After more than two decades in the Executive Search
business, I have learned a lot about what goes into a
successful hire. I try to impart my knowledge to both hiring
managers and candidates. Nevertheless, at many job
interviews I find myself listening to questions that make me
cringe and answers that make me want to cry.
Now it's my turn to talk.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

1--2--3 strikes, you're in!

A good friend of mine has been unemployed for over seven months. Having never previously been minus a job for any extended period, he has, over the months, become appropriately concerned. He has been spending long hours at his computer each day researching companies in his industry, submitting resumes, completing applications, and driving himself crazy.

Last week, he finally found a job.  You may wonder what part of his research yielded the precious information that led to his interview and subsequent hiring.  Was it Linked In, Facebook, The Ladders, Twitter?

Actually, it was a baseball game.

Let me say that here in Chicago, going to a baseball game can be a greater punishment than wearing out your eyes and fingers on a social networking site.  Nevertheless my friend accepted an invitation to get out of the house and attend a game with a few friends.

During the course of conversation with other guests at the event, my friend mentioned his job search. One individual perked up and asked a few questions.  It turned he knew of a company with an opportunity for someone with a similar background to my friend’s.   That conversation led to a phone interview within a few days of the game, followed by a face-to-face interview resulting in a job offer the following week.

I often stress the importance of personal networking, paraphrasing Zig Ziglar’s great line, “shy salesmen have skinny kids.”   While online networking is important (and certainly better than watching Seinfeld marathons every afternoon), open conversations with friends, siblings, uncles, cousins, and former colleagues can often be more productive in a job search.  Never underestimate the importance of your sister-in-law.

Be proactive in talking about your employment status, as uncomfortable as it may make you feel, particularly when your job search has been lengthy.  Accept invitations.  Initiate lunches.  Meet someone for coffee. Go to ball games; even if it’s a Cubs or White Sox game.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Hawk-y Business

More than a few of you might know that THE CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS WON THE STANLEY CUP! this week.  (Finally over – and almost the 4th of July.)

Possibly a smaller number are aware of the recent troubled history of the franchise. In a recent issue of the Chicago Tribune, John Kass discusses the issue with Blackhawks owner, Rocky Wirtz.

“In 2004, the Blackhawks were widely considered to be the worst franchise in all of sports,” says Kass.  Previous decisions by owners had resulted in few diehard fans that cared about the Hawks and left the rest of Chicago unaware of or apathetic to the team and its players.

Owner Rocky Wirtz called the situation “depressing.” 

In 2007, when Wirtz took control, “we asked ourselves, what if you could start over…what if we could think of ourselves as a clean piece of paper, what would we write down?”

With that, the ownership began to reinvent the franchise and establish a new identity. 

“We decided that for once we’d have the hockey people talking to the business people,” said Wirtz.  “I know it sounds simple, but when I grew up around the game that didn’t happen.”

Novel ideas, I know.  Starting with a clean slate.  Establishing a direction.  Talking.  Listening.  Being receptive.  Making changes.

And two Stanley Cups in 4 years.

Both individuals and companies can take lessons from Rocky Wirtz and the Blackhawks franchise about reinvention, re-direction, and communication.  There is no lost cause.  Success is possible.

Meanwhile, what do I do with my newly acquired Monday, Wednesday and Saturday free time?

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

"Where do you see yourself in five years?"

The question is straight from the pages of The Complete and Unabridged Manual of “Uh-Oh” Interview Questions (by Bob Ward; expected publication date: five years from today).

 “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

Or it may be phrased somewhat differently.  “What are your short term and long term career goals?”

It is a relatively common interview question, favored by highly trained HR professionals and less highly trained headhunters.  You can expect to hear some version of the query over the course of a long job search, especially at the beginning to middle levels of your career. 

For the candidate who has not anticipated the question, the answer might be similar to the seven-second “ummmmmmmm” generated by my wife during a stressful job interview situation. This is why it is helpful to anticipate and prepare for this and other difficult questions before, not during the actual interview.

While this might seem to be a trick question setting up a “gotcha” moment, most hiring managers are not trying to trip you up. Rather, they are truly interested in your short term and long term career objectives.  Your answer may help them establish whether you will be happy in a given role and/or if that role will help you or hinder you in achieving your stated goals.    For instance, an individual who really wants to advance to a creative marketing role might not want to accept a position where his/her responsibilities,  visibility and mobility are limited to the finance department.  As most of us with many years of experience know, one position can set the course for a whole career.

