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Tips for Preparing for Your Next Career Move

"Coaching helps you take the time to understand who you are and what is a good fit."


Sharon Tanabe

You’re preparing to leave your school. Or maybe you’re perfectly content, but a headhunter calls you out of the blue. What steps do you need to take to become a desirable candidate? And once you land interviews and campus visits, how do you know if a job will be a good fit?

It’s the fit that’s the elusive part of the equation. We all know a bit about marketing ourselves—it’s how we got the jobs we now have. But how do we know if we’ll like the new jobs better than the last? For most, it comes down to assessing the fit that’s the tricky part.

Executive search consultant Sharon Tanabe, a partner in Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates, Inc., a female-and minority-owned search firm, has conducted more than 375 searches over more than 24 years in the industry. She discussed “the proverbial ‘fit’” during a workshop called “Packaging Yourself for Academic Advancement” at the Northern California Network of the Office of Women in Higher Education’s annual meeting in San Francisco in March.

Winding career paths

Like many women, Tanabe “fell into” her current field. She started out as a music educator for kindergartners. She quickly realized that she liked working with people—but maybe not little people. People management was not her forte either, she discovered, as she worked in other fields before becoming a headhunter. All of the aspects of the job appeal to her, she said.

How do you determine fit without trying out a variety of jobs? In academia, moving around isn’t easy. Bound by calendars and a tight market, academics usually don’t have the luxury of trying a job on for size.

At the conference, Tanabe asked those attending to state their current positions and what intrigued them about the topic of fit. Most women were at a crossroad in their careers. Some (mostly in the sciences) wondered if they should leave academia to try industry; others wondered how to know what a good fit would be, and what they were good at. Some wondered if they were still passionate about their jobs.

“Answering these questions comes down to intuition, self-analysis and being actualized about your skills sets,” said Tanabe.

Assessing the fit

How do you recognize the right fit? It starts with a self-assessment, from the macro down to the micro. Is the type of school right for you? Do you belong at a research institution, or an environment that values teaching more? Public or private? The funding streams at each are different; so are the cultures, the people, and the flexibility of what you can and can’t do. Do you want a union environment?

As you get to know a school and look at an opportunity, make sure you know what the job really is before you apply. Tanabe once worked on an AVP position and realized in mid-search that the search committee had no idea what the position was really about. As you are looking, comb through the job ad to find the hidden tidbits of information about the job.

Next, analyze your personality type. Do you thrive on a fast-paced, frenetic environment? Or do you prefer a well-focused, defined position, where the human resources unit is perfectly on top of things, down to a well-tooled job description? Tanabe knows that she likes a freer, more entrepreneurial environment. Assessing your personality gives you a chance to narrow down your job options.

Start thinking early in your career about where you may be headed, she advised. Do you need the next degree? The more tickets you have punched on your resume, the better. “That gets your resume past the roadblock,” she said.

Understanding the variables that affect fit can help you to identify a good match. But recognize the difference be-tween being picky vs. being particular. “It’s like a relationship,” she said. “What are the 10 flaws you can live with in your spouse?”

Some of Tanabe’s clients are very “buttoned down”—very regimented. Change doesn’t happen easily for them. Obviously this makes their placement more challenging than for a more flexible client.

The third step is assessing your interests, strengths and goals. Determine if your professional interests are in alignment in your current or potential position. Then, work on an understanding of your strengths and your track record of accomplishments. “It’s very hard for women to say ‘This is what I’ve accomplished’ and put it on paper,” she said. She recommends asking other people to make a list of what you’ve accomplished, and explain how you’ve made an impact on your department and your school.

She finds internal candidates the hardest to work with. Often after presenting what they’ve done and leaving the room, others tell her, “She didn’t mention that committee, that paper, that presentation, that award, that grant, etc.” Keep a notebook of your accomplishments, detailing their impacts.

Know your short-term and long-term professional goals. If you have a goal of moving up, it’s important not to get side-lined into associate roles. “It’s easy for this to happen to women because we get the job done,” she said. “But if you stay in that job for too long, it’s very hard to get back on the main track.” Be sure to assess a potential position’s areas of growth and potential.

Also recognize and understand a position’s weak points, and your own dislikes. “Not every job is perfect,” she said. “There are going to be things we don’t like.” Do some assessment, asking yourself “What don’t I like? What can I do about it? Can I learn to like it?”

Career stories

One woman in the workshop was a postdoc unhappy in her position. Her options were to leave science to consult for industry, switch institutions, or find another lab. She found another lab, but feels like she cheated by taking the easy route. Her school’s office of career development offered a five-page vocation assessment, and while taking it, she realized that she wasn’t particularly good at some of the things she did in the lab—like Tanabe, who realized she liked kids but not working with them.

