Question of the Month: August 2008

Question: “I haven’t had to job hunt for a while and know that things have changed a lot out there; what are the top mistakes I should avoid?”

Eat your heart out, David Letterman! After giving it some thought, and making some tough decisions about what to include/exclude, here’s what I’ve settled on as my final “Top 10 List” in terms of the major mistakes job seekers should try to avoid…

#1: Focusing on the past, not the future. Time and time again, I observe candidates who talk at great length in interviews and networking conversations about their past experience, accolades, and accomplishments.  Unfortunately, companies care next to nothing about such things.  They aren’t going to hire you because you got an MBA degree, won an award five years ago, or went above and beyond to excel at your previous job.  They’re going to hire you, and pay you, to solve current and future problems that they themselves are experiencing!  So make sure to place the emphasis of your entire job search on the future, not the past, and to emphasize not your own needs, but the needs of your customer.  In most cases, your background is relevant only to the point you can draw upon it (selectively and sparingly) to illustrate how you’ve solved similar problems to the ones faced by your next potential employer.

#2: Being unclear about your goals.
How many companies would be able to stay in business if they were unable to clearly explain the products/services they offer — or if they changed their business model constantly, selling doughnuts one day and tire rotations the next?  Along these same lines, quite a few job hunters rush out to the job market before they’re clear about the type of work they ideally want to pursue.  This usually ends up confusing their networking contacts and making the job hunter look scattered, unfocused, and rather desperate.  So make sure you don’t kick your search off in a serious way until you’ve narrowed your employment goals down into a realistic “short list” of possibilities, and if you’ve had trouble identifying the career direction that would fit you best, after some serious thought, you might need to stick with the path of least resistance for now and go after the types of jobs you’ve held in the past.  Whatever you do, though, don’t say you’re “open to anything” or a “jack of all trades” since these vague answers won’t get you anywhere — and will backfire in today’s specialized market!

#3: Undue focus on the resume component. While it may surprise you, the majority of job hunters attribute way too much influence to their resume presentation as part of the overall job hunting success formula.  As a result, they fritter precious weeks away, developing version after version in the hopes that a few changes here and there will break the floodgates open — and suddenly lead employers to start beating a path to their door!  In reality, the most pertinent information on your resume (your education and experience) is not going to change all that much, no matter what format you use, and the majority of the jobs actually come through the networking channel, anyway, where the resume is more or less of an afterthought.  So while you should still take steps early on in your search to put a good resume together, and eliminate obvious mistakes, at some point you have to “fish or cut bait” and realize that the resume plays a fairly minor role in the overall job hunting process.  By way of analogy, ask yourself: how many companies out there tend to succeed or fail based solely on the caliber of their brochures?  Probably not all that many, right?  In similar fashion, job hunters would usually be well-served to place less attention on their resume and more emphasis on other key factors (e.g. intensive networking, consistent follow-up, aggressive interview preparation, etc.) that will likely play a larger part in their eventual success.

#4: Failure to identify specific target companies. We’ll get really tactical on this one.  Just like any outside sales professional worth their salt, job hunters should take some time to develop and maintain a list of their top prospects (both companies and the specific hiring managers within these companies) and then go after these potential customers relentlessly in the pursuit of some productive dialogue.  Nothing will improve your networking results faster than being able to show people a well-researched list of the companies you’re trying to penetrate in your search.  It not only demonstrates how serious you are, but will also prompt all sorts of great referrals and ideas in the people you encounter.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of job hunters have no such list to share with people — and therefore end up searching blindly and at random, waiting idly by for job leads to come to them.  As discussed earlier in this newsletter, this is a dangerous strategy.  Instead, figure out who mostly likely needs what you can offer, and reach out them with a clear, compelling message about how you can benefit their organization.

#5: Lack of systematic, organized effort. Job hunting, especially at the more senior levels, is a complex process that often requires 6-12 months of sustained effort in order to pull off.  As a result, just like with an exercise regimen, dietary goal, or corporate marketing campaign, effective planning and project management skills can make a huge difference in one’s eventual success rate.  So when launching your job search campaign, treat it with the same level of professionalism that you would an important project at work.  Have a game plan.  Break it down into key milestones.  Apply disciplined effort each day to moving things forward.  Track your progress.  Celebrate successes along the way.  Ultimately, the more organization you bring to the process (versus those job hunters who “wing it” as they go) the faster you’ll start landing interviews — and the more you’ll be able to fine-tune your efforts along the way!

