Make a Date to Attend A Career-Counselor Confab

Now I know why I haven’t always succeeded in interviews. Being a factual, logical, sequential-thinking person, I answer questions honestly and directly. If interviewers want to know about me, I tell them. I haven’t known anything about creating “shared control” with an interviewer. I didn’t realize that by asking questions, I could literally force interviewers to walk the gangplank down to my unique strengths.

No, interviewers have toyed with me like a mouse; I’ve been played with at length. But I’ve found another way. It came to me at the 18th annual California Career Conference in Seattle I attended for my work as a journalist covering employment issues. This conference is meant for career counselors, giving them a chance to learn new techniques and refresh their skills. Quite frankly, though, I thought it had more to offer to schmoes like me who have never had outplacement training or a single session with a career counselor.

My advice to any recently unemployed executive whose employer hasn’t provided outplacement assistance: Get thee to a conference for career counselors. If you’re highly motivated and want to learn some cutting-edge guerrilla job-search tactics, you’ll likely come away from two or three days at such a confab with more insight than you would from a month of one-on-one meetings with a counselor.

You’d likely spend less as well. Three days at the Seattle conference cost nonmembers in the association about $380. For that, you got about 20 hours’ worth of back-to-back training sessions on various aspects of job hunting and career success, plus access to more than 1,000 career counselors. You also received three meals and a keynote presentation from a top speaker. Ours was Richard Nelson Bolles, author of “What Color Is Your Parachute?” (Ten Speed Press, 2002) and acclaimed career guru. You also may get a chance to rub elbows with other semi-famous career types who usually go to these things, including numerous contributors to

The notion that job hunters might benefit from such a summit meeting hit me like a thunderbolt during a session entitled “The 5-Q Edge to Interviewing.” I always thought that the types of interview questions are unlimited. Not true! There are only five! And you will never be asked a question during an interview that doesn’t fall into one of them. This includes the infamous, “What’s-wrong-with-you-anyway?” category (“What are your liabilities?” “What kind of bosses don’t you get along with?” etc.) Once you know the strategy for dealing with each category of question, bingo, you’re a shoo-in for the position.

Eureka! The light bulb lit up for me, and I’m not even looking for a job. If I were, all I would need to do is polish up on the five types of questions and the strategies for answering them. Then, no interviewer could trick me. Why, I would practically be hired before I even met the interviewer! That’s worth the price of admission alone, don’t you think?

This summit included other sessions that could pave the way to a new future. These included “The Unspoken Rules of Career Success.” Here I learned to solicit feedback (Unspoken Rule #2: Get real about how you’re perceived); develop a sense of humor, especially around the guys (Unspoken Rule #6: Lighten up); and to not let failure devastate me (Unspoken Rule #4: Assume life isn’t fair!).

If I could have been in two places at once, I also might have learned about competency-based interviewing. This competency stuff is tough on job seekers. Basically, competency-based questions are curveballs, typically designed to find out how you handled something impossible in your past job (“Tell me about a time in your last job when you simultaneously finished a key project that raised corporate revenues 20% while salvaging a problem division”). Or I could have attended a session on how to be a proactive job hunter and write a proposal to create work instead using the same old, same old — the passive resume.

But the icing on the cake wasn’t these training sessions or even the keynote from Mr. Bolles. It was the easy access to about 1,000 career counselors. These are people who, if approached correctly, would likely give you 10 or more minutes of free counseling at such gatherings — if you present your case effectively.

“Out of 1,000 counselors, 90% would likely want to help,” said Marty Nemko, a career counselor in the San Francisco Bay Area and a conference attendee, when I asked him if he thought unemployed executives would be helped at career conferences. “That’s because we’re all co-dependent. Helping others is what we like to do.”

The right wind-up and delivery are critical. Develop a short script for introducing yourself to career counselors. It should be something like: “Hello. My name is ____, and I just got laid off from my job. I was a marketing manager at my last company, but my real specialty is consumer research. Since I didn’t receive outplacement, I spent my last $300 to come here and learn what I can do differently to find work. Might I have five minutes of your time for some assistance?”

Mr. Nemko suggests quickly outlining areas where you’re stuck (“I’m too afraid to make cold calls” or “I’m supposed to network and I don’t know anyone”) and your career goals (“I want to leave direct marketing, but don’t know what to do”).

The breaks between sessions at career conferences usually last at least 30 minutes. If you’re swift and organized, you might be able to have two short meetings with career counselors between each session as well as schedule prearranged chats at breakfast or when the day’s events trail off. Be sure to end each personal meeting with a sincere thanks and a request to follow up (“I so appreciate that you took this time to talk with me; could I e-mail you and let you know how things turn out?”).

To find career counselor conferences and national meetings, search the Web under key words such as “career” and “association” and “conferences.” Spring and fall are good times for national or regional meetings in major cities.

An unorthodox approach? Maybe. But you’ll be nurtured and encouraged to overcome the job-search odds. You’ll also hear plenty of uplifting words about how job loss can change your life for the better. That alone might be worth the price of admission.

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