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t’s impossible to talk with Nick Koukourakis and not come away with the impression that when it comes to his career, the guy is serious, meticulous, and prepared.

A veteran of Maytag, the appliance manufacturer, Koukourakis was most recently a managing director with a London-based commercial laundry business, but lost his job when the company reorganized and downsized earlier this year. Ask him what he wants to do next, though, and you’ll hear none of the umms, ahhs, and long-winded digressions many laid-off job hunters fall into. His goal rolls effortlessly and smoothly off his tongue. “I’m looking for a new leadership role in product-line management, or sales and marketing,” he says. “Ideally, with a manufacturing company in consumer durables.”

Koukourakis didn’t arrive at this crystal-clear vision easily. After he lost his job in England and returned to his hometown of Chicago, he seriously pondered his options for almost a month. He also sought out many of the career management tools available to executives today: Web sites, networking contacts, and executive recruiters, among others. “I took some time to look inward, decide who I am, and figure out what I’d like to do and what I’m good at,” he says.

The result wasn’t just a definite sense of what he wants to do, but also the preparation he hopes will get him there. Before he even thought about applying for a position, Koukourakis prepared some tools to help him sell himself: a list of accomplishments at each of his previous jobs, a handbill listing his experience and describing what he’s looking for, a short 45-second speech doing the same, as well as a business card and two versions of his résumé. While this legwork took more than two months, the effort seems to be worth it. Just two weeks after officially starting his search for a new gig, he’d already had one interview.

Fact is, Koukourakis did what most of us should, even if we’re already gainfully employed. He pondered his talents and desires, set a solid career goal, and is taking steps toward it. In short, he’s managing his career — instead of letting circumstances manage it for him.

Obviously, finding a job isn’t all there is to career management. It can mean performing your best at your current job. It can be mapping out a strategy to eventually become a CEO or entrepreneur. It can also be balancing home and work life. Wherever career goals and life intersect, that’s career management. “It’s a systematic and holistic process for creating a plan to get that executive what he or she wants out of his or her career and life,” says David Logan, associate dean and executive director of executive development at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.
The variety of definitions for career management is equaled by the multiplicity of resources available to help, each promising to help guide your career exactly where you want it to go. Some are cheap, even free, while others cost an exorbitant amount. All have their potential benefits, but before using any of them, you should be just as aware of their limitations.

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s one of the founders of Internet Solutions and Technical Services, a Fort Collins, Colorado-based developer of Web sites and applications, Kristie Eslick’s definition of career management is very straightforward: She wants her business to grow and flourish.

To help her with that, Eslick hired Debra Benton, an executive coach also based in Colorado. Benton serves as Eslick’s advisor on everything from how to navigate tricky interpersonal issues with customers and employees, to providing motivation and big-picture strategic advice. “It’s like getting a helicopter view,” Eslick says of Benton’s input. “You’ve got to get out of the woods and take a helicopter ride over and see what things are going on around you, write it all out, have a map, and get back in the trenches. It gives you something to go back to when you’re not overwhelmed with what’s going on every day.”

To Benton, getting that impartial view is what makes her advice so valuable to harried, overworked executives. “You’re so busy doing the work that you don’t give yourself the necessary time for reflection,” says Benton, author of Executive Charisma. “You’re so close to [your job] that you can’t see, and an outside person can. A lot of times an outside person says what you already know — but when they say it, it finally clicks.”

But Benton doesn’t just offer her advice and look the other way. A big part of a coach’s job is to both help develop a tan-gible game plan for clients to meet their goals — and to make sure they follow through. Benton holds her clients accountable. “Without a plan and a goal and an objective, at a certain point you’re going to say, ‘I did whatever The Man wanted me to do, but I never did what I wanted to do,’ ” says Benton. “It’s taking control versus leaving it to chance.” Or, as Janet Scarborough, an executive coach based in Seattle, puts it, “The difference between a goal and a dream is that the goal has a timeline and action steps for moving toward it.”

Before running out to hire a coach, though, you’ll want to consider a few things. One is cost. Benton, for example, charges $9,500 for her services, which include an all-day session where she reviews a client’s personal and professional life and goals, and evaluates the client’s communication skills and image. Also included is unlimited follow-up for 90 days.

More troubling than price, though, is the fact that there is no well-recognized accreditation for coaches. In essence, anyone can call herself a coach, regardless of training or experience — or lack thereof. “Most coaches are the snake-oil salesmen of the 21st century. They’re poorly trained, not competent to begin with, and they’re descending on a part of the market that isn’t skilled at evaluating one coach from another,” says USC’s Logan. “I’ve collected so many horror stories about careers ruined by bad coaches.”

Though a skeptic about the abilities of most coaches, Logan believes a good one can be tremendously helpful; he has a coach himself. The key, he says, is to thoroughly research your prospective coach by getting references and verifying the results people have achieved.

