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Creating career choices: advice from an MT turned entrepreneur.

Creating career choices: Advice from an MT turned entrepreneur

Valerie Skonie has been helping medical technologists clarify their career goals for some time now. Since 1981, she has taught a workshop on "Career Development for Health Care Professionals" along with career consultant Ayn Decker.

Guiding medical technologists to become independent contractors and take charge of their professional lives is part of her work at Skonie Marketing Associates in San Francisco, Calif. (see "The Medical Technologist as Entrepreneur," MLO, November 1985). The firm specializes in assisting diagnostics manufacturers through the use of health care professionals who work on a contract basis, providing such services as end-user training and technical support.

Skonie's career path has taken her from medical technologist to laboratory administrator to sales representative to product manager for health care equipment manufacturers, and finally to founding and running her own business. Along the way, she has developed useful and often unconventional ideas about how technologists can make their professional lives more meaningful and satisfying.

MLO recently interviewed Skonie to find out more about these ideas in light of the ongoing restructuring of the health care delivery system. Here are the highlights of that interview.

MLO: What impact have changes in health care had on the medical technologist's job situation?

Skonie: The lab will never be the same as it was before DRGs. Nor will the hospital. But remember, the entire world is changing--and at a dazzling speed. What concerns me is the attitude of disappointment that surrounds the changes in health care. There seems to be a period of disorientation when a long-comfortable situation is suddenly altered. This can be distressing, even frightening. Our jobs, our security, our sense of stability are threatened.

Job-related stress, burnout, and frustration aren't new. But the coming of DRGs has intensified these problems for health care professionals. And this has led many health care professionals to resist the changes in their work lives--to view them as complete and dismal disasters. I believe the symptoms of stress that we are experiencing are a very positive signal. They are a warning to look carefully within ourselves and to plan how we will define our professional lives one, two, and five years from now.

MLO: How can medical technologists plan for the future when they don't know what it holds?

Skonie: A good way to begin is to find out more about who you are and let your future grow out of that. Self-awareness is the single most powerful answer to burnout.

During my five years of teaching the career development workshop, I have watched hundreds of medical technologists become more aware of their personal skills and values--and at the same time recognize the real choices they can make in their working lives. Knowing we have these choices allows us to become more powerful in dealing with what seems to be a dismal situation.

MLO: What motivated you to start that workshop?

Skonie: That's an interesting story. In 1980, an article about my business appeared in one of the trade journals. As a result, hundreds of medical technologists sent me resumes, or what they thought were resumes. Most were really just lists, historical logs, curriculum vitae, or notes scrawled on a piece of scratch paper. What I saw was great numbers of people who wanted to make a change in career direction and who had no idea how to go about it in a professional manner.

At that time, medical technologists were still used to going from one hospital to another, filling out an application, and getting a job. There was a real demand for their skills in the 70s, so they felt no pressure to learn about resumes or how they could best reach the organization they were interested in working with. I thought somebody should do this, and that is how I became committed to giving the workshop.

Ayn Decker joined me in developing the workshop when we roomed together at the Tarrytown (N.Y.) School for Entrepreneurs. Ayn is a career consultant, and we combined resources--her consulting experience, my background as a health care professional, and a mutual desire to reach people. We presented the first workshop in 1981 at a meeting of the California Society for Medical Technology. Word of mouth quickly created demand for the program.

MLO: What about those resumes that started it all? If most of them weren't true resumes, then what is?

Skonie: Most people regard a resume as a record of their work life. I believe it can be a place to consolidate your own understanding of your skills and how you want to use them. It's a way to put into writing all the things that have meaning in your professional life. It's an instrument that helps you create choices.

Most people seriously underestimate the value of a resume--both to the potential employer who will read it and, more important, to themselves. Preparing or updating a resume may seem a fairly mechanical job in their eyes, something that requires a couple of hours at a typewriter. As a result, they tend to sell themselves short.

What I call the "new resume" is more like a map than a historical log. It is a chance to look at all the things you've done in a different way. It's a chance to find out who you are and where the threads of your life are leading.

I recently experienced the power of this type of document when I rewrote my own resume to apply for a bank loan. It turned out to be totally different from the last one I had written. Looking at my experience from a new angle, I recognized the element of risk-taking in all of my previous positions. As a lab administrator in San Francisco in the mid-60s, for instance, I organized all the other lab administrators in the city to head off an impending strike and bargain with hospital management without the help of a union. We wrote job descriptions for medical technologists and used them as a basis for salary negotiation. Very few others had done that before.

In writing this resume for the bank, I began to realize there was a thread through my life--a willingness to take risks and a desire to do things differently from the way they had been done in the past. This insight changed the whole character of my resume. I was able to show the bank that I was a risk-taker and could produce results. Even more important was how powerful it made me feel to say so. Although it was all true, I had never described myself that way before.

MLO: So a resume written five years ago needs more than just an extra paragraph describing what has happened since.

