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Why a Career Wish List Really Matters: How to Find Your Ideal Career

By Lisa Wolf, Transition Corner Founder & CEO

Amid my daily activities, one of my priorities includes responding to unsolicited outreach from candidates who are interested in getting on my firm’s radar. These candidates range from currently employed but selectively looking to active candidates who have been recently impacted by a reorganization or downsizing.

Given social media platforms and open access to my email address, I am overwhelmed with a number of communications and I would be remiss if I told you I, personally, respond to every single outreach. The amount of time-sensitive deadlines on our active searches keeps me very busy. 

In any event, I welcome introductory calls with open arms. In most cases, it is an opportunity to form new connections for future opportunities and offer credible professionals an entry point into the unchartered territory of finding an ideal career.


What is a Career Wish List?

A career wish list is the list of criteria by which a professional defines their ideal job opportunity to ensure a progressive and fulfilling career trajectory for the short and long term. It’s intentionally crafted for conversations with your job search stakeholders—recruiters, network, and hiring managers. 

A well-developed career wish list is a concise statement that provides clarity on your ideal job opportunity and illustrates how you can provide maximum value. Coming up with this declarative statement is an important step in finding your ideal career. It teaches you to identify realistic and time-worthy career objectives while helping you effectively communicate with job search stakeholders.

We highly recommend crafting your list before initiating your job search. You only get one shot to make an impressive first impression in networking meetings and with recruiters. That’s why we strategically placed the creation of your Ideal Job Criteria and Wish List as a first step in our four-stage Strategic Search Roadmap

If you have already begun an active job search, it is okay. You can start now. Creating your Career Wish List should be drafted in two versions:

  • Version One: 3-4 bullets of “wish list” criteria to effectively present yourself to recruiters, your network, and potential hiring managers. Make sure to keep it brief.
  • Version Two: An expanded checklist version for your personal use. Incorporate any insights you uncover when creating your Ideal Opportunity Checklist.


Opening Pandora’s Box: Asking the “Career Wish List” Question

As a recruiter, I wear many hats. On one hand, I serve as a trusted partner for my clients charged with finding ideal candidates to fill critical roles within their organizations. For every active search assignment, I advocate for candidates, providing them with interview coaching and process expertise. On the other hand, I serve as a job search and career planning coach for professionals who have been referred by my network and are interested in getting on our radar.  

During these introductory conversations, one of the first questions I often ask is, “What’s on your career wish list?” In other words, “What are the criteria by which you will define your ideal opportunity?” I often find myself bracing for their answer. Asking the question feels like opening Pandora’s box—I never know what type of answer I am going to get. 

In all my years of experience, one of my most perplexing situations is when candidates struggle with answering the wish list question. What is even more interesting is that some of the most accomplished and talented professionals completely blow the answer. I believe in truth and transparency. I lead with heart and mind and do my best not to judge. In more cases than not, my tough love approach leaves the candidate with more confidence at the conclusion of our time together.

Found below are abridged responses from verbatim comments I have received when asking candidates to articulate what is on their career wish list of what they are seeking in a new role:

  • Response A: Vague and unintentional.
    •   A growing company.
    •   A role that will utilize my skill set.
    •   A company that cares about people.
  • Response B: Redundant with oral review of their resume. Lack of focus.
    •   I am a sales director in the CPG industry.
    •   I have 15 years of experience and have worked for [company name], [company name], and [company name].
    •   I am open to interviewing for all opportunities – period.
  • Response C: Targeted and intentional
    •   I am a fixer of broken things. I thrive in leading distressed business to profitability. I seek to lead transformation and business turnaround in two types of roles:
      •   Mid to large-cap company, strategic executive role as President, COO, or GM (large cap) or CEO (small to mid-cap).
      •   Hands-on operational role with a private equity or Venture Capital entity.

There is a marked difference between responses A, B, and C. Which response do you believe is the most preferred? (I will give you a clue – it’s C!) I will estimate that less than 25% of the population is prepared to effectively answer the question. But why?

The reality is that only a lucky few are gifted and master the entire process. Most of the population relies on their prior track record of achievement, assuming they will nail the job search process. How hard can it be, right? I see it every day. 

Mark my words, a highly accomplished career track record does not equate to nailing a successful job search. At least for most of us. The rest of us must work diligently to learn the skills and must invest in the process. Buying into the shortcut approach or relying on unreliable career advice usually does not end well.


Case in Point

Just last week, I connected with a talented, emerging leader who was impacted by a reorganization in April due to COVID-19. The individual was a highly accomplished director-level marketer and well-regarded in their industry. They bring a stellar and unique skill set typically sought out by highly competitive companies.

During our introductory call, I respectfully shifted our conversation by asking, “What is on your career wish list?” You probably know where this is going. This seemingly experienced individual needed guidance.

