Category Archives: Finding a Job

All about organizing.

“The Unemployed Will Not Be Considered.” Why?

I read Laura Bassett’s recent post on The Huffington Post with great interest.  It was only a few days ago that I advised someone who is in a period of extended unemployment to relax: there’s plenty of company in that boat, and employers are generally pragmatic.  My bigger concern would be getting a fair shake during salary negotiations, when the assumption is that a lowball salary offer is better than none.

However, it appears that some employers are unabashedly posting warnings on their job board postings that they will not—or their client will not—consider candidates not currently working.  I’m going to skip over the part where I would otherwise say that this isn’t necessarily true: “Do Not Believe Everything You Read on a Job Board” is begging to be blogged.  And I’m going straight to the real reasons for the apparently short-sighted and heartless warning.

  1. The search firm that is usually behind the “anonymous client” doesn’t look very helpful if all they can come up with are unemployed candidates that are already in the client’s database.  Search firms profess to have access to special candidates who are not in the market.  Producing those gets them paid; producing slates full of unemployed people doesn’t.  I’ll go further.  While big companies can usually put spider technology to work ferreting out the qualified from all the others, smaller search firms and placement firms are less likely to have such sophisticated and expensive tools.  So they just tell you to keep your material to yourself.
  2. The search firm—or HR department—may not be able to deliver candidates who are actively in the job market. The length of time it takes a company to get from one end of an assignment (approval of the position) to the other (new incumbent start date) is, at times, too long to sustain the average unemployed candidate who wants to work NOW.  The end client is the actual department where the job gets done, and neither the search recruiter nor the HR staff likes to look ineffective, as they do when the top candidate evaporates in mid-stream.  Ergo, a preference for the passive job seeker, which is what everyone who isn’t unemployed can be called.
  3. Unemployed job applicants hit the send button a lot.  Often, they know little or nothing about the company, business unit, market, brand, profession, or job.  This doesn’t make them insincere or any less capable, but it sometimes makes them seem less prepared.  I’ve been unemployed and I’ve been that candidate.  Unlike the candidate for whom the advertised job is a carefully contemplated career move, the job for me (after a few months of pavement-pounding) was more of a commodity, a lifeline, or a two-year gig in which I might wait out the economy. I wasted a lot of HR folks’ time before I wised up.

In short, it’s not a matter of candidate qualifications, as usual.  It’s a matter of job-seeking behavior—the politics of the process, amplified and placed front and center.   When you lob your resume over the transom, which is what job board recruiting encourages and what you should not do, you lose control of your image, your brand, and your fate.  That’s why you feel bad, when you read in the Huff Post that these meanies don’t want you, just because you don’t have a job.

In Bassett’s article she quotes various HR folks who maintain that it’s a skill set issue, that it takes a lot of time and HR-power to sort through the files, and yada yada.  That’s HR speak for “we do it because we can and because we want to.”  And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, unless, as Bassett hints at, the employer is perpetuating illegal discrimination.  I don’t think it’s good HR policy, but that’s just my opinion.

Here’s the rest of what I think:  if you are unemployed (or even if you are employed, actually), you shouldn’t be blindly throwing your resume (your surrogate self, if you spent any time at all crafting it) at lines and names on a job board, anyway.  You should be spending your time cultivating contacts at the companies and in the communities where you want to work.  Your resume is not even relevant to your friends and contacts until you are asked to supply it specifically to someone who can get you into a conversation with a decision-maker.  If you read on a job board that there is an opening you want, go looking for someone who can help you pursue it.

The purpose of a posting on a job board is multifold—but no one should regard it as an invitation to apply.  It is first and foremost an artifact of an administrative system which serves the HR department or equivalent, an announcement that a position is open, a listing of job requirements so that all employees and all others can see what the incumbent will do or be expected to do, and finally, evidence that a company can rely on that shows it notified everyone who might have interest that it intended to fill that job.  An invitation would be more . . . inviting.

How to Start Networking, Today

I wrote yesterday’s post fully aware that it was not a recipe, but a Cook’s Illustrated style preamble to the recipe itself.   Before you bake a cake, for example, you have to be sure you have fresh baking powder, a couple of eggs in the fridge, and the right kind of flour.  At least.

But if you have never introduced yourself to someone you always wanted to meet, if you are not the one in your crowd who strikes up a conversation with the person in front of you in the check out line, then the steps don’t come naturally.