Once you do that, Logan says, there’s no better career management tool. Logan’s coach has kept him focused on his true passions and helped him navigate through strategic and political challenges on the job. The coach also helped open Logan’s eyes to his weaknesses. “By definition, you can’t see your own blind spots,” he says. “Having a coach has allowed me to see mine and address them.”

One place to start looking for a reputable coach is the International Coach Federation, which offers an accreditation program and requires members to follow a code of ethics. Visit ICF at for more information, and make sure to do your own due diligence on any prospective coach.

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n his job as a vice president at Model N, a Silicon Valley software company, Gregg Rotenberg has always thought that one of his strengths is reminding everyone to think with a long-term perspective. “I’m always talking about the big picture,” he says. “I’m always telling people to think about how the project they’re working on now affects the long-term success of the company.”

But in his own career, Rotenberg was far less visionary, thinking more about the next five minutes or days than years. “It was ironic to be so big-picture-oriented at work and so non-big-picture-oriented in regard to my own career.”

That is, until Rotenberg got himself an agent. Since last September, well-qualified executives in Silicon Valley have been able to hire an agent — long a staple of the sports world and Hollywood — to do all the things Bruce Willis or Michael Jordan would expect: to guide their careers, look for new job opportunities, and negotiate salary packages. Founded by Jeff Hyman, a former executive recruiter with Heidrick & Struggles, Canal Street Talent Management takes the business model of traditional executive search firms and stands it on its head.

“Executive search firms serve their place in the world, but they are retained by companies to find executives,” says Hyman. “There is no one retained by executives to help manage their careers, to help find their next role, to build a personal plan. I decided to switch sides and represent the talent.”

Hyman, who has four other agents working for him at Canal Street, spends the first month after signing a client figuring out exactly what he wants from his career and deciding on a strategy to get him there. Then — with the help of Canal Street’s contact file of close to 5,000 executives, investors, and board members — Hyman introduces his client to people he thinks the client might want to work for next, or simply would benefit from knowing.

Hyman also spends a great deal of time trolling for opportunities and letting his clients know when there’s something he thinks they should consider. “He calls me once every week or two saying, ‘Hey, I just heard about a position at this company. Is that interesting to you?’” says Rotenberg, who, while happy at his current job, says it would be naive of him not to consider his future prospects.

If a job offer materializes, Hyman helps clients negotiate compensation, using his market knowledge to ensure they get a good deal. “Most people at the executive level operate in a vacuum,” he says. “We can say, ‘Look, this package is good. It’s on par with the market.’ Or we can say, ‘This is 25 percent below average, and we don’t think you should take it.’”

The limitations of hiring an agent are immediately apparent. As the first of its kind, Canal Street is the only option, at least for now. While Hyman plans to expand outside the San Francisco Bay area, he hasn’t yet. And Canal Street’s services, while comprehensive, are also pricey. The firm charges 8 percent of a client’s total cash compensation, with 3 percent in the form of a monthly retainer and 5 percent when the client gets a new job.

Despite its fees, Canal Street has more prospective clients than it can handle. Currently the firm handles 40 clients and accepts only about 10 percent of those who apply. It looks like Hyman has identified an untapped market. Before long, a new executive-rep agency may advertise in your metro newspaper.

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learly, agents and coaches aren’t the answer for many businesspeople seeking career-management help. Many of the services offered by both coaches and Hyman’s outfit can be had for far less from traditional career counselors. Depending on the area of the country, counselors charge between $60 and $120 an hour, according to Susan Eubanks, the associ-ate executive director of the National Board of Certified Counselors.

But cost isn’t the only advantage to career counselors. In most states, counselors must meet very specific requirements to get accredited. The NBCC offers an additional national certification, which requires that counselors have at least a master’s degree in counseling and 3,000 hours of supervised experience, among other requirements. “Certification is so important because it ensures the public that these people have met standards,” Eubanks says.

The process many counselors use is familiar. Michael Shahnasarian, a certified career counselor and president of Career Consultants of America, says one of his primary jobs is helping people figure out their interests, aptitudes, and work values — the importance they attach to things like salary, independence, and job title. While diagnostic tests help, many people expect too much from tests and not enough from themselves. “We tell people that there aren’t any magic tools. We have knowledge and resources about the world of work that you might not have,” he says. “The real answers lie within you.”

One of the main differences between career counselors and coaches is that counselors typically don’t maintain long-term relationships with clients. Counselors help clients figure out a direction to follow, assist in devising a game plan, and then set them free to pursue it. “The initial contact will be intensive and short-term; typically we’ll see someone at the outset three, four, or five times within a few weeks or months,” says Shahnasarian. “Then we may not see that person for a year or two, until something else develops in their career and they need advice again.”

