There are no dead ends, only crossroads

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PEOPLE who feel they've reached a dead end in their jobs often assume they have to move elsewhere in order to bump-start their career. That may sometimes be the case, but there is an alternative. Career management courses offer one-to-one counselling to help employees find new opportunities within their organisation. Companies will often pay for this, preferring to hold on to valued staff who may have lost direction, rather than start with a new recruit.

At 31 Fiona Eason was enjoying her job as personnel manager at Knoll Pharmaceuticals, part of the German giant BASF Pharma. But she came to a crossroads when her job disappeared, following restructuring. On her manager's initiative she enrolled in a career management course with consultancy, Sanders & Sidney, to help them decide whether she should leave or stay. The course opened her eyes to other possibilities and put her in a strong position to negotiate with her employers.

Now she has switched to a different role within the company and is acquiring the skills and experience that will help her achieve her ambition of becoming a director. "It came out that I had good personal skills and was very tactical," Ms Eason says. "I've been managing day-to-day human resources issues such as performance, recruitment and redundancy, and was happy with the fast pace. But I tended to stay within my boundaries and lacked understanding of the strategic approach that I would need for a corporate role." Over a period of four months she had four half-day sessions with a consultant, backed up by some weekend work. Through questionnaires and psychological tests she confronted her strengths and weaknesses, identified her needs and started to think about what kind of future she wanted.

One exercise involved identifying her key motivators, or "career anchors" in the system devised by organisational psychologist, Edgar H Schein. This aims to establish what a person most values, from a list that includes autonomy, entrepreneurial creativity, managerial competence, job security, specialist skills, and lifestyle. "The test showed up differences in the way that my juniors and seniors view me," Ms Eason says. "It turned out I was more empathetic with my subordinates than my managers thought I was." Her key strengths were in organisation and planning, with interpersonal skills, resilience and persistence all in evidence. She had a weakness in strategic thinking, with a poor showing in delegation, pragmatism, and flexibility.

At the end of the course Ms Eason went back to her manager, Steve Hatton, with a clear idea of the role she wanted. Having that clarity made all the difference. "The change was marked," Mr Hatton says. "She went from being rather stressed and uncertain about her future to taking control of the situation and overcoming the anxiety completely." Mr Hatton says he would not normally have considered her for a strategic position, but the fact that she came to him with a clear plan made her much more persuasive. "She was realistic about her strengths and that made it much easier for me to suggest that we try it," he says. But making the move is only half the story. Detached from the hurly- burly of day-to-day management Ms Eason is finding her new work in corporate planning and development a challenge. "Sometimes I feel like a fish out of water," she admits. "You're shifting so much from your familiar box of tricks, and that can be difficult individually. The pay-off will be in two or three years and until then you need the support of the company." Clare Neal, the consultant who provided the counselling, agrees. "You don't necessarily get the value of it straight off," she says. "People want the beam of light instantly, and you have to manage those expectations." Fortunately Ms Eason is getting the backing she needs. Having been in the job three months both she and her manager know she has some way to go, but being motivated and clear about her goals gives them both confidence in her eventual success. Knoll made a strategic decision to pilot career management counselling, which it sees it as a potentially cost-effective alternative to conventional recruitment. Counselling is being offered to two other employees whose jobs have disappeared in the restructuring. It has been given to an individual who is dissatisfied with his work and yearns to do something different. "There's an advantage in having someone who knows the company and can hit the ground running," Mr Hatton says. "The course forces you to look at someone with a fresh pair of eyes. A person may not at first seem an obvious candidate but actually when you think about it you may find they have a lot of the qualities you need."

At more than pounds 1,000 per employee the course represents an important investment and Knoll is taking up the whole burden. But what if it ends up persuading an employee to leave? Mr Hatton admits there is a risk of that, but points out that it is better for someone who feels dissatisfaction to confront it and move on, rather than put in an increasingly poor performance. However, Sanders & Sidney says that in most cases the opportunities that can unlock people's potential can be found within the organisation itself, as long as they are frank about their aspirations. "It's surprising how quickly employers react to that," says Ms Neal. "Companies get the benefit of motivated staff and will take advantage of those who come to them with a clear idea of what they want and how to get it."