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Monday, December 04, 2006

Career makeover

Psychiatrist uses training to build a new company

Now, instead of diagnosing diseases, Oak Park resident helps clients improve their lives.

Brian J. O'Connor / The Detroit News


Wayne E. Smith / The Detroit News

Howard Ditkoff See full image

Have you remade your career?

Did you switch from engineering to sales? Escape the boss from hell? Use your severance pay as seed money to start a small business? The Detroit News wants to hear from readers who've successfully remade their jobs, professions and careers for future stories. To tell your story, e-mail Personal Finance Editor Brian O'Connor at


There are two ways to solve a problem: Either fix something that's broken or replace it with something that works.

Howard Ditkoff has tried both, and the journey from one to the other has taken him from fledgling psychiatrist to launching Emergent Associates of Oak Park, his own practice as a personal and business development coach, consultant and trainer.

"I found that I really did not like the mind-set of psychiatry or even mainstream psychology, which is about diagnosing disease," explains the 32-year-old Oak Park resident. "It's called 'problem-based,' which is very different from what I do now. When someone is schizophrenic they do need help, but my interest was in helping people develop to be their best."

Instead of using his medical degree to pop patients full of pills, Ditkoff combines his background in psychology, psychiatry and counseling with personal development techniques and even organization development concepts to help people and organizations improve their performance, whether it's boosting a company's sales or improving an individual client's parenting skills.

He's even had one client who was sent by his father, as a birthday present, to help the young man focus on his personal growth and to help him create a direction for his life.

"My career change has led me to help others with their own career changes, and other changes in their lives, too," Ditkoff notes.

Where he came from: Ditkoff says he's always been interested in the human mind and its potential. "Even at 10 or 12 years old I was interested in how to improve myself, how to improve people. I really just think it's an inborn thing," he says.

Psychiatry seemed to be the logical step. After getting an undergraduate degree in psychology, Ditkoff earned his medical degree and started working, only to find the focus of psychiatry was too negative, emphasizing medication and quick fixes to treat illness rather than helping people improve their quality of life.

He fell into a job as vice president of a software company, handling business development, and into volunteer work for social justice causes, including a ballot-reform measure he worked on in Ferndale.

What changed: Ditkoff knew he wanted to do something that would combine a passion for social justice and human development. He joined up with a friend, Mark Meritt, to develop their own business.

"We both wanted to take an innovative approach to improve the world and also wanted to figure out what to do with our own lives," Ditkoff explains.

Moment of truth: They got a better idea when they were introduced to the concept of "appreciative inquiry." An organizational development theory created by a professor at Case Western Reserve University, appreciative inquiry aims to discover what works in organizations and to build on those successes.

"It was the tool that we had been looking for," recalls Ditkoff, who saw how the approach could be combined with other elements of personal growth and organizational development. "We realized that the best thing we could do was apply appreciative inquiry to helping others improving themselves and the world."

Setting up the company was simple, Ditkoff adds: "I just have the computer, the telephone and my knowledge."

Stumbling blocks: "Just like anybody else, I have the fear of taking risks," Ditkoff admits. He worked part time at a nonprofit until May, and now runs the business full time, with about 15 individual clients as well as corporate consulting.

Marketing also is a work in progress. Ditkoff is rebuilding the Web site, and setting up speaking engagements to create more awareness of his services.

He's also developed services that work on different scales, from large corporations to individual concerns. One of them is something he calls insta-coaching. "It's a 15-minute process," he explains. "Someone can have a problem with their boyfriend or boss and they can come to me."

Words of wisdom: "The first thing," says Ditkoff, "is do what you're best as. Find what comes naturally to you. Look at the times you've been successful and look at what's common to those stories."

His other advice is to reach out to others who can help you achieve your goals, especially those with skills or specialized knowledge that you lack. "Find the complimentary people who can help you," Ditkoff adds.

"So much of it is about being authentic and being who you are," he concludes. "But the trick is that a lot of people don't know how to figure out who they are. "

You can reach Brian O'Connor at (313) 222-2145 or

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