Skonie: Right. It should allow you to see the pattern or deep structure that emerges from the list of experiences people call a resume. It's something that lets you see not just what you've done but why you've done it.

As a pattern becomes clearer, you can start projecting where you're going. You can almost see the trend, see what the next logical step might be. You may find out you can do something totally different with your experience. You may also find out that your skills and competencies are a lot more solid than you thought.

MLO: What does it take to come up with a document that does all this wonderful stuff?

Skonie: It requires at least two full days of committed work on yourself. It's difficult to hire someone to do this kind of very personal and probing self-assessment for you. Of course, it's all right to seek help in putting the information into the proper form after you've done the real work.

MLO: Can you give us some idea of what this work involves?

Skonie: It's helpful to begin the process by doing some physical and mental exercises that activate the right brain--the more creative, receptive, feeling side of the brain. The exercises we use in our workshop work best in the context of a support group, or at least with one other person. The feedback reverberates and lets you see things you might miss on your own. Here's a sampling of the questions we work with:

"What is your favorite animal and why?" Personally, I'm fond of kangaroos. They make me laugh in a special way that just feels good. They carry their babies in their pocket, constantly nurturing them. And, though they appear to be rather docile, they are enormously powerful! All of these qualities tell me something about myself, about my sense of humor, about my nurturing side, and about my sense of power.

"If you could invite someone to dinner whose work you admire--anyone in the world, living or dead--who would it be? Why?" This question gets you thinking about the qualities you admire in the world and the kind of work you consider worthwhile on a global scale. One participant wanted to invite Albert Einstein because he was both a scientist and a philosopher. Others mentioned Eleanor Roosevelt and Albert Schweitzer.

Other questions move from fantasy toward a more positive side of personal reality:

"What kind of award would make you really proud?" This question leads people to think about their unactualized potential--something they may be secretly working on but haven't yet accomplished.

"What do you enjoy about your current job?" This can turn around the negative thinking that makes people forget the pleasant part of what they do. There are other exercises, but this gives you a feeling for the process.

MLO: Why is a support group so important?

Skonie: The insights and objective viewpoints of others can help you discover qualities you have overlooked. They can define your qualities from a new point of view. Essentially, they help you see there are choices about how you think of yourself. For example, you may consider yourself an unstable job-hopper, but someone else may see you as a flexible jack-of-all-trades. Once you view your traits in a more positive light, you can start to look for an organization that needs what you have.

A mentor serves a similar function. Mine is the man who hired me into my first job in industry. And he still helps me see things about myself that I've forgotten.

There are people in labs right now who are embarrassed because they've been in the same place for 14 years; others worry because they change jobs every two years. Employers somewhere want each of them. Someone is also after a person with a track record just like yours. It's all a matter of looking carefully at yourself, then looking at the kind of spirit and qualities of the hospitals or organizations where you might work.

MLO: What qualities and spirit does someone look for in a potential job or employer?

Skonie: It always goes back to your own personal values. A value is something that is intrinsically desirable from a personal point of view. It cannot be readily changed or "trained" out of you. Thus it's critical that your work support your values. For example, if family is important to you, if you need to get home at night for that reason, you don't want a job that requires extensive travel.

At the workshop, we ask participants to sort through and prioritize a set of cards (prepared by Career Research & Testing of San Jose, Figure I). Each card lists and defines a key value--security, independence, adventure, creativity, and so on. Participants sort the cards into five categories: always valued, often valued, sometimes valued, seldom valued, and never valued. The next step is to prioritize the "always valued" to determine each person's top eight values.

This exercise forces us to look at what's really important and to make some decisions in the prioritization process. Money may seem really important, but it often ends up way down the list when ranked against the other values.

A final, critical question: How many of these top eight values are already being met or have the potential to be met in your current job? If most are, you might have to take a new look at what you're doing. Maybe you've turned a minor irritant into a major issue. Maybe it's time to change the way you approach your work. You don't necessarily have to switch jobs to achieve job satisfaction.

MLO: You're talking about a pretty assertive attitude toward one's job. Does this come easily to medical technologists?

Skonie: Unfortunately, it often doesn't. Like most other health care professionals, technologists often don't recognize the multifaceted nature of the career they have chosen and how many transferrable skills they actually have.

During the workshop's extensive session on skills identification, we use a list of "power verbs" (Figure II). These enable participants to begin to describe themselves and the things they do in new terms. Medical technologists tend to say, "I run chemistry procedures" or "I do blood counts." It would be more in line with their responsibilities to say, "I analyze blood, evaluate results, and make recommendations for further testing."

Changing the way we talk and think about ourselves makes us begin to recognize the real power of what we do. And, of course, these are the kinds of terms that are eventually used in the resume. Power verbs of this sort also make it easier to understand that our skills cross over into other professions.

MLO: Do most technologists who attend the workshop want to get out of the lab?