I don’t think that networking is my strongest suit; I especially don’t do that well when placed in the company of all-star networkers like those found in the Chambers of Commerce and Leadership organizations around the world.  Networking is a lot like flirting—it isn’t that substantial, it’s more of a process.  You can’t be serious or substantial when you do it.  You can’t be weighty.  Your needs can’t be the subject (or the predicate).

So here is a simple review of the process of networking.

Step 1.  Forget the word networking.  Just like the recipe has no place in the actual cake, at the end of the process, you will celebrate and enjoy your new friends, not your network.  Make the word go out of your head.

Step 2.  Identify your objective.  Do you want new friends, different friends and acquaintances, ideas, clients, information, facilitation, donations, more folks who know who you are?  If your only answer is that you want a job, think hard about what will happen when you get that job.  I can only say that I have spent a lot of time with people who befriended me in the interest of getting a job, who I never heard from again after they got it.

Step 3.  Create a database.  Oh this is so hard for people to do.  You must, must keep track of your connections and their contact information.  Make notes.

Step 4.  Set goals.  Meet new people every day, every week, or every month.  The time frame isn’t important, the goal and the filter is.  Your job is to meet people and get to know them and what they are interested in.  To share a moment and express your interest in them.  Ask where they got the blouse.  Note the book is one you have read and liked, or one you might be interested in reading.

Step 5.  Practice the art of making friends everywhere you go.  Start by smiling and making eye contact.  Strike up a conversation; if you do not get a response or the response you want, let it go and move on.

Step 6.  Call someone you don’t know, to ask for information.  No, I didn’t say email them.  Phone call, please.  Identify yourself.  Tell the person who answers the phone who you are calling and why.  If you get through to the person you want to speak with, thank him or her for taking the call.  Ask your question, get your answer, say thank you, say good bye.  Follow up with letter, note, or email.

This doesn’t always go the way you want.  You have to practice, you have to try, and you have to get comfortable.  I can’t stress enough that having a smile on your face will put a smile in your voice and will make you feel better no matter what the outcome.

Step 7.  Make a date.  “Can I buy you a latte?”  “Can we talk over lunch?”  “Would you like to come to our meeting?”  “Jan and I are putting together a group?”  Sooner or later you have to make a move.  Prepare more for the acceptance of your offer than for the rejection you might get.  The answer to the “no” is “perhaps another time; I’d love to get together.” And let it go; the next offer should come from them.

When you offer is accepted, get to the place of meeting first and wait for your acquaintance.  Pay for the coffee or lunch, or split the bill.  Keep your conversation low key.  Agree on your commonalities, but reserve the right to get to know someone and reflect on the meeting before you agree to anything else.  “Let me check with my (calendar, banker, spouse, assistant, or accountant) are all fair responses to most requests.  Then respond later as you wish.

Step 8.  Be honest with yourself.  Not all prospective friends can end up being friends.  Let it go as soon as you know it isn’t for you.  Some folks, if you hang with them long enough, will do more than just not be helpful:  they will hurt you.  Your instincts on this may be better than you realize—if you are not comfortable, let it go.

Step 9.  Circle back and stay in touch.  Don’t let too many people drift out of your life—time goes by very fast.  When you do reconnect, establish just how much time went by.  This is when a database can help.

Step 10.  Stay connected to people, but not to slights, wrongs, or hurts.  Sometimes a misunderstanding is just that.  Give folks a chance to grow and a chance to clear things up.  Get into the habit of sending a personal note or an email when you come across an interesting tidbit that might interest the other person.  Do not send your email lists links to spam.  Those jokes and funny writings that circulate are busily picking up URLs that will soon receive a fair amount of advertising garbage.

It is a little like dating, but making new friends is never exclusive.  It always leads to more friends, broader relationships and understanding, and a better understanding of yourself and what you can do for others.

How to Network

I was astonished to learn recently that several of my friends have closed their Facebook accounts because they didn’t like the trivial nature of the information supplied by their Facebook friends.  Of course, this is what I love—I’m the one who would rather hear what you are having for lunch than what you think of the health care bill, only because the second thing is such a minefield.  If Facebook is like the route you travel to work or school every day, then “what’s for dinner” is the small talk that makes each day a little more pleasant.  Just FYI, I like the photos of your pets and kids as well.

Networking takes many more forms than ever before.  But at the core of all networking is the act of connecting with another human on the basis of a shared moment.  Whether it’s online or on line in the local bakery, there are some basic networking skills and tools that will help you develop acquaintanceships that have friendship and networking potential.

