Dear J.T. & Dale: I was laid off recently after almost 20 years as a project manager. I'm not sure how to answer the question about what my career goals are. I'm at a point in life where I just want a job to carry me to retirement. I've already been on the corporate ladder, trying to reach the top, and it's too stressful. Plus, I'm a single mother with an elderly mother to take care of, so I already have two ladders I'm climbing. - Victoria
Dale: Your message reveals an underlying assumption about corporations: Only eager ladder-climbers need apply. Sure, some managers seek out ambitious employees, but not all, and maybe not most. In fact, one consultant whose company helps its clients hire star employees tells of the time when the head of HR at one major retail chain confessed to him that she did NOT want stars, saying they were too much trouble, and instead preferred steady, solid, ordinary workers.
J.T.: OK, but let's not make a case for mediocrity. Seasoned professionals like you, Victoria, often reach a point where they realize they don't want to be the manager; but that doesn't mean they don't want to leverage their knowledge. Explain to interviewers that your goal is to be a true team player, one who enjoys helping the people around her succeed. Dale wrote a book on the subject, Better Than Perfect, which describes how employees become the colleague everybody wants to work with.
Dale: What great colleagues have in common is that they are eager to teach while also remaining eager to learn. They are ambitious, yes, but for the department or the company, not for themselves.
J.T.: I know a woman who at 68 years of age is one of those beloved colleagues. Back in her 50s, she too felt she needed to sell employers on the idea that she would be a great ladder-climbing manager. She accepted a management position ... and was miserable. So, she approached the company and said: I want to be the person who helps the young people around me grow and take on more leadership. I want to share my experience but let them have the opportunity to move forward. She now loves her work and has been told repeatedly that she has a job for as long as she wants one. So don't shy away from what you want; just learn how to sell it to employers, and you'll find buyers.