Career change as a halfway house experience

I am working this year with several clients who describe their work life as a prison sentence: five days in the big house with weekend parole (ankle monitor attached!)

Career change ankle monitor

About 95% of offenders are eventually released from prisons to be integrated back into civil society. Many spend the last year or two of their sentence in houses on a street near you. These residences are known as ‘halfway houses’ because they represent a re-entry point between incarceration and freedom.

A halfway house offers transition programs to help offenders ‘let go’ of their prison identity through counselling. They get job training and work and pay rent as they develop a ‘new’ identity and learn to function in the ‘real’ world.

Career change is a similar process for many individuals who spend years imprisoned in a particular job role that defines who and what they are. Getting out of that prison also involves a letting go of one identity and developing a new one, not an easy task for most people.


Recidivism rates for halfway house occupants is 60%+ in many jurisdictions because convicts reoffend within 3 years of their release date and land back in prison. Successful integration back into society depends on a number of critical factors, including the motivation of offenders to change their lives and the quality of programs that support them to do so.

My research indicates that the same factors are often at work in successful career change. Individuals find that living in that “halfway” point of transition is very uncomfortable. It causes them to re-evaluate their past, think about their future, adjust their ideas and beliefs—a lot of inner work to find their motivation to make real change in their lives.

And, of course, they don’t live in a vaccum. Whether in prison or out, we have structure all around us–constraints, rules, limitations but also freedom, choices and new opportunities. Embracing freedom is not easy because it often requires new skills to navigate through an obstacle course of options.

Letting go of career pain

The biggest issue that I see for career changers is letting go of the past. If their previous work/life experiences were difficult or painful then it is a challenge to face their fears of the future. They might know rationally that the past is over and does not determine the future, but they don’t believe their future will be any different really because work for them has always been a disappointing or painful experience. So, in effect, what they believe is that the past is the best indicator of the future.

But all our thinking about the past doesn’t change the future. We have to change the channel on our experience.

We must focus on the present in order to create a better future—that is the purpose of the “halfway” transition. It is to accept reality for what it is, you can’t change the past, so focus on finding some hope in the present—life can be better! This fact can bring a new burst of creative energy and help us find some pleasure or joy in current experiences.

If you thought that the key to success was to have the right attitude, faith, or courage, then you will be disappointed when things don’t work out. I’m not saying that ideas, beliefs and attitudes aren’t important but nobody ever lost weight just by thinking so. If we don’t find more pleasure in our lower weight than we did in having too much weight, then we will lose the motivation to keep off the weight and start our emotional eating once again. That’s why losing weight usually requires a change in lifestyle—a more enjoyable one!—in order to keep off the weight.

Why do so many offenders go back to prison? It’s the same reason that so many people stay in a job they hate or, worse yet, go back to a similar situation—they ignore reality as it is. Instead, they have a better chance of making a successful transition if they look at their current reality with a clear eye, open mind, and truthful awareness.

For some offenders, changing their lifestyle or habits is so painful, they prefer to go back to jail, to a known future with a roof over the heads and three squares a day.

Freedom through action

But, the reality is that jail hurts too, it has its own kind of pain. They choose the pain of incarceration over the joy of freedom because their experience of ‘freedom’ was very negative (in truth, they never really experienced freedom but only some cheap imitation of it).

Freedom is not easily acquired. You don’t achieve it with mind tricks that are designed to hide reality by imposing a positive spin on it. It’s about looking at what you really want, where you really want to be, the kind of life you really want, and taking actions now that move you closer to that goal.

That takes work, effort, persistence, to get what you want. For some people, it’s just easier to let the institution provide them with a roof over their heads and three square a day. But that’s a lifestyle, not a life; that’s prison, not freedom.

‘Tis the season to be jolly…and get a better job!

'Tis the season to be jolly

As a certified job change expert, I am an advocate of a two-pronged approach to Job Search: be passive online and pro-active offline. During this holiday season in Ottawa and elsewhere, here’s 4 job change advice tips to increase your chances of landing a good job, changing to a better job, or advancing your career with your current employer.

