What Carl the Dog Taught Me About Career Transitions

When my son was a toddler, he loved a series of books about a dog named Carl. The books are nearly wordless and mostly illustrations, letting readers use their imaginations to tell their own stories of Carl’s adventures.

A quick search on Amazon reveals reviews from other delighted fans, such as:

“the appealing part…is that the story is never the same, since whoever is reading it is making it up”

“allows [readers] to use their imaginations to tell the stories themselves”

“readers can come up with a new story each time”

The author intentionally gives storytelling control to readers, giving them the freedom to make up details about the characters and scenes.

However, there’s a right time and place to give storytelling control to readers. During that period in my life, I was unknowingly doing this as I was trying to make a major transition in my career. But instead of a book, my story took the form of my resume and the readers were hiring managers and recruiters.

I wanted to move into biotech after having worked in the nonprofit sector for several years — a particularly daunting shift because biotech was an industry in which I had no direct experience. That fact wasn’t something I could hide in a resume.

And unfortunately, my resume was the focal point of my initial process: I would research companies and open roles, spend hours perfecting and tailoring my resume for each different job description, submit my resume online or through a recruiter, and hope for the best.

Time after time, I wouldn’t get a response or move on to the next stage.

What I understood later was that every time I hit “Submit” with my resume, I was sending the resume equivalent of a Carl-the-dog book. By ceding storytelling control over to others, I was leaving the interpretation of my career to chance.

Despite the carefully crafted summary statements, bullets outlining all my accomplishments, and matching — as best I could — my experience to the requirements listed in the job descriptions, I could never disguise myself as a standard, traditional candidate, which is what most of these companies were looking for in a resume.

They were trying to pattern-match the right candidate into these roles, and there was no way a former practicing physician with nonprofit experience but no direct biotech experience looked like the right fit on paper.

Soon I realized that I had to reclaim control of my own narrative. Because I wasn’t a traditional candidate, I couldn’t make this transition in a traditional way. So I ditched my dependence on online methods and went in a direction that played up my strengths.

Whatever disadvantage I had on paper, I made up for in person. I knew that if I could just get in the same room or even on the phone with hiring managers*, I could make more progress than a resume ever could by its lonesome. This allowed me to do four things:

#1 Learn. I learned about them and their companies in a way that wasn’t possible with internet research. Having a conversation allowed me to understand the nuances of their roles, motivations, challenges, and what they needed to be successful. I also dug into what types of people thrived at their companies and what the companies’ plans were for growth.

#2 Share. At its best, my resume served as a prologue to arouse interest and a set of thought starters. However, in person I could share my story and connect the dots of my career in a way that resumes aren’t built to do. I used anecdotes to bring my transferable skills to life — skills that could potentially be useful and helpful to them and their companies — and to convey my tenacity, problem-solving abilities, and commitment to being a strong team player or leader.

Where my resume raised questions and confusion, a conversation could dispel even the most hardened perspectives about my career. Storytelling gave life, relevance, and color to all those bullet points in my resume, getting heads nodding and ideas flowing.

#3 Connect. Building upon the first and second steps, I embarked on a brief collaboration exercise. Now that I knew more about them and their companies, and they knew more about me, I could ask for their advice on where they saw someone with my experience fitting into biotech or into their companies, whether in their departments or someone else’s. Also, I shared ideas on how they might overcome a particular barrier or obstacle to their success, frequently applying universal principles I’d learned from practicing medicine or from my experience in the nonprofit sector.

During these impromptu, mini-brainstorming sessions, I was reminded again and again that people, even near-strangers, are often more creative and willing to help than we might expect. They sometimes even volunteered to introduce me to their contacts at other companies who would be open to informational interviews or meeting someone with my skill set.

#4 Nurture. In-person meetings served as the initial germ of these relationships, but so many of them bloomed in the months that followed and beyond. Of course, I sent thank you emails to every person who took the time to meet with me and was steadfast in all my follow ups. After that, I purposefully checked in every few months — with anything from a quick update on my progress to sharing an article, networking event, or industry report they might find useful.

__

These four steps became a lodestar for me, a steady guide in each of my major career transitions — from nonprofit sector to biotech and then subsequently, over the course of 10 years, into healthcare advertising, health-tech, and then becoming the co-founder of a boutique marketing and branding agency. Every single opportunity in my career has manifested as a result of this approach.

And though, of course, not every conversation led to a new job, nor was it meant to, every conversation gave me the chance to build a new connection and relationship while learning more about a new sector or industry. I’m so grateful to everyone who gave generously of their time and offered to help, and am still in touch with many of those people today.

Today, I find storytelling and relationship-building to be as relevant today as ever, in a world where we depend — too much, perhaps — on digital ways of doing work and life. And in the midst of a global pandemic, while meeting in person is not feasible, Zoom conversations still allow you to build stronger and more meaningful connections than sending your resume into the internet ether — an approach that can’t and won’t reflect the richness of your experiences.

So if you’re embarking on a life transition, take a moment to re-evaluate whether you have full control over your own story and narrative. Have you relinquished it to a resume or some other format that surrenders storytelling control over to your readers? Or are you a master narrator, purposefully shepherding your audience through the story arc of your life and work?

Drop me a line. I’d love to know how you’ve used or plan to use storytelling in your own transitions, either personal or professional.

*Some of you may be wondering how I was able to secure meetings with hiring managers in the first place. Stay tuned! More on that to come in a future article.

Physician-turned-marketer, forever in transition