A Career Coach's Nemesis

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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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