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How to Talk About What You Do, When You're in Transition

We’ve all been there, at a party, a networking event, an outing of some sort where someone asks you, “So, what do you do?” And for many of us, it’s probably happened at inopportune times – a career change, a stint of unemployment, the weeks prior to quitting a job – where we don’t quite know how to answer that with a statement that resonates fully with us.

The Importance of Personal Branding

Your answer shouldn’t be based on trying to fit neatly into a bucket of acceptable job titles. “I’m an accountant,” or “I direct a non-profit.” It’s not always that simple, as we may be physically “doing” one thing and seeking entry, credibility, and validation in another. So which do you advertise – the one that seems “This isn’t what I actually want to be doing,” or the one that seems ideal, but not quite there yet?

Presenting yourself to others in the identity in which you are seeking to create is of utmost importance. This comes down to personal branding, and it’s all about establishing an identity with someone based on how you want to be acknowledged and remembered.

What Not to Do

Back in 2009 when I was starting up my career consulting business, I was on hiatus from my recruiting career, working as an Account Manager (for lack of a better title) for an IT research firm, and thinking about how to quit that job to work for myself. On top of that, very few people back then had any concept of what a “career coach” does. It was a struggle to understand how I should be presenting myself to people, which was further complicated by the fact that I had to be networking more than ever if I wanted to go into business for myself.

Here were some of the terrible variations I tripped over from time to time:

“Well right now I’m working for an IT research firm as an Account Manager, but I’m also starting a career consulting business on the side, since my background is mostly in recruiting and HR.”

“I’m a client service manager for an IT company, and I also have a career coaching company working with creative folks who are transitioning careers.”

“I work for an IT research firm.”

What’s wrong with all of those variations is that not one of them represents the role I want to actually be acknowledged for. If you are building a business, or you are transitioning into a new career field, you have to start selling yourself as that person, even if it seems premature. What you’re actually doing is setting the foundation for a personal brand. I mean you can’t say you’re an award-winning graphic designer if you’re not. But do be cognizant of the fact that people need some memorable nugget of information about you to latch onto and file away in their minds so that they can keep you on their radar for future business, career, or collaborative opportunities.

What You Should Do

What you do right now is less relevant if it’s not how you want people to think of you, so sell them on the version of you that does accurately describe what you’re working toward. For me, even though I was fresh off one career and in the middle of another, I wanted to build my credibility and brand as something else, and so both myself and the person to whom I was introducing myself would have been better served with an answer like this:

“I’m a career consultant who works with folks through career transition, resume preparation and job searching. I’m currently looking to build my client list in New York, and other cities on the east coast. You?”

Now that’s more memorable, and chock full of information that puts the other person in a position to remember what I do and be able to refer potential clients or opportunities to me as he/she comes across them.

And if you’re still in the planning phases and don’t quite feel comfortable representing yourself as something in which your experience is minimal, try something like this:

“I’m in the process of moving into the non-profit sector. My skills are in accounting and finance, so I’d really like to find a role that combines those things.”

So here is your litmus test: If you introduced yourself to a random person today, and explained to them what it is you do, would it be memorable enough for them to say “Hey, Dana would be a great fit for this,” if an opportunity came across their desk? And if so, is that opportunity one that you would want for yourself right now?