1. Go to office parties, professional association year-ends, social club celebrations, neighborhood gatherings. People are almost always in a good mood during this festive season, more open to conversation, more relaxed about sharing their professional goals and corporate challenges. Use this time to build rapport with people who have the power to hire you or network for referrals to people who can. Networking is not rocket science but it is a skill. You’ve already learned many skills in your life, learn this one too! It has a great Return on Investment of your time and energy.

2. Get into conversations that can be converted to job offers. Keep the business talk light but focused, or make a date to talk in more depth after the holidays. Listen for cues, e.g. planned expansions, new projects, progress blockers, and all the issues that generate work in an organization. New business goals and priorities always face challenges, problems, issues and pressures–discussions around priorities vs challenges is where you next job offer will formulate. Gather information, take a few minutes to record notes on your phone, or write them down on a card. Then take some time over the holidays to think about what you’ve heard. Many organizations are preparing to hire in the New Year. You probably won’t start your new job during the holiday season, but it’s quite possible to receive an offer early the next year.

3. Follow up in a few weeks time. Don’t mix business with pleasure. Use the social gatherings at the end of the year to build rapport, then follow up in a business-like manner early in the New Year. Use the info you gathered during the social events to formulated some talking points, ideas that address some of the opportunities and challenges you heard about. The seeds you plant at parties can pay off big time by the time the next hiring season rolls around in Spring2015. Use social media not to establish rapport but to maintain the rapport you developed face-to-face at the holiday get-togethers. Send a message to these contacts inviting them to coffee or lunch reminding them what you talked about during the holiday season or raising an issue that you think might be interesting to talk about.

4. Be prepared. Luck favors those who prepare ahead of time, so learn to interview now before you go to parties because informal chitchats at parties can quickly convert into (in) formal interviews. Hiring is driven by the needs and priorities of a manager. Learn how to tap into those needs and leverage them into a job offer. Just this week I heard from a client in Florida who’d been seeking a position as an IT Project Manager. He’d sent out 50+ resumes and had 8 interviews but no job offers when he hired me to give him interview coaching. We reviewed his interviews, and I could clearly see what he needed to improve in his interview performance. After one session of coaching, his next interview resulted in an excellent job offer with a major telecom firm!

Managers Control Timing of Hiring: Get in Their Pipeline

People Pipeline for Managers

This is one of the key principles that I use when helping my clients find permanent positions. Every hiring manager has a pipeline that they fill with prospective employees because (1) they are always looking for good people, and (2) they know they must hire them at some point. It’s not a question of IF but when.

A year ago, one of my clients got laid off after 25+ years with the same employer, a large defense contractor. My client was devastated but keen to get a similar job ASAP. He did what most people do, and sent out dozens of resumes to online postings with no positive results. He got extremely discouraged, even angry. He’d never needed to look for a job before, and it was a very negative experience for him.

I’m not saying he or anybody else shouldn’t look online but the U.S. Department of Labor reports that only 5% of people in the workforce are hired by submitting resumes to online postings. Therefore, I suggested to my client that he spend only 10-20% of his time & energy looking for a job that way, and to be more pro-active in his job search by networking for referrals to find job opportunities, not job vacancies.

I have written elsewhere on the difference between a job vacancy and a job opportunity, and how to find them. The key here is I coached my client on how to reconnect with former clients and brief them on his new employment priorities and preferences and ask, “Do you know anyone I can talk to?” One such approach resulted in a referral from a contact in Halifax to a hiring manager at a naval engineering firm in Montreal.

My client arranged a coffee meeting during one of the manager’s routine visits to Ottawa last November. That manager indicated there may be some job opportunities opening up in the near future. My client came to count on this vague verbal hint at a job. He followed up by email and phone for several months and heard nothing back…and got very discouraged again.

