When it comes to career burnout, there are two types of fear: the fear of being stuck in a job you hate for the rest of your life or the fear of taking a leap and failing. Bruce Blackwell, CEO of Career Strategies Group, has spent the last 25 years helping people overcome both those fears.
Career Strategies Group specializes in career change. They use in-depth assessments and career testing to find options for high-level business professionals who’ve become unhappy with their chosen careers. “There’s this common misconception that says you have to go back to the bottom on the salary ladder and in the corporate hierarchy when looking to make a career change,” he says. “That’s wrong. You can actually like what you do, be good at it, and be well-paid for it.”
Below, Bruce busts other common myths of switching careers, talks about why the legal industry is particularly vulnerable to burnout, and shares his favorite success story:
Tell me a little more about your business
There are several different things that we do, but the short version is, we help people find jobs they like. Our forté is career change for executives and professionals, whether they’re attorneys or business professionals or business owners. They’re in what I call midlife and bored with their jobs. They want to do something else but aren’t sure what or how to get there if they did.
We do a lot of career testing and assessment to identify real-world options. We do high-end resumés and marketing materials for executives. More and more of our clients are even looking to get out of corporate America and start their own businesses, so we do business start-up counseling and business coaching as well as career coaching.
What gave you the idea to start doing this?
[laughs] Oh boy, it goes back about 40 years. I was an executive with a publicly held company. We worked for about a year to get acquired by a bigger company. We had the cocktail party where the old management team met the new owners and their team and thought, “This is great!” The next day, we went to work and got fired!
Companies that are letting people go will sometimes hire outplacement counselors to help them get jobs again, so I worked with an outplacement person. I had never heard of outplacement prior to that. I fell in love with what she did. It involved psychology—which is part of my educational training—and it involved personal marketing, and I was a marketing guy. So I said, “When I get older and have more business experience, I want to help people find jobs.”
I went ahead with my career and ended up on the American board of a British company. Lightning struck again, and we sold the company. At that point, I had done what I had wanted to do in my personal career and thought it was time to open up and help other people have as much fun on their jobs as I had on mine. That was 25 years ago.
What are some misconceptions that people have about the flexibility of their career paths? Especially when they’ve had their job for awhile.
That’s a really good question. Mostly, what they think they know is wrong. They think they’re not qualified to do something else or will have to go back to the bottom, economically. In fact, our clients typically make the same money, or more, undergoing a career change than they were making when they came in as clients.
Our role is to identify what’s called your value added proposition. You’re leveraging your background experience. You may not really have direct experience in one specific area, but you’ve got experience in a different area that will help. A lot of organizations out there, the smarter ones, will appreciate that change in perspective that you can bring in from the outside.
The biggest part of our market are lawyers that don’t want to be lawyers anymore. They’ll think, “If I don’t take people to court, what else is there? That’s all I really know how to do.” We look at organizational skills, advocacy skills, writing skills, project management skills…all the different things that make them good at what they do. They discover they can actually do a lot more than they thought they could.
Another myth is that people think recruiters can find them jobs. By and large, that’s not the case. Recruiters only handle about 15% of the jobs that are filled every year. Don’t expect anybody to find your next job for you. You’ve got to roll up your sleeves and go after what you want.
Why do you suppose so much of your client base is made up of the legal industry?
Oh yes. [laughs] It’s gotten to the point where when someone says, “Oh, my kid just got accepted to law school,” my first reaction is to tell them I’m sorry. Law can be a wonderful profession. However, the hours involved are terrible. A young lawyer at a law firm will put in 80 or 90 hours a week. Quality of life is a huge issue when you’re working that hard. You don’t have time for life. Maintaining a work/life balance is a challenge.
Then when you get to a certain age and experience level in law, you have to bring in business. You have to go find the cases. It’s sales, and lawyers don’t go to law school to sell. So they may be very good at the lawyer part, but if they’re not bringing in business they’re fired.
Plus, if you’re in the business these days, law firms tend to specialize. There’s not a lot of room for general practitioners anymore. So lawyers end up doing the same kind of contract or the same type of litigation every day. There’s nothing new and exciting.
What advice would you give someone who’s starting to feel burned out but is intimidated by the thought of starting over?
Face the fear. There’s no way around it. Face the fear, and go through it anyway. Fear is one of the biggest enemies of our practice, that feeling of “I know I’m good at what I do now. I don’t like doing it, but I’m good at it. I don’t know that I’d be as good at anything else and suppose I fail.” You end up absolutely miserable at your job and live for the weekends. That’s a shame, because it doesn’t have to be that way.
What is the most fulfilling part of your job?
When I get the phone call and my client says, “I got the offer.” They’re going to embark on a whole new career.
I had a client once who was very, very unhappy. And when you’re unhappy at your job, you tend to come home grumpy and a little irked, right? We helped this client get into a job he liked, and at some point he came home and hugged his wife. They had a young child, and the child got scared and started to cry. He had never seen his parents embrace before, because his father had been so miserable. That story still brings a tear to my eye when I tell it.
Work affects your happiness. You can have a wonderful home and a great family, but if you’re miserable on your job, you’re going to be miserable.
I told myself at the very beginning if I ever get tired of it this I would quit. Twenty-five years into it, and it’s still a kick. We help folks achieve things they didn’t think they could achieve without our help. It’s very gratifying to play a small role in helping make the world a little bit of a better place for one person at a time.