Career Planning: Make Way

Victoria Wurdinger | March 7, 2016 | 1:45 AM
Hair: Sam McKnight for L’Oréal Professionnel; Color: Frédéric Mennetrier; Illustrations: Katie Kick
Photo By Nico Bustos Photo 1 of 3
(Left) Hair: Chrystofer Benson, Assistant: Amanda Epstein' Photography: Robert Ligresti (Right) Hair: KMS California Global Style Council Photography: Nick Dorey; Makeup: Lucy Burt; Fashion styling: Julia Sarr-Jamois
Photo By Nick Dorey Photo 2 of 3
Hair: Chrystofer Benson; Assistant: Amanda Epstein; Makeup: David Maderich for Face Atelier Cosmetics; Fashion styling: Nikko Kefalas
Photo By Roberto Ligresti Photo 3 of 3

Sketching out your career path well before you have your license in hand sets you up for success and eases job-hunt-induced-panic.

When Michelle McKinney was in cosmetology school, she concentrated on studying for tests, creating a portfolio and doing her best on the floor.

“After graduation, I hand-delivered my resume to the top salons in the area,” McKinney says. The December 2015 graduate says that was a big mistake.

“Salon owners don’t care if you graduated at the top or won every contest,” she says. “They hire for who you are, assuming they will retrain you. Start reaching out to salons while you are a student. Schedule an appointment, project your best image and know your community. Until I started looking for employment, I didn’t know 90 percent of salons in my area were chair rental!”

McKinney was hired at Beaux Cheveux salon in St. Joseph, Michigan, within a few weeks of her graduation, but her path is fairly typical: Go to school with the intent of getting a salon job, graduate, and then look for one. There is a better way to get the career you want, and it all starts with goal-setting.


Setting goals doesn’t have to be tedious. Although many students set technical goals, such as learning balayage, mastering curly cuts and more, planning a career path starts with a dream. Ali Davidson is the director of membership for Associated Hair Professionals, which helps students plan and accomplish goals via resume and cover-letter templates, goal-setting and tracking forms, a MODERN SALON magazine subscription—and more once they become working stylists. She says you should start by daydreaming about your Big Audacious Goal—your B.A.G.

“This isn’t your schlep bag; it’s your Gucci or Prada bag that you’ve dreamed of ever since you saw it,” Davidson says. “Even if your dream sounds far-fetched, it’s important to define it. Describe in great detail what defines your B.A.G. and what attributes, training and experience those living that dream might have. Where might they have started their careers? Start there. Gain that experience. Hone those qualities.”

Rachel Bettis, an Ulta Beauty artistic team member, says a self-assessment is a great starting point for figuring out your goals.

"Sometimes stylists might not know what they want to do with their careers because they haven't discovered all the opportunities out there or what skill sets are needed to take advantage of them," she says. "A few great ways to learn about opportunities in the industry include shadowing a trainer or educator, setting up an appointment to interview a stylist or a salon owner, or visiting salons in different areas."

Once you have an idea of the many opportunities, define your dream job, do a quick self-assessment and write everything down. What are your likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses and passions? What did you like and dislike about previous jobs? How do you define success? Compare you self-assessment to your Big Audacious Goal. What do you have now and what do you still need to achieve your B.A.G.?

Next, do the same with short-term goals, both technical and soft, explains Chris Sulimay, Keune’s academy and technical director.

"Naturally, you need technical skills, but you also have to be able to grow a clientele," Sulimay says. "To succeed at the people side of the business, focus on getting clients to return, asking friends to refer you and booking the next appointment before the client leaves. Do all three in the school clinic, make them goals, and you'll be on your way to succeeding at any long-term goal."

Steve Bobian, who worked in the fitness industry for 11 years before attending beauty school, says he understands the importance of goal setting—and of creating a timeline. While still in school, he allowed a year to perfect balayage, which was not taught in his school, by practicing on a mannequin and trying different techniques.

“I watched Guy Tang YouTube videos, practiced through trial-and-error and ultimately let my brain dictate my approach,” says Bobian, who shortly after his December 2015 graduation became an assistant at Grand Salon in Denver. “I believe short-term goals are really baby steps toward long-term goals. When the long-term goal is not achieved, revisit the short-term goals to get back on track.”


