About the author : Beverley Whitehead is an Industrial and Organisational psychologist in Cape Town. She specialises in the psychology of work, including career counselling. Visit Beverley Whitehead's profile for more information about career counselling.
Our life and work commitments are seldom static. Our need for growth and development, experience of work-related stress, finding ways to express ourselves authentically, adjusting to major life transitions or simply the natural passage through life (and family) stages invites voluntary and regular renewals of career commitments and directions to accommodate our preferences and the demands of each life chapter. Often this entails a change of job or career direction, a period of study or re-skilling or adapting earlier work aspirations and intensity.
Increasingly the contemporary workplace, responding to economic, technological and competitive realities, necessitates involuntary, more frequent and increasingly complex career decisions to be made that may provide great opportunities, but if made without insight, may potentially have a disruptive effect on our lives, and the lives of our partners and families.
These shifts can materialise in the form of aligning to new company goals, acquiring new skills, accepting global work assignments, finding oneself in a job one no longer values, being retrenched, starting a new business venture, scaling up (or down) work commitments to accommodate business demands or responding to the increased complexity and pace imposed by the more consumer centric focus, increased competition and the need to constantly keep abreast of new technology so prevalent today.
Organisations are increasingly valuing employees who can take charge of their own development and career progression and who can articulate their contribution to the present and future work scenarios. This necessitates ongoing learning, keeping abreast of industry and global trends and thinking strategically about your company’s future as well as your own.
What does it take to be fit and responsive to the present day workplace while honouring choices that align with your talents and preferences?
The runners amongst us may relate to preparing for a running season – building fitness levels, perhaps running with others who have similar goals, experimenting with different routes over shorter distances, knowing the territory, building competence and confidence and believing that we have what it takes on the day of each race. In essence being self-directed matters - taking steps to ensure that we are well prepared and knowing what we are capable of. Taking charge of career growth is similar. It necessitates mental and physical discipline, a strategy, resourcefulness and flexibility. It embraces practical aspects as well as having self confidence and self knowledge of our capabilities, intentions and preferences. It enables us to run our best race. It entails making the choices that enable us to offer capable and authentic expressions of ourselves in our work to meet our personal criteria for success, ideally aligned to the criteria significant others may have of us.
Career ‘work’ is helpful to anyone interested in taking charge of their future and developing themselves in response to the changing work environment, their skills, interests and values in order to realise their aspirations and live their best life.
Sounds good but is it for me?
Working with a career counsellor (or coach) should be an identity building experience, inviting you to appreciate your strengths, value your career experiences, identify and tackle any obstacles to career progression, embrace any challenges as opportunities for increasing personal effectiveness or to explore the transferability of your skills to new opportunities and contexts.
Taking charge of your career requires self knowledge as well as a sense of action and adventure that embraces testing new ideas, learning new skills, nurturing contacts and increasing self-confidence. By taking experimental career steps and reflecting on these experiences you can avoid inertia and a cycle of perpetual reflection. Building a network that supports your personal, professional and future growth can both fuel your thinking and open avenues for testing your expertise. Childhood role models, current and future mentors and people who have just met you may all have a role to play in reminding, affirming, stretching and challenging you to realise your potential. Knowing how to increase your visibility within your profession by way of personal branding and marketing as well as seeking fresh insights into global and local trends and possibilities in your industry adds to your capability for managing career effectively.
Who can help me?
Preparing for a career change is something that can be undertaken alone or in partnership with a colleague, friend or family member or in a professional relationship with a career counsellor or coach.
Often people feel overwhelmed and do not have a sense of where to start, particularly if they’ve given career thinking scant regard and their career opportunities to date have been approached somewhat opportunistically.
When selecting a career counsellor it may be helpful to enquire about their approach as well as their exposure to the world of work. Which roles and industries have they either worked in or had exposure to?
Traditional career work may entail a consultation with a psychologist or psychometrist, completing a battery of tests measuring personality, interests, skills, potential and intelligence followed by a detailed psychological report (generally for sharing amongst professionals and not for the client to view) and a general debrief or feedback session with the client to indicate trends and verify some identification with the findings. In a sense this once-off ‘test and tell’ intervention places the psychologist in the ‘expert’ role and offers the client some affirmation of their inherent ability and inclinations towards certain careers based on (hopefully applicable) norm groups. These insights can then suggest the most likely fit with particular occupations based on similarities with a database of people already in these occupations.
Or they may give an indication of leadership potential or fit to certain kinds of work, for example, an orientation towards relationships or detail as these may apply to the workplace.
The psychometric testing approach may be most useful at an early stage of career selection when limited work and life experience can be drawn on. It simplifies complexity, narrows choices and offers a veneer of increased certainty in making a selection amongst many alternatives. It does not necessarily take the client’s aspirations, motivations, work experience, social and cultural context or personal values into account – and these can be valuable aspects to consider in a system of career influences.
A contemporary (post-modern) approach to career counselling and career intervention is likely to feel like a more participatory and holistic process. Clients will be engaged in enacting their career stories through being in relationship with their counsellor/coach with their choice of exploring metaphors that pertain to their lived experience of, for example, feeling ‘stuck’; inviting a deeper level of enquiry through guided journal or CV writing; creating collages depicting symbols of identity; sorting through occupational cards; depicting highs and lows in a career-life line or the selection of personal artefacts to give expression to values. The client will be guided to conduct further research into the workplace prospects and to complete assignments in between consultations. This approach therefore encompasses a series of interventions with the intention of bringing the fullest sense of the client into the present.
While not excluding the traditional, more reductionist, trait and factor approaches of psychometric measurement, more contemporary approaches may stand alone or augment them. These elicit a fuller expression of the client’s subjective experience, expertise and meaning attached to certain choices as well as sifting through values, preferences, interests and abilities in a more inclusive exploration of the client’s occupational identity. The client’s broader life, social and cultural context can also offer significant clues to the ‘rightness’ of future decisions. The counsellor’s role shifts to that of a facilitator of the client’s exploration, a curious and questioning witness to the story (rather than an expert opinion), identifying themes, patterns and implicit angles within the story while the client holds the intentions and expertise to author their future personal narrative.
Personal and professional obstacles to career progress can be identified and analysed in depth and alternative strategies for effective progress can be practiced.
This collaborative and creative approach to career identity supports the premise that the client, given the time and space to reflect and appreciate work and career experiences in a holistic and inclusive way, is best qualified to make optimal choices and their own future decisions. In practice the work may include face-to-face consultations, telephone or email consultations or group work.
An initial consultation with a psychologist will inform the client of his or her preferred approach to this kind of work and enable the client, to discuss their preferred way of exploring career options. It may also help to obtain clarity on the exact nature of the career dilemma and give the psychologist the opportunity to propose a suitable way forward in accordance with time, budget or any other constraints the client may have.