Young job seekers have always faced this dilemma. In today's shrinking job market, people with years of experience also struggle with it. Whether they face the reality of a layoff, or merely the threat of one, many older workers are trying to reinvent themselves in order to become marketable in a changed economy.
Whether you're launching your career or trying to change its direction, you can get around this Catch-22 with some creativity and humility.
Here's how I did it:
I was a clinical psychologist in a community mental health center. It was professionally satisfying and financially unrewarding. I decided it was time to make more money. I would become a business consultant.
Imagine my surprise to learn that I could not find a single company eager to hire me. Apparently, they couldn't see that my ability to counsel sexual offenders was a transferable skill!
I couldn't get business experience without getting hired. I couldn't get hired without business experience. What to do?
At a party, I met Dr. Charles Daily, an organizational psychologist and entrepreneur. Dr. Daily was trying to market a new product to help companies make better hiring decisions. He had a good idea and no money to hire someone to help him realize it.
I said to Dr. Daily, "I'll do telemarketing cold calls for your new product. But I insist on being paid. The first payment will be a title appropriate to the job I will be doing - say, 'Business Development Associate.'" The second payment, if I fulfill my end of the deal, will be a good reference and introductions to colleagues who might be able to help me."
For the next two months, two days a week, I did my best to help Dr. Daily get traction for his new service. I made hundreds of calls - hating every one of them. I ultimately was able to set up two in-person appointments for Dr. Daily.
Neither of those led to new business. But Dr. Daily said my job had been to open doors; it was his job to close deals. I'd performed well and would get paid, in the form of introductions to some business associates. Those introductions, along with a resume that included my new title, eventually led to a job with a talent management-consulting firm.
How can you use such a strategy to get out of the no-win loop that circumscribes your professional growth?
Look for a company with a great idea and no money to execute it. Then:
- Be specific about what value you will provide. I wanted experience in the sales and marketing of professional services. I said I would make phone calls and get appointments for Dr. Daily. I didn't say I would generate sales because I didn't think I could do that.
- Be specific about what value you will receive. For me, appropriate compensation was a title I could add to my resume and introductions and a reference from Dr. Daily. Compensation is about value received for value given - and you're thinking too narrowly if you define value only in monetary terms.
- Be specific about time frame. I promised to work two days a week for two months. Be sure that your commitment doesn't preclude you from actively continuing a job search - or performing well enough to keep your present job.
What? You're too proud to offer your services at no charge? Get over it. If you choose the right opportunity, you'll gain industry or functional experience that has immeasurable value - and will ultimately lead to a real paycheck.
Larry Stybel is co-founder of the global career management firm Stybel Peabody Lincolnshire. He also is Executive in Residence at the Sawyer School of Business at Suffolk University.