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Archive for the Getting in the door Category

How to launch a seemingly impossible career change

In the April 19, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks how to get in the door for a seemingly impossible job change.


leavingI want to make a big career change into medical device sales, but it’s going to be tricky. My experience is in teaching, primarily English as a second language. I don’t expect to get a sales job to start, so I want to start out in sales support. I’ve done tons of research on the company I’ve chosen, its technology and products, and I’ve even talked to some of the company’s customers — doctors and medical centers. I know that their salespeople’s time is worth a little over $1,000 an hour, so good sales support is key to profitability.

Two contacts — an old friend and her friend — work in the company where I want a job, and I’m using LinkedIn to find more contacts. I have read both your How Can I Make a Career Change? (I thoroughly enjoyed my library vacation) and Fearless Job Hunting books, and I am following your advice. But my execution might be a bit rocky. How can I parlay these contacts into more connections that might help me get in front of the right manager to talk about a seemingly impossible job change?

Nick’s Reply

You’re right — that’s a huge, daunting leap. Medical sales is a tough field to get into. Your odds aren’t good, but I don’t believe in odds or in luck. I believe in hard work. If you really want to do this, do all the hard work and don’t let anything deter you until you either get the job or exhaust every avenue.

But you didn’t ask my permission. You asked how to get in the door.

It’s going to require more than one or two contacts, so you need to leverage your two friends to meet more people in the company. I’m both a fan and an antagonist when it comes to LinkedIn. It’s the best online phonebook ever developed. On the other hand, it’s become just another job board after squandering its future as a true networking tool.

Leverage LinkedIn

Here’s how to use LinkedIn to help you with this. Ask your friends for one or two names of people who work in or near the department at the company where you want to work. Then search both LinkedIn and Google to find them, and then more people who are connected to the company’s product areas where you want to work. (I suggest you re-read “A Good Network Is a Circle of Friends,” pp. 27-32 in How Can I Change Careers?)

Search Google for the company name plus the product names and related technologies. Let me caution you here: Google Search and Google News are different. You’ll turn up different results. I prefer News because the results will surface names of specific people and stories about them — and that’s what you want. The more relevant names you can dig up this way, the better. Then look up each person on LinkedIn — and ask your friends if they know them.

When you contact someone you found this way, you don’t have to rely on that tenuous LinkedIn “connection” to get their attention. (I hate it when someone reaches out to me and says, “I found you on LinkedIn!” So what? They might as well have found me in the phone book!) You should refer to the news article you read about them. Talk shop, and mention the two people you know at the company:

How to Say It:
“I was just talking to Mary Smith, who works in the Blah-Blah department at your company, and I also just read this article in the Wall Street Journal about your role in your company’s…”

Talk shop!

You’ve clearly done your homework — Good for you! — so you can actually ask them a couple of intelligent questions about their work. This tells them you’re not some LinkedIn opportunist who ran a keyword search to “find” them. You actually know something about what they do. This puts you on a very different footing from someone who’s calling around for job leads via LinkedIn.

Having started a work-related — if very simple — discussion, you can move on to your objective:

How to Say It:
“I wonder if I could ask you for some advice. My background is… and I’m considering a job in sales support. I don’t just want to send in a resume, because I’d like to learn more about the support function in sales of XYZ devices. I know that a sales person’s time at your company is worth about $1,000 an hour, so sales support is an important lever for profitability. Is there someone you can recommend that I talk with in sales or sales support so I can learn more about the role?”

Isn’t that more powerful than saying, “Hey, do you know of any job leads at your company?” You will leave your competitors in the dust. Here’s another way to break the ice with such a contact:

How to Say It:
“I noticed in the article I read that you work with the Hannenframmis device line. Another company, X, makes a related device they call a Thingamajig. What do you think of their product?”

A question like that tells the person you’ve studied the company, its products and its competition. What LinkedIn query goes into such detail? Your request is out of the ordinary. You’re not asking for a job lead — you’re talking shop. When you ask someone for their opinion or advice about something relating to their work, I find they usually want to share their thoughts.

Once again, having established a bit of credibility, it’s easy to switch to:

“Hey, I wonder if I could ask you for some advice…” and use the How to Say It suggestion above.

Critical Mass: Nobody said it was easy

If they don’t recommend anyone, just say, “Thanks — it was good to meet you. Thanks for your time,” and move on. But my guess is they will offer you some help. One new contact and referral thus leads to another. You learn something new every step of the way, and you will build a critical mass of contacts and insight. Some of them will know one another — and that builds your credibility further as you navigate the company to find the right manager in sales.

One of your new friends will refer you to a manager who will recognize a highly motivated person who wants to work in sales support. Without applying for a job, you’ll be an insider. When you get near that manager, re-read Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3: Get in The Door (way ahead of your competition), “Share Experiences: The path to success,” pp. 12-14, and “Pest, or manager’s dream?” pp. 18-19.

I’ll caution you: This is not easy or quick, nor should it be. While your competition is sending keywords to HR managers, you’ll be talking to insiders — that requires dedication and focus. Managers tend to hire people they know, or people referred by trusted contacts. That’s what this approach gradually turns you into — an insider — if you invest the time to do the homework, to talk with people patiently, and to learn all you can about the company you want to work for so you can demonstrate why you’re the profitable hire.