Once you've set goals, how do you achieve them? Create a simple to-do list that's really a step-by-step action plan of activities. For instance, to get a job, you might want to create a resume and a portfolio first. Then, research online to find salons that focus on the specialty you are interested in, make a list and call at least one a week (remember that timeline), asking to stop in, introduce yourself and chat with the manager.

If, like most students, your primary immediate goal is to get a job in a great salon, start by defining one. Joanne Powers founded Shear Art Salon & Spa in Tampa, Florida, and is also CEO of Summit Salon Academy in the same city. There are two Shear Art locations, and she also acts as treasurer of Mens-Department Barbershop in nearby Largo. To help her students decide among her own locations—or others—she says her academy provides monthly coaching to help determine if they want to work in a small, medium or large salon, or an independent or corporate one.

“Develop a strong plan in school, then look for a salon that provides an associate program and some kind of level system for future growth,” Powers says. “To focus on a specific direction, take every opportunity to explore that direction, make mistakes and learn from every aspect of your education. Find what inspires you, and take time to think about your future career.”

Most activities in your action plan will enhance your education, skills or experience. They should be goal-specific and measurable; they don't have to be complex or take a lot of time. For example, recent grad Dylan Cox, who is an apprentice at Cortello Salon, Jacksonville Beach, Florida, says his short-term goal was to master ombre color, which he did with practice—on mannequins and friends. His one-year goal was to find himself in the right salon, and his five-year goal is to make a certain amount of money.

“I started shopping salons about two months before graduating,” Cox says. “My school had certain nights they would invite salons in to come and see us in action, which was a great way to network. I also looked at salons’ social media reviews. I even made an appointment at one to experience a hair cut.  I looked for a salon with the same type of clientele I wanted.” Today, Cox has already met two of his three goals.

Once you have goals and a plan to achieve them, find a mentor or buddy who can provide useful feedback and honestly assess if you’ve achieved a technical or soft-skill goal. Tap your mentor’s expertise as you build the skills that your dream job demands.


There are only so many hours in a day to practice and master basics, so if your goal involves a specialty like haircolor, make enhancing coloring skills a social activity.

“One fun way to build skills is to have some friends from school come over with their doll heads,” Cox says. “Have dinner, socialize and then cut, color and style the mannequins. Many brands have specific contests that students can enter; team up with other students and brainstorm entry ideas.”

If your goal involves enhancing your soft skills to build a clientele (or eventually teaching on stage), Sulimay says nothing beats scripts. Write one yourself, find one online or ask an instructor for one that involves a client consultation or even teaching something you just learned.

“Then, practice it so much that you sound natural, not robotic,” Sulimay says. “Remember, great actors are reading scripts. For stylists, client scripts involve those magic moments when certain conversations are natural, such as talking about products at the back bar, discussing additional services during the consultation and suggesting re-booking when you mention maintenance and how long a look will last.”

Getting a job in a good salon is another goal for which an action plan can be fun. To build job interviewing skills, grab your friends, practice interviewing one another for jobs and video record the interviews. Role-playing can be fun, and the playback will tell you a lot about your body language, where you stumble and when you sound confident. You can do the same with mock consultations and other scripts, or with technical skills. In fact, going straight to video is helpful when skill-building to meet any goal. Try videoing yourself:

  • Placing ombre or balayage color on a section
  • Round brush styling for volume
  • Giving your 30-second pitch on why a salon should hire you
  • Selling your friends something silly, like an empty hairspray can
  • Consulting with a friend who needs a totally different cut
  • Using words you’d never normally use. “If you never tell someone they look beautiful, practice saying it,” Sulimay says.
  • Bobian, whose long-term goal involves a move to New York City, built skills by practicing on friends, family members and mannequins. He also involved social media in order to move toward his goal of getting noticed beyond his local area. (Which underscores a point: goals, action plans and skills are always intertwined.)
  • “When a Paul Mitchell national educator began doing #MannequinMonday on Instagram, I submitted two of my works in hopes of being featured on her Instagram and Facebook page,” Bobian says. “For someone new, this would have been a huge break in my career.
  • “The online world offers endless education that’s fun,” he says. “When I was in school, YouTube, freesaloneducation. com and Periscopes were my main sources of supplemental learning. I also jumped at the chance to help during school-sponsored events. These included haircuts for the homeless, fashion shows and doing hair for women in recovery. I could practice techniques while simultaneously showcasing my talent to an audience and seasoned hairstylists.”