I reminded him that getting another job was his top priority but the hiring manager had other pressing concerns, another crisis to deal with, another fire to put out. And, he may be waiting for the conclusion to a very large deal that could take more time to come to fruition than he or anybody expects.

I encouraged my client to maintain the rapport he established with that manager by sending him an update every 2 months. In the meantime, I suggested to my client that he keep looking for other opportunities. He was able to land a few short-term contracts.

Then out of the blue this week, that hiring manager called this week to offer him a permanent job starting next month almost to the day of their coffee meeting a year ago!
You can’t control the timing of a job opportunity. It will materialize according to the needs and priorities of the employer.

Your job as a job seeker is to get in the pipeline, maintain a relationship with the hiring manager, keep your skills current, and persist with your job search.
In this stagnant economy, persistence pays off!

How high do you bounce?


Everybody gets knocked down in life, everybody. When you have a goal or objective in life, does the universe allow you to achieve it quickly or easily? Not likely. We live in a universe of adversity.

Our best laid plans, our deepest desires, our clearest objectives will run into opposition. Whatever path we are on, we will run into roadblocks and obstacles. The nature of reality is adversity.

This is a new year. And you can expect to get knocked down this year at some point. For example, I just got off the phone with a client who recently made a career change, one that has changed her life dramatically. “I feel like I can breathe again,” she says. “I’ve got my life back.” She loves her new job and is very happy she switched careers.

However, there is adversity in her situation. She has been parachuted into a key position with this company, and she is facing resentment from co-workers who undermine her enthusiasm with gossip and petty actions. The director of her division regularly criticizes her performance, sometimes with verbal abuse. On the worst days, she wants to quit.

Eric Hoffer, an American philosopher, wrote: “Our achievements speak for themselves. What we have to keep track of are our failures, discouragements, and doubts. We tend to forget the past difficulties, the many false starts, and the painful groping. We see our past achievements as the end result of a clean forward thrust, and our present difficulties as signs of failure and decay.”

Everybody fails, everybody. It is normal. You can expect to fail this year at some point. You will have a strong desire to do or get something and you will not attain it. You will set a goal and not achieve it. In fact, the year starts with resolutions, most of which are never fulfilled. But the odd setback here and there does not a year make.

Life goes on. The setback does not last. Don’t confuse failure with defeat. I love that quote from General George Patton, the WWII hero: “I don’t measure a man’s success by how high he climbs but how high he bounces when he hits bottom.” Failure is a temporary condition; defeat is an attitude.

Most of us play or watch sports because sports reflect the nature of reality—adversity. In each game or contest, every player is trying to score or win. In order to do so, the players and teams must overcome their adversaries. Every player gets knocked down. The key is to get up and focus on what really matters to you.

Life is not a game but it is a structured event, full of circumstances around which we have no control as individuals. Adversity is woven into the very fabric of life. Life owes us nothing. We are entitled to nothing. We are simply given the opportunity to face adversity head on.

We consciously or unconsciously do the things that make us successful or unsuccessful. For example, we are in control of our attitude, of how we respond to circumstances. You will encounter both good and bad circumstances throughout your life; how you respond to them is your choice.

You can choose to be passive, and simply accept whatever life sends your way. Or, you can choose to take actions that will move you closer to what really matters to you. Yes, there will be roadblocks, obstacles, and adversaries that get in the way. By we can choose to meet them head on. That takes courage and strength of mind. To quote General Patton again: “Courage is fear holding on a minute longer.”

Let me close by going back to my client who got a new job but inherited a bad boss and jealous co-workers. As bad as this might appear to be, it is nothing in comparison to the toxic work environment she left last year. I have seen this scenario hundreds of times over the past 20 years. A new year rolls around with a new set of challenges. We live in a universe of adversity; what does not break us makes us stronger.

She is learning to stand up for herself, setting boundaries, and focusing on priorities. Vitality is nurtured by overcoming adversity. We grow personally and professionally by confronting and overcoming challenges. May you bounce back all year long!