How do you get in the door when the job you want is a big change from what you’ve been doing? Ever make a big career change? What would you suggest to this earnest reader?

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What’s the secret to the thank-you note?

In the February 2, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks about adding value after a job interview.


Your newsletter has been an education for me. First as an employer, now as an applicant seeking to move on. But, there’s one topic you haven’t mentioned: the thank-you, or follow-up letter. When should it be sent? After the first interview, after the interview with the top dog, or both? And, what should it say?

value-addedI just sent one, after talking to the top dog. I repeated that I am interested in the position and told him of my immediate schedule. More importantly, and motivated by your columns, I told him about some activity of a standards committee that might have a strategic impact on his operations. I said I would be joining the committee, ex officio, by contributing some research I was doing, and I also told him what my input would be if I were working for him.

Back to my question: I think the best way to show I can solve his problems (and that I am more “dialed in” than his present staff, who are unaware of the standards committee) is in the follow-up letter. What do you think?

Nick’s Reply

Ah, you’re living proof that the employment system brainwashes us all and that smart people dumb down when they go job hunting! (See Employment In America: WTF is going on?)

You have answered your own question, but I think you’re worried you’re violating some interviewing protocol. Your idea is good — you did the right thing.

When to send a follow-up letter or e-mail is up to you. Trust your judgment. The main purpose of such a note is to add value for the benefit of the employer. My advice would be to send it to the manager you’d work for if you were hired, right after you’ve met with him. That’s the person you need to impress with your value. (See The most important question in an interview.)

I like what you did in your follow-up letter. You provided value. You offered information and a suggestion that could — if used properly — contribute to the employer’s bottom line. That’s a very powerful follow-up to an interview, because it demonstrates your commitment to help the business. Now that I’ve set you loose, here are a few tips that might help you avoid going a little too far next time.

  • Be judicious when communicating your value. Remember that some managers might feel threatened by too much “value” in your presentation. Be careful you don’t come across as a know-it-all.
  • Balance your ability to do the work with your ability to work with others. If this top dog’s team doesn’t know about the standards committee, you might suggest how they could use what you know, rather than emphasize that they don’t know it.
  • Be diplomatic. Avoid expressions like, “I can solve your problems” or “the best way to do this is…” It may seem obvious, but while you’re trying to follow The Headhunter’s approach, it’s easy to fall into the self-aggrandizement trap. You may be the best solution, but the manager needs to feel that’s his conclusion, not yours.

So, how do you go about communicating your value without risking going too far? Pretend you’re sitting around a conference table with the manager’s entire team. All eyes are on you. Your presentation will determine whether these people decide to hire you.

Batter up!

How would you present yourself? How would you articulate your ideas in that setting? Do you want to whack one out of the park, or hit a ground-roll double to knock in a few guys who are already on base? The choice is yours, but consider what the employer is looking for: a team player, or a solo star? Then craft your note to suit the situation. (See The New Interview.)

I think that’s how you want to come across in your follow-up letter. That’s the secret to a powerful thank-you note. (For more tips about thank-you notes, see Thanks is not enough.)

Do you send thank-you notes? Are they even necessary? If you use them, what do you include? To whom do you send them? Please share the outcomes of your best and worst efforts.

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Do employers haze new college grads in interviews?

In the January 26, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, we talk about where parents fit in the career equation.


I’m a senior at a big state university in the midwest. I have applied for many jobs and gotten a few leads, and some employers are inquiring via my LinkedIn account. The problem is that some of these employers require me to take silly numerical assessments that have nothing to do with the job, and I have to invest time in them before I can even have an interview.


Recently I was sitting before a group of managers and asked to use mental math on a series of frivolous arithmetical questions. I offered very close approximations, but was prompted to “be more specific.” I stopped and said, “Look, if I’m making decisions on the fly, I’m estimating. I’m not a human calculator. I’m here to do my job well, and this isn’t a tool I’ll utilize.”

I was escorted out. Did I make the right move? Are some interviews just a form of hazing that we are supposed to tolerate just because we’re applying for our first jobs?

Nick’s Reply

I’m sorry you’re having such a hard time, but I think you made the right move. I think some people would disagree, and suggest that you take whatever employers shovel at you, because you’re a new grad and need to get a job.

Sadly, this sort of new-grad employment hazing is common. The attitude among some employers seems to be that, since you have no real experience they can judge you on, anything goes. Why are manhole covers round? How many barbers do you think are in Chicago? What animal would you be, if you could be any animal? Or, do some quick math out loud so we can see whether you’re smart. (It gets worse. See Top 10 Stupid Interview Questions: #1 – #5.)

These are excuses for employers’ failure to learn how to assess whether a person can do a job. (See What is the single best interview question ever?) I think your instinct is correct. These are not legitimate interview practices. HR buys these lame “screening tools” from “HR consultancies” run by failed HR people. It’s really stupid. I compliment you for coming out of school and questioning what seems to be standard procedure that isn’t legit, smart, or acceptable.

Such ridiculous screening practices tell you a lot about an employer and what it would be like to work there. Smarter companies are coming to realize how this kind of nonsense reflects on them. Google, for example, recently announced it would stop using silly questions to assess candidates, because the company did an outcomes analysis and found such questions don’t predict an employee’s success. (See 4 HR Practices That Kill ROI.) More employers need to reconsider their screening methods.