If, however, you are not completely committed to a specific career path and really want the job for which you are interviewing, here are some broad recommendations:  Your answer should always reflect ambition and the desire to grow within your field.  Your answer should NOT indicate a desire for a radical shift in career direction.

A very generic answer (which can be adapted to a specific situation) would be “I would like to have accomplished enough in this role to be eligible and considered for the next level.”

As you reach the highest levels of an established career, this question becomes much less relevant. For example, in a recent CFO search, if any of my candidates had been asked the question, my recommended answer would have been simply “In five years, I would like to be celebrating my fifth anniversary as your CFO.”

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Burnt Bridges and Bad Blood

There are very few ways to offend a headhunter.  Over the years we recruiters develop rock-hard shells based on hearing multiple iterations of the word “no.”  Still, there are occasions when a potential candidate has behaved in such a fashion that I might choose not to work with him/her again.  And I can assure you that certain conduct during the recruiting/ interview process can cause hiring managers and human resources professionals to write off a candidate in perpetuity.  (Hiring managers and human resources professionals have long memories.)

Here are a few examples of interview/ job search misconduct that can do irreparable damage to a candidate’s future prospects with those involved.

1.     Initial rudeness.  Answer cold calls neutrally if not politely.  A recruiter or company representative may choose not to call a rude respondent again.  And the future role that you don’t hear about may be much more attractive to you than the role that you greeted with bad manners.

2.     Boredom or bad attitude during your interview.  Even if you decide early in your interview that a role is not for you, do not begin to look at your watch or yawn or otherwise demonstrate boredom.  Instead, finish out your interview with poise and graciousness and hope that the positive impression you make will benefit you in the future.  Acting bored in an interview is disrespectful to those who have spent time and effort making it happen.

3.     Dishonesty.  Lies and misrepresentations regarding your background and credentials will always be discovered and never be forgotten.

4.     Long, drawn-out indecision.  It is always hard to leave a secure position and chart a new course.  But dragging your potential employer through a lengthy hand-wringing process will lead to bad blood all around.  Vacillate all you want among your family and friends, but appear decisive among those involved in your hiring.  If you have serious reservations about a position, a quick “no” is a gift to all participants.

5.     Changing your mind after accepting a position.  When you accept a position, your employer becomes committed to you, utilizing employees and man hours to complete paperwork, make the necessary benefit arrangements, formalize your salary, prepare an office, etc.  When you renege on an offer acceptance, not only have you wasted the employer’s efforts, you have caused other interested interviewers to be released.  Plan that your name will live in infamy among all those involved in your hiring. 

When it comes to your career, a burnt bridge in your background might also require a fire extinguisher in your future.  The world can be very small sometimes.  Though you might not anticipate any future interaction with someone interviewing you today, at some point you might find that individual sitting across the desk from you at another interview with another company – or even worse, in a position as your superior.   Feel the sizzle.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Confidence Game

“Confidence is going after Moby Dick in a rowboat and taking the tartar sauce with you.”
Zig Ziglar

You might be surprised at the number of intelligent, experienced, otherwise “perfect” candidates who could use a little dose of tartar sauce – aka confidence – as they engage in the job interview process.  As someone who prepares my recruited candidates for their interviews and generally attends their initial interviews with the client, I can assure you that it is a rare candidate who does not feel a bit insecure as the interview process begins.  This is probably because the stakes are always high and the occasions for practice rare.

Lack of confidence or the appearance of such can be a big problem in a job interview.  In fact, if I were to name an “X factor” when it comes to the odds of interview success, it would be the perceived confidence of the candidate.  The more advanced the role, the more important the confidence of the candidate becomes.  A hiring manager who may entrust the “keys to the company” to a new employee must be comfortable that that individual is comfortable driving the car.

Some words that communicate confidence in a job interview are “I can do that.”  An even better statement, in my opinion is, “I have done that.”  Not so high on the confidence list is “Well, I think  maybe…”

Confidence inspires confidence.  Consider how you might choose a doctor to treat a family member’s serious illness.  Would you want the MD who seems confident and sure as he communicates his recommendations for treatment or the one who seems just a little unsure about your future treatment and outcomes? 

