Don’t wing it

Kathryn Crawford Saxer Career Management, Career Transition

Jack Reacher has some good career advice.

He’s the formidable, former military police investigator who wanders around causing — and solving — all kinds of trouble in a reassuringly formulaic fiction series by Lee Child. In the latest book, “Blue Moon,” Reacher starts a turf war between rival gangs, among other plot complexities.

“Suppose what you learn is that it’s hopeless?” a friend asks Reacher.

“Not an acceptable outcome. Can only be a failure of planning,” says Reacher.

That’s more or less what I tell my coaching clients: If it matters, you prepare.

I thought of Jack Reacher recently while speaking with a coaching client, a Seattle-area scientist working at a world-renowned lab. This Ph.D. was stuck: He knows he wants to do something else with his career, but he doesn’t know what. And he is discovering that it can be really hard to talk about that.

“All I’ve ever done is bench science,” said my client. “I don’t know what else I can do, and I don’t know how to talk about that in networking conversations.”

That’s a problem to solve with some planning and preparation, just like Jack Reacher. (You’re thinking, “Uh, Kathryn? You know Jack Reacher is fictional, right?”)

In fact, that problem — how to talk about a career transition — is Dreadful #2, one of several dreadful questions I’ve collected over the last decade of career coaching. It sounds like “What kind of work are you looking for?” and I’ve written about how to answer it when you don’t know the answer previously in this column.

I’ve been wondering whether coaching my clients to carefully prepare for difficult, high-stakes conversations has more to do with my own control-freak tendencies than with some high bar of professionalism. Do other people wing it? Is it a little uncool to prepare so carefully?

There’s a part in the new book “She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement” where the authors, New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, describe calling producer Harvey Weinstein for comment.

“Just before 1 p.m., the reporters and (their editor) settled in for the call. They had written out almost every word they planned to say.”

These journalists, at the top of their profession, wrote out what they would say to Weinstein; they scripted out the conversation beforehand. Like Jack Reacher, they didn’t wing it; they planned and prepared for a difficult encounter.

If it matters, you prepare. 

First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.