As I mentioned above, you’ll find that many people will advise you to shut up and play ball, and to never question the people who control the job offer. But I’ll tell you to never hesitate to judge the managers who are interviewing you.

In Fearless Job Hunting, Book 8: Play Hardball With Employers, (p. 28) I offer this advice:

Judge a manager’s sincerity about working together. Does she want to hire you because you can add something to the way the work is done, or does she want another interchangeable part for her machine? Listen carefully to what the manager says. You will hear either a mind interacting with your own, or a machine waiting to grind you up.

Too often, in an effort to impress a manager, candidates calculate their answers so they’ll add up for the manager — but not for the candidate. Consider that if you need to calculate your answers this way, there’s a good chance you’re playing to the interview rather than setting the stage for an honest, accurate judgment.

What would happen if you answered simply, directly and honestly? Perhaps the manager would not like your answer. Perhaps your answer would cost you the job. That’s good. Because, do you want to work with a manager who can’t deal with you?

It’s your choice. Every question a manager asks tells you something about the manager. Every reaction to your answers tells you something, too. The manager is judging you. Don’t forget to judge the manager.

Consider that out of dozens of interviews, only one might turn into a job offer. Likewise, out of dozens of employers, only one might behave professionally enough to be worth working for. It’s up to you to use your good sense to judge who’s worthy. The idea that you should sit back and take whatever an interviewer throws at you — that’s about as reasonable as you tossing silly questions at employers and expecting them not to kick you out of interviews. Hazing, whether practiced by college fraternities and other social groups, or by employers, reveals that the group has nothing better to offer than a pathetic demonstration of its own insecurity.

If you’re going to be shown the door — like you were — let it be because you have higher standards than an employer whose idea of interviewing is silly hazing. (See Raise your standards.)

When you find a good employer, you’ll know it. There are some excellent ones out there who will engage you in discussion about the work they want done, and who know how to assess your abilities respectfully and intelligently. They’re worth looking for. Meantime, remember that stupid interview questions are sometimes a sign of stupid employers. Move on.

How do you handle silly interview questions? (Maybe you don’t think the example in this Q&A was so silly?) Do you have ways of helping keep interviews on track? Have you ever been rejected because you couldn’t explain what animal you would be, if you could be any animal?

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References: How employers bungle a competitive edge

In the December 8, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader gets down on reference checking.


I’ve come to the conclusion that asking for references is about the dumbest thing a company can do in the hiring process. First, I believe that any prior employer is only obligated to give the dates you worked and at what salary. They don’t like to give any qualitative assessment because there are potential liability issues involved. Second, who is going to give a personal reference that would not describe you in laudatory terms? I think references are just another personnel department make-work project! What do you think?

referencesNick’s Reply

One of the very best ways to size up a job candidate is to consider the opinions of her professional community. Employers who ignore peer review take unnecessary risks when hiring. But that’s where today’s reference-checking practices have led us.

Incompetent reference checking

Asking for references seems dumb because it has been made trivial; so trivial that companies routinely outsource reference checks rather than do it themselves. (See Automated Reference Checks: You should be very worried.) They’re going to judge you based on a routine set of questions that someone else asks a bunch of people on a list. How ludicrous is that?

Employers have bought into the idea that a reference check is like a credit check, but it’s not. A credit check digs up objective information: numbers, loan payment dates, defaults.

A reference check is largely subjective. The source of information isn’t a bricks-and-mortar bank that’s required to divulge facts about your accounts. A reference source is a mushy human being who may be in a good mood or a bad mood; who may know you well, or not. The reference checker must know the context — the industry, the profession, the work, the community — or he can’t possibly understand what to ask or what the comments really mean. This is why most reference checks are simply incompetent, if not dangerous.

reference-checkerThe “reference and investigations” industry may be able to turn up criminal records and such, but you can’t tell me that a researcher is going to elicit a subtle judgment of a job candidate by calling a name on a list. Worse, if the information that’s collected is erroneous, why would such a reference checker care? He’s not accountable to anyone. The employer that buys it doesn’t care and isn’t going to ask you to explain. To borrow a phrase, outsourcing reference checks is like washing your hands with rubber gloves on. If you’re going to feel anything, you must get your hands dirty!

Real reference checking

There is no finesse in reference checking any more — not for most employers. A real reference check is done quietly and responsibly, by talking to sources that a manager tracks down on her own by using her network of professional contacts. These are candid references; comments made off the record within a trusted professional relationship. That’s where you’ll find the true measure of a candidate.

Did I just break five laws? That’s only because the skeevy industry that has grown around reference investigations requires regulation. It’s because employers are no longer good at teasing apart credible references from spiteful or sugar-coated ones. They want to put the legal liability for making judgments of character and reputation on someone else.

There’s a better way to do it, and it’s time-honored among honorable businesspeople. The person doing the reference checking must be savvy and responsible. She must know what she’s doing. A greenhorn human resources clerk is out. In fact, the only person who should be doing such a check is the hiring manager. The most candid discussions will take place between managers who know their industry, their professional community, and the issues in their business. Where a manager might not open up to an “investigator,” she’s likely to share information with a peer. Credible, useful information comes from credible, trustworthy sources. You can’t buy it.

