AGEIST Thought Leader Interview: David Cooley, Career Coach at UCLA Anderson School of Management and business owner, David E. Cooley Career and Executive Coaching
David Cooley, 52, is a boots-on-the-ground expert at how the concepts of work and retirement have changed radically in the last few years. The outdated idea of a lifetime of singular employment followed by retirement is being replaced by a lifelong series of career and business pivots. This fact, combined with a tremendously increased functional lifespan, make for a radically changed work environment.
Since all businesses and careers are now in some way digital, and since so much staying on top of the ever-evolving digital profession is really about changing one’s mindset, we thought it was a good time to speak with someone whose job it is to help people navigate this new reality.
What is your job? Who do you work with and how do you help them?
I work with alumni of all ages and life stages once they have earned their MBA, helping them in the next stage of their careers. I also own a private career and executive coaching practice where I coach a limited number of non-UCLA Anderson clients— executives from a large number of industries, including law, health care, technology, finance and entertainment. I occasionally coach ambitious and promising younger clients. In all cases, I work with any ambitious person that’s at a crossroads in their career—at a significant inflection point.
Much of what I do involves a diagnostic element: working with clients to adapt and change their mindsets and limiting beliefs, and helping them understand how to translate and articulate their marketable skills and experience and help them to create and execute a successful tactical plan. The executive coaching work is focused on leadership development work inside corporations, helping executives become more effective leaders.
You write about Age Defeatism—what do you mean by that?
Age Defeatism is a life stage where one is convinced—often incorrectly—that their skillset is too dated, and that they have low probability of working or contributing again because of their age. They are convinced (by what they’ve read or heard) that their best days are behind them. Someone with age defeatism is convinced that every company only wants to hire millennials, and won’t hire anyone else. Quite often, this is a mindset issue, not necessarily a skill issue. For those of us that are over 50, it’s important to there are now many easy, cost-effective ways modernize your skillset—and modernize and translate your entire career narrative—that were not available even 5 years ago.
What do you say to someone, who feels they are not supposed to be there, interviewing and wanting a job?
Often, the people that I work with are stalled in their careers in some way, as they don’t completely understand all of the effort, outreach and nuanced communication that goes into the career search and career development process, regardless of your age. They often don’t know that they have a certain amount of influence in the process and can likely improve their ability to be hired by making changes to their approach and communication style. I also come across many Baby Boomers and even Gen Xers that have an outdated view of career progression. They’re looking at old employment models – such as defining success as working for the same company for decades. But all industries have changed rapidly because of the digital revolution, and lifetime employment is not only not guaranteed, it is actually rare now. But this isn’t something to be scared of. Knowing how to adapt is something that people of all ages can learn much more easily than they imagine. Changing their mindset is the first order of business, the rest of the process will fall into place after this.
Could you imagine a time where an MBA grad, from say 2005, comes to your office every 4 or 5 years for a career pivot up though their 70s and 80s?
That’s already happening at UCLA Anderson, and it has already changed the workforce. Before I was in this role, I was a career coach for the current students in the school’s full-time MBA program. Now that I’m working in this role with the alumni population, I’m working with many of the alumni that I worked with as MBA students 8-10 years ago. As they’re ambitious and talented, they want to be on the top of their game as their careers progress – and they’re working hard to stay competitive while the job market changes, along with their own life, career and family needs changing at the same time. It’s the same situation at my private practice – I have many personal clients that return after a few years to refresh their skillset and get back to a create a new mindset to find new opportunities as their lives and needs change – or they return to figure out a plan on how to get to the next level in their careers.
What do you tell people to focus on in order to stay on top of their digital game?
As I mentioned a bit earlier, there are many ways to modernize your skillset now – including the online courses LinkedIn-owned Lynda.com as well as websites like Coursera, Khan Academy, edX, Udacity, Udemy, General Assembly – there are many, many more sites like these. The classes that are available are both technical and non-technical, from basic to advanced level on a seemingly endless number of career topics and skill-building course. Some courses are free, some are inexpensive and some are rather expensive but well worth the investment if one wants their skill set to become more marketable and relevant in this constantly changing job market.
What are the apps, sites and digital appliances that you personally use to stay on top of the game?
