Sunday Sitdown on career advice, change, with authors Gail Meneley, Dev Mukherjee

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Dissatisfied with your job but at a loss about your options? Feeling stuck because you think you couldn’t change gears and risk being able to pay the mortgage, the kids’ education and keep up the good life? Gail Meneley, a career coach and co-founder and principal of the Chicago firm Shields Meneley Partners, and Dev Mukherjee — former chief executive of Evite, the online invitations company, as well as former president of Sears’ home appliances division — spoke with reporter Sandra Guy about making professional transformations. A condensed transcript follows.

Question: You and an executive you coached, Dev Mukherjee, have co-edited a book, “Know How: Experience, Expertise, Execution,” that offers a peek into the lives of 30 business leaders who detail personal and professional challenges and transformations — everything from coping with a life-threatening health crisis to changing their lifestyles to remain in their children’s lives after a divorce. What never ceases to surprise you?

Gail Meneley: People assume CEOs and other executives get good counsel. But we have learned that they rarely have anyone to talk to about their real concerns. They are afraid to show they don’t have all the answers — and almost never have had discussions with anyone about what they like and dislike and what they’re good at and where they need help.

Generally, careers are shaped by money or promotions. So I ask, “When you were young, what did you want to do?”

Then, I ask, “When was the last time you were happy doing what you are doing?”

It’s the question that I find most poignant because, after I ask it, it’s like watching a video as the executives’ facial expressions turn from startled to genuinely puzzled as they try to recall the last time they were happy.

Q: Dev, you sought advice from Shields Meneley after having led Evite and finishing a tenure as the longest-serving senior executive in recent history working for Sears chairman and majority shareholder Edward S. Lampert., from 2007 to 2012. What have you learned?

Mukherjee: That I have many more options and more people interested than I had assumed — not just in my skills but my experience and applying the experience to other areas. I am teaching as an adjunct professor at DePaul; I am advising Label Insight, a startup in food and nutrition big-data analytics, and providing guidance to a bunch of startups. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had.

Q: What are some recommendations that benefit people in any workplace?

Meneley: I’d start with the chapters “Becoming the best” by Harry Kraemer, former CEO of Baxter International, and “What investors look for” by David Coolidge, vice chairman of William Blair, who spent 40 years in investment banking and details how to put together a business plan and a deal thesis to take to an investor. Another important chapter is about the consequences of making decisions when you let your professional and personal lives get out of balance. In this case, it cost Karl Kramer his marriage, and he knows it. Karl is now CEO and president of Whitehall Specialties, has remarried, has a young son and is living his life very differently. As a young professional, he went out several nights a week with clients and wasn’t spending time with his family. Karl reminds us that we can’t have it all — and certainly can’t have it all at the same time.

Q: How can what you found benefit entrepreneurs and MBA students?

Mukherjee: A lot of the questions they have revolve around people. How do we work with people? Identify good people? Turn the people we have into great people? Get teams to work together? How do I lead as a new CEO? The section around unleashing potential talks about, wherever you are, how to embrace change and really think about being relevant to customers or to a business culture.

Meneley: Careers take circuitous paths. What we think we are going to do rarely turns out to be our path. We must remain open to the possibilities a new role presents.

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