If it’s true that hiring the best people matters, then real reference checks give an employer a very powerful competitive edge. Outsource reference checks, or do them ineptly, and you’ve bungled your company’s future.

Reference checking is a community event

The reason — other than legal — that companies don’t do effective checks is that human resources (HR) departments simply don’t have the kinds of contacts in the professional community that could yield legitimate, credible references. And that brings into question HR’s entire role in the recruitment, selection and hiring process. If you don’t have good enough connections in the professional community to do that kind of reference check, how could you possibly recruit from that community? Both tasks require the exact same kind of contacts and relationships. It’s all about the employer’s network.

accountableJob hunters correctly worry that bad references might cost them a job. That’s a real problem. The question is, is the bad reference justified? If it is, then perhaps it should cost you a job. Don’t shoot the messenger. Take a good look at yourself, and recognize that the truth has consequences in your social and professional community. (But all is not lost. See How can you fight bad references?)

It should not be illegal to rely on credible opinions about you. By the same token, managers must be attuned to vengeful references, and take appropriate measures to verify them. But regulating candor is no solution. When we count on the law to protect us from all information, we must expect to get hurt by a lack of good information.

If I were to check your references, I’d get good, solid information about you. And I might not ever call anyone on the list you gave me. I’ll use my contacts to triangulate on your reputation. (You might be surprised at who I talk to. See The Ministry of Reference Checks.) Will someone try to torpedo you? Possibly, but it’s quite rare. More likely, I’ll turn something up that makes me want to get to know you better; to assess you more carefully.

The trouble is, good reference checks are rarely done. Hence, most reference information is pure garbage, as you suggest. And this hurts good workers just as it hurts good employers. In the end, all we have to go on is the opinion of our professional community. Stifle it, and the community suffers the consequences.

References are your competitive edge

References are such an important tool to help you land a job that I can’t emphasize enough that you must plan, prepare and use references to give you an edge. In Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3: Get In The Door (way ahead of your competition) I discuss just how strategic references are.

First, learn how to launch a reference:

“The best… reference is when a reputable person in your field refers you to an employer. In other words, the referrer ‘sends you’… to his peer and suggests she hire you.” (pp. 23-24)

Second, use preemptive references:

A “preemptive reference is one who, when the employer is ready to talk to references, calls the employer before being called. Such a call packs a powerful punch. It tells the employer that the reference isn’t just positive, it’s enthusiastic.” (p. 24)

The truth matters. Legislating against the opinions of others about us is, well, stupid. Far better to manage those opinions and to be responsible about them. If you’re a manager, it’s also far better to take responsibility and check applicants’ references yourself. Don’t let HR do it. What do references really mean?

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600 Editions: The Best of Ask The Headhunter!

In the November 10, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, we look at the best of 600 editions!


I’ve been reading your Ask The Headhunter newsletter for a long time. Before that, I remember your forum on The Motley Fool going back into the 1990s! I have no idea how many questions you’ve answered in all those years, but I wanted to ask you — is there any topic you have not covered? What’s your favorite topic or Q&A? Thanks for sharing so much good advice all these years and for doing it for free!

Nick’s Reply

Thanks for following Ask The Headhunter for so long! I stopped counting the questions I’ve answered after 40,000. (Yes, I typed all the replies myself! Ouch!) I’ve been saving your note for a good occasion, and this is it.

Nick5bI published the first Ask The Headhunter Newsletter on September 20, 2002. Ask The Headhunter first went online on January 17, 1995 — on Prodigy, if any of you remember that partnership between IBM and Sears Roebuck! But the newsletter actually debuted in November 1999, when TechRepublic licensed a Q&A feature from me for several years. That version of the newsletter was daily!

I had such a good time producing it that I decided to continue it on my own — and over 10,000 subscribers immediately followed from TechRepublic. Today that list is huge, and this marks the 600th weekly edition. I couldn’t do any of this without the great questions from subscribers!

I don’t really have any favorite editions of my own, but there are several Ask The Headhunter articles and newsletters that I think are fundamental to what ATH is all about — so I thought it might be worth re-capping some of the “best of Ask The Headhunter.” I hope you enjoy this as much I’ve enjoyed putting it together! (And I hope you get a kick out of the series of mugshots I’ve used in the newsletter through the years!)

The Basics

If you’re new to Ask The Headhunter, this is a great place to start: The Headhunter’s Basics: Job hunting with the headhunter. This core set of articles explains:

  • What’s wrong with the employment system
  • How to use the strategy headhunters use — yourself!
  • What employers really want — and it’s not your interview skills!
  • The mistakes that will sink your job search
  • How to be the profitable hire that all good employers want

Resume Blasphemy

Nick1cI think my best article might be one I avoided writing for years. People kept asking, How can I write a really great resume that will get me a job?

I’m not a fan of resumes. In fact, I think a resume is the worst crutch you can use when job hunting. But I realized that if I can’t answer this very popular question in some useful way, I have no right to publish Ask The Headhunter. Resume Blasphemy challenges you in a way that — if you do this exercise thoughtfully — will make you throw your resume away and forever change how you search for a job.


I’d like to set one thing straight. Yes, Ask The Headhunter is and continues to be free — the website, the blog, the newsletter. Literally thousands of pages of advice, tips and insights about job hunting, hiring and success at work.