  1. Show interest wherever you go, whoever you meet.  Curiosity is crucial to networking; if you aren’t interested in someone you can’t really hide that fact.  Be interested and you won’t even have to be interesting.
  2. Don’t assume anything.  We all think we want to look like we are insiders who have special insight, info, or connections.  Looking or acting like you have all that will help you?  Exactly how?  People use their influence for folks they want to help. . . and they decide who qualifies, not you.
  3. Write or speak with eye contact and a smile.  You don’t have to have a conversation with everyone, but think of yourself as one who promotes good will.  How to make figurative eye contact online?  Speak directly to the point and acknowledge the other(s).  And be nice.
  4. Before you friend someone online, or hand over your business card if you are in person, write a note (on it, if it is a real card), or somehow personalize the offering.
  5. When asked about your self, be modest, be moderate, be brief, and return the conversation to the other person or turn it to a third or fourth person who is present.  Don’t worry, you’ll be noticed and you’ll be remembered.
  6. Choose subjects that are easy, fun, neutral, interesting.  Of course, if your hobby or motives are political, you may want to educate.  And if that is the case, what you really want is the opportunity to change someone’s mind—so you’ll want to ask for permission to try to do so, and respect a firm no.  Wanting to be known as mean, stupid, pushy, arrogant, strident, closed-minded, or incredibly naïve would be an unusual networking goal.
  7. Practice, practice, practice.  Networking is another word for making new acquaintanceships (or renewing old connections) that may turn into friendships.  You cannot do it without taking risks.  You will make mistakes and from time to time you will look clumsy or awkward.  But you’ll get better at it, if you practice.
  8. Do not take things too personally.  Not everyone wants to friend you; not everyone shares your interests and some folks are more awkward and less skilled at this than you are.  The immediacy of a moment in time makes it all look more dramatic than it really is.
  9. Organize and record your contacts and your network connections.  Online, social networking sites do this for you—sort of.  Organize your information according to what you want and need, not what Facebook or LinkedIn thinks is best.
  10. Spend time and effort getting better at making friends.  Remember your mistakes and don’t make them again; seek opportunities to improve.

But don’t be so quick to close those accounts.  Experiment with what you have; try out a newer version of you, ask others how they solve what you think is the problem of excessive information that isn’t crucial to your day.  We’re all so different; that’s what makes a network strong.  Time management does figure into effective networking, and you do have to sort and pick, and choose, and sometimes even ignore.

Telephone Interviews: Tips for Improving Your Performance

Telephone interviews are highly effective screening tools used by employers to save time and money, screen “on the fence” applications, or whittle down an oversized file of good possibilities.   As an HR professional I’ve done a lot of phone interviews, almost always for the purpose of deciding whether to include or exclude someone who is not otherwise a clear choice. Headhunters use them–a lot more often–to build a slate of candidates.

I’ve screened and been screened using the phone interview; it isn’t quite the same as interviewing in person, because you can’t rely on your physical appearance, clothing choices, or body language to get yourself screened in.  But you can set yourself up for success through planning and self-management.  Here’s how:

  1. The interviewer should schedule the interview in advance, identifying a time, phone number, and the name of the person to whom you will be speaking.  Be sure that you a.) confirm who is to call whom,  b.) confirm your interviewing phone number, if you are going to be the call recipient, and c.) schedule it for a time when you can devote your full attention and control your surroundings.  “Now” is never a good time.   Never–even if it’s “just a few questions.”  The polite response to that is “This is not a good time.  May I return the call?”  Believe me, it will not ruin your chances.
  2. Do not interview on a cell phone.  But when you ignore this advice because you think I’m either old or crazy, do the following: Make sure the battery is fully charged and that you have reliable service.  If your house is a dead zone, don’t do the interview there.  Use your hands-free head set; if it’s the Bluetooth, make sure it’s charged.   Cell phone functional difficulties interrupt the flow of your conversation, and that is not helpful to you.
  3. Don’t use the speaker setting on whatever phone you choose.  It makes you sound distant.
  4. Do not participate in the interview from work, from your car, from a public location like an airport or shopping mall, from a place where there are barking dogs or demanding children, or anywhere that interferes with your attention.  Don’t ask a friend to join you and signal you or help you.
  5. Dress for success.  While you may not need to wear a suit and carry a briefcase to the phone interview, some people do this to provide themselves with the cue that this is that important.  I do not recommend doing an interview in your jammies, unless you want to sound like you are in your jammies.  Somehow it comes through the phone; I imagine there are all kinds of theories about why.
  6. Practice.  Have someone conduct a twenty minute interview with you and give you feedback on a.) how close you hold the phone, b.) how loud you talk, c.) your phone manners, like do you interrupt or talk too long, d.) clarity of your words, e.) ambient phone noise on your chosen telephonic equipment, and f.) pleasantness.
  7. Aim for warmth; smile when you speak.  It comes through the phone in a very good way.
  8. Don’t use your keyboard, make lunch, walk around a room with hard floors, watch tv, or read the mail while on the phone.  For some folks (like me) phone focus is difficult.  But the one split second when your listening falters as you see an email  land in your mailbox will be the second the run-on sentence turns into the question, and you are dead.  It happened to me.
  9. This is an interview.  Manners are the same: “Hi, Bob, nice to meet you.”  “Thanks for your time, Jane, I’ve enjoyed our conversation.”  “Frank,  I hope to hear from you.”  “John, If you need further information, don’t hesitate to call or email me.”  If you do a lot of interviewing, you may by now be used to glancing at name tags or desk signage to remind you of the name of the person you are talking to.  So, when your interviewer identifies himself or herself–and not before–write down his or her name and keep it in front of you.  And use it.
  10. Be certain that your call is disconnected when the interview is over and you believe that no one can hear you.  Oh, yes, it does happen; be sure it doesn’t happen to you.

