A few years ago, Wendy Sachs found herself interviewing for a job at what she calls a “bright, shiny, digital media startup” in New York. Sachs, a media veteran, met with a Millennial interviewer. He noted her experience working as a press secretary on Capitol Hill, a job that had opened the door to her career as a network television producer. She thought he would be impressed.
Not quite. “It concerns me that you worked in politics,” he told Sachs. “I mean, I wouldn’t want you slamming down the phone and pissing people off.”
Sachs was shocked. “I, a Gen Xer, who came of age during Walkmans and Diet Coke, was more culturally disconnected from this Millennial than I imagined,” she writes in her new book, Fearless and Free: How Smart Women Pivot and Relaunch Their Careers. “Walking down Fifth Avenue, I realized my personal career pivot was going to be harder than I expected.”
Sachs has written an earnest, entertaining and essential guide for any Gen-Xer or Baby Boomer seeking to intelligently navigate the job market. She follows the personal stories of people who have successfully pivoted — overcoming job loss, failed businesses and time out of the workplace to raise kids. Here are six of her tips for career success:
1. There is no such thing as a career path. The only career goal you should focus on is staying relevant.
“You’re not only navigating your own career but the shift in technology that’s demanding a whole new set of skills,” Sachs told me over lunch in New York. “You need to figure out what the gaps are and what you can learn on your own.”
Subscribe to your industry’s email newsletters and take classes to stay current. Maybe you’ve been out of workforce and don’t know social or digital. You can pick them up by reading, watching YouTube videos or taking classes online at General Assembly.
If your next job requires Snapchat or Instagram, create a side project that involves those platforms as a volunteer at a school, church, synagogue or community center. “Do something on your own to figure it out,” Sachs added. “It’s about having a growth mindset.”
2. You have a story. Define it, own it, sell it.
Your skill set is likely transferable, but you may have to retool the way you describe it, said Sachs. Look at the bios of people on LinkedIn who have the job you want or are working at a company you desire. It will help you shape a clear and consistent story.
“There’s new language and a new trend of the day, but at the root of it, it’s a skill set you probably already have,” Sachs explained. “I truly believe in faking it until you make it. It’s how you represent yourself using language that’s really current and matches what you are looking for.”
3. Hack industry conferences.
Try to get a visible role at an industry conference as a speaker. If that’s not an option, call and ask if the event planner needs any volunteers to help out. That will connect you with the conference organizers, who can help make the introductions you’re seeking.
Get the list of speakers, hit their sessions and introduce yourself (or if you anticipate a long line of fans, find out the name of the publicist accompanying the speaker, chat him or her up and ask for an introduction). Get the attendee list if possible, and identify who you want to meet.
“You have to be enterprising; do all the research on this person to find a way to make a connection,” Sachs said. “Walk in there with a sensibility of ‘What can I offer and how can I make this happen for myself?’ Then follow up.”
4. Don’t network – connect.
Approach networking events with a relationship mindset. “I think women hate networking because the idea of it feels very manipulative and aggressive,” Sachs noted. “Think of it as connecting rather than networking. Women know how to bond – you put five women at a table and they’re talking about their careers, their kids, their shoes.”
Most importantly, approach with a mindset to give rather than take. “You’re basically offering something up without just swapping business cards,” Sachs said, whether it’s a contact or idea that could help someone solve a business problem. “Maybe it won’t come to fruition but you’ve done something to create a relationship.”
And if someone does help you, obviously take the time to say thank you. “Maybe it takes that person five minutes to pound out an email to someone you want to meet, but it may have taken them 10 years to build that relationship,” she noted. “You have to respect that.”
5. So you’ve been fired. Join the club.
“Whether companies are folding or reorganizing or restructuring or merging or moving overseas – so many people can relate to [being fired],” said Sachs. “There are so many reasons and all of them suck. But don’t feel like it diminishes your value. Women struggle with ‘they didn’t like me.’ But try to separate the personal experience from the professional one.”
If you have been fired, “do not play the victim,” Sachs advised. “From an optics standpoint you want to come out looking like ‘I got this.’”
6. Ageism is real – so get (or keep) your image together.
If you want to get to the front of the hiring line, stay in shape, cover the gray, keep your wardrobe fresh. Most importantly, “the key for the over-45 crowd is to show they’re agile and have an innovative mindset,” Sachs said. “It’s about adopting the vernacular. Because the biggest turnoff is ‘oh they’re not going to fit into our culture.’
“The key to all of this is confidence,” Sachs added. “Figure out what it is that people are doing that you need to understand, and accept that you’re going to be uncomfortable. That’s where the growth is going to happen.”