How to advance in your career (for counselors)
Updated: Aug 25
A few weeks back I posted about why you don't need another degree to achieve career success. It wasn't written for counselors and therapists. I'm not a career coach. It was just career advice from one random guy, albeit a professional, on the internet.
That post got this comment:
The thing about this comment is I know Valerie. When I was in my doc program I used to babysit her kids for extra cash. Her comment is personal.
Now, like I said before, I'm not a career coach. But I do own my own business and my career path has been significantly derailed from what I expected. I've also made it a rule to study successful people.
In all of this I've made a lot of mistakes. Mistakes I wish for others to avoid.
All of this has been swirling around and I began to think: what other advice would I give the next generation?
What did I come up with? Remember you're building a spiderweb.
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The traditional career path is broken.
If you're like me you saw your parents work the same job day in and day out for years. So you assumed that's what people did. They worked hard, and, eventually, after putting in their time, they moved up to a top leadership position and made a higher salary.
And, if that didn't work they went back to school, got a degree, a certificate, or something else to increase their skills and make them relevant in the job market. And that credential gave them access to the best job opportunities.
Most people would consider that the traditional path. It goes in a straight line. It feels predictable and safe.
The problem is traditional career paths are closed to most of us. It's failed too many times.
I've seen a nurse get fired for no reason except that his hospital was acquired by another company.
I've seen a pharmacist fired, twice, because his companies were going through routine restructurings.
I saw a guy who sold soap and sanitizer fired after his sales doubled during COVID because his company was "paying him too much."
And right now, as I write this, dozens of tech companies are rescinding job offers because the economy is slowing down.
Even if you have a great job with a great company where they respect and value your work you're still not safe. One of the reasons companies don't offer pensions anymore is because the job marker is more competitive than ever before, which in turn means companies just aren't lasting as long as they used to.
These days even the most iconic companies go out of business.
The problem is we aren't taught the fundamental rule of business: Businesses exist to solve a problem. That's it. The more valuable the problem, the more money the business makes. When they stop solving problems they go out of business.
That means your real job isn't what you're asked to do by your boss. Your real job is to solve problems.
How to create career success.
When you solve a problem you create an Original Contribution. People often think their Original Contribution has to be something big.
It doesn't have to be big. There are probably dozens of small Original Contributions staring you in the face right now. Here's an example.
Say you're an ideal employee. You're a team player, with a positive attitude and your co-workers love you. Yet, you're struggling to reach your career goals. In order to advance your career you decide to solve a problem and create an Original Contribution. You look at your current job, where you're doing in-home therapy and you notice that your co-workers have trouble getting enough referrals.
You spend a few months figuring out the problem, develop a process for reliably getting your team referrals, and devise a way to teach that process to your coworkers.
Congratulations, you now have an Original Contribution! You've now secured your career.
Because you've mastered the referral process its really hard for your boss to justify firing you because "they're paying you too much" or because of "routine restructurings."
And here's where things get interesting. Each Original Contribution you make is like a thread in a spider web. Over time the more Original Contributions you make the bigger and stickier your web becomes, making it easier and easier to catch opportunities.
For instance, after stream-lining the referral process maybe you get asked to share your process with another team in your agency. You caught an opportunity! So you work with your coworkers, adapt your process to their context, and suddenly they have referrals streaming in. By adapting your process you've created another Original Contribution and added another thread to your web. Then, after a few months, you randomly get an email. A local private practice owner knows one of your coworkers, and heard about your referral process. She's wondering if you'll consult with her so she can get more clients. Congratulations! Your web is small, but it's caught another opportunity.
Maybe you walk the private practice through your referral process and learn a few things along the way. Voila! That's another Original Contribution. Now you have another thread in your web, you can work with private practice settings.
Each opportunity adds to your web, making it easier to catch more opportunities. Each time you solve a problem, you create an Original Contribution and expand your skill set which makes you more valuable in the job market.
Even the best career advice comes with nuance.
This is the best career advice I can give. And while I'm certain it works in nearly any field, it's not a magic bullet and must be applied with nuance.
First, you can't predict what the opportunities will be or when they will come.
You never know what or when your Opportunity Web will catch something.
In the above example you could have ended up giving CE trainings, or maybe getting asked to teach the professional development course at your local university, or something else entirely. You can't predict it. The uncertainty can feel unsafe.
Just remember that if you keep building the web it will catch something. Keep adding strands to your web and you'll be okay. Eventually.
Second, you have to publicize your contributions.
For me advertising and talking about my work feels kinda sleezy.
But the truth is you can have the cure for cancer, and if no one knows about it, it doesn't matter. You've got to work in public or at least show off your work. That's part of why I blog, it's a way for me to show my work in public.
Finally, you have to create something people have to have.
When I was a new therapist I created a three hour marriage enrichment class and no one showed up. I got all mad and my feelings were hurt, but the reality was, no matter how good the material was (honestly it wasn't very good), it didn't matter. No one wanted to hear me talk about marriage for three hours, and more importantly, no one had to have me teach them about marriages.
Now when I mentor new therapists on how to give trainings, I start them out on a suicide assessment training. Every therapist wants to know how to assess for suicide and they have to have CEs. One of my mentees actually took this to the next level. He's designing his suicide assessment training to also be an ethics training. Not only do people want good suicide assessment training, but people have to have CEs and they have to have ethics.
The same goes for building a private practice caseload.
If you were going to start a private practice and wanted to get referrals, I'd recommend you meet with school counselors and tell them you work with kids. Schools have to make referrals and parents want their kids to behave. Both have to have the kid enrolled in therapy.
This isn't really about having your "dream job."
What is this really about?
Filter everything through this lens.
Typical career advice might speak to self development or the importance of working hard, or your ability to receive constructive feedback.
And I think all of those things are very important. But one of the mistakes I've made again and again is following typical career advice without understanding the core function of any business.
The core function of any business is to solve a problem. You have to remember that. Which means the more you can solve a problem you more you'll be valued in the job market.
Once you understand this, everything gets filtered through this lens. And the more you do this the more leverage you will have in your career.
And that's why my best advice to you is to create as many Original Contributions as you can. The more Original Contributions you have the more you're reach your career goals and the more control you'll have over your career path.
This is about how you secure your future.
The future is uncertain and I want you to be able to provide for yourself and your family. This advice, I believe, works if you're an entrepreneur or a salary employee.
The dynamics are the same.
People pay you for solving problems. Each time you solve a problem you create an Original Contribution. The more Original Contributions the bigger your Opportunity Web, and the easier it will be to get make money.
The world will always need problem solvers. Which means, as chaotic as the world becomes, you'll be able to provide for yourself.
As I was writing this post, I learned that my friend was actively creating an Original Contribution right now. I couldn't help but interview him and get his perspective. I think you'll enjoy the interview as much as I did.