For the past two summers I’ve been fortunate to be a coach partner with Wayne State University’s Employment Transition Program. This innovative program combines training (resume writing, interviewing, etc.) with support, including four one-on-one, individualized coaching sessions with an experienced career coach. The program participants are white-collar professionals who are unemployed or underemployed and seeking to get back into the workplace. One tool I often used with these clients was to develop their “story.” Karen, a young executive assistant, was laid off two years ago. She was trying to get back into the workplace, but she always froze when interviewers asked her to explain the two-year gap in her resume. The truth was that the lay-off came at a time when she had a young child at home and seeing this as an opportunity, she opted to be home with her son for awhile. However, she was conflicted about what she thought employers wanted to hear versus the truth of her “story.” Hence her dilemma, and therefore her lack of confidence in an interview situation. As I listened to Karen’s “story,” I learned that while she was home for those two years, she taught herself QuickBooks to provide bookkeeping support for her husband’s new business. She also loved photography and learned Photoshop to create works of art from her pictures. To me, this translated to marketable skills employers would value — a keen interest in technology, a quick study of software programs and an instinct to take the initiative. When I shared this perspective with Karen, I could literally hear the shift in her. I know there are varying opinions about whether to divulge personal information to a prospective employer, but in this case, it was a part of Karen’s “story.” So, we practiced her new “story.” Yes, she was home with a young child and she used this time to learn new software. She would bring her interest in new technology to the workplace. She felt very fortunate to have had this time with her child, and she was eager to get back to work. This points to another subtle tool coaches often teach their clients — to substitute “and” for “but.” Instead of Karen saying, “I was home with a young child, but I learned new software,” we worked on making both parts of the statement true. “I was home with my young child, and I learned new software.” Just substituting this simple word contributed to increasing Karen’s confidence. She didn’t have to “excuse” being home with her child. It was a choice that aligned with her values. And now she was ready and eager to contribute again in the workplace. For our next three coaching sessions, we role-played the question, “So, what have you been doing these past two years?” Each time Karen’s confidence grew. Instead of being stuck telling her “story,” her words flowed easily. Two months after we finished our coaching sessions, Karen emailed to tell me she landed a plum executive assistant job. She was thrilled! Her “story” had worked for her instead of against her. If you find yourself getting stuck with part of your “story,” try to find a different perspective. What’s another way to view it? What’s the positive in the situation? And if you’re conflicted and less confident with part of your “story,” try switching the “but” for an “and.” Make both parts of a sentence true. With practice, your “story” can flow as easily as Karen’s finally did. And when your authentic self shines through, may you be as richly rewarded as Karen was.
Susan Combs, MBA and Professional Certified Coach, works with coaching clients to create fresh starts, enhance their leadership skills and increase their confidence. She is an authorized licensee of the Fit Leader's Program. Susan provides one-on-one coaching, DiSC team-building training and manages corporate mentor programs. She lives in Lansing with her son, Max, and their golden retriever puppy. Visit SusanCombsCoaching.com or MentorRoadmap.com for more information.