Are You Doing Your Career Yard Work?

It’s that magical time of year when there is always something that needs weeding, planting and watering if a yard is to thrive. Regardless of the time spent laboring the day before, new things pop up daily demanding attention. Any guesses for how this relates to managing your professional development or job search? It’s pretty obvious.

Before I get to the career stuff, think about your own neighborhood. If it’s like mine, there is an assortment of yards.

  • The neglected (overgrown/starved) with random clutter added to the scenery…
  • The somewhat maintained that need attention, but aren’t out of sorts enough to get a visit from the Homeowners’ Association…
  • The unpredictable that might look great or terrible depending on the week…
  • The perfectly manicured with a team of outsiders visibly doing all of the work…
  • The groomed, but overdone, with so much going on what could have been appealing becomes an eyesore…
  • The inviting, interesting and well maintained with the homeowners often visible with their hands in the dirt working on maintaining and improving…

Now it’s time to think about your professional development and job search efforts in relation to the yards described above. Like a yard, successful efforts to grow professionally and to secure meaningful employment rely on property owners (that’s YOU!) consistently weeding, watering and planting skills, goals, network, work strategy and professional messaging.

Professionally speaking, my goal is always to resemble the final bullet. No matter my job search status, I’m actively engaged in making sure I’m learning new things, keeping current on what I’ve learned before and pulling out what I no longer need. Because it’s a consistent focus, I have 24/7 curb appeal, the labor involved in maintenance is manageable and on top of others finding me interesting, credible and motivated, I have an easier time viewing myself that way, too.

Is Anyone Attempting To Recruit You?

Right now, who is attempting to recruit you for an opportunity in line with your abilities and interests? What about over the past year? 5 years? 10 years?

Not counting the abundant multilevel marketing opportunities making the circuit these days, if you haven’t been the target of a recruitment effort, you may be in the middle, or on the verge, of a professional crisis. A key thing we learned from the economic downturn is those fortunate enough to be visible and recognized as having in-demand skills fare much better professionally. Not only are they able to land jobs faster when needed, they are less likely to lose their jobs to begin with because their employers recognize their street value and appreciate their contribution to the company. If no one is trying to recruit you, it’s important to ask yourself a few questions.

  1. Do you have skills with street value? For your profession, what’s hot at the moment?
  2. Are you visible in professional circles relevant to what you do?
  3. Is your employer, let alone potential employers, aware of your connections and abilities?
  4. How unique are you compared to others in your field? Would it be easy to replace you with someone else?
  5. What could your employer lose and your next employer gain were you to be recruited away? Are you the only one aware of these answers?

Whether you’re working or unemployed, a good sign you have valuable skills and are demonstrating them in a visible way is a call from a company attempting to woo you to join its team. It’s amazing to me how many people view a company attempting to recruit them as rude or off putting. It’s the opposite. It’s positive reinforcement your efforts aren’t going unnoticed. If strangers see what you’re doing and recognize your value, all the  more likely your current employer sees it, too.

Why is this important? For the unemployed, the answer is obvious. If you’re invisible and/or viewed as not having recruit-worthy skills, you’re not going to land a job easily. Quick work must be made of closing the visibility and skill gap, while dealing with the stress already a part of being without a job. For the employed, you are increasing the odds you might be viewed as dispensable by your current employer and missing out on the chance to build a solid safety net of connections and options should you find yourself on the hunt.

It’s great to get a plan in place for how to become a sought after recruit while you have time on your side. This doesn’t mean you have to entertain all of the attempts to recruit you. This doesn’t mean you have to be looking for a job 24/7. All this means is you should be taking care to ensure you remain in demand, because demand contributes greatly to stable employment and professional growth.

What can you do to increase your chance of being targeted for recruitment?

