something to put under Professional Affiliations on your resume. The payoff in terms of networking opportunities, early insights on industry developments, and heads-up on emerging opportunities will be invaluable.
  • Pay attention when people make suggestions. Fine, some of them will be just plain dumb or impractical, but some of them will contain a grain of truth or even brilliance, and you won’t know which is which if you haven’t taken the time to listen.
  • Take advantage of the opportunity to do things that are outside of your job description or comfort zone. Not only can this be a chance to acquire new knowledge and skills, but it can be a great way to de-slump other people’s understanding of who you are and what you have to offer.
  • Make sure your higher-ups understand how you are contributing to the big picture. Make sure YOU understand how you are contributing to the big picture. There is no employee easier for a decision-maker to cut when it comes to downsizing than the one whose job is a mystery to everybody else.
  • Find something right now that turns your crank and energizes your day. Make at least one personal and one professional goal that is realizable in the near future, and put the action plan in place to achieve it.
  • Adopt an attitude of gratitude. I’m not talking about being relentlessly and annoyingly chirpy, I’m talking about taking the time to recognize and acknowledge the people to whom you owe a thank you.
  • If you are being described as ‘interesting’ in quotation marks, chances are you’ve slipped over the line of chronic sarcasm, cynicism or bitterness (acknowledgements to Dave Howlett for this insight). Bitter, sarcastic cynics may have funny and repeatable one-liners, but that’s just about all they are good for. They don’t make good team members, they can’t be trusted with referrals, and they don’t get promoted or recommended for new opportunities. Except in the ‘we’ll make him available to industry’ kind of way.

The Art of a Good Resume: Everything I Know About Storytelling, I Learned in a Canoe

September 15th, 2009

I have yet to meet a client who doesn’t have at least one fascinating story to tell. Whether it’s the Administrative Assistant who pulled her boss’s ass out of the fire through some exceptional behind-the-scenes public relations work, or the Operations Executive who orchestrated a pre-dawn helicopter evacuation of his expat employees, it’s the stories that make each of my clients “one of a kind”. And it’s the stories that energize my days and keep me passionate about my work.

Uncovering the stories isn’t always easy however, and it can be a mind-altering experience for clients who are not used to talking about or even thinking much about themselves. I liken it the “third day” phenomenon of canoe tripping.  Anybody who has gone wilderness canoing with a group of strangers will know exactly what I mean.

On the first day, we are all on our best behaviour, our conversations are polite, the topics of discussion all fact based and superficial. By day three, all pretences are gone, and each of us has been revealed for who we are, in all our glorious colour and complexity. We will each have had at least one FGE**, perhaps involving a misjudged river rock, a portage from hell, a close encounter with wildlife, or a dispute with a canoe partner (typical conversation: “Go left… Left…. NO OTHER LEFT!!!”).

These FGEs are character building. They cause us to confront our foibles and take ownership of our strengths. They create the emotional space for self examination and questioning. Why am I here? Where am I going? Who do I want to be with? What do I want next? A five day canoe trip can do more for a couple’s relationship than six months of marriage counselling.

A kind of quietude descends at the end of the third day as each tripper sits in introspection. Any traces of the rat race have been shed, and when eyes connect there is a glow of authenticity that comes with self-awakening and a new sense of self assurance. It is usually around the campfire on the third day that the “good” stories come out, the ones that will ultimately transform a group of strangers into life-long friends and trusted allies.

My goal as a Resume Strategist is to fast-track this process of self discovery, and I love it. I love getting people to open up about themselves and reach a place of personal authenticity from which truly unique and distinctive career stories can emerge. I love asking the probing questions that create “aha” moments. I love working with my clients to find exactly the right words to tell their stories. Any good marketing professional will tell you that stories sell. Ask any recruiter about a memorable candidate, and chances are that it will be some element of their story that stands out.

I sometimes read career columns advising people that they shouldn’t pay for a professional resume writer, but do it themselves with the help of  a “reverse chronology” formula or template.

Resume strategy isn’t just laying out a reverse chronology of your career path. It’s about telling a clear, succinct story about who you are and why you are the perfect solution to some company’s problem. It stirs interest and invites connection. It creates the opening for an interview, and lays the groundwork for you to be able to expand on your talents, strengths and insights.

A recent client summed it up well after landing an interview with his new resume. “Karen, I know we got it right. This is the first time that I didn’t spend the whole interview defending my resume. We jumped straight into my story – what I can do, what I can offer, how I will fit. It didn’t even feel like an interview.”