Each time Bobian did something hair-related, he promoted it online, often using as hashtags the names of those he hoped to work with one day. It’s still his way of networking to achieve a long-term goal, and everyone needs a network.

There are two kinds in the salon industry: client and peer. You can do some client networking in the school clinic but in general, networking with owners who can give you a job comes first. In addition to researching and visiting local salons, go shopping!

“Networking locally can be as simple as going to your nearest beauty supply store and asking if they have any classes coming up,” Cox says. “Some are even free. This is a great way to meet local stylists and salon owners.”

“Networking should start the minute you become part of a people business,” Powers says. “Become comfortable with introducing yourself to people you’ve never met. Strike up a conversation about their hair, skin or nails. Present yourself as a professional.”

Doing so will not only find you a salon with a strong team, a full training program and benefits; it will get you the right client network for you, which might be the most overlooked type of networking for success.

Once you have secured a job, go where your target clients go, introduce yourself and talk about hair. Take part in local charity events and cut-a-thons. Ask all your friends to send you clients. Post your work on social media, and tag friends who can share your work with their friends.

If you aren’t super confident about one-on-one networking, Sulimay suggests that you join a business network while you are still in school. “Business Networking International and Toastmasters are two great places to start,” he says. “They hold events where you have to dress up and meet strangers without drinking alcohol. Everyone there is a professional who is looking to grow a business, and hairdressers do very well at these events.”

Sulimay adds that if he had not been able to build a successful client network, he would not have become a successful educator who can answer every question he's asked with authenticity.

When it comes to networking with pros who can advance your career, that’s easy. Go to shows and seminars and introduce yourself. Follow pros on social media who do what you’d like to do.

“Put yourself out there and get your work seen,” Bettis says. “Introduce yourself to people and business owners in your community, as well as to other stylists and artists. Attending trade shows and submitting entries to competitions are other great ways to get noticed.”

Of course, social media is another important tool for drawing attention to your work. “I’ve joined hair-related groups on Facebook, which is my favorite networking tool,” Cox says. “If you have a question about a color line or anything hair related, people from all over the world will respond. You can even post and showcase your work, and get feedback."

Don’t be overly reliant on social media to build either a clientele or a peer network. After all, you are in the people business, and all the action that matters most takes place face to face.


In his book, Antony Whitaker lays out a stylist's guide to success. He contends that asking the right questions abotu your life—12, to be precise—will help you define your career.

  1. What do you want from your life?
  2. When will you get started?
  3. Are you ambitious?
  4. What sort of lifestyle do you desire?
  5. What sort of income will it take to live the lifestyle you desire?
  6. Do you set goals?
  7. How will you feel if you achieve your goals?
  8. What will your life be like if you don't?
  9. Who holds you back other than you?
  10. Why do you let them?
  11. What are you prepared to sacifice to get to where you want to go?
  12. What can you do today to move toward your goals?

STILL DIRECTIONLESS? What to do right now:

“Invite a salon owner, hairstylist, instructor, alumni of your school or anyone in the industry out for coffee,” says Ali Davidson, Associated Hair Professionals director of membership. “Introduce yourself as a newbie to the industry who would love to chat with a veteran. Ask all about the person’s career and how he or she got to a certain level. There will always be something you can take away that motivates you or provides you with direction.”

New grad and recently hired salon assistant Dylan Cox says don’t put off until graduation what you can (and should) do now. “If you are close to fi nishing school and have failed to set goals, go to your school advisers—that’s what they’re there for,” Cox says. “They will do their best to help you. They also know which salons are hiring. Talking to your teachers is always great, too; don’t forget they’ve been in your shoes.”

Another recent grad, Steve Bobian, says if you find yourself in a gray area, look for what makes you happy. “I was surrounded by classmates who hated cutting hair but loved color and vice versa,” he says. “There were also students who were interested in barbering. The great thing about the beauty industry is that there are so many opportunities; you can easily find your niche. People can make money doing just about anything. Eyelashes and eyelash extensions are a million-dollar industry—which just goes to show the importance of planning and preparation. Don’t give up on your future or get pressured into doing something that isn’t right for you.”



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