  1. Keep current with in-demand skills in your field. If you don’t know what they are, network with similar professionals, research job postings for skills noted at your level and above and contact universities with your degree program and ask for course descriptions now required for majors relevant to your subject area.
  2. Be visible to your employer and to prospective employers. If you’re the only one who knows the good work you are doing, it’s a problem. Join professional associations, create a LinkedIn profile, offer to speak or submit articles in your field and create reports noting the results of the work you are performing (or have performed) even if an employer hasn’t required you to do so.
  3. Remain open to conversations about opportunity. Those who only talk to people when they are actually looking for a job miss out on the chance to be in the flow of valuable information and risk coming off as self-serving.

At the end of the day, know a company attempting to recruit you is a very good thing. It shows you are at the top of your game. It shouldn’t be viewed as a bad thing by you or the company you work for. As a manager, I was always happy to hear when someone was chasing an employee of mine. It reinforced I’d made a good hire and kept me focused on making sure I was growing that person professionally so they’d want to continue to be a part of my team as their star continued to shine brighter.

Solving The “We Don’t Give References” Problem

A growing number of companies are limiting the information they release in the referencing process. Many of the job seekers I’m working with, who have been laid off from large organizations, struggle to close the deal with a prospective employer because their former employer is so tight lipped. Their former supervisors, who still work with the company, aren’t permitted to give references on their work and human resources will only release dates and titles. Though I understand why references are harder to come by, when prospective employers can’t get meatier information it’s often viewed as a red flag the candidate may be a problem child.

If you’re looking for work and your past employers have reference policies similar to what I’ve described above, there are things you can do.

  1. Contact the human resource department of the company directly and ask if you can submit a letter granting the release of more detailed information and absolving the company of any liability for having done so.
  2. Pull together any copies you have of performance reviews from your time with the company, make copies, and submit those with your reference list to the prospective employer.
  3. If you did not keep copies of your performance reviews, contact your former employer and ask them for copies. They should be part of your personnel file.
  4. Contact individuals no longer with the company who worked closely with you and can speak to your work responsibilities and performance. These individuals aren’t bound by the same restrictions as current employees.
  5. Secure references from individuals from outside of the company who interacted with you regularly. Clients and vendors are often in a great position to speak to your professionalism, creativity, reliability, knowledge, etc.
  6. Probe your professional network to identify mutual contacts between you and members of the prospective company. If a company has to make a hiring decision on you with scant information from a past employer, it’s less of a risk if you can show you aren’t a stranger to the organization. Showing you know some of the same people and having those contacts endorse you gives you insider appeal.

Now that we’ve covered things you can do in this situation, let me close by saying the one thing you should never do. A sure way to set off warning bells in the ears of prospective employers is to roll out this little nugget of information with an “oh well” shoulder shrug…”You can call that company, but they aren’t allowed to give out any information.” That may be a fact, but it gives the impression the candidate is hiding something. Instead, lead with something like, “The company’s reference policy limits what it releases to dates and titles. Since you need more details to make an informed decision on my candidacy, I’ve put together a list of individuals from outside the company who worked directly with me in the past. I also have signed copies of past performance reviews and job descriptions for your benefit.”

The Quick Get Hired

When you’re trying to land a job, quick is where it’s at. There are all sorts of ways to be quick and they all matter when it comes to a winning job search strategy. Job seekers with the best odds of finishing first are those who can:

  • build a diverse network of influential contacts quickly.
  • act on leads and initiate an appropriate level of contact quickly.
  • provide follow-up and requested documents quickly.
  • identify and learn new skills relevant to their field quickly.
  • articulate what they are looking to do and where their experiences and abilities would be useful quickly.
  • get to the meat of whatever point they are trying to make at a given moment quickly.

When it comes to a job search, the cliche’ “analysis is paralysis” reigns supreme. Yes, you want to do your homework and get your approach right. When researching equals waiting a week or so to act on a hot lead or reach out to a new contact, your well informed effort is destined to be dead on arrival.

If you aren’t doing things quickly, you are at risk at being perceived as doing things slowly. I don’t know of many organizations right now who value a turtle’s pace. Push yourself to ensure you radiate progress. If you’ve got too much on your plate to be efficient, strip off the things that don’t matter as much. You’ll experience better results providing quick and meaningful output with a smaller workload than being slow attempting to do the same with more than you can handle.