But some stuff you do have to pay for: my PDF books, which organize my advice around specific topics in depth and detail. These books help offset the cost of producing all the free content you find on Ask The Headhunter — but so do the many clients who have licensed Ask The Headhunter features over the years. I’m grateful to every client and customer who has ever spent a buck on what I write!

Which brings us to perhaps the most powerful Ask The Headhunter advice of all.

Eliminate job search obstacles

nick2When I compiled the 251-page PDF book Fearless Job Hunting, my goal was to help job seekers realize that job hunting is not about “following the steps.” If following steps worked, everybody could get a job easily and quickly. What I’ve learned over the years is that your success depends on knowing what to do when you encounter one of a small number of daunting obstacles that get in your way. Don’t let these stop you from landing the job you want!

Most of the time, the biggest obstacle you face in your job search is Human Resources departments, which seem to go out of their way to block, stop, and abuse you. The best newsletter I wrote about this is Why HR should get out of the hiring business. I think some of my best advice about how to go around HR is from this edition of the newsletter: Should I accept HR’s rejection letter?

Getting in the door

Speaking of throwing out your resume and busting past HR, this is one of the simplest, most powerful methods for landing a job that you’ll find on Ask The Headhunter: Skip The Resume: Triangulate to get in the door. It’ll take you out of the silly “job hunting” mode HR wants you in — and it’ll get you talking to the people who will actually bring you into a company as a new hire!

One of the Fearless Job Hunting books, Book 3: Get in The Door (way ahead of your competition) goes into lots more detail about this.

Oh, those job interviews!

nickhat1cSo much has been written about what to say and do in job interviews that today it’s all one big rehash. Virtually every career pundit regurgitates the same old ideas that have been around for decades — ideas that reek of personnel jockeys who want to “process” you rather than hire you.

This article is so obvious that you’ll “get it” instantly: The Single Best Interview Question… And The Best Answer. But beware: Doing this kind of preparation to win a job offer is a lot of work. And if you’re not willing to do the work to win the job, you don’t deserve the job!

No one has said it better than long-time Ask The Headhunter subscriber Ray Stoddard:

“The great news about your recommendations is that they work. The good news for those of us who use them is that few people are really willing to implement what you recommend, giving those of us who do an edge.”

Arrghhh! I took the wrong job!

My goal all these years has been to help you land and keep the right job. But what no one else tells you is how to avoid the wrong jobs!

Before you accept a new job, check It’s the people, Stupid and — yuck — Don’t suck canal water. I keep telling you that the #1 reason people go job hunting is because they took the wrong job to begin with. Don’t fall into that trap!

nicknew4Everybody wants more money!

Of course, no matter what anybody says about the importance of job satisfaction, nobody’s happy without the money. Everybody would like more money — but few people know how to ask for it so the answer will be YES.

The ONLY way to ask for a higher job offer is not for the meek. It’s as big a challenge as proving you’re worth hiring. But, hey — I never said Ask The Headhunter is the easy way to the job you want. It’s just the best way I know.

The bottom line

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes, which once led me to the realization that, as humans, our biggest problem is our hesitation. Life is short. I try to remind myself of this every day: You’ll be dead soon. It’s how I get on with life and enjoy the choices I get to make!

I hope Ask The Headhunter helps you belly up to the bar to make the choices you face — to enjoy the results of the best and to learn from the rest.

The Best of Ask The Headhunter

Thanks for subscribing and for being a part of Ask The Headhunter, whether you’ve been around from the start or you just dropped in!

The best of Ask The Headhunter isn’t in any of the newsletters or in any of my articles. The best of Ask The Headhunter is the wonderful community of people who continue to gather here to share their stories, advice, wisdom and more questions from their own experience. That’s you!

Thanks to you all!

And to prove it, I’d like to offer you a Special 600th Edition Thank You. If you’d like to purchase any of the Ask The Headhunter PDF books, when you check out, use discount code=BIG600 to save 25% off your purchase! (This limited offer is good only through this week!)

If I may ask you a 600th edition favor:

Please tell your friends about Ask The Headhunter — encourage them to subscribe and join us every week!

As for questions we’ve never covered, this is where to post them! I invite you to ask the questions you want answers to about job hunting, hiring, and success at work!

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Want a job? Threaten to start a business!

In the October 13, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader wonders whether rejection in the jobs marketplace suggests it’s time to start a business instead.


My husband and I have been in the software business for ten years. Paul was a crucial part of two successful start-ups. The products he developed won awards and were best-sellers, and as a result he was hired by an established company. (They hired me, too.) There, Paul started, designed and finished a small project for a client that was worth about 50,000 euro. Then he showed how his work could be turned into two products — the company’s first. The company was thrilled and so were the customers. The company netted 500,000 euro from his work. The rest has been history for us. Paul became the leader of our team and we have created many more successful products.

business-plan2Now Paul feels he has no room to grow and it is time to move on. The companies to which he has sent his C.V. [what Europeans call their resumes: Curriculum Vitae] are very impressed, but they say he has not managed huge enough projects or teams. He even got a call from a headhunter (his first!), but four weeks after the interview there has been no feedback.

Paul has proved again and again that he knows how to make a product that will sell, but he can’t sell himself. These companies have lost a chance to get a great software developer and businessman! Is there any hope? Should we keep trying to get the jobs we want, or start our own company?