The individual’s answer was, not surprisingly, all over the board starting with a defense of their experience and ending in a generic statement about what they were looking for in a company. I see this time and time again in response to the wish list question and I break down everything that was so wrong with this talented candidate’s response below:

Redundancy. The individual repeated their work history almost verbatim from their resume. This wasted valuable time and the response didn’t answer my question.

Defensive approach. The individual shared a myriad of awards and acknowledgement they received for their achievements and above-average performance. This is a common response and comes from a position of defense.

Unrealistic objectives. The director-level candidate shared that they were looking at vice president-level roles. Just as a reminder, there are 30% fewer jobs in this individual’s industry due to COVID-19. While their aspirations of becoming a VP were admirable, these objectives were also unrealistic.

Generic information. The individual was getting closer to answer the “wish list” question. They stated that they desired to join a “growing company that would utilize their skills.” We all want to work for a growing company. I have no doubt this is one of the first criteria that comes up for many when describing your ideal job, but it isn’t specific enough for job search stakeholders and they’ll simply move on to the next candidate in line.

Cutting the idea short. The individual stated that culture was important. YES, we’re getting warmer! But this still wasn’t the fully fleshed out answer I was looking for. A better answer would include the examples of the specific type of culture the individual is seeking. Better yet, adding in “‘why”’ that specific culture or values were important would have fully realized this idea.

Okay, so put yourself in my chair. What from the candidate’s answer would you consider relevant when describing your ideal job or career opportunity? And what information from their answer could I, as the recruiter, apply to future client assignments? I’m going to take a guess that many readers see nothing wrong with the individual’s answer. Case in point.


Effectively Crafting Your Ideal Opportunity

All this to say, when I ask talented candidates the career wish list question, what am I looking for? How do I expect them to really WOW me in our introductory conversation? In the case of my new friend, the director, it turns out they were an astute brand marketer with a unique skill set of building in white space environments, someone who thrives in ambiguity. How could this talented candidate conceptualize all of these wonderful skills in a meaningful way when I asked them to define their ideal opportunity? The response I’m looking for could look something like this:

  1.  I thrive in white space environments and lean into ambiguity. I am a builder and have an uncanny way of captivating and influencing cross-functional stakeholders and leadership to a common vision. 
  2.  I am quite confident that the ideal fit would include one of two scenarios:
    1.   A large or global branded restaurant chain in a distressed stage. Seeking a classically trained marketer who brings CPG and hospitality brand experience. A balance of big company discipline and start-up/entrepreneurial experience.
    2.   A Private Equity-backed emerging restaurant chain in need of big CPG discipline coupled with proven stamina necessary to lead in start-up type ambiguous cultures.

While some criteria such as size of company, job title, or entity type (private or public) are important, the wish list should focus on the timing along a company’s life cycle and subsequent “charge” at hand. When drafting your wish list, write from the audience’s point of viewwhat message will they receive and how will they perceive your level of self-awareness or intention? Are you self-directed or unfocused? Before your network put themselves on the line for you, it is critical they have confidence in your ability to convey an effective message.


Why is a Career Wish List Important?

Crafting your wish list is critical for finding your ideal career. They serve as the foundation for all of your search activity, career opportunity assessments, as well as long-term and short-term decision making. It provides clarity for your job search audience and demonstrates that you are intentional, focused, and thoughtful about your next job and long-term career plan.

Specifically, a few benefits of committing time to this step in your job search process will:

  • Boost your effectiveness in presenting your best and focused self to recruiters, your network, and hiring managers.
  • Maximize your confidence in job search decision making.
  • Reduce the likelihood of making costly career errors. 

Your professional network and recruiters play a critical role in conducting a successful job search. Time is a precious commodity, so you want to be prepared for meetings with your job search stakeholders. Think about the message you are sending when you are making introductions with a recruiter for the first time. Will your communications lead you to the top of their list? One of my favorite quotes is from Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers.” The quote reads, “Achievement is talent plus preparation.” 

We are in your corner and understand that the average talented professional is in unknown territory when exploring new career opportunities. Success takes active engagement. You only get one shot to make an effective impression and most busy professionals are not as understanding. Preparation is paramount. How do you want to be perceived? Unfocused, vague, and redundant or targeted, intentional, and self-aware?

Check out our Strategic Search Roadmap and other job search and career planning tools, services, and videos in Transition Corner’s Maximizer Package.

A note from Lisa A. Wolf

Identifying and nurturing top talent for companies at the forefront of their industry has allowed me to engage in fulfilling work that has enabled me to lead with both heart and mind. As an ardent advocate for my candidates’ and clients’ collective success, I am also fiercely proud to uphold Transition Corner’s mission to change lives and trajectory, respectively, for the positive.

Transition Corner was born from the foundational construct of my mission:

To be the catalyst for professionals to rise and take control of their careers and provide them with robust tools and resources to master their job search and career journey. Transition Corner clients deserve nothing less.

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