Resume Reviews

When you ask someone to review your resume, make sure you are on the same page in terms of what is to be evaluated. Too often the primary focus ends up being typos and word choices. Yes, we want those things brought to our attention, but a big component of a resume review has to be the flow and value of the content. Aside from basic editing, it’s crucial to get to the bottom of how well you conveyed your intended message and to what degree you convinced the reader you would be an asset to the type of opportunity you seek.

Here are some simple questions to ask those charged with critiquing your resume:

  • What is your immediate impression of my resume’s visual presentation? How do you feel about the font choices, the spacing of content, ease of at-a-glance navigation, etc?
  • Based on the content in the top 1/4 of my resume, what is your understanding of what I’m looking to do and what I’ve got to offer that suggests I’m capable and talented?
  • When reading my resume from start to finish, what areas do you feel yourself starting to lose interest, having a hard time sticking with the information or wanting to skip forward to new information?
  • What statements on my resume strike you more as my opinion versus a proven fact?
  • What information on my resume seems important? What information seems insignificant?
  • What content in the bottom 3/4 of my resume interests you more than the content in the top 1/4 of my resume?
  • After reading my resume from start to finish, how convinced are you I am qualified and potentially a good fit for the type of opportunity I’ve indicated I’m chasing? What information present makes the best case? What type of information (skills, experience, involvement) doesn’t appear to be present that a person hiring for this type of role might come to expect?
  • What words did you spot on my resume that would likely be keywords a recruiter would use to search the resumes of those applying for this type of work? What keywords can you think of that aren’t on my resume, but should be?

There are certainly more angles you can cover. These questions will get your critique started on the right foot. Keep in mind, the value of the answers you get depends heavily on who you’ve asked to review your resume. The goal should be to solicit help from those likely to be in step with the types of decision makers who will be receiving your resume.

Double Dipping

For those who have been at a job search for an extended period of time, you’ve likely seen positions pop up with organizations you’ve submitted applications to months or years before. Trust me when I tell you it is absolutely okay to double dip. Don’t be shy about taking another shot at working for a company that may have rejected or ignored you in the past. It’s possible the no you got in the past was really a “not at this time.” Considering the companies job seekers apply to early in their search tend to be their favorites, or those most in-line with their professional background, failing to try again would be a crime.

If you are going to double dip, allow me to make one recommendation. Make absolutely sure you show some growth since your original application or resume submission. Growth can come in the form of volunteer experiences, newly acquired skills, internships, expanding networking circles, etc. There is no excuse for handing an employer an identical resume the second time around.

A job seeker not having any new features to sell after months or years is a red flag to hiring managers. What better way to ensure you’re viewed as someone lacking initiative or the ability to grow? This is not like a high school reunion where it’s cool to hear, “you haven’t changed a bit since I last saw you!” Living things are expected to change over time, so do your best to shed any resemblance to an inanimate object and make sure the valuable changes you’ve made since the last point of contact are known.


When They Write, You’re Right

When I’m in a business meeting with someone, I rely on one simple sign to tell me if I’m on the right track with the information I’m sharing. It’s great when people are smiling at me and asking questions or making comments about what I’ve said, but the real winner for me is when the other person finds the need to write down something I’ve said. Then I know I’ve given the person something new and worth remembering.

Think about the interviews you’ve had. Did the interviewer ever grab a pen? Was your interviewer’s copy of your resume a graffiti exhibit at the conclusion of the meeting? If not, you’ve got some work to do.

If the interviewer was writing something down, what were you saying at the time? Was it something meaningful that the person might want to remember? Did you capitalize on their interest in that particular line of discussion? If it wasn’t really meaningful, was were you inspiring them to put pen to paper about? Was it drivel that moved the person to write “talks too much” or “remember to buy eggs at the store” during that particular moment?

