The insider's edge on job search & hiring™

Monthly archive for November 2012

Dissecting the elevator pitch

In the November 27, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a writer asks for a job at Ask The Headhunter:

Hi Nick,

[1] I’m going to cut to the chase: I want to write for “Ask The Headhunter”! [2] My name is Melanie and I’m a former educator turned researcher/blogger. [3] I stumbled upon your blog researching for another article weeks ago. [4] My expertise/niche is education so most of my articles deal with learning — whether they’re directed at instructors, students, parents, or business leaders. [5] But of course my edu-centric pieces are always tailored to each blog’s audience. Check out some of my clips to see more of what I mean:

[6] [six URLs to her articles]

[7] Hope to discuss ideas soon,


My Rant

Resumes make me cringe. Elevator pitches make me cringe more. Elevator pitches delivered in e-mail make me wanna barf. Nothing is more banal, misdirected, or useless to someone that doesn’t know you.

Consider how often an elevator pitch, or a cover letter, or a job inquiry reads like the note above. Maybe you’ve written one yourself.

I want to tell you what’s wrong with these pitches. Then I want to know what you think — because most people seem to believe they must “craft” a chunk of b.s. like this to get an employer’s attention.

I’ve tagged each part of the pitch I received with a number. This is gonna get ugly, but let’s tear it apart. (I offer no apologies to Melanie. She offered none to me. But I thank her for helping me write this edition of the newsletter.)

[1] Melanie isn’t cutting to the chase.

The chase is my need to produce profit for my business. What Melanie wants to do (“to write for Ask The Headhunter”) is relevant only if it fits in with my business objectives. What does she know about them?

Oops. If Melanie had spent five minutes on the ATH website, she’d know that — except for one small section, which she never mentions — all the articles are written by me.

And that’s the first problem with elevator pitches: They are by design generic and thus presumptuous. You can’t create an elevator pitch for someone you don’t know and haven’t met yet. If you think I’m full of baloney, try this elevator pitch on the next person you meet that you’re attracted to:

“My ability to make [men, women] happy by exciting them results in fun relationships and could lead to marriage.”

Trust me. When you’re on the receiving end, that’s what an elevator pitch — about anything — sounds like.

[2] I don’t care what Melanie’s former career was.

When you have just a moment or two to engage someone in a business discussion, why would your speech be “crafted” about yourself? The answer is easy: You don’t know anything about the business of the person you’re talking to — the pitch is designed to be memorized and regurgitated in elevators to any captive.

Want my attention? Tell me you know what my business is about and how you can make it better. Tell me about yourself later, after I behave as if I want to know.

[3] Melanie “stumbled” upon my blog.

The analog in our social lives is this phone call:

“Hi. I had nothing to do tonight so I thought I’d call you.”

Gimme a break.

[4] Four sentences into it, Melanie is still talking about herself.

It’s pretty clear she has no idea what Ask The Headhunter is about. She worked in education, so she will write educational articles. About whatever.

Elevator pitches are painful to create because they must account for the orator’s ignorance yet pretend to be insightful. Save yourself the trouble. If you need to break the ice with someone you don’t know, don’t talk about yourself or express what you think. Instead, ask them a question. People love it when we express interest in them. They are turned off when we recite stuff about ourselves.

[5] Melanie suggests she’s qualified.

What is Melanie qualified to do  for me? She hasn’t indicated she has any idea what I need. She’ll write anything for any audience, never mind who the audience is. And that’s the fatal flaw with any elevator pitch. By design it demonstrates one thing above all else: The speaker knows so little about the listener that she promises anything and everything.

Here’s the insult: After the recitation, an elevator pitcher wants me to go figure out what to do with her and her ideas. No thanks. I’d rather she do that work.

[6 & 7] This part of the pitch is the punch line.

Usually, an elevator pitch ends with the orator handing over a resume or suggesting the listener invest a couple of hours in breakfast or lunch to listen to more. After delivering this elevator pitch about herself, Melanie wants me to spend the next hour reading six of her articles.

She’s showing me examples of her work — and she’s telling me to go figure out whether her work is relevant to my business. I didn’t approach her — she approached me. So the burden is on the elevator pitcher to make her case. Suggesting I go figure it out is not making a case.

Consider what an elevator pitch is really about: You and your assumptions.

If you want to do business with someone, why would you open the conversation by talking about yourself and about what’s important to you? If you want to do business with me, spend the precious minute you have with me proving you know about my business and what I need. Prove you thought enough about my business in advance to offer something useful to me.

Ouch — you’d have to invest an awful lot of time and effort in me first, eh? Why would you? Why, indeed? And why should I devote two seconds to listening to you recite?

