Climbing your way out of a career setback

By Vickie Elmer
Sunday, March 7, 2010

Anna Rappaport has recently led seminars and discussions on overcoming a career setback. She has coached people through their missteps and firings. In doing so, she speaks from experience: Five years ago she went through her own career crash.

It happened soon after Rappaport figured out she didn't want to practice law. She was midway through a year-long clerkship -- and miserable. Despite friends' advice to stick it out, she quit.

Her comeback strategy included building her credibility by connecting with a law school professor and the chief judge in the courthouse she had just left. She quickly landed a contract job in the U.S. Department of Commerce and continued to build up what became Excelleration Coaching, which focuses on lawyers and small-business owners.

"I had more faith in my own ability to change course," Rappaport said. She also learned a valuable lesson: "Even when things go wrong, I can fix them."

Fixing your own career failure -- whether a dismissal, demotion or a sudden departure -- may require reevaluation, repositioning -- and something to get your résumé past the screeners.

"Gatekeepers are looking for reasons not to hire you," said Carolyn Thompson, an executive coach and Goodman & Co.'s manager of employment solutions. She recommends job seekers bypass human resources and send their résumé -- via priority mail -- directly to the hiring manager. Then you'll have a better shot at explaining your misstep and at impressing the manager with your talents and qualifications.

Rappaport recommends that clients use strategies to get past the anger, hurt and embarrassment that often come with being fired or another serious setback. Some do that with a coach. Others use a journal to write down their feelings, ideas about what they could have done differently and lessons learned. That may help them move on and let go of the intense feelings.

To rebuild confidence and appreciation of your accomplishments, Rappaport suggests asking yourself: "What did I actually accomplish at that job?"

Or use a mantra to reinforce positive expectations or spirituality and prayer to improve your outlook, said John A. Sarkett, author of two books, including "Extraordinary Comebacks," which tells how 201 well-known people have overcome problems. Their common trait: persistence and resilience.

"They keep putting one foot in front of the other, even when it hurts, especially when it hurts," said Sarkett, who runs a Chicago area public relations firm.

"There's another reason to never quit, and it's a big one: You never know when your luck might take an abrupt change for the better," he said. Remind yourself that failure can ignite potent fuel for bigger success. Sarkett notes that Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team and promised himself it would never happen again. That propelled Jordan for the rest of his career.

"Black marks are going to happen to everybody. Chances are you're interviewing with someone who's experienced it," said Thompson, who has written books on job-hunting and winning a promotion. It's up to you to "extract positive ideas from a negative situation," she said.

In a job interview, or a screening phone interview, Thompson said, "succinctly and concisely summarize what you learned and how it would benefit a future employer."

Be prepared for a question or two and prepare clear, concise and honest answers. But don't dwell on the mistake or blame yourself. Sarkett says: "Like a spicy condiment, a little goes a long way. Be sure to project poise, confidence and the desire to solve problems."

Honest answers about what happened convey power and courage.

"People are so often so concerned about doing something right they don't notice just how engaging it is when someone's really honest," Rappaport said. "In job interviews, the tendency is avoiding things. By avoiding the thing, it makes people wonder what's she hiding," she said.

She suggests a explanation for a departure that's a bit like what happened to her. "I usually get along with people incredibly well. In this situation, we had a personality conflict. I'm embarrassed by that. This is the only time in my career that this has happened. And I've learned something. . . . Then interviewer says 'Gee, I get that.' "

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