The true indicator of how interested a potential employer is in you comes in the form of a job offer. Don’t discount the clues offered along the way, however. Think of what you do when you are hearing something interesting and meaningful to you and look for those same actions in those you meet with. If you’re not seeing signs of interest, like a pen in motion, you’ve got to rethink your approach.

I Can Make More On Unemployment

The top complaint I hear from employers about unemployment extensions is having candidates turn down jobs because they claim they can make more on unemployment. It’s a concern that’s easy to get riled up about. I’d like to add some perspective, however.

Let me say first, yes, there are lazy people who don’t care to improve their circumstances or pull their weight in this world. They are happy to live off of the efforts of others. That said, there are also a lot of responsible and smart people caught up in a nightmare right now with a lot of complicated layers. I promise you, many of the people I interact with who receive unemployment benefits hate the experience. The emotions that come from cashing that check are hard to understand if you haven’t been in that situation or know someone really well who has.

Back to accepting low paying jobs. If the job in question has a true street value comparable to unemployment, I agree the job seeker should be open to taking it. Especially if the employer is open to the fact those who have made considerably more in the past will need to keep their job search going in order to land a job better able to meet the obligations of the committed expenses they likely have (mortgage, student loans, car notes, etc.). Most of the job seekers I work with have applied for a variety of low paying jobs for cash flow. Do employers call them in for an interview? Rarely.

The low paying jobs that seem to chase them are those that are questionable marketing opportunities that are commission only or positions requiring skill sets similar to theirs that pay well below the actual street value for the job. Because so many displaced workers are struggling to find jobs, some companies have knowingly attempted to exploit their desperate circumstances. In addition to low-balling wages, companies are frequently classifying the jobs as part-time. Is that because the workload isn’t sufficient for full-time or is it an attempt to dodge providing benefits? Hard to say. Unfortunately, many of the part-time opportunities my contacts have been presented with involve so many hours, with unpredictable schedules, it makes it nearly impossible for the individual to have the time or flexibility to interview for other jobs better able to provide for their families’ needs. In fact, there is a less than subtle suggestion those who would continue their job search need not apply. There is a training expense to account for,  you see.

It’s a no win situation for the job seeker. They are a leech on society if they don’t agree to be exploited. If they take the job, they are committing themselves to almost certain financial ruin. These aren’t horrible or irresponsible people. They are normal hard working professionals caught in the middle of a nightmare who are trying to find a way to provide for their families. They are individuals with skills and long careers trying to make choices that won’t destroy their chances of being taken seriously down the road. They are men and women smart enough to know when someone is trying to exploit them and in a position to say “not yet, you don’t.” If unemployment benefits went away, job seekers wouldn’t have this layer of protection. They’d have to bow to whatever low rates employers felt compelled to offer because they’d be stuck without other options.

Again, I’m not saying all who are on unemployment are trying hard to get off of it and I’m not saying all employers offering lower wages are out of line. I’m simply attempting to offer more balance to the debate. Be upset with those who are gaming the system. Just know it’s not just about job seekers. Direct your disapproval equally to the employers suggesting their job requiring an Associates Degree or higher in Accounting commands an $8-$10/hr pay rate. Shake your finger at the company who lays off their $50K Operations Manager and hires a new grad for $24K. Wrinkle your nose at the school districts pink slipping certified teachers and hiring them back as teacher’s aides for $10/hr because they can. Candidates who have had to knowingly take positions clearly below the fair market value will tell you it’s a tough pill to swallow with a lot of important factors to consider.

Anyone who says they’d take the job and just suck it up is probably making that claim without the consequence of ever having to make that decision themselves. I don’t see many of the critics being willing to practice what they are preaching.

You “Can Do The Job” – So What?

Care to hear a line I hear frequently? “I don’t understand companies! They aren’t giving me a chance even though I know I’ve proven I can do the jobs I’ve applied for!”