Another noted that women frequently feel like it is “illegal” to do anything outside of academia, or to stray from a traditional career path: “It’s like, if God doesn’t strike you down himself, then other things will go wrong” as punishment, Tanabe said.

We have to be willing to take risks, she counseled. “If you’re young in your career, you might want to take time out to explore working in another industry. It helps you to assess what you’re good at and what you like.”

A job description is a “wish list,” she said. “Often when you come in for an interview, you’ve already passed the threshold. The interview is to assess fit. It’s about intuition. Women can be very intuitive—and they rely on it.” During the first meeting, you can determine the fit based on the interaction, she said.

As you build your career, think about the pieces and skills you don’t have—what do you need? Punch all of your tickets. Work with your supervisors as you’re moving up the ranks. Tell them what you need in your next position/opportunity. Ask for skills development.

Ask the same of mentors. You’ll have different mentors over your career, as you outgrow them or circumstances change.

A participant noted that women fear making the “wrong choices,” and losing ground if they try a different role. She wondered if people in hiring judge candidates for leaving academia for a bit, and if they count it as lost time. “How do you get back in the game?” she asked.

If you step out, said Tanabe, you need to invest energy in determining what you want to do. To get over future thresholds, make sure you have all of the tickets you need, such as a doctorate, or even a certificate to keep a door open.

Headhunters want to see that you’ve made an impact, that you’ve made things happen. Around the two-year mark, people realize that they might not make an impact, so they flee. She wants to see more than two years in a job.

When interviewing clients, she starts from the beginning: Where were they born? How did they pick their college? How did they find their first job? “I find that once people get to leadership roles, they find out a lot about themselves.”

Her major pet peeve is that higher education doesn’t do enough in training people to serve in leadership roles. “Being a chair is a great opportunity to find out if this is what you want to do,” she said. But find out if the leadership potential is really there. One woman commented that as a candidate, she wondered “Are you for real, or are you using me? Are you asking me to be chair because I will?”

Women frequently experience a “grip of fear, “ wondering “What if I get 10 years down the road and I can’t do anything else?” After 26 years in the industry, Tanabe says that this anxiety is completely natural. But if the stress of a job starts affecting your personal life, it’s time to step out.

Approaching a new position

The initial approach may be a response to an ad, contact from a headhunter or an opening at your school. Head-hunters work by networking. They call sitting deans and ask for recommendations, look for people based on their backgrounds and identify internal candidates. “If you do good work, you will be known,” she said. “If you do bad work, you will be known.”

If a headhunter calls, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re interested in you. If they don’t know you well, they may call and say, “We have an opportunity; do you know anyone who might be a good fit?”

That’s a cue for you to start preparing a cover letter, in case you’re nominated. Everything hangs on the cover letter, said Tanabe. It tells the story. Faculty are used to looking at that for background for faculty hiring, and it carries over into administration.

To create the letter, discover the nuances of the job description, and fit them into your cover letter. It’s good etiquette, said Tanabe, to quickly send over a cover letter once you’ve accepted a nomination. It should address the information that you’ve found about the job. Fundamentally, she said, it’s what about the job that attracts and excites you. Articulate why the school is a good fit (not “close to family” or “the beach”).

During the initial interview, determine the level of engagement and interest, on both sides. Don’t let the logistics of the process deter you from the actual opportunity. And instead of waiting, make things happen. Do your homework, reach out to others to obtain more information, and write thank-you notes.

At the on-campus interview, study the evident organizational culture. Is it a research or a non-research focus? Are there too many egos? Is the environment collaborative and accountable? Is there warmth and inclusiveness? Can you really picture yourself there?

Once you’ve reached the negotiation stage, remember that honesty is a critical element. Try to gain perspective. Are both your perspective and theirs realistic? Determine if you’re getting the best possible offer.

Other help

Executive coaches can help you to define your goals, assess your strengths and create a plan for moving up. One participant used a coach when she moved from executive VP to president. For $100 an hour, her coach helped her learn how to dress, what to say and what not to say, and how to assess an institution. “It helps you take the time to understand who you are and what is a good fit,” she said.

Another woman’s dean brought in a coach to work with senior administrators, who took an organizational approach, helping her to understand her power. The coach’s job was to help her get to the next stage in her career. She worked with the coach for two hours every other week.

Search consultants can also help to move women forward. “They want to help you put your best foot forward, so they will help you,” said Tanabe. “As women, we learn from other women.”

Contact Sharon Tanabe at 323.260.5045
s.tanabe@storbeckpimentel.com

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