Friday, January 6, 2012

Overcoming Career Setbacks

Unless you are extraordinarily lucky, there's a pretty good chance that at some point in your career you're going to be confronted with some type of setback or adversity. You might get laid off. You may get passed over for a promotion or denied the chance to work on a project. Thinking now about how you'll deal with it in advance of it actually happening will help tenfold as you try to recover from the setback and move on.

Here's my example:

I was mingling at the company holiday party with a department head who asked me what my career plans were and if I would be interested in learning more about her department. I had actually identified her department as a potential landing spot for me in my next career move so I was thrilled to learn that she was thinking of me as well. Over the next couple of weeks I played all of my cards perfectly by the book.

I set up a meeting with her to chat about me, her department and an opening she had. I did my due diligence into her department by speaking with a friend who had recently worked for her. I prepared for each encounter I would have making sure I knew my key talking points. I was more than ready to present my skills and how I felt I was right for her department and equally ready to hear why she thought of me and what she had to say about being a member of her team.

During our meeting I did have one reservation because of a weakness in my skill set that would create a larger learning curve than she may want. It really wasn't a weakness so much as a lack of experience in certain skills that other candidates may have. If this was going to be an issue for her I wouldn't bother applying but she assured me that indeed it was nothing to worry about. Over time, we both agreed, I would have no trouble making up for this deficiency.  She said she likes to diversify her team and she saw obvious strengths in me that would compliment her current team members thus compensating for any short term weaknesses. We had a great initial conversation, found a match between my interests and skills and her needs and she encouraged me to apply because she thought I'd make a great candidate. So of course I did.
 I ended up as one of 3 finalists.  I knew I had nailed the interviews (all 7 of them...yes 7 interviews with a total of 10 different people!) including a training session I was asked to develop and present. The job was perfect for me and I was perfect for it. While I was waiting to hear back about whether I got the job, the few friends and family I had told about it were assuring me that I'd get it. One went so far as remind me that the hiring manager came to me about the opening. You don't get turned down for jobs when they come to you, it just doesn't happen.

When I finally heard back, I didn't get the job. The hiring manager indicated that I was her second choice and that she ended up hiring a person who was stronger than I was in the one area of weakness in my skill set, the one she had assured me wouldn't be a problem. I was crushed and frankly felt a little bit betrayed. She had come to me about the job, encouraged me to apply, indicated a weakness in my current skill set wasn't a problem and then rejected me on the basis of that very weakness. I hadn't felt the bottom of my professional life drop out this fast and this furious before. The same friends and family that were days before assuring me I was a shoe in were now looking at the bright side trying to cheer me up and I wanted no part of it.

Was it OK for me to wallow in misery for a while? Heck yeah it was! No one likes set backs and no one should be asked to overcome them with grace, ease and expediency. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't get over them eventually and have a plan to do so. If you allow yourself to hide inside your own pity party too long you risk putting yourself too far behind thus making your recovery from the setback that much harder.

To help you out here are some things to think about so that you'll be prepared when the time comes:

Go ahead and feel the disappointment. It's a natural reaction. Remember what it feels like to have wanted the job or the promotion you didn't get and then catalogue the feelings of disappointment and rejection.  Remember them when great things start happening to you again so that you can maintain the proper perspective. Recalling the depths of your failure during times of great triumph make your successes all the sweeter. It might also help to set a timeline for your disappointment so that in a week or two weeks you can tell yourself it is time to start moving on. After all, you don't want to get carried away.

Don't hold it against the people trying to show you the bright side. They are just trying to help. I know it is frustrating to hear positive thoughts when you feel so lousy.  And you know what? They are usually right. So listen and remember what they are saying because as time passes you'll realize that things do happen for a reason, when doors close other will open, and it will get better. Thank them for caring because you are lucky to have people in your life thoughtful enough to want to pick you up when you are down. Let them know that you know they are right and that you are sure in a short time you'll be right back on your feet.

Learn from this experience. My current manager suggested that after I felt better about being rejected for that job I should ask the hiring manager to sit down for a chat so I could ask about the process and learn why I wasn't hired, what I did well and what I should work on. Eventually, I did this. While it wasn't easy, it definitely was helpful. I did, however, wait a few weeks before approaching the hiring manager to make sure I was in the right state of mind. I ended up explaining how disappointed I was after being approached about the job, encouraged to apply, assured that my weakness wouldn't be a problem, and then rejected because of that very same weakness.  She completely understood and we had a great chat. The conversation turned the negative into a positive. While you don't always have this kind of access to a hiring manager or boss who has just turned you down you might be surprised at a person's willingness to talk with you if you give it a try. My current manager does a lot of interviewing and told me that she wishes more interviewees would call to chat after the fact because she'd be glad to help them. So try following up so you can learn why this setback has happened. Then you can make sure it doesn't happen again.

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