My response to that is, “so what?” Great, you’ve proven you can do the job. It’s highly likely other candidates have, too. Making it into the “can do the job” pile of applications isn’t enough. You’ve still got to differentiate yourself from others who meet the basic capability requirements. What have you done to emerge as the “can do this job better than our other options” candidate? Above that, what have you done to inspire potential employers to view you as the best thing since sliced bread versus the best of whoever happened to apply for the job? Keep in mind, being the best of the bunch doesn’t matter if the bunch as a whole was a disappointment.

It’s unrealistic and unfair to think companies are going to make a choice solely by someone being able to do a job as it’s listed and that they’ll pick the best of what comes their way even if it’s not really what they want. Why? Because no one really makes choices that way when it comes to something important. Take buying a car or a home. As buyers we list off general features that are important to us. We note our requirements and preferences. Think of how many options we often have to weigh before we can pick the one that’s right for us. Though car dealers and realtors present us with a host of possibilities that “would do,” we don’t pull the trigger until the option that excites us comes our way. Sometimes the decision is immediate and other times there is a long series of starts and stops until the winner surfaces.

In a nutshell, quit expecting employers to approach a decision of how they want to spend tens of thousands of dollars with less consideration than you would. Remind yourself it’s normal to lose out to personal preference. Challenge yourself to look for the chemistry, on top of the capability fit, in the opportunities you chase.

Just Ask The Question!

Asking strategic questions should be a key part of a job seeker’s search strategy. A few months ago I blogged about the quality of the questions job seekers’ pose in the post “Dumb Questions Do Exist.” You can read that post here.

Today the focus is on the commentary often leading up to a question, commentary that’s usually not needed or even appropriate. I’ll make up some examples of the types of situations I experience where my inner voice is shouting, “Just ask the question!”

  1. I grew up on a small farm in rural Michigan and spent the formative years of my life in an agricultural setting. From there I went to college and took an interest in the sciences, specifically biochemistry. Surprisingly I found myself working in a medical setting when I’d planned as a child to remain in agriculture. Unfortunately, I found the healthcare industry less than satisfying. I was too isolated in the lab and, through a series of interesting events, made the move to recruitment. As a result, I’ve spent most of my professional career working in job placement and helping job seekers connect with opportunity. My question is, having just moved to this area, what are good ways to connect with job seekers and business owners in this town?
  2. Paraphrasing… I have a very unique situation that is likely irrelevant to everyone else in this room. The extensive details of the situation are 15 minutes of blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. How do you recommend I handle this complex situation that no one else likely cares about or is experiencing?
  3. Companies are clueless these days. They post tons of positions over and over again. I apply for them and never even get a call back. I’m qualified, but they still repost the positions as if I’ve never applied. I don’t understand what’s up. They are probably ignoring me because of my age or something. Why would a company not respond to my application when I’m a fit for the job?

The first situation involves the unnecessary preface, if you can even call it that in this instance. The information leading up to the question isn’t needed for the person on the receiving end to answer. Lead-ins like this result in the person asking the question coming off as being so focused on himself he sees value in sharing his autobiography with everyone he meets.

The second situation involves picking a question that is so random and detached from what others present would immediately understand or identify with that it takes a detailed walk through of complicated minutia for the person on the receiving end to even be able to take a stab at an answer. If your question requires a rambling preface for it to make sense to the person on the receiving end or the audience sharing that person’s time, it’s probably the wrong question to begin with.

The third situation involves the insertion of negative commentary. Perhaps the person asking the question is right that companies are clueless or discriminating. What if the job seekers is wrong though? What if the company didn’t get the application? What if the application had an error on it and wasn’t considered complete? What if the resume didn’t contain keywords? What if the cover letter had a typo and it disqualified the job seeker from consideration? What if the experience the job seeker feels makes him/her a fit wasn’t presented effectively on the resume? Because the question was laced with commentary that’s hardly flattering, this person is going to lose not matter what the answer ends up being. The habit of framing questions with the presumption someone else is an idiot is far from rare. It’s icky in any situation, and horribly embarrassing when the individual turns out to be the one who missed the boat on something.