#6: Addiction to the Internet. Every survey ever conducted shows that at least 60-70% of all hiring comes through word-of-mouth, as opposed to published advertisements.  Additionally, when most people walk back through their own career history, they realize that this same dynamic holds true and that the majority of their past positions have come through networking with friends, colleagues, and business associates.  And yet, you’ll still routinely find job hunters who spend the majority of their time surfing the computer for leads, as opposed to getting out and talking to contacts and companies.  So while the Web can be an incredible tool, and there are definitely some good jobs that can come through this channel, it shouldn’t represent the bulk of your search activity.  Again, if you’re only responding to published leads, versus trying to uncover new or emerging opportunities via networking, you’re severely limiting your options — and pinning your hopes on the most competitive job-finding channel of all!

#7: Anemic activity volume. Another simple one.  If you’re only making the three contacts a week required by the unemployment office to receive your benefits check, you’re not doing enough.  And if you’re making even fewer contacts than this, you’re really in trouble!  At Career Horizons, we recommend that serious job hunters make at least 5 outbound contacts each day, every day, in order to build a solid pipeline of leads.  Given the vast array of new on-line tools available to help job hunters locate suitable target companies and contacts, however, this goal should be easily achievable by anybody who puts their mind to it.   Additionally, once you’ve contacted a given company, and they’ve turned you down, keep in mind that you can and should cycle back around to them at least once a month to check in with them — and see if things have changed or any new opportunities have opened up!

#8: Well-intentioned (but crappy) networking. By now, most people have figured out that networking is an essential part of job hunting, as it is with business and career success in general.  Unfortunately, most people still don’t quite know how to go about the networking process appropriately when searching for work, so they end up consuming vast amounts of coffee — and picking up dozens of lunch tabs — with little in the way of results to show for it!  How can they break this pattern?  Usually, there are two fundamental things that most people are getting wrong.  First, they often are meeting with people “just to meet” or aren’t asking for help in specific enough ways.  Don’t just ask for generic referrals or whether people have heard of any suitable leads through the grapevine.  Arrive at each meeting with a specific agenda that includes quick, tactical help requests (e.g. resume feedback, target company list suggestions, industry insights…) as well as smart questions that relate to the person’s background and sphere of influence. Additionally, recognize that it takes frequent communication to create “top of mind” awareness among one’s network — and that successful job hunters get the best results if they check in with their contacts regularly to update them on progress and remind the person of their employment goals.

#9: Failure to differentiate themselves. As discussed at length in previous newsletters, it’s often not enough (especially at the $100K+ level) to simply have good qualifications.  You’ve got to find a way to distinguish yourself, stand out, be memorable, and offer some added value that employers can’t easily replicate by hiring another candidate with similar credentials.  This “personal branding” process can take some thought, but it’s worth the effort, and I firmly believe that every single individual out there has at least one signature strength, talent, core value, or pearl of management wisdom that they can showcase as a way to avoid being just another “me too” candidate.  The job hunters who do this hard work and accomplish this feat also demonstrate an inordinate amount of authenticity and self-awareness, which is an intoxicating quality to most employers.  One hint, though: if you’re going to say you’re really, really good at a certain aspect of your job, you’ve got to be equally prepared to disclose some things that you’re not so great at — otherwise, you’ll have little credibility!

#10: Analysis paralysis. Lastly, I’ve often joked that most people would be much more effective at job hunting if they got a temporary frontal lobotomy — and disengaged the part of the brain that tends to overanalyze things!  Without question, despite all of the planning and organization espoused above, job searching is a sloppy process at heart.  There’s simply no way to know where your next job is going to come from, so you’ve got to get off the sidelines, get in the game, and just start putting some energy out there to see what happens.  One random resume submission to a blind posting on the Internet could lead to the opportunity of your dreams.  Your next door neighbor, or hairdresser, or distant cousin could be the one that tees you up with that great contact that hires you.  Or that round of golf you go play, to get your mind off your career woes, could pair you up with an entrepreneur who just so happens to be in the market for somebody with your skill sets!  This is just the way the game works, so if you ever catch yourself wondering “should I call this company?” or “should I contact this person?” try your best to avoid getting trapped in analysis mode — where more than likely, your subconscious is trying to play it safe and talk you out of taking action in order to avoid rejection.  It’s almost always better to bite the bullet, reach out, and see what happens.  As my former mentor used to say, “when in doubt, do!”

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