Career setbacks – how you can determine the future

Q. I made what I thought was a successful mid-career change. After two years with my employer in the new field, I was fired. No major wrong-doing, just that my skills had not developed to the point they wanted. My concern in applying for the next job is that this employer will only give me a lukewarm reference. How will I ever get another job in this field if that is my only experience/reference to offer?

A. The learning curve in any new job takes place at different paces for different people. Some organizations can support developing skills, while other organizations do not have the tolerance or the support structure to allow for on-the-job development outside their internal timetable.

I’m sorry for the loss of your job. No major wrong doing is a good start. Now take the time to assess which skills you did develop, and to what degree. Also, evaluate the areas of development your manager wanted to see, and determine what skill level was anticipated for your role and where you were assessed.

You can start to do this by reviewing your job description, your performance reviews, and any informal notes you may have taken from conversations with your boss, colleagues, and human resources. Good job descriptions are based on competencies, and the results desired. List the competencies/skills, and grade yourself. You can use an A, B, C, scale, or you can label yourself as excellent, acceptable, or needs development.

If you can get support from a manager or colleague to gather feedback on this task, it may prove more valuable. If this will not be a developmentally positive exercise to do with these former colleagues, then skip it. Your goal is to get an accurate assessment of your skills, your areas of development, and to provide an accurate document to whoever at your former company will be providing the reference.

During the last two years there had to be successes, and positive contributions you made. You need to catalog those to make sure your separation is not the only point of focus. You will also want agreement with your former manager on the areas of development still needed. The plan is to make the content of these conversations or emails the basis for a reference that works for you, and surpasses lukewarm.


On the other hand, you may have former colleagues from this new field who didn’t agree as strongly with the manager who chose to let you go. Not using that manager as a reference may offer you stronger support toward your next job. Prepare that reference in the same way. Then see if that person can provide you with some helpful suggestions on developing or strengthening skills that will improve your level of professional knowledge, and your chances to land a new opportunity more quickly.

Career set backs happen. How you deal with it and what you make happen after that set back, is what determines what the future looks like.

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