Nick’s Reply

The answer is do both. Trying to start a company can lead to getting a job. I will explain how momentarily.

Paul is clearly talented, and I’m sure you are, too. I believe the problem that big companies have with his lack of experience with “big projects” and “big teams” is nonsense. Narrow-minded headhunters, personnel jockeys and managers miss out on great new hires when they confuse experience with talent. (See Pssst! Here’s where you should be recruiting top talent!)

Lots of people can conceive new products. Some can actually design them. But the rarest worker is one who can conceive and get a finished product out the door profitably and make customers happy. That’s talent. Interviewers often do not know what to do with unusual people like Paul. Investors, however, do.

You are both at a crucial point in your careers. You have proved what you can do. Now you need the infrastructure that will enable you to do bigger projects. If you compromise on that, you will hurt your careers and make yourselves miserable.

Here is my advice. Forget about pursuing jobs. If you want a great job, create your own business. I’m not suggesting this is easy, but it’s a path worth pursuing.

To start your own company, you will need to examine the market and the industry you want to specialize in. You will need to talk with many people, including prospective customers and distributors. You will need to talk to companies whose products will interact with yours, and with companies that produce related or competing products. (See the chapter titled “Scuttlebutt: Get the truth about private companies” in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Full Attention.) All these contacts will guide your product development ideas and introduce you to the partners you will need. They will help you get funding, whether in the form of purchase orders or direct investment. (See Trading your job for venture funding.)

As part of your effort, you will produce a business plan. The plan is actually a substitute for a resume. It shows what you can do. However, unlike a resume, a business plan also shows how you will do it. That’s what gets a company’s attention and its investment. (See Stand Out: How to be the profitable hire.) In the course of talking with these companies, your meetings will be a substitute for traditional interviews. Companies will get to know you far better than they ever would in a job interview. Your business plan and these meetings will help you overcome objections to your lack of “big time experience.”

Some of your new contacts may help you start your business. Others will prefer to avoid competing with you — and they will recognize the opportunity to hire you and Paul. Stimulated by your business plan, they may offer you jobs.

The key is to introduce yourselves with a business plan instead of a resume, and with a business presentation instead of a job interview. That is how you will get past the “employers” so you can meet with the people in a company who worry about profit.

The traditional, small-minded hiring process of big companies doesn’t hurt just the job hunter. It also hurts the employer. Thus, your challenge is to avoid the hiring process. Your challenge is to get to the corporate-level executive (preferably a board member) whose job is to find new ways to make money, to find new products, to create new markets, and to develop new partnerships through investment. You cannot do that with a resume and a job interview.

Paul is a point on the productivity curve, but he is on the very narrow, leading edge of that curve. He is unusual. Few companies will know how to interpret his resume, how to interview him, or how to calculate his future value. He has great abilities. Don’t use those abilities to get a job. Threaten to start a company instead. He will get more attention — the right kind of attention. And he will either get funding, or win a great job.

job-offerWhich will be the outcome? I think it depends on too many factors to predict. The point is, you and Paul need to do the same things to achieve either goal.

For everyone else reading this, the message should be clear. Even if what you want is a job (and you don’t want to start a business), a smart way to do it is to develop a plan for a business and pitch it to the appropriate people — including competitors. (See Put a Free Sample in Your Resume.) I think it’s a sure way to a job offer, because a smart competitor will “buy you out” to avoid competition — by hiring you.

What’s the difference between job hunting and pitching a business idea? Is there really any?

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How to engineer your personal network

We’ve been talking about networking. (See Please! Stop Networking! and Network, but don’t be a jerk!) I know the idea of talking to strangers puts many of you off. Some of my readers on PBS NewsHour (see the comments section on that linked page) have even suggested networking is unethical, a form of nepotism, and insulting. In this week’s edition, reader Kevin Rose explains how he engineers his personal network. There are a lot of words in this column, but just three short “how-to” tips.

In the September 29, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, an engineer tells how he changes job hunting into friend-making.


I am in the midst of reading Fearless Job Hunting and re-inventing my job search strategy. It has happened a number of times where I would go to a job interview — in a couple of cases out of town — and I heard nothing afterwards. I engineermight write once to check in, but then move on. Now, I can understand no response to a random resume, but lack of courtesy after one or even four interviews is inexcusable. One of my friends says they are afraid of liability, and I say that is pure bunk. Others tell me, “What can you do? That’s just the way it is.”

I am an engineer, so I change things. I don’t just sit idly by and accept things the way they are.

Now I can see that in following your advice that this will be less likely to happen. A company would not dare go radio silent if I interviewed via a personal contact. I will say that being introduced to a potential employer via personal contact has always led to the most satisfying and long-lasting jobs I have had. I will definitely follow your advice.

Nick’s Reply

Disrespect is now built into the HR culture because you and other job hunters are fungible. You’re a commodity. You are “free” because all people are “accessible” to employers. And, because there’s always someone out there better than you, who cares about being polite to you?

But the joke’s on HR, because with four to seven times more job seekers out there than open jobs, HR is still crying there’s a talent shortage. America is awash in unemployed or under-employed talent — people who can ride a fast learning curve. But HR technology can’t suss that out. It’s too buried in job-board databases. Job boards deliver no more than about 10% of hires in aggregate. But it’s easier for employers to spend billions each year on, LinkedIn and other job boards, than to go meet people in the professional community that they’d really like to hire. Hell, they could stand outside their door with a sign that entices you to get off your bike and stop in for an interview.