I’m sure you’ve been having phone conversations since you could talk; most of us have.  But there are tricks to performing well when you can’t see or be seen by an interviewer, someone who can move you along to the next phase or place your candidacy to the side of the “definitely worth a look” pile.  Remember that the phone interview is usually reserved for folks who’ve made it over at least one hurdle—make sure you get over this one, too.

Cover Letters and Resumes: Send Your Message

You should think of your cover letters and resumes as companion marketing documents:  they travel together hand in hand, delivering your clear and focused messages.  What one is good at, the other really can’t do very well, and vice versa.  The cover letter introduces you and opens your storyline or narrative, and the resume states the relevant facts of your past and present.  So you need them both, and as the planner and boss of them, you’ll get the best results when you calibrate the way they’ll work together.

One of the biggest mistakes that job seekers make is to overburden their documents with too much information.  If you have ever been in a conversation with someone who drones on and on to the point where you lose the point, you know what I mean.  Whether it’s in the cover letter or the resume, TMI can be fatal: it reveals that you don’t understand what’s important to your target employer.

The droner and the unfocused job seeker have one thing in common—they are paying more attention to their own needs than to the needs of the person to whom the information is offered.  Most people who write resumes and cover letters begin to feel pretty insecure as soon as they begin to write; starting the writing process is a need (theirs) to change jobs, a need (theirs) to impress a prospective employer, a need (theirs) to appear more worthy than the competition.  That neediness emerges in the documents as TMI.

The solution to this problem not better editing, as in “help me get this down to two pages.”  The solution is to think about the prospective employer, not about you.  If you are the hiring manager (see earlier post on who’s who), what do you want to know?  Here are some examples.

  1. I want to know that you’ve done some homework.  You read about my company, and you read for understanding, putting yourself in the job you want, and thinking about how you can help me.  Your cover letter can speak to what you understand about my needs, while your resume will highlight your understanding of how your backgrounds fits.
  2. I want to know that you understand collaboration, that you are supervisable, that you do not sacrifice people and process for results, and that you understand my world as a boss.  Will you make me look good or are you a high maintenance attention seeker?  Your cover letter will identify who valued your accomplishments and your resume will not claim credit for group results.
  3. I want to know that you love work and working, and that your energy is available for my benefit.  Your cover letter will discuss how you see yourself relative to work, the industry, and the community of interest.  Your resume will show that you have one or two fairly focused—and current—volunteer roles and hobbies.  Both will be energetic and active.
  4. I want to see words I understand, that reflect the language of the profession and industry we are in.  Your cover letter will use those, and your resume will echo them.  You will use the terms correctly in both documents.

The job of your document team is real simple—to get you an interview with someone who can get you into the running for an opportunity that you want.  To do that, they have to be focused on the company and the hiring manager, and in so doing, they illustrate that you are worth a further look.

Who’s Who in the Recruitment and Selection Process

Recruitment and Selection are two different organizational processes connected by the underlying principle that in order to select the right person for the job, you have to have attracted the right group of folks to pick from.  Some companies cast a wide net, include a lot of candidates, and engage in a winnowing process.  Others are highly targeted, focused on a narrow audience of special people they court and consider.  There is no right or wrong; it’s a matter of company choice.  Either way, you need to know who you are dealing with in order to make the right move for you.