And that, as the saying goes, is why you pay me the big bucks :)

** FGE: (Expletive Removed) Growth Experience


Unpaid Intern: To Be or Not to Be?

August 31st, 2009

Over coffee recently, I listened as a soon-to-be new graduate lamented the fact that there were few job prospects for somebody in her field. She was asking for advice on whether or not to accept an unpaid internship in order to get her foot in the door. To help with her decision, I laid out my personal experience as a soon-to-be graduate.

By fourth year university, I had a diverse and storied portfolio of part time and seasonal positions under my belt:

  • Sorted Christmas overflow mail for Canada Post; learned the meaning of the phrase “go postal”.
  • Took messages in a call answering centre whose clients ranged from restaurants to call girls (yes, really); learned that you have to pay really close attention to whose line you pick up before you answer the question “what’s on the menu.”
  • Sold encyclopaedias door-to-door; learned that some people will buy anything.
  • Solicited participants for market research studies; learned that some people will say anything.
  • Flipped burgers and pushed French fries; learned that some people will eat anything.
  • Painted house exteriors with College Pro Painters; learned that the top of a 45-foot ladder is not the place to be when the wind picks up from Lake Ontario.

While my “career” path thus far proved that I was willing to tackle anything, it did not give me a whole lot of marketable skills for a Mass Communications and Computer Science graduate who would soon be launched unceremoniously into a job market that was recovering from 9.6% unemployment rates.

In my final year of university, my fortunes turned. I was offered an unpaid internship with a university-based research group. Through this internship, I learned how to design research studies; how to prepare grant submissions; how to source hard-to-find information & resources that aren’t available in the college library; how to edit research papers for publication; how to collaborate with a team of professionals who had conflicting interests and perspectives; and how to think critically about complex issues and prepare cohesive arguments so that I could be heard above the voices of 15 intellectuals. I also developed a network of connections who were able to help me when it was time to land my first full-time job as a Policy Analyst with the Ontario government.

Many successful CEO’s started their careers as interns (see the Forbes article “From Intern to CEO” ). One of my favourite stories involves Robert Herjavec, who waited tables while working for free for six months in order to get practical experience in the computer industry. As he described it in an interview with TVO’s Paula Todd, “I realized that nobody was going to pay me to learn the skills that I needed in order to get ahead.” He went on to earn millions from the sale of his internet security software, and is best known as one of the venture capitalists on the Dragon’s Den.

I have often heard the argument that unpaid internships are exploitative, that they take advantage of students. I tend to disagree. (I say tend, because I am completely against the pay-to-work model offered by Dream University, in which wealthy off-spring pay thousands of dollars for the chance to attach a corporate name to their resume).

Some internships are better than others, and the deciding factor is not the money, but the kind of experience that is offered. A well-designed internship can provide invaluable professional growth opportunities. In an interview in Fortune online, Christi Pedra, President and CEO of Siemens Hearing describes what I would consider an ideal internship model:

“First… we make a big deal for our managers to get interns. Department managers submit a proposal for a project that can be completed in 10 weeks. It must have a measurable outcome and benefit to the business. The best proposals are granted interns…. Second, we make it challenging. We give interns assignments that matter to them and to us…. Third, we make it real…for example, our interns simplified manufacturing tool kits, audited and redefined work instructions, developed internal communication campaigns and validated software.”

I recommended to my young friend that she seriously consider the internship offer. Yes it would mean a few more months as a part-time waitress to pay the bills, but it could also represent the turning point in her career. As Pedra describes it, “Ten weeks ago, they entered as students, and now they will be leaving us as professionals.”

There are hundreds of links to sites that offer advice and listings for both paid and unpaid internships. Here are some of my favourites:

Career Edge: Internships for New Graduates (Canada)
Ability Edge: Internships for People with Disabilities (Canada)
Career Bridge: Internships for Internationally Trained Professionals (Canada)
Campus Access: Directory of Internship Programs (Canada)
International Youth Program Internships
United Nations Internships
USA Internships for International Students
CollegeRecruiter Internship Listings (USA)
Interns Over 40 (USA)
USAID Volunteer Internships (USA)


Meet Karen Siwak

An award-winning Certified Résumé Strategist, Karen has crafted top calibre career transition packages for thousands of clients. Her specialty is helping people identify and articulate their unique brands and value propositions, and she is passionate about empowering clients with the tools, strategies and confidence to take control of their career search. Read more...

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