Skonie: Many think that's what they want, but my impression is that about half end up recognizing that the laboratory is actually a good place for them to be. This process does not always lead to a change in the career path. The goal is to create choice, to see options. Some do change their career direction, but others choose to stay where they are and to work toward changing their attitude or their environment.

MLO: What types of changes have technologists made after attending your workshop?

Skonie: A number have gone into training and technical support, working for manufacturers of health care products. Others stay within the health care delivery system but move to a different job or function. One technologist decided she wanted to be a lab administrator. By the time she had finished the in-depth self-evaluation, she not only knew what she wanted to be but also what kind of lab she wanted to be in. She went out and found that lab and got the job!

MLO: What about staying in your job and changing the situation?

Skonie: This is one of the most creative and interesting options. It's much easier than people think. A cardiopulmonary technologist I know works in a hospital for terminally ill patients. Like other health care professionals, she is affected by the current financial crunch, and it's changing the way she relates to patients. She's not getting the kind of satisfaction she used to get from her job.

She sees a real need for this hospital to offer special support to the families of its patients. She isn't the type to silently condemn the hospital for not providing this service, nor is she willing to make the request and leave it in the hands of the administrative bureaucracy. The hospital does have a lounge available for families, but it is a dingy cubbyhole. What if she offers to repaint and decorate that room? And volunteers to act as a hostess, serving coffee or tea?

If this modest approach succeeds, the hospital might begin to see what she sees now--the need to offer support and care to patients' families. Maybe the administration will see that it needs a bigger room. The hospital might even eventually pay her for her efforts. Meanwhile, she will have done something very tangible to increase her personal satisfaction and accomplish something meaningful in the process.

There are many opportunities within hospitals or labs to make changes, to do things in different ways. And these efforts don't have to be highly charged with expensive technology.

MLO: You've talked about preparing a new kind of resume, answering fantasy questions, prioritizing values, and identifying skills. Is there some way to pull all of this together? Or does it just seem to fall into place as you do it?

Skonie: It does begin to fall into place as people move through the process, but we do use one final step in the workshop to consolidate the one or two days of work into a single experiential whole. This method is called guided visualization, and participants find it amazingly powerful. They report that it gives them a heightened awareness and confidence in the possibility of accomplishing their goals. Some simply say that they don't know what it is, but they somehow feel more powerful and things just start to happen.

I believe that if you want to know more about your future, you have to live in it. Visualize it. Get really involved in the details of what it looks like. See yourself doing what you want to do. It's called daydreaming by some, meditating by others. Spending just 10 minutes a day imagining yourself actually doing what you want to do can have surprising effects. Right before you go to sleep or just when you wake up are good times for this. The important thing about visualization is to involve all the senses: You not only see what you want, you also smell it, taste it, and feel it.

MLO: What about the practical side of all this? What happens when it's time to translate your dreams into reality? When you have to look for a job?

Skonie: I've stressed the creative imaginative process because that's what people tend to underestimate, but that's not the whole picture, of course. Using fantasy and visualization techniques to invent and consolidate your goals is a kind of "homework" for the practical action steps.

Suppose you've identified yourself as entrepreneurial. Rather than take a job with someone else, you've decided to create your own business--say a "visiting phlebotomist" service similar to the visiting nurses. By the way, this may not be a bad idea. Inpatients are being discharged sooner, and the demand for home care services, including drawing blood for lab testing, is on the rise.

What steps are necessary to translate the idea into actual practice? Who is your customer? The physician, the hospital, or the patient? How are you going to present yourself? Do you need money to fund the endeavor? Where will you get it? What is the background of the individuals who are going to work for you? Are you going to be involved in the work, or are you just going to be a manager? What about insurance? How are you going to advertise? What about competition?

Once you have defined your objectives, eliminate distractions. For some period of time, this project has to be your obsession.

Job-hunting demands the same kind of commitment--a step-by-step consideration of all the components that go into getting the work you want. Like writing a resume, job hunting isn't mechanical or boring if you know what you're after. It includes developing the resume, composing cover letters, researching prospective employers, formulating interview strategies (all the way down to what you'll wear), networking or building up contacts at professional and social gatherings, and following up after interviews.

MLO: You've talked about so many different exercises, attitudes, and techniques. If you had to sum up your advice in a nutshell, what would you say?

Skonie: You need to call on all your resources to create the professional life you really want. It's a balancing act that moves back and forth from imagination and invention to practical logical action. One feeds the other. I recently pulled together a kind of "to do" list of key steps toward clarifying and accomplishing goals:

* If you want to know what's going to happen next, make it up. Invent it. Create your own future.

* Spend time in the future. Live in your vision.

* Form support teams, find a mentor, and start networking.

* Become intensely focused and knowledgeable--first about yourself and later about prospective employers.

* Eliminate distractions. Become obsessed.

* Have patience and confidence in your vision.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:medical technologist
Author:Jenna, Judith
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jun 1, 1986
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