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A Career Coach's Nemesis

If your career path meandered at any point, you won't get far with Aaron Patzer, the Web entrepreneur who built Mint.com and who now heads the personal finance group at Intuit, which acquired his company this month.

When hiring, "I look for someone who has made conscious, rational, well-reasoned decisions from high school through college to internships to your first job to now," Patzer told Fortune magazine. "If you've floundered, if you fell into jobs, if you've changed your track ten times or even three, you're not for me. I like people who know what they want and who they are in life and always have."

I've heard similar language from banks' campus recruiters. They often stress it's essential that students interviewing on campus tell a coherent "story" that shows finance - and investment banking in particular - is central to the identity the student has been forging since high school or even earlier.

Downside of Career Change

Patzer's attitude is a far cry from the message I usually hear from career coaches. Many speak of self-discovery and career re-invention as lifelong journeys, and highlight the potential benefits from changing course while largely overlooking the very real hit to advancement prospects and lifetime earning potential.

In most cases, those who embark on a second (or third) career will lack the automatic escalator they rode the first time around, when employers considered them entry-level and rapidly promotable. That's why deviating from a linear path can lead to a reduced income track even if the new industry or profession - finance, for instance - normally pays more than the one you left. In short: career change is hazardous to your career.

And that's without even taking account of Patzer and the many other hiring decision makers who echo his belief in the straight-and-narrow.

Either Chips or Raisins - Not Both

I recall an epiphany I had in my local 7-Eleven amid a difficult job transition a few years ago. I'd been grousing that recruiters and hiring managers seemed enamored of "cookie-cutter" candidates who performed similar roles for similar employers their entire working lives. Then I reached for a cookie, inspecting closely to determine if the brown spots baked into it were chocolate chips or raisins. That's when it hit me: I would never buy a chocolate chip if I saw it was "contaminated" by even one lone raisin. And I imagine most oatmeal-raisin cookie lovers would likewise reject one that contained a single errant chocolate chip.

If you're dreaming about a career change, remember that image, and remember Aaron Patzer. If you've hewed to one coherent path throughout your career and don't feel an urge to get off now, thank your lucky stars. And when you next prepare for an interview (to quote my own column from eFinancialCareers News back in May 2008), think hard about how to persuade the employer your joining his team represents the logical and ideal culmination of the sequence of events that make up your resume - and indeed your entire life.

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AUTHORJon Jacobs Insider Comment
  • An
    Anonymous
    30 November 2009

    I find this article to be unfortunate, and one with which I disagree. One cannot often choose one's career, and must accept jobs available to them. I'd love to have chosen each of my jobs based on my first choice and then moved carefully up a corporate ladder to a job that paid $MM bonuses. Unfortunately that is not available to everyone, and much less available to women in particular. My career has taken a few unplanned turns due to necessity; the jobs I have been offered were not always the ones I really wanted. Today, I'm an unemployed single mother, which is not my choice. I hope to reenter my chosen career soon, but what will do next is not solely dependent on me. I'm also a self-made multi-millionnaire so I can now make some of my own choices.

  • Ke
    Keni
    30 November 2009

    Funny thing is that Aaron Patzer could be considered a career changer as well !

  • Na
    Nancy
    27 November 2009

    I agree with Andrew. I have worked as a contractor for many years, and have learned more software programs (a must in any job field )than others who have stayed in the same company or job for years. I chose my college education (which I paid for myself with the help of tuition reimbursement) based on necessity. My parents divorced & sold their house, leaving me to find my own way. I picked accounting because I knew that even with a AS degree, I could find a job that would allow me to support myself decently, & continued on to earn a BS. It did support me, but I hated the work. I am in my 50's & now pursuing an education in Web Technologies, where I can enjoy my work, & telecommute, since I will not be able to afford to retire.

  • Jo
    Jon Jacobs
    27 November 2009

    Yes, this is a fascinating and enlightening debate. And thanks to the two participants who gave the rest of us a good laugh at their expense: "lolz" and J.M. Turpin.

    Good self-parody, Lolz, your invoking "stupid...HR types" while you rail against the ideas of a 28-year old Internet entrepreneur (Aaron Patzer) who started Mint.com from scratch and sold it two years later for $170 million.

    And ditto, J.M. Turpin, for implying in your comment that you are more successful than Mr. Patzer. Yes, I suppose there are people around who are worth more than $170 million. This much is certain, though: they're not boasting about it on FREE, PUBLIC Web sites like this one. Ever heard the old adage, "Those who do, don't talk; those who talk, don't do"? From schoolyards to conference rooms, I've found it to be one of the most reliable generalizations there is....It's right up there with Bond prices go up when interest rates go down.

    --Jon Jacobs, eFinancialCareers News staff

  • An
    Andrew
    27 November 2009

    Opinions are like a**holes. Everybody's got one. Mr. Patzer's line of reasoning, IMHO, seems rather provincial and narrow-minded.

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