Kevin’s follow-up

talkingI just wanted to let you know that I attended a Rotary Club this evening for the first time. I loved it! Not only were people open about themselves including what they do for a living, but I got a chance to do some networking following your suggestions!

The woman sitting next to me is a paralegal at a company that does forensic engineering — I walk past them on my lunchtime walks just about every day. I said to her, “I would like to hear more about what you do sometime.” That’s all I said and she said, “You will have to come by sometime when we are taking a car apart.”

They analyze cars that crash, and testify in liability cases against manufacturers.

Now I don’t think that company would ever have a job for me, but knowing them will give me some perspective in my own engineering work. Also, I get to know the business community in my town. I wanted to thank you for this inspiration, and it is a lot more fun than Facebook of Linkedin. I also got a free meal, too!

So again, thank you for the nudge. Like I said, my best jobs have come through networking — one time from a friend at church, and my current job is one I found through an old girlfriend (with my wife’s approval). I am hoping to become acquainted with people such that the next time I need to find a job, I will know some people who might point me to an opening, or who may be instrumental in helping me start a business.

This doesn’t stop with Rotary. I recently rejoined my professional organization, But aside from clubs and organizations, I realize there are many, many ways of meeting people and making connections.

Thanks again!

Kevin Rose
Santa Barbara, CA

Nick’s Reply

I promised you three how-to tips about how to engineer your own network. Don’t blink: Go where professionals gather. Ask them about their work. Make friends. Anybody can do this.

How can you use Kevin Rose’s experiences to make networking work for you? Is it really so easy? (Many thanks to Kevin for sharing!)

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Network, but don’t be a jerk!

In the September 22, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, we try to eliminate the jerk factor from networking.


Everyone talks about networking as the best way to find the right job. There must be a key to this approach beyond just going to networking meetings and signing up with one of the online social networks. What advice can you give me about how to do it right?

Nick’s Reply

Last week (Please! Stop Networking!) I offered some How to Say It tips about starting legiitimate conversations with people you’d like to get to know.

jerkNow let’s talk about how not to be a jerk. What passes as “networking” today can make anyone a jerk. And, if you feel awkward about networking, it’s because you really don’t want to behave like a jerk!

Let’s look at some really stupid ways networking is sold to the public. And make no mistake — it’s sold because someone makes money at this.

Networking meetings

You have no doubt been to networking events where people spend a minute apiece with you, and then expect that you will introduce them to your closest business buddies. Such gatherings have gotten a bad reputation because they can be mercenary and impersonal.

What’s the point of meeting someone if you have no real common ground, and there’s no value in your connection because there are no shared experiences between you?

Online networks

The online social networks are even more problematic. (See LinkedIn: Just another job board.) You sign up, add the names of your co-workers, former employers and friends, and the network links you to other members with similar backgrounds.

But while networks like LinkedIn create lots of connections, there is little emphasis on the quality of those links.

And that’s the key: The quality of relationships. Social networks suggest that having lots of contacts is more important than having good contacts, and they help you highlight your number of links. Why? Because the networks themselves profit mainly from their size. The more members they have clicking on one another, the more ads and digital “services” they can sell. It’s an inherent contradiction and even a conflict.

But the people who benefit from online social networks are the same people who know how to turn a first meeting into a healthy, long term relationship. They know it requires a considerable investment. There’s nothing automated about it.

Phony networking has just one tenet: Behave like a selfish jerk. I think there are three tenets to real networking:

Common ground

First, it requires common ground. People must have something to share that is useful to others. The best place to start is with your work. Identify people who do the work you do (or want to do), then e-mail them, call them, meet them and talk with them about their work and your work. (Not about jobs.)


Second, good networking is sustained by value. Five minutes sharing your elevator speech and business card is worthless.

What can you do to either help or genuinely engage another person? How about a tip that will enable her to be more productive? Or you can ask honest, sincere questions about the work she does. That identifies more common ground. You’ll either find it and build a relationship on it, or you won’t. Don’t fake it.


Third, good networking takes time.This is what networkers have the most difficulty with. Trust grows between people through repeated good experiences. Once I trust you, I’ll draw you into my circle of friends — and that’s where valuable job referrals come from.

The best way to become well-connected is to meet and stay in touch with people who do the work you’re interested and who are good at what they do. Don’t go to them when you’re job hunting. Establish the kinds of relationships — and reputation — that make them want to come to you when they learn about a great job.

How can you put these three tenets of networking to good use to get the job you want?

In Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3: Get In The Door (way ahead of your competition), I discuss “How to make great personal contacts” (pp. 15-17):

“Personal contacts are the foundation of every business. Rather than wait for ‘opportunities’ to come along, learn to participate in your community — go meet people. Learn about their business, get their opinions and advice, and ask for introductions that will help you become a useful member of that community. Personal contacts begin with you reaching out. Start now.”

In Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Full Attention, I tackle the objection many people have: Networking is icky! Only if you behave like a jerk! This is from “Do I have to ‘kiss ass’ to get a job?” (pp. 2-:5):

“When you send a company your resume, you’re not demonstrating anything. All you’re saying is, ‘Here are my credentials, all typed up nicely. Now, you go figure out what the heck to do with me!’ (What’s ickier than that?) A personal contact is a filter that helps a manager find what he’s looking for. A personal contact quickly gives you an opportunity to actually show what you can do — it’s like a voucher that expresses your value and suggests how you will help the company.”