A Job Change Lesson from the Grinch


This is the time of year when various versions of ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ appear on television. He’s a mean one, Mr. Grinch—that ol’ sourpuss who had his heart broken as a young man (he lost his girl to his rival, the mayor of Who-ville.)

Misery loves company, and the Grinch tries to ruin Christmas for all the citizens of Who-ville by stealing all their presents and sabotaging their holiday celebrations.

I love that scene where he stares down at Who-ville listening to the men, women and children singing Christmas carols. He realizes he didn’t stop Christmas because the spirit of Christmas is not contained in presents or feasts.

“And what happened then…?
Well…in Who-ville they say
That the Grinch’s small heart
Grew three sizes that day!”

He restores the presents and food to Who-ville, and is welcomed back into the heart of village life.

One suspects that the author, Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel), had experienced his fair share of disappointment in life, in order to write such a compelling and convincing tale. In fact, we know that he tried to publish his first book, and was rejected by 27 publishers. Rejection is hard to take. Look what it did to the Grinch!

However, the initial rejection experienced by Dr. Seuss (and so many first time authors, I might add), is not the final word; unless, we let that rejection define our behavior, as was the case for the Grinch.

I have met many individuals of exceptional talent, each of whom had tremendous prospects for employment. They clearly identified a job target, and put together a plan of action that filled them with enthusiasm. But their initial efforts didn’t hit the mark. Instead, they experience rejection, and rejection is hard to take. If they let that rejection define their behavior, then their desire for a better jobfit, a better life, grows cold.

Obstacles to success should not be interpreted as stop signs. They are inevitable. Instead of pressing through them, I have seen many individuals give up and return to the same work that was driving them crazy in the first place! Better the devil you know….

However, the devil is a cold-hearted taskmaster, and submitting to a job misfit with all the stress and tension that accompanies it is enough to turn most people into a Grinch!

Like Dr. Seuss, there are some amazing stories of tenacity and perseverance that should inspire all of us with realistic hope. Here are some popular stories of failures suffered by some very successful people before they broke through into a better jobfit.

o Albert Einstein was four-years-old before he could speak.
o Isaac Newton did poorly in grade school.
o Ludwig Beethoven’s music teacher once said of him “as a composer he is hopeless.”
o Thomas Edison’ s teacher said of the boy, “He is too stupid to learn anything.”
o F.W.Woolworth got a job in a dry good store when he was 21, but his employer would not let him wait on customers because he “didn’t have enough sense.”
o Michael Jordan was dropped from his high school basketball team.
o A newspaper editor fired Walt Disney because he had “no good ideas.”
o Winston Churchill failed the 6th grade.
o Steven Spielberg dropped out of high school in his first year. He was persuaded to come back and placed in a learning disabled class. He lasted a month and dropped out of school, never to return, but went on to create some of the most memorable Hollywood movies ever made, and become one of its richest directors.

If you hate your job, you should be happy! As Benjamin Franklin said, “Those things that hurt, instruct.” The people listed above succeeded in life because they were wise enough to NOT organize their lives around their failures. Instead, like Dr. Seuss, they focused on what really mattered to them. They established goals and took effective actions to create positive results in their lives.

Eric Hoffer, an American philosopher and contemporary of Dr. Seuss, wrote: “Our achievements speak for themselves. What we have to keep track of are our failures, discouragements, and doubts. We tend to forget the past difficulties, the many false starts, and the painful groping. We see our past achievements as the end result of a clean forward thrust, and our present difficulties as signs of failure and decay.” Which is another way of saying, the road to success is a bumpy one. Or, every overnight success takes twenty years. Pick the cliché, adage, or proverb on the tip of your tongue.

Remember it took Dr. Seuss thousands of tears to produce the joy of Christmas in Who-ville! Never give up on what really, really matters to you.

May the spirit of Christmas reign in your heart this holiday season and throughout the coming year!