Here are some of the major players you might encounter:

Headhunter.  A “headhunter” is a recruiter who works for himself or herself or a major (or minor) headhunting firm.  A retained search firm is paid (usually a percentage of the job’s annual cash compensation) whether or not they place a candidate.  A contingency recruiter is paid similarly, but only if his or her candidate is placed.

You might first hear from a headhunter’s researcher whose job it is to qualify you or get your ideas for leads, if you yourself prove to be wrong for the opportunity.  The researcher is highly oriented to recruiting—the message is that you are great, the job is great, the company is fabulous.  You are her new best friend;  you will discover you have many friends in common. The actual account manager, though, is more likely to winnow.  Both have a stake in your positive vibes, but also a stake in both your deliverability (are you really interested?) and your suitability (are you right for the company and the job?)

Contract recruiter. A contract recruiter is screening potential candidates who’ve landed in a pool, through the company’s outreach activities.  Might have been advertising, might have been a file search, might have been a job fair, but the contract recruiter (who is not an employee of the company) has a crowd to turn into a qualified few.  He or she is criteria-oriented by definition—the contract determines the task.  Contract recruiters are usually paid by the hour or perhaps by the day, week, or month.

Company recruiter. This person is definitely a company asset, with lots of knowledge and lots of enthusiasm for getting and keeping you interested.  This is someone—who may or may not have the title of recruiter—who probably has some say into the selection pool, but is more likely the professional who keeps it all moving and makes sure the company gets its value and the candidate gets treated right.  He or she is deeply concerned with what you think of the company, and also knows that it isn’t over until it’s over, so is inclined to keep you interested all the way to the end.  And then some.

HR Manager.  This is another level of HR involvement that may or may not happen; sometimes it’s a recruiter’s boss, sometimes it’s a hiring manager’s HR Business Partner, depending on the size of the company or the level of the job for which you are being considered.  Probably an influencer with power; don’t be fooled by the authentic interest in you as a person.

Hiring Manager. This is a (maybe THE) decision-maker, who might go by any number of titles, including manager, director, vice president, owner, or boss.   Assume that this is by definition the person who narrows the field to one.

Selection Committee Member or Selection Committee Chair. The name says it all.  The people who see these people, if a committee is being used, are in one of the selection rounds.  You might see such a group all at once, or one at a time.  Some will be in recruitment mode, some will be examining you with a microscope.

The Big Boss.   This is the honcho who gets to say, at the last minute, either, “wow, everybody did a great job; I like her (or him),” or “what were you people thinking?”  Screw this one up at your peril; it looks like a pleasant lunch at the local white tablecloth restaurant, but it probably isn’t.  Selection masquerading as recruiting.

Stay tuned in to who you are talking to, and who is talking to you.  By the time you get to the hiring manager, you can think of yourself as a real candidate.  Until then, you are being recruited into a pool, and then a slightly smaller pool.  Pools aren’t jobs, so don’t get ahead of yourself.

Questions to Ask the Interviewer

You know the interview is coming to an end when the interviewer asks “Do you have any questions for me?”

Assume you are being asked a sincere question; while it may or may not be a simple formality, it is another chance to increase the likelihood of your being asked to join the next step of the selection process.  As in, “I liked him/her.  Let’s ask him/her to come back.”

I’ve been asked some really challenging and intricate questions, all of which I tried to answer.  Sometimes, the candidate’s question was intended to make the candidate look really smart and in-the-know.  Sometimes, first round candidates refer to a list of detailed questions brought to the interview, all with proprietary and off-limits answers.  Sometimes, early stage candidates really want to know if they can have three weeks off this August for Cousin Heather’s wedding in Ireland.

You have a lot of choices here.  Let me give you some guidance.

1.  Don’t compose and then ask a question you think will make you look good, whatever you think “good” is.  The result will be that you won’t listen to the answer, and an interviewer can see in your eyes that you are not listening.  That reveals that it wasn’t a real question, and that you aren’t all that authentic.

2.  Don’t ask technical questions of nontechnical people.  It can make them feel challenged, and not in a good way.

3.  All questions about compensation, benefits (including vacation and other time off), perquisites, career paths, and required hours of work and travel should be saved until you are the selected candidate with an offer letter in your hand.

4.  Don’t ask questions about proprietary matters.  It makes you look naive.

5.  Don’t read the annual report and then fabricate general or specific questions about the contents. (Unless you are interviewing for the CFO or Treasurer job, and the headhunter suggests that it’s best if you pose the question directly.)

6.  Don’t work from a written list, although a quick note to yourself that allows you to refrain from interrupting an interviewer is okay.  Written lists look more painstaking than is necessary, and a bit overprepared.

