You Have to Have Been There


The other night I was having a discussion with my 17-year-old son about one of his activities.  He used to be a leader in the group, and has now moved on to other things.  I mentioned some issues that occurred at a recent meeting, and how the current leader seemed to be having some trouble getting people to listen.  My son’s comment was “That sounds about right.  They don’t listen to you when you’re in charge, they listen to the people who used to be in charge.”

As I thought about his comment, I realized I’ve said exactly the same thing about several groups with which I’ve been involved.  While the current president or chair may run the meetings and be up front, the group turns to previous leaders for advice on what should be done, and how things should be implemented.

This does make sense.  While the current leaders is the one up front, giving directions, the ones who really understand what’s going on are those who have already been through the whole process.  We want advice and information from the person who has been there, done that, and brought it to a successful conclusion.  The person who is in the middle of the job may be in charge now, but they obviously don’t know as much as someone who’s been through the whole thing.

If you think about most major life events, you will realize this is true of almost everything.  You may have done some research, and thought you knew what you were getting into, but the reality of living through it is usually quite different from what you thought you were prepared for.  Getting married, having kids, a home repair project, traveling in another country, managing other people… all turn out to be much more complicated than they appear before you’ve experienced them.  Once you’ve been through it once, you understand the issues involved, and are much better prepared for the second round of the same responsibility.

Employers are people too.  When looking for someone to do things for them, they want someone who has been through the process.  They want to know what you have successfully accomplished, what you’ve already done.  They don’t want to know what you think you can do, or are willing to do.  They want proof that you can do that type of work, because you have already done it in another context.

You need to keep this in mind when talking to potential employers (which really means talking to anyone, because you never know where the information will end up).  When asked what you do, provide a couple of recent accomplishments, instead of a job title or a list of “responsible for”s. Talk about what you have done, not what you might do.  It will make you sound more qualified, because you are talking about successful past accomplishments.  It will also make you appear more engaged and active – you actually did something, rather than just watching others do it.

So give it some thought – what are your most significant accomplishments?  What have you successfully done, that would be of interest to a potential employer?  Can you quantify your accomplishment?  Present yourself as someone who has done things, and is therefore highly qualified to do similar things in the future.  Then you will be one of those “been there, done that” former leaders to whom others will come for advice and ideas – and to whom they will bring opportunities.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press.

One Response to You Have to Have Been There

  1. Bryan Balazs says:

    Lisa, you raise some good points, and I would add that leadership (whether for a potential employer or within a group such as an ACS committee) is also a quality that is sought after. The ability to define a vision of what you intend to offer the company, or the group you’re in charge of, is also important. As you’ve pointed out, people often turn to those with past experience, but this may also be because the current leaders are not defining a realistic vision that the group’s members are buying into.

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