Is your networking based on creating common ground, adding value and investing a lot of time? How does networking work for you?

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Please! Stop Networking!

In the September 15, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader just doesn’t get all the fuss that’s called networking.


I’ve been trying to find a mentor who understands networking better than I do. I just don’t get it. We are not expert in everything, and this is one area where I want to get some help. Can you give me some clarity about networking?

Nick’s Reply


So much has been written and said about networking that networking has become a business, an industry, a racket of enormous proportions. Please! Stop doing what’s sold as “networking,” because it’s phony!

I want to barf every time I hear some silly lecture or read a pandering dissertation about how to network. Networking is not complicated. But networking has become over-defined.

Legit networking is simple: Talk shop with people who do work you want to do.

I’ll give you a few examples of what I mean.

You can meet people to talk shop online, in person, anywhere. If you read something about them in advance, just drop a quick note.

How to Say It
“Hey, I read this article about you and I see you’re working on… I’d love to know what you think about X? How’d you do what was described in the article? What are you reading lately that has influenced your work?”

If you’re talking with the person face to face, it’s even simpler.

How to Say It
“Tell me more about what you do… What kinds of challenges or problems did you encounter while working on that?”

The magic is in asking them to talk about themselves and their work. People love that, as long as you’re not being solicitous. And you won’t be if you just talk shop.

It takes time to make meaningful connections through these exchanges. Be patient. Don’t expect much, don’t expect it quickly, and good things will evolve in time. The best part: No matter what benefits you get or don’t get career-wise, you make new friends!

When you get to the point where you want to talk about your career challenges, here’s the magic sauce: Never ask for job leads. Never.

Instead, ask for advice and insight.

How to Say It
“May I ask your advice? If I wanted to shift over to doing XYZ [as your new job], what kind of advice would you give me? I’d love your insight about what it takes to be successful doing what you do.”

See the difference? Never say anything that feels icky or phony. There’s no begging, no asking for jobs or introductions. Results will come naturally — people will eventually suggest someone else that you should talk to. And that’s what to keep track of — people you’re referred to, who they are, where they work, what they do.

Beware, or I’ll never talk to you again
Then there’s the most important thing. If someone recommends a person that you should talk with, or offers an introduction or referral — always make the contact and do it quickly. Never let a personal referral die on the vine.

If I give you a referral, and I find out you didn’t follow up within 3-4 days, I’ll never do anything for you again. Usually, I’ll tip off the third party to expect a call or e-mail. When the person I’m trying to help doesn’t make that contact, I’ve wasted an introduction and I look bad. I can’t emphasize this enough — it’s the single biggest networking mistake people make. If you want good mentors in your life, do not squander the investment they make in you. (See Mentoring & Getting Mentored.)

Networking should be as easy as talking shop with people who do the work you want to do.

Next week, I’ll share my three ingredients for good, healthy networking. But, right now I’d like to know, What’s your way to get close to others professionally?

I’d love to assemble a list of to-dos, not-to-dos, and basic rules for making friends in the work world. Please post your advice and cautions!

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Is this resume too long?

In the July 14, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks an age-old question.


I’ve always abided by the standard advice to have your resume focused at one page. However, due to my eight years of experience, more than a few people (including a headhunter), are saying that a one-page resume doesn’t give enough information. To paraphrase a friend, “Just one page of detail makes me think you’re making crap up.”

What do you think, are one-page resumes for experienced people too short? Thanks for your time.

Nick’s Reply

There’s an old story about a college professor who graded term papers by sailing them down a steep staircase. The ones that made it to the bottom got the highest grades. Weight mattered. (We won’t get into aerodynamics.)

resume-longIn a story attributed to a man who was chided for having legs that were short, he replied, “Short? They both touch the ground!”

Does length of a resume matter? Should you stick to one page? Is it best to avoid multiple pages because no one will read them or because too much information might put someone off? (See The truth about resumes.)

I could answer with several more stories culled from my headhunter’s collection. Here’s one of my favorites. An engineering candidate I worked with had over 20 years’ experience and an extensive academic history. His resume was 12 pages long, and it was dense. It included details about projects he had worked on, articles he had written and research projects he’d done.

Like you, I’d been taught to keep a resume short and to the point. I was (still am) pretty good at editing and chopping, but try as I might, everything in that resume seemed relevant and important.

I sent this candidate to an interview with a client after presenting him only on the phone (no resume). When the meeting was done the client wanted the resume, to fill in the blanks about the engineer’s history. I sent those 12 pages. The client wanted it all. Every page mattered.

My advice: Edit your resume to make it relevant to the employer, and make it as long as it needs to be. Make sure it’s long enough so it reaches where it’s supposed to go.

For more about my view of resumes, please see Resume Blasphemy and Put a Free Sample in Your Resume. (Most of the latter is now in How Can I Change Careers?) If you’re going to use a resume writer to help you, seek out the best — but I suggest you do it yourself. Avoid the popular resume-mill scams.

Is your resume really long? Or do you stick to one or two pages? What works for you? If you’re a hiring manager, do you care?

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