Do you have an elevator pitch? What is it? What reactions do you get when you recite it? What’s your reaction to elevator pitches? Am I just a rude S.O.B. who needs to be more tolerant and pretend to listen to anyone who wants my time? I want to know what you think.

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Jumping Employment Gaps (Thanksgiving Replay)

Due to the short Thanksgiving week (I’ve got turkeys to roast), this week’s newsletter Q&A is a replay from last year. Hope you enjoy it!

In the November 22, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a successful executive who took time off then worked as a consultant says headhunters won’t touch him. What’s up?

I was an executive with a financial services software company for 20 years. I joined when it was a start-up. After the company was sold, I took a package and left, as did the co-owners and, eventually, all of the senior management. I have a five year gap in my resume after which I had a couple of consulting engagements, one of which lasted a year, the other approximately six months. I speak with recruiters frequently, but invariably the gaps prevent me from getting an interview. The recruiters will not even present me to the client. I would truly appreciate any advice.

My Advice

Most recruiters suffer from a buzz words syndrome. If the buzz words aren’t on your resume, then you’re not a candidate.

Happy Thanksgiving!Those recruiters obtain lists of “candidate criteria” from their clients, and they pattern-match those criteria to someone’s resume. My guess is that among those criteria are “stable work history” or “must be currently employed.”

You had a long, successful career building a company from the ground up. That’s trumped by “currently unemployed” only in the mind of a foolish recruiter.

Buzz words

If you had been as narrow-minded as those recruiters about whom you hired while building your start-up, the business would likely have failed. I’m willing to bet you hired people who spent time consulting or running their own businesses. You relied on your ability to recognize what people could do; you didn’t judge them on buzz words or on what they had done in the past. You probably hired people that others wouldn’t touch.

What I’m telling you is, those recruiters are helping you weed out companies you should not work for. I know this sounds like sour grapes, but think about it. We all have a selection process in mind that supports the way we live and work. We pick people and we make choices that reflect who we are and how we operate.

The perfect fit

Now, think about what that means. You’re being rejected by recruiters and companies that are looking for “the perfect fit” to their narrow criteria. But when did you ever encounter “perfect circumstances” and “perfect solutions” to the business problems you faced at your start-up?

Kiss those recruiters goodbye, because they’re working for narrow-minded employers that you probably won’t be happy working for. Instead, track down insiders who work with the kinds of companies where you’d shine. Start talking to lawyers, bankers, investors, realtors, landlords, accountants, consultants and other folks who do business with dynamic, growing companies that want talent — not perfect fits to static job descriptions. (You and I both know there’s no such thing in either case.)

Jump the gap

Those recruiters don’t work for the companies that will hire you. You will find your next employer through external consultants (like those I listed) who work with companies like the one you helped grow. The company that hires you next won’t be looking at the gap you’re facing — it’ll be looking at how effectively you can leap over that gap to help grow its business.

How did you leap over an employment gap? Did you ever hire someone with a gap? What the heck does a gap really say about a person, anyway?

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Manufacturing a Talent Shortage: How companies conspire not to hire you

So American companies say there’s a skills and talent shortage, and they can’t find workers qualified to do the job? And technology companies, in particular, complain the loudest?

According to a Computerworld report, it’s easy to see why. Some companies seem to be conspiring to block recruiting and hiring altogether:

“The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit accusing eBay of entering into a ‘handshake’ agreement to not recruit or hire employees of software maker Intuit.”

Stop recruiting!

While Scott Cook, Intuit’s founder, was serving on eBay’s board, he complained that eBay needed to stop recruiting from Intuit. The DOJ suit contends that Cook and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman agreed not to hire one another’s employees.

In yet another stupid HR trick, eBay’s recruiters were told not to consider Intuit employees for jobs, and “to throw away such resumes.” The Computerworld article doesn’t say whether Intuit and eBay hire H1-B applicants after they reject those resumes.

Kinda gives new meaning to job hunters’ contentions that their resumes disappear into “the human resources black hole.” The Computerworld article says:

“The alleged hiring truce was a ‘naked restraint of trade’ that harms tech workers by keeping their salaries down and limiting their employment options, the DOJ said in the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.”

HR managers in top high tech companies are throwing perfectly good resumes in the trash? And complaining about the lack of qualified tech talent?

Gimme a break. Kiss my ass.

Splashing around in the talent pool

The DOJ contends the no-hire agreement between eBay and Intuit started around 2006. Meanwhile, in August 2006, reported that Intuit was so concerned about the tech talent shortage that it started working more closely with colleges and universities to “get people into the computer science programs.” Intuit also conducted a study of computer science enrollments which showed “a great decline.”

