Reflecting on my career choices over the last 3 years, I can see that I used a solution-focused approach to eventually find my dream job, but also that a problem-focused approach led me to make the same mistake twice.
I worked as a Legal PA to three very senior lawyers at a Media Company, one of which was notoriously demanding and difficult to work with. I’ll call her “S”. I managed to live up to her high standards but at great cost to myself. I was very stressed and unable to switch off from work even at weekends. S kept on pushing me. She told me in an appraisal meeting that her management style is to “throw people in at the deep end to see if they could swim”. She was astounded that every time she threw me in at the deep end, I managed to swim. S planned on continuing to give me more and more difficult tasks until it was clear to her that I had reached my limit. I joined the Media Company because I wanted to prove to myself that I was able to be more than “just” a Legal Secretary (I had been in my previous role as Legal Secretary for 11 years). After almost 2 years of working for S, it was clear that I was indeed capable of much more and was doing the job of an Executive Assistant, even though my title was still Legal PA. I decided to move on and find a job where my title would be “Executive Assistant”.
In July 2017 I joined a very prestigious UK law firm which I will call “FF” in a newly created role as Executive Assistant for a much bigger salary. On paper it was meant to be a great step up in my career, but my problem-focused thinking had created another stressful job where I was deeply unhappy and working for a Partner who broke down any self-esteem I had built up while at the Media Company. I was so focused on getting away from S, and blinded by the job title and higher salary, that I didn’t notice I was walking into a very similar situation.
How I used solution-focused thinking to find my dream job:
1. Acknowledge the problem: I was extremely unhappy at work – again – working for a demanding female lawyer who made me doubt myself constantly and slowly broke down my self-esteem.
2. Define my preferred future: I realised that a job title wasn’t everything and the most important thing was how I felt when I was interacting with my boss, and the culture of the firm. I wanted a job that paid reasonably well, where the people were supportive and felt like a family, yet big enough that they had a good client base.
3. If something doesn’t work stop doing it and do something else: I wasn’t going to change the culture at FF and at that point I didn’t have the confidence or drive to continue working there (EA’s were resigning weekly for the same reasons). This was the second time I worked for a boss who made me anxious and stressed. It was obviously not working.
4. Identify solutions: I resigned from FF within my probation period so that I didn’t have to work a notice period. We had savings to fall back on and I desperately needed to take time away from it all to reflect and “find” myself again. I wasn’t going to immediately look for another job. I hadn’t taken any time to reflect on what was important to me when I resigned from the Media Company. This time I wanted to spend some time identifying my values, envisioning my dream job, and also give myself the time to believe that such a job does exist.
5. If something works, do more of it: I am a creative person but stopped doing any creative activities when I started working for S. As soon as I resigned from FF, I signed up for weekly painting classes and painted at home whenever I had the chance. F. Bannink states in her book “1001 Solution-focused questions” that one of the 10 principles of Solution-Focused Interviewing is that only a small change is needed – in my case a weekly art class. The one small change had started a snowball effect of believing that change was possible, seeing the changes happen in myself and then gaining the self-confidence that I was worthy of having a great job. I was in such a good frame of mind that two months later I attracted a job at a local estate agent doing admin three days a week. I jumped at the opportunity to work close to home, part-time, doing something that was easy for me but greatly appreciated by my boss – in other words, the polar opposite of my two previous jobs. The four months of art classes and working at the estate agent greatly improved my self-confidence.
In April 2018 I was ready to look for a permanent job. This time I knew exactly what I wanted and I found it at a law firm 20 meters from FF. I have been working in my dream job now for two years. The firm is everything, and more, that I envisaged when I started focusing on my ideal future job.
Ironically, my job title is now back to Legal Secretary. Exactly what it was before I joined the Media Company. I had “moved up” in job title twice, but as it turns out, I didn’t need an impressive job title after all.
*This blog post is based on the assignment I completed for Module 8 of my Integrated Resilience & Wellness Coaching studies.*