Shahnasarian once worked with the controller of a large hospital. The man’s job was extremely stressful, and he worked for an intensely demanding boss. Shahnasarian helped the controller probe his talents and interests and pursue a career change. “He wanted something less stressful, obviously, and he had a passion for writing,” Shahnasarian recalls. They found a job that combined his interest in writing, his background in accounting, and his desire for a slower pace — develop­ing curricula for continuing education in accounting.

After working at that job for a few years — years of no contact with his counselor — the man decided he wanted another change and went back to Shahnasarian for help. Shahnasarian says, “That is a very typical chronology of how [counselors] work with people.”

So if you’re not good at following through on your strategies alone, a career counselor probably isn’t your best choice. But if you can hold yourself accountable, this could be a more cost-effective route to your career goals. For information about how to choose a career counselor and a list of certified career counselors near you, visit the National Career Development Association at

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xecutive recruiters have long been a popular tool for landing a new job or finding interesting opportunities. In his job search, Koukourakis has made a point of contacting executive recruiters. About 15 percent of the positions he’s seeking are filled by recruiters, and he wants to be sure he’s on their radar screen.

But David Logan of USC warns that executive recruiters should be used by people who — like Koukourakis — have already pondered where they want their careers to go. “The classic pitfall with executives is that they’re unhappy, feeling squeezed out, so they call a headhunter and get a new job,” Logan says. “Then, surprise, surprise, nothing has changed but the name on the building.”

Also important to remember, Logan says, is what’s in the interest of the recruiter. “They want to place you in a specific job and they want to talk you and the company into it so they get their commission.”

Although aware of the limitations of recruiters, Koukourakis believes they’re an important part of the job search process. His initial inquiries produced two callbacks from search firms. “You do have to be careful with recruiters,” he says. “But they are absolutely an important part of this process because they’re looking for people to fill jobs that you know are real.”

The worldwide trade group for executive search firms, the Association of Executive Search Consultants, offers articles on how to deal with a recruiter at its Web site, The association also maintains a list of its member firms online.

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ood career guidance doesn’t come just from a certified professional. You can get good advice on your own. One method Logan recommends is simply taking a management consultant out to lunch (think McKinsey & Company or Deloitte Consulting). Ask what opportunities they see opening up and what’s on the wane. “Consultants are very helpful because they see many different companies, and, if they’re well trained, many industries,” Logan says. “They have a broad perspective.”

Mentors can also be a helpful resource — both mentors within your company and those outside it. Internal and external mentors provide valuable guidance about performing your job, developing your skills, thinking about the big picture, and handling political situations.

While mentors within your company can also actively promote your interests and help you develop within that company, you have to remember that your mentors have their own interests at work, too. “The mentor may have an agenda,” Logan points out, “or might push you in a direction that might be serving their interests without serving yours.” If you’d like to find a mentor outside your company, try contacting your university alumni association or your industry trade group; many offer mentoring programs.

Another good source of advice is people like Logan, college professors you might have studied with in your salad days. “I keep in touch with students who graduated ages ago, and I love nothing better than when they come back and we have a cup of coffee and I ask them how it’s going,” he says. “I have no agenda with them other than to hope they have a great life, and get invited to a kid’s bar mitzvah or something.”

And isn’t a great life the exact thing guidance-seeking careerists are hoping for?

michelle vaughn, of studio venus in dallas, has an art background and has focused her talent on photography. her work entails national advertising and editorial assignments.

untangling the job web
when career and job sites first hit the web, prognosticators promised they would completely transform the way we find work and manage our careers. well, as with a lot of things in the cyberworld, that hasn’t quite panned out. most career experts agree that the best job leads and career advice still come from real, live walking-and-talking people.

but that doesn’t mean that many career-related sites aren’t good resources. they provide literally millions of job leads, information about writing résumés and cover letters, and advice on interviewing and networking effectively. here are some of the more popular and useful sites.

the information and jobs on this site are tailored for the kind of upscale, white-collar workers who read the wall street journal — not a huge surprise, because the site is affiliated with that newspaper. there’s information on working with executive recruiters, searching for jobs after age 50, and, importantly, how to make sure your salary is where it should be.

this yahoo-owned site has all the usual articles and advice on career guidance, but from the moment you hit the site’s home page, it’s clear that the focus is on finding a new job fast. one section — called eureka — allows visitors to enter keywords and desired locations and get started on the hunt for employment right away.
perhaps the most comprehensive of all the career sites, monster boasts of offering upwards of a million job listings per month. while the site has a massive amount of information on everything from working abroad to balancing work and home life, it’s all arranged in a remarkably uncluttered, easy-to-navigate way.

if security and good benefits sound particularly appealing in these days of economic uncertainty, check out this site, which lists more than 15,000 positions in the federal government. the site is very utilitarian — no premium on design here — but the information on working for different divisions of the government is straightforward and helpful.