7.  Don’t throw hardballs.

The general rule is that the first two interviews are for the benefit of the employer, and the last two are more than likely your own chance to evaluate.  If that holds true, you are freer to ask more questions if you are still in the running after two interviews.  At that point, you should be evaluating your own interest in and ability to do the job, though, not the size of the compensation package or the availability of the first week in July for your trip to St. Pete.  Your questions can cover scope of the job, resources available (including staff, time, budget, information, etc.).   Departmental goals, company culture, traditions:  all good subjects if they haven’t already been covered.

Remember that the best interview is a good conversation, and proceed accordingly.

1.  You can and should ask the interviewer about himself or herself, how long he/she’s worked there, why he/she joined, what he/she likes best about the company, industry, or work.

2.  You can and should ask about the decision-making process, how many steps there are, where they are in the process, and when they expect to have the job filled.

3.  You can ask how they chose you for an interview and what they like about your background.  Once this question has been answered, you can’t let the answer hang in the air, though, you have to at least state your belief that you are a good fit for the company or what you like about the prospect of working for this particular company.  It’s a question that has to have reciprocity for closure.  You must choose each other.

And, you may use the answers to the above suggested questions to inform the content of your thank you letter.  Drawing comparisons between you and their needs is a time-honored strategy, but hard to accomplish if you haven’t asked questions that will lead you to a good letter.

Your questions are more likely to be remembered than many of your answers will be, simply because the interviewer is paying more attention to you in this part of the interview; you have more control in this phase, so use your power wisely and strategically.  Make a friend, be relaxed, smile, lean forward, thank the interviewer.

Above all, be spontaneous, authentic, and friendly.  Your main job at all times is to stay in the running–decisions aren’t made until the end of the process, and lots of things can happen between any given moment and the last minute.

Next blog:  Who’s who in the process?

Questions about interview questions

I always get the good phone calls the night before the interview.  Someone is drifting off to sleep, imagining the way he or she will smile, shake hands, eagerly answer questions. . . wait, there will be questions?

Yes.  And you should, in the best of worlds, have some answers.  Here are the three big questions I was questioned about this month:

1.  What are your weaknesses? (Also masquerades as “If we hire you, what will we say is not your best attribute or feature when we review your performance in six months?)

I think by now we all know that you can’t answer this like Michael Scott, “ I work too hard. I care too much. And sometimes I can be too invested in my job.”  So what are your weaknesses…and what are you doing about them?  That’s what’s important.  Don’t answer the question without adding the information that you are totally on to yourself and working on your lack of self confidence, conflict avoidance, feedback dependence, whatever it is.

Your role in the interview is to establish a rapport and participate in a conversation that will get you to the next level of the selection process.  So when you are asked this question, which usually comes up in the earlier rounds of the process, my suggestion is to answer truthfully, with a sense of humor, by admitting who you are.  Perhaps you can be too direct in dealing with others (and are working on broadening your range or softening your delivery for those who are left breathless by your skewering).  Maybe you have strong opinions, and are practicing better listening skills.  Perhaps you are soft spoken and are taking speech lessons.  Or you are less confident than you would like to be, hence the setting of goals that take you toward new experiences.

Do you see where I’m going?  Truthful, but self aware, and working on your performance is who you want to be and who you want to present.  Be prepared to be asked for an example of your deficiency in action, along with what you learned from the experience and what you did differently.

2.  Have you ever been fired from a job?

This is a yes or no answer; don’t volunteer more than you must.  If the answer is no, we can agree you can skip this section.

If the answer is yes, but you reached an agreement with the employer who will now represent your termination as a resignation, the answer is actually no.  Apparently you resigned.

If the answer is yes, but you have no such agreement and have no idea what the terminating employer will say about you, the answer is yes.

When the answer is yes, you have to explain this yourself, in a way that is a.) brief, b.) honest, but careful, and c.) acknowledges (calmly) that there are differing viewpoints on what happened and what should have happened.  Calm is the operative word here.  People get fired; life goes on.  It’s a bigger deal to you than it is to anyone else.

Memorize this:  “I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was probably one of the best things that could have happened.  I learned so much.”  Of course, be prepared to list all the good things that you learned and all of the blessings that accrued from this unfortunate misunderstanding.  I hope that, if you didn’t already know it, when you practice saying it with conviction you realize it is true.

But: Do. Not. Lie.  It is never worth the risk.

3.  Where do you see yourself in five years?

“In the Bahamas, on a beach.  Ha!”   (wrong)

“In your job.  Ha ha!”      (also wrong)

“I don’t know; my spouse is a professional also and she/he has the better job and bigger income.”  (OMG, really?)