Like many people of all generations, I use a wide variety of digital appliances—including iPhones, iPads and many other devices. But something that’s even more important is to follow websites that list and report on new and emerging businesses that are currently in different rounds of funding. If you skim over these sites weekly, you’ll have a pretty strong understanding of where all industries are going now that technology, big data and innovation are fueling the growth of every industry that we know of. I review Angel List (https://angel.co/) which focuses on start-ups, and covers all major job markets, as well as the LA-focused Built in LA (http://www.builtinla.com/) and Venture Loop (http://www.ventureloop.com/) and read business publications every day.
Tell me about the re-entry proposition: Someone who has been out of the workforce, maybe raising a family. Do you approach them the same as someone changing industries?
We have done workshops on this subject and are currently working on creating new Re-Entry programs at UCLA Anderson. This has been a challenging topic at all business schools – as no matter how much someone works on marketing their background and works at moving through the career search process, it’s very difficult for any man or woman to re-enter the workforce after an extended absence. It’s difficult, but far from impossible. It’s much more difficult than changing industries, which often involves the translation of your experience in one industry to success in a new industry. Again, one’s positive mindset and willingness to learn, adapt and meet with people will improve one’s success rate significantly.
With regular pivots, would you see re-entry as a constant ongoing way of life?
Pivoting—the ability to successful navigate career and life changes—will be an ongoing way of life as every single industry has been disrupted and completely changed by big data and the digital revolution. Former Google Career Coach Jenny Blake discusses this in great depth in her new book, appropriately titled Pivot. Because people are now moving from job to job much more often than in the past, having the re-entry mindset (which includes a lot of individual outreach and self-reflection) will be critical, whether someone has taken time off to raise children, was caring for an elderly parents, lost a job or has taken time to make a major switch of industry or function. Baby Boomers—and people of all ages–need to be more nimble and adaptable when it comes to employment going forward.
The multiple career path seems like common sense to most younger people, and to most of the AGEIST gang. How do you approach someone who doesn’t yet see that?
Based on the career coaching clients, MBA students and alumni that I have worked with, many people understand the concept of pivoting but they still aren’t actually adapting to the idea of multiple career paths. Most people are inherently afraid of change, so that fear results in avoidance—and this avoidance stalls careers or ends them. I work with people to really understand their marketable skill set, to figure out their needs, goals and realistic options, and partner with them as a career coach to find and secure new career opportunities.
It is said that people today need a personal brand. This is a difficult idea to some people, as it fundamentally relates to their personal story and how they tell it, versus just a historical record of accomplishment.
When you think about it, those that we meet are always asking us to define ourselves by asking us: “What do you do for a living?” or a variation on that question. While some people in my field refer to the answer to this question as an “elevator pitch,” I call it a career narrative, because your answer—your story—has to be a concise, compelling and to-the-point story. And it must be interesting, relevant, informative and engaging. If you are older, you will need to compress years and even decades into several seconds when it comes to telling your career story. Our career narratives mostly focus on our historical record of achievement, but also integrate personal attributes in a subtle way. It takes quite a bit of thought—and considerable practice and effort to create a career narrative that demonstrates your personal and professional brand in a meaningful way in a professional context. I spend quite a bit of time working with UCLA Anderson alumni and my private career coaching clients on updating, upgrading and defining their career narratives as the answer has to be strong, interesting and seem unrehearsed. The career narrative is one of the more important parts of the career management process.
What are the commonalities you see between the successful younger people and the more experienced ones? Would a flexible openness be one of these traits?
Flexible openness is a great way to describe it. The greatest commonalities between successful younger and more experienced people that I have works with comes down to mindset again. I’ve continually seen that those who have a positive, growth-focused mindset and show enthusiasm for learning new business concepts will always be successful. Those that are mired in the past—from Millennials to Baby Boomers and beyond—will always have fewer options. For those that focus on “The Good Old Days” I like to ask them “Who gets value from you acting and thinking like an old person?” and “We can learn valuable lessons from the past, but why stay in the past endlessly? What’s the advantage to living in the past or living forever in a memory?” I’ve always believed in this simple line that has been attributed to Victorian writer George Elliot (the pen name for Mary Ann Evans):“It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” That’s why I love reading the profiles in AGEIST. These great people that AGEIST features are living proof that your best days will be in front of you -- especially if you change the way you fundamentally look at your great life and your career.
We must remember: we’re all just getting going….