Career Profile -- Meet Paul Slattery
Consultant and Founder of The Chiron Group
By Jefferson Morris
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, June 18, 2004; 2:20 PM
Consultant Paul Slattery has spent his career teaching people all over the world how to work together. But all his experience couldn't quite prepare him for his visit to war-torn Sierra Leone.
Ravaged by violence related to illegal diamond trading, the West African country had recently undergone a bloody revolution when the former Peace Corps volunteer visited in the late 1990s. His job was to help mine inspectors disrupt traffic in illegal diamonds.
In a country where anyone with a shovel can become a miner, mine inspectors must keep careful track of the flow of diamonds out of legitimate mines. Sadly, many Sierra Leonean farmers were destroying their own farmlands in a frenzied search for wealth.
"It was an incredibly interesting piece of work to do," Slattery recalls. "It meant working with people who were coming fresh out of a very ugly revolution, and there were literally people in the room ... who had killed each others' families. To be with them for a week and get them to work together was a very humbling experience."
Slattery approached this daunting task by delving into local myth and folklore to find positive references to people who cooperate to solve problems. He developed catchphrases in the local language, Krio, and worked with local trainers to defuse tensions between formerly warring factions.
"The energy in the room is going to bring all of this conflict to a head at some point, and you're going to have a blow-up of some kind," Slattery says. "The question is, how do you control that?" The key was keeping the focus on a common future, and not on the grievances of the past, he says.
When he's not consulting abroad or at home, Slattery volunteers as a career counselor. His interest in helping people find jobs dates back to a mid-70s stint in the human resources department of the Arlington county government.
Slattery, now 62, found himself having to turn down 99 out of every hundred applicants for each job. The government sent out form rejection letters to the unlucky, but offered no advice on how they might change their job hunting strategy to get better results. Slattery wanted to do more.
"Some of these people had been looking for years," he says. "They were simply not getting honest feedback about why they were being turned down. So I found it satisfying to sit with them on the phone for a few minutes and say, 'Well, you know, let me tell you what's really going on here.'"
However, "the county didn't like [that]," he says. "For very good reasons, they didn't want me doing that."
Finding that he had a knack for job counseling, Slattery started leading workshops in which he helped returning Peace Corps volunteers find employment in the U.S. After tours overseas, volunteers often experience culture shock when suddenly thrust back into the domestic job market. Virtually all who participated in Slattery's workshops found work within a couple of months, he says.
Bolstered by his success and armed with degrees in international affairs and psychology, Slattery started The Chiron Group in 1981 to offer human capital management training to organizations that need it. Throughout the 80s, The Chiron Group's business focused mostly on helping government managers write performance standards -- detailed job descriptions that were required by law under the Civil Service Reform Act.
A Rough Spot
Though Slattery specializes in helping people, in the mid 1990s he found he needed help himself. With more organizations ignoring performance standards, his major source of business began to dry up. To make matters worse, his health began to deteriorate, culminating in bypass surgery that sidelined him for two years.
"When you don't feel good it's hard to market," he says. "The work got pretty rough."
For help, Slattery turned to 40Plus of Greater Washington, a non-profit group dedicated to helping older professionals find jobs. There he underwent an intensive two-week training course with a group of his peers that covered every aspect of the job search, from resumes and networking to interview tips.
"I got a lot out of it and I enjoyed the experience," he says. "Because I'm pretty good at teaching people how to find work, I just continued to volunteer to train those courses. [Now] I work as one of their volunteer trainers."
Advice for Older Workers
In a culture obsessed with youth, older professionals can find themselves at a disadvantage when competing for jobs, despite their experience. Possessing dated skills, particularly computer skills, also can be a serious hindrance, Slattery says. Faced with repeated rejection, feelings of hopelessness often set it.
Turning such situations around requires a support system that will help older job seekers change the behaviors that are holding them back, according to Slattery. "You must have people who can pick you back up and dust you off," he says. "Support isn't just being nice, it's also being critical." 40Plus helps provide this support in the form of "job clubs" that continue to meet after the initial training course is over.
Above all, networking is key, he claims. A good first step is volunteering with an organization that's connected with the work you'd like to do.
"That organization can be anything," he says. "Anything where your interests lie. Get in, make yourself useful, and talk to people. That gets the concept of network going."
Though he may be approaching the traditional retirement age, Slattery doesn't see himself resting on his laurels any time soon.
"I hope I'm always active in doing things and serving people," he says. "That is what it's all about. Retire? No. I can't. That's not me."
Editor's note: This article by Jefferson Morris, was acquired by washingtonpost.com on December 15, 2003.
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