“In this job.”  (really?  okay, depends on the job, but maybe. . .)

“I have career goals that could take me in one direction or another, but I’d like to stay with the same company.”   (very good)

“Right now I’m focused on this opportunity and learning as much as I can about the (company, industry, profession).”  (also good)

“Eventually I’d like to move into (Finance, Operations, Management).  One reason I’m interested in this job and company is that I know you nurture and promote talent; that’s one of the reasons I’m interested.”  (very very good)

But here is an alternative strategy for you.  Do your homework extremely thoroughly and extraordinarily well, and answer in the context of the company and the job you want:

“Working right here for the market leader!  Here are my ideas.”

“I’d like to have built the world class HR department you want. Here’s what I think it will look like.”

“I think by then we should be outpacing the rest of the region by about 80%. Here’s how.”

“We’ll have trimmed expenses and maximized our systems.”

“I’d like to have set some serious performance records.”

“Launched three new products/services.”

“Solved the industry’s worst problems.”

All better than anything you might say for yourself about your personal goals.  But remember this–no matter what strategy you choose, it isn’t okay to deliver a one sentence answer and sit back and wait for the next question.  You’re in a conversation with a decision-maker who has asked you about you.  This is your chance to separate yourself from the rest of the pack.  If it were me, I’d talk about me in the job and career I want.

The point of the interview is to get you to the next step of the process; that’s a function of developing rapport, building a relationship, and avoiding self-inflicted damage.

Next blog: What questions should you ask the interviewer?

Telling Stories

One of the things they teach in HR school is a special kind of interviewing. (It may not be that special anymore; I think the word has spread.) It’s called STAR, or something akin to that, representing Situation, Task, Action, and Result. In this form of behavioral interviewing, the interviewer is looking for specific examples of what you have done in your past that are likely to reveal what you would do under certain–similar–circumstances. Presumably, the circumstances are a lot like those you might face on the job you want, or think you want.

For example, suppose you want to be a Human Resources professional, and you are interviewing for an employee relations job. Now, employee relations is usually the section of the HR department where they write and administer the handbooks, policy, and problem solving procedure. Employee Relations folks are likely to need patience, the ability to defuse tension, an eye for detail, and tolerance for what others might regard as mind numbing discussions of who did what to whom and why. They care about justice and are generally good at relationships.

If you want such a job, you would also want to be prepared to be asked questions like:

Was there ever a time when you were confronted by an angry person  who demanded your immediate attention on a matter of great detail and who publicly threatened you? (Situation) If so, tell me what you saw that needed to be done and why (Task) and what you did (Action). What was the Result?

The point is that if the interviewer asked, “How do you handle the anger of others?” you would be likely to say something like, “I’m the kind of guy/woman who doesn’t back down.” At which point you and the interviewer would begin a time honored ritual of trying to understand each other. Frankly, no one but you knows what you mean when you say you won’t back down. Is that like Tom Petty won’t back down or like Katie Couric won’t back down? As you can see, it’s not illustrative.

A story is what is required here, a story about a definitive moment in your life or career when your special skills were called upon and you either successfully or unsuccessfully pulled them out and put them to use. Good storytelling skills can help you–not in redrafting the stories of your life, but in relating them with adequate brevity, focus, organization, and color. Storytelling for career development is a critical skill and a competitive advantage.

There are other reasons to learn to tell good stories–mentors find that illustrative stories are softer learning tools that are less direct and more personal. Leaders often use inspiring stories to make a point and set a culture. Recruiters tell motivating stories to make you want to go to work for a company or executive. You need to tell a good story to show who you are and why you should go to the next step for the job you want.

There are lots of good books about storytelling, written by storytelling professionals; you should get to know something about the topic in general. But here is my advice about responding to STAR interview questions with an effective story.

1. Do your homework. What do you think the job requires? Do you have it? When did you last use it? What did that look like?

2. You are the hero of this story, whether you are comfortable with that or not. This is not a time to downplay your role. You are describing yourself–by telling both what you did, and revealing what you did not do. Remember this: one of the more effective aspects of behavioral interviewing is that it allows the interviewer to observe what you did not do–you can’t hide what is not there.

3. Be brief. The color of your shoes and the name of the street you were on probably are not relevant, so you can leave them out.

4. Focus on what you want to communicate–your behavior and how it affected/effected the outcome you wanted, or, if you are a huge risk taker, how it caused exactly what you didn’t want and what you learned from that. Tempting. I wouldn’t, but we’re all different.

