Coaching for Career Transition: 3 Common Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them)

One of the most rewarding aspects of my career in coaching is the diversity of people I get to interact with on a weekly basis. In almost all of these relationships, I get the opportunity to hear and learn about someone’s career story. After many years, I’ve heard a lot of stories and come across jobs and professions I didn’t even knew existed.

Yet, one phrase I hear frequently in these stories just doesn’t sit well with me:: “…the rest is history.” People often tell their career stories as if they weren’t the protagonist, only a bystander. I’ve come to realize that many individuals are not especially intentional with their careers.  They let their careers dictate them versus them dictating their careers. And to a degree, of course, I understand; there are life circumstances and constraints that often push (or even force) people in a certain direction. But even within those constraints, choices exist.

Ironically, this never seems to indicate that people are not thinking about their careers very often – far from it. In fact, many of my coaching and feedback sessions aren’t initially centered around career transition, but we frequently end up there anyway, and I’m sure many other coaches and consultants would say the same – so clearly people’s careers are top of mind. But that doesn’t mean they are taking an effective or proactive approach to their transitions.

Whether your next coaching engagement is career focused or not, it’s likely you may end up discussing the topic. So how do you help people navigate a career path with greater intention?

Here are three mistakes people can make when approaching (or just considering) career transitions – and how to help people avoid them.

1. Ignoring past experience.

Yes, people are often thinking about their careers – but often they focused exclusively on the present and the future. What’s actually more important in a transition is reflecting on past experience: finding the moments in a career where things really worked – and where they really didn’t. Once those points are identified, the work is in getting to the bottom of them. Why did things feel great at one job but lousy at the other? Don’t stop with the simplest answer. There is often a great deal of complexity in what we enjoy versus what we loathe. Delving into that complexity is crucial to making informed future decisions.

2. Overlooking the role of motivation.

Humans tend to believe they are in complete control of their decision-making, but unfortunately, that is rarely the case. There is ample evidence (read anything by Dan Ariely) that demonstrates how easily our brains are manipulated. Our motivational predispositions are a major factor in our decision-making, influencing how we think, react, feel, and behave. Moreover, we are often completely unaware of just how much our motivation impacts us. Have you ever asked your clients why they react the same way to situations again and again? Once you begin to search for patterns, you find that the answer often lies in our motivations – in the things we find ourselves drawn to or repelled by on a deep level. Gaining awareness about how our motivations impact us and shape our decisions is the first step to breaking continuous patterns of behavior that haven’t served us well. It makes sense then that gaining this awareness can support wiser career decision-making as well. Gaining clarity on how motivations played a role in past decisions can help us understand what patterns we have developed in our careers – and where we may need to be more intentional about making change and breaking habits.

3. Failing to examine all the unique facets of a career.

Attempting to dissect or reflect on a career may seem overwhelming. It may be hard to know what lens to use when reflecting on such a large part of one’s life. To simplify these reflections – and to make sure that no aspect of the career goes unexamined – I recommend focusing on three specific facets of a past career experience or a new opportunity:

    1. Organizational culture: All organizations have their own culture and ways of doing things. These tendencies often permeate throughout the organization and thus, strongly impact what is expected, valued, and rewarded. Finding compatibility between one’s motivation and how an organization primarily functions is important for finding fulfilment. As an example, if someone is attracted to and enjoys being a part of highly collaborative and supportive teams, but they join a highly independent organization, this will likely reduce their enjoyment of the position.
    2. Organizational role: Understanding the primary functions of a role (i.e., the tasks that will be done regularly) and whether they align or misalign with one’s motivation is an important step in evaluating career opportunities. As an example, if someone is attracted to being highly organized and efficient, and they take a project management position requiring detail-oriented tasks, they are likely to find fulfilment within this role.
    3. Organizational relationships: The final factor revolves around relationships. Both at work and in life, we all have expectations about how relationships should look and what we prefer, want, and need from others. At the same time, people rarely take the time to think about and articulate what these expectations are. Dedicating serious thought to what the ideal working relationship is for someone will help them evaluate potential opportunities and ask targeted questions about those they may be working closely with.

Career transition and opportunity is something people constantly muse upon – yet dedicating proper time to reflect and think constructively is surprisingly rare.

Using a tool like the new Motivation & Career Report is one way to help an individual dig much deeper into their motivations, and how they can architect a more satisfying career path – whether they are actively searching for new opportunities or simply trying to take a more proactive approach to their future.

PS. My colleague David Ringwood and I will be presenting much more on this topic in a free webinar on February 24: Career Transition Coaching: How Tapping into motivation can be the key to a Successful Transition. Join us for much more on this topic, as well as an opportunity for some Q&A. You can register here. 

About the author

Drew is MRG's resident I/O psychologist. When not at MRG, he's either with his family (most likely) or in his workshop (less likely). His stack of unread books is commendable.

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