I am not suggesting anyone should exhibit act false confidence.  In fact, another word for false confidence is obnoxiousness, which can be just as hazardous to a candidate’s interview chances.  But do try to be aware of opportunities during your interview where you can confidently and honestly proclaim, “I can do that” or “I have done that."

If you don't see yourself as a winner, then you cannot perform as a winner.
-Zig Ziglar

Zig Ziglar, who died last year, was an American author, salesman, and motivational speaker-and somewhat of an icon to many in sales related professions, myself included.  He was a motivational speaker who preached goals, confidence, and the power of a positive attitude, among other things.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Keeping the "I" in Interview

What do the following statements have in common?

“Our office increased its sales by over 30% in 2012.”

“My group completed the task before deadline and completely revamped the procedures used in monthly reporting.””

“We compiled a database of all the company’s clients and sent out a mass e-mail promoting our new product.”

Answer:  Each of the claims tells a lot about what “we” did and very little about what “I” did.

Many of us possess an ingrained modesty when it comes to singing our own praises.   Hence we may use “we” in an effort to meticulously ascribe credit to the proper individuals.   But a disproportionate use of “we” instead of “I” in a job interview might lead an interviewer to conclude that you are coasting on the more impressive accomplishments of a group because your own accomplishments are unremarkable.  Remember, the interviewer is hiring you, not your office, your group, or your task force.

I am not suggesting that you misrepresent collective successes that are not rightfully yours.  Just the opposite, in fact.  As an interviewer, I would rather hear about your individual contributions, even if not so wide-ranging or seemingly impressive as those of the group.  For example, instead of citing the office’s 30% sales increase in the first statement above, talk about your own 20% annual sales increase, and how you attracted three new major customers through your persistence and determination. 

It might help to make a list of your personal accomplishments as part of your interview preparation.  This will help you to categorize the achievements that you own and help you to recollect such achievements during the course of your job interview.   If you review your contributions to various projects in the past few years and find them lacking, maybe it is time to step up your game. 

I know that we have all been taught as youth athletes that there is no “I” in “team.”  But there is an “I” in “interview.”  And there is also an “I” in “win”. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Your Appetizing Cover Letter

Have you ever ruined your appetite for a great dinner by eating too much before the meal?

Keep this in mind when you compose a cover letter to accompany your resume.  Like a well-apportioned appetizer, the purpose of a cover letter is to stimulate interest in what comes next, not to star as the main event.  In other words, a cover letter should deliver enough information to pique the reader’s interest in your resume, and not enough to eliminate any interest in reading further.

Last week, I asked a professional currently engaged in a job search to send me a copy of his cover letter and resume.  He promptly responded, sending an acceptable resume accompanied by a rather wordy 2-page cover letter.  I immediately saw a problem.  A cover letter should always be limited to one page.  No exceptions.  In fact, anything more than four or five paragraphs will stretch the patience limit of most hiring managers, me included.

Here is a basic outline of a successful cover letter:

¾   Include all your contact information in the letterhead.

¾   Paragraph 1:  Explain why you are sending the resume.  If you are responding to an ad or specific job posting, mention it.  Otherwise, identify the type of title or position you are seeking.  If at all possible, use a “hook” such as a reference to a current employee at the company or an area of common interest between you and the letter recipient.  (“I heard you speak at the recent University of Illinois Alumni Association meeting in Chicago.”)

¾   Paragraphs 2, 3, 4:  Highlight areas of your background that might qualify you for the type of position you are seeking.  This section should be tailored to each recipient.  Areas of importance might include academic degrees, professional certifications, recent employers/titles, and a significant achievement or two.  Remember – Appetizer.  Save details and lengthy descriptions for your resume.

¾   Final Paragraph:  Thank the recipient for his/her time and consideration.
A cover letter is often your first communication with a potential employer or recruiter.  If you are eminently qualified for a position, a few choice morsels served up in a cover letter will whet the appetite of the recipient.  If you are unqualified, no amount of creative storytelling will get around that fact.  Be forthright, be factual, be brief. 

And don’t forget to check for grammar and spelling.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Re-inventing Your Sailboat

Fortunate are those professionals who select the perfect major in college, land with a series of great employers who provide generous amounts of mentoring and opportunity, and sail through their careers with the sun overhead, a case of beer (and a bottle of sunscreen) in the cooler, and the wind always at their backs.