5. Stay organized; provide details in order. Don’t throw in a flashback or surprise ending or you will spend the next ten precious minutes regrouping.

6. Keep the drama to a minimum–do not make faces, add tone to your voice, or wave your hands around. All of these diminsh the quality of your words.

7. The story should be self explanatory. You should not have to go back and explain how this anecdote relates to the question you were asked. If you have to, know you missed the mark, but your best bet is to provide only two more sentences: “Well, here’s what I learned from this experience: (add learning here).”

You can practice this. You can learn to think in stories and STARS. Since the best interviews turn out to be conversations, your goal is to tell a story that lifts up your conversation, lengthens it, and gets you asked back for another, and another.  Good storytellers are warm and a little fearless when they reveal details about themselves.  Don’t apologize, defend yourself, or alter the details after you’ve provided them.  A credible story is always better than a careful one–you are human, after all, and it is your story.

The Best Tools in the Kit

 Because many of us don’t consciously manage a career,  most of us don’t think we have a set of tools at hand.  When you think of career management skills, you probably think of skills we pull out,  polish up, and put to work  when the time comes to tinker with the job market–like interviewing, resume writing, or networking skills.  Job hunting’s most important tools?   Resource management skills.  You use them every day, or you can.

What are your resources?  How do you manage them?  Resources, for this purpose, include time, people and organizations,  information,  money,  and the physical environment.  Everything you do in pursuit of your employment objective is going to involve managing one or several of those things.  The better you manage them, the better the outcome.

What do we mean, manage resources?  It means that you first recognize that you have a finite supply of everything, including things like your friends’ goodwill, so you have to make sure that you budget, that you leverage and deploy  whatever you have appropriately and effectively, and that you monitor your resource balance to make sure 1.) you are treating all of your resources with respect,  2.) you are not about to suddenly run out of what you need, just when you need it, and 3.) that you are replenishing your supply. 

What does resource management look like? 

Time management is a pretty time honored concept.  Most folks think of it in terms of days, weeks, months, as in your weekly planner, daily to-do list, monthly or quarterly goals.  But what about time management in the sense of your youth, your high earning years, or your middle age?  In a job and career sense you have only so many temporal hiding places, only so many chances to work abroad, stay put until the kids finish high school, or sit tight until the right opening presents itself. 

Information management is not just information technology.  Managing information includes how much you share about yourself, how much you keep to yourself for lots of good reasons.  Information is what you need before you start networking, not what you get when you network, thoughyou may stumble over useful tidbits from time to time.  How you gather and use information, how you organize and communicate what you know, how you process–that’s all information management.

Physical environment: your nonliving and nonvirtual resources–your phone, your computer, your home, your car, and the like.  Usually, it’s the physical environment that trips you up when you least expect it.  Don’t believe me?  When was the last time you backed up your contacts file?  Ran your antivirus software?  Dumped your garbage files?  Or–have you investigated that leaky tire on the car, dry cleaned the interview outfit, or shined your shoes?  How about your paper files?  Business cards?  Workspace? all organized?

Money management It’s a biggie, no doubt about it.  Include in the management of your funds items like your frequent flyer miles, your housing costs, your financial decisions.  If, for example, you find yourself unable to take advantage of an opportunity in New Jersey becasue you are figuratively underwater in your home in Florida, we’d call that a money management effect on your career.  The point of conserving your resources is so that they will be there to meet your needs, whatever they are and whenever they happen.  You can’t stretch them past the breaking point, or fake them. 

People and organizational resources– relationships.  Oh, are these ever important.  If you have left a trail of dead or broken bodies in your wake, you will soon find how unimportant were some of those points you just had to make, or arguments you had to win.  Career-wise, nothing is more important than people who like you and want you to succeed.  I think of a family, for example,  as an organization.  A family requires management, and doing this well will spare you the grief that comes from doing whatever feels good and expecting it will pay off job-wise.  It won’t. 

Usually, we manage relationships, not people themselves, and if you take good care of your relationships you will find that they are there for you over many years and more than one career.  That means holding up your end of the friendship, being there for people, keeping the relationship alive and well.  

But who is the most important resource in your career?  You are.  And as such, you have an obligation to manage yourself, to stay healthy, learn endlessly, and grow with determination.   Managing yourself is the hardest thing you will do–it does take discipline, it does require self control and it does involve making difficult choices when you’d rather make the simple one and just do what you feel like doing.  The payoff is far away and the results are not easy to see right away.  But self discipline is the tool you can count on all the time–once you have it.