Career Transition Alchemy: Converting Apparent Liabilities into Assets

 “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” - Winston Churchill

Want to know how to transform lead into gold in seeking employment or career advancement? Want to get a new job, but think you have liabilities in your career or personal history that are keeping you from getting what you want? Here’s a glimpse into How to Achieve Career Transition Alchemy and Convert Apparent Liabilities into Assets.

First, a story.  Check out the kids’ book Flat Stanley When Stanley wakes up one morning, his brother, Arthur, is yelling.  A bulletin board fell on Stanley during the night, and now he is only half an inch thick! This is a calamity, right? Wrong! Flat Stanley knows how to turn liabilities into assets.  Soon, he is “enjoying the advantages of squashedness.  Sliding under closed doors is fun, and it’s gratifying to be of use to his mother when she drops her ring through a narrow metal grating.  Expensive plane fare to California? No problem. Svelte Stanley folds comfortably into a brown paper envelope” and for less than a dollar mails himself wherever he wants to go in the world.

Now three real world stories.

* Client 1: I asked a client of mine who was seeking a new job to name three of his most serious liabilities or vulnerabilities.  He answered, “Number one is I’ve had lots of different kinds of jobs and haven’t stayed with any one job very long.”  Then he listed two others.  We picked the first one to work on  initially. 

So then I asked, “How might prospective employers look at that fact as a great asset for you?”  He thought for a while, but had trouble coming up with an answer.  “What about this picture?” I asked. “What if you say, ‘I’ve had a number of different jobs in the last few years, and here’s why that makes me a great candidate for this job. First, I’ve mastered a number of jobs in the nonprofit sector and did so quickly.  Second, I’ve got much broader familiarity with the nonprofit sector by working for several different nonprofit organization.  Third, these things have enable me to understand organizational challenges and effective strategies better than someone who’s only had one or two jobs.  I am able to see nonprofit organizational challenges and opportunities  from a number of different perspectives and vantage points.  Fourth, I have demonstrated my versatility, adaptability, and ability to learn quickly in different roles.  So this history reflects strengths of mine that cannot be matched by anyone who has only had one or two jobs and stayed for in them for many  years.’ “

My client brightened up. Now he could see how to make his case by embracing the many jobs he had had in a short period rather than acting defensively, ashamed or tongue-tied.   With this new level of self-confidence, he became an even more attractive candidate for the job.

  • My own story: When I applied for the job as Director of Nonprofit Organizational Effectiveness at Fannie Mae Foundation, I was afraid that I had too many deficits for this job and too few attractive attributes. I had no experience with large foundations. I was not an expert in housing (and Fannie Mae Foundation was a national affordable housing foundation). Finally, I had no formal training or academic credentials in organizational development.  I was puzzled about how to present myself as a candidate for the job with these deficits.  Luckily, my interviewer (and eventual boss) helped me out. I said, “Candidly, I have only three major deficits, but each of them seems like it could be a serious problem for this job. I repeated the above list.
  • Then he said: “Well, as for number one, at least you haven’t learned any bad habits from previous philanthropy jobs.  We won’t have to spend time getting you to unlearn harmful attitudes and pompous stances that too many other foundation program officers display.  As for number two, we already have lots of housing experts here.  What we can use is your broad expertise in related fields that will complement our core expertise — your knowledge of public policy, legal training, people management skills, performance orientation, land use and environmental expertise, etc.  And, as for number three, we could care less about your formal credentials.  We don’t want an academic expert in organizational development. We want someone who really knows how to develop organizations and has a track record of having done it. You’ve developed a successful for-profit business.  You’ve helped develop a successful non-profit.  You’ve developed a successful small family foundation. You’ve coached people.  You’ve helped successfully negotiate conflicts over controversial national policy initiatives.  So you’ll be great for helping our diverse set of DC area nonprofits and affordable housing nonprofitnes across the nation to build stronger organizations, more self-sustaining business plans,  better partnerships, improved training and key employee retention programs, technology infrastructure, etc.I was lucky. My boss-to-be helped me make a better case for myself than I had done. That’s because he could look at what I saw as deficits and he could see the advantages and strengths where I was only perceiving weaknesses.  With that perspective it was much easier for me to bring the self-confidence to the job that any employer would be looking for.
  • Client 2: One of my client’s has a recurring seizure disorder (and thus has been diagnosed as having “epilepsy”). This could curtail his ability to drive and carry out certain other tasks.  But when he began to explore how to turn this potential liability into an asset he realized that:  

- This experience gave him an ability to empathize and connect with a wide range of children, youth, and adults with neurological challenges, who are clients of the nonprofits he wants to work with; 

-  His success in managing a career to date in the face of his epilepsy is a powerful testament to his determination, resilience, responsibility, and strength of character — attributes that are very attractive to most employers;

- He could re-orient his job search to include, even focus on, organizations serving wounded warriors, accident victims, or others with neurological issues and be able to demonstrate both his passion for the mission and his ability to model optimism and success. All of these things would give him competitive advantage over someone without epilepsy for the jobs he was most interested in.

So how do you learn this crucial skill of converting apparent liabilities into huge assets, competitive advantage, and new found self-confidence  when looking for new job? Here are six key steps.

1.  Develop a positive attitude.  Flat Stanley did not say, “I’m done. Now I’m a shut in and my dreams to see the world are squashed as flat as I am.” No, instead he started looking for the bright side.  So did my two clients. 

Step 1 is to take a hard look at any negative  beliefs you have about your employment prospects and then vow to find and shine the light on the silver lining in your story.  Recognize that your focus on your limitations or problems may be preventing you from flipping them over and seeing the strengths package that you have that distinguishes you from other candidates.  This is all about changing your mindset and thereby changing your results. I offer specific tools and exercises to help you do that.

2.  Make a list of three of your best assets and three of your most serious liabilities.   Then pick one of those three “liabilities” (as you see them) to work on  initially.  Check out the Churchill quote above.

3. Look at it from the employer’s perspective. Ask yourself, what characteristics, experience, and attributes are employers looking for? And how can I reassess what I’ve previously seen as negative factors and instead see the inherent positives (assets, capabilities) that  an employer would like and want? Develop hypotheses for highlighting these positives.

4. Test these hypotheses for turning liabilities into assets with friends, confidants, coaches and refine your elevator speech in light of the feedback you get. Practice a short elevator speech about your strengths that are relevant to the job you want.  Incorporate the points that you would like to highlight to as assets (without referencing them as potential liabilities).  Ask for feedback from your friends and confidants.  What was most persuasive? What sounded unconvincing?  How could you strengthen the elevator speech? What do they think potential employers would find in your background or approach as creating a competitive advantage for you?

5. Listen well to the feedback.  Then  revise and try your elevator speech again. See whether your friends think this is better. Notice whether you felt self-confident when presenting it. Focus on any area which you or your friends do not think were delivered with ease, clarity, and self-confidence.  Then revise and try again until it all feels true, easy, concise, and quite persuasive.

6. Test it out in the marketplace. Now, try this out in the real world.  Try it with a single employer.  See what response you get.  If it works, notice that. If it doesn’t seem to work, figure out why not, and go back to the drawing board.  Ask for more help from friends and try again.