I’m sure these people do exist.  Well, pretty sure. 

Most sailboats encounter a few rough waves, a storm or two, or the dreaded “getting-nowhere-fast” calm along the way. Similarly, most professionals encounter some obstacles, some slow motion, and some unanticipated setbacks over the course of a career.  The economic downturn of the last four years has definitely capsized the plans of many in the work force, leaving all kinds of formerly forward-directed individuals adrift in unfamiliar waters.

Over the holidays, I happened to encounter multiple individuals who had to re-invent their careers completely.  Allow me to mention a few:

A woman named Monica helped fill my prescription at the local pharmacy.  She lost her position in customer service during the recession and couldn’t find another.  While her peers happily accepted their unemployment checks and made half-hearted efforts to find new jobs, Monica took classes to become a pharmacist’s assistant.  She is happily employed now, and making more money than she did before.

I also met a woman named Ellen. Ellen re-invented herself several times.  Originally, a financial analyst on Wall Street, she started her own successful mortgage closing company.  After selling her business and moving to the Midwest for family reasons, she became the COO or a large mortgage lending company. When the housing meltdown led to her company’s demise, she went out on her own, finding a niche need in the financial services field.  She now is able to generate a nice income and maintain a great work-life balance.   

A friend named Tim had worked in the home building business for twenty-plus years.  When residential construction died, his job ended.  After a period of unemployment, recently he was able to secure a position as the Building Manager for a Senior Residence.  His position includes new responsibilities and a new skill set which has entailed some on-the-job learning. Tim has accomplished this with minimal difficulty.

In each of these cases, re-invention was brought on by necessity, not choice.  Job loss and/or economic slowdown forced the need for change and preparation for an unexpected future. Other re-inventions are chosen.  In my case I turned my back on the CPA track and set course on a wild ride as a headhunter.

Most of us have had or will have our boat rocked at some point – in both life and career. Sometimes, to survive and flourish means charting a completely new course.  Try to look at life-changing events as opportunities to set sail in a new direction.  Then start paddling, work smart, and enjoy life.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

From Revelry to Reality: Happy New Year 2013

It’s a brand new year.  The holidays are over. You have successfully depleted your savings accounts on gifts for all those you love and some you don’t particularly like. Possibly you have embarrassed yourself at a holiday office party. You have wrapped and unwrapped, had drinks and hangovers…and started saving for next year’s gifts.  And now you must turn your focus from reindeer to career.

Or you can wait until after the National Championship Game like I am.

Meanwhile, just a few New Year’s resolutions generously written by a headhunter for you.  Consider them a late Christmas gift.

1.     Take a test.  The dreary, sports-starved months of winter (for those of who live in the frozen north half of the U.S.) are a great time to evaluate your career yet again.  Have you experienced any upward mobility over the past year?  Has a position that you regarded as a brief stop become a long term residence?  How did your company fare financially in 2012? How did you fare financially in 2012? Are you happy where you are?  What would make you happier? Take time to do an honest assessment of your status and your level of contentment vs. your goals.

2.     Make a plan.  If Question 1 indicates some adjustment is needed, figure out how to go about making that change.  Note: A plan is not a fantasy. Make your plan real.  Include actual, do-able steps you can take to accomplish your plan.

3.     Compose a resume.  Even if you are as happy as a witch in a broom factory (thank you, Geico), you might become aware of a position that offers you more money, more responsibility, or more satisfaction than your current role.  After you check the battery on your smoke alarm, work on a resume. 

4.     Network, network, network – within you company, within your industry, outside your industry, among family, friends, and colleagues.  If you haven’t been an active networker up to this point, 2013 is the time. A large personal network can serve as a springboard to better opportunities within or outside of your company; and can help to soften the impact of an unforeseen layoff, demotion, or other career disaster.

5.     Learn to read…the handwriting on the wall, that is. If you sense something is just “not right” where you work; if you are routinely idle; if you are aware that new regulations will begin to negatively affect your company; if your boss seems to have taken an active dislike to you; take active steps to correct the situation or find a new situation.  Don’t wait for the writing to move from the wall to a pink slip.

6.     Bet on yourself.  Do not let lethargy or pessimism or lack of confidence keep you from pursuing a new path.

7.     Bet on the Irish next week.