It seems someone was, uh, relieving themselves in the talent pool.

EBay denied the allegations, and Intuit was not named in the DOJ suit. Why? This one’s rollicking good fun. The DOJ had already named Intuit in a similar suit, along with  Intuit, Google, Apple and other companies — and settled it in September 2010. That suit led to the suit against eBay.

Talent shortage? Skills shortage? Only insofar as it seems there’s a surfeit of bullshit in these companies.

My advice: Find a company to work for that behaves competitively, doesn’t conspire to throw out your resume, and is in a business other than manufacturing talent shortages.

What have you seen in the pool lately?

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Webinar: Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University

Today I did a webinar for about 300 alumni of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University:

Do Online Job Applications Keep Americans Unemployed?

(Or, How can you beat this goofy system?)

As usual, following some brief ranting by me (about automated recruiting), it was an Ask The Headhunter Q&A event — and we discussed some provocative questions from the audience. This blog page continues the discussion. I welcome participants to post additional questions, comments and suggestions about the topics we discussed — or anything related.

The webinar will be available to Kellogg faculty, staff, students, and alumni online on the Kellogg website. Many thanks to the team at Kellogg for their kind hospitality today!

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Yada, Yada, Yada: Desperate hiring

In the November 13, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a hiring manager asks how to distinguish acting from honest interviewing:

Hiring great people is a noble goal but it raises two challenges: how to attract candidates with those rare, valuable qualities into your pipeline, and how to identify them in the interviewing process when everyone is telling you how talented, motivated, curious, and ethical they are (yada, yada, yada). How do we get past all that so we really know who we’re hiring? How do we avoid hiring in desperation?

Nick’s Reply

Let’s talk about two fatal flaws in the entire recruiting/hiring process. First, we try to attract people when we need them. That limits us to cold, calculated, rushed recruiting methods that don’t work well.

Worse, these methods stimulate rote responses from candidates to trigger our interest in them. We’ve all seen it — candidates with the “I’m your (wo)man” smile on their faces. As you note, that’s the “Yada, yada, yada” interview. You can spend the entire time trying to figure out what’s real and what’s an act. Here’s the problem:

You can’t assess someone in a job interview.

You need to see them in action. That takes time, which employers don’t have in a job interview.

To recruit effectively, we need to attract good people long before we need them, so our relationships will be based on common interests, not common desperation.

Second, we can try to “attract people into our pipeline” all day long. But the ones we want aren’t out looking for pipelines.

We must find and enter their pipelines.

We must meet them on their career tracks, and be present at the critical points in their work lives. People make career changes only at certain points. We can be there waiting for the best when they are ready, or we can be out chasing people who are chasing jobs.

My suggestion: The people we want are all around us on discussion threads on work-related forums all over the Internet, talking shop. Talk shop with them, get to know them, establish your own cred and you’ll always have someone to turn to when you need help.

The Zen of it is this: You can’t really identify the people you want in the interview process. At that point, it’s too late, and it’s all too scripted.

You identify the people you want to hire on the street, on the job, and in the throes of dialogue with their peers. Then you follow them and get to know them. You enter their circle of friends. You should talk to them about a job only when you know them well enough. Not when the pipeline needs to be filled. That’s how you avoid mistakes. But show me one human resources department that recruits that way — they don’t. Last year, the world spent $1.3 billion for “just in time hiring” through one job board alone: How stupid.

Yada, yada, yada, the pipeline needs to be filled. Indeed, but you need to fill the pipeline long before you need to hire anyone, with relationships. If your pipeline is full of just applicants and resumes, you’re hiring in deperation.

Desperation hiring: That’s when you need to fill a job right now and you flap your lips Yada, yada, yada through 20 interviews pretending you’re getting to know someone. You can’t assess someone in a job interview. It can’t be done. If you want to hire the right way, you start last year.

How does your company hire? Do you “Yada, yada, yada” through your interviews? Or do you cultivate relationships? Tell me why it takes too long to do it my way…

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You can’t get a job because employers hire the wrong way

In the November 6, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a hiring manager bemoans how people spam him with applications:

I’m a manager for whom hiring does not come easily. I’m selective. If you’re just “looking for a job” and spamming your resumes to all job postings, then it’s no wonder that employers don’t spend any energy following up on your “interest,” since it can be pretty obvious you didn’t spend much energy asking to be considered. I know people want and need jobs, but why do they expect to get hired just because they submitted “their information?”

Sometimes I’m also a job hunter. I want to work at the companies I apply to, and I tell them why in a customized cover letter. I detail how my strengths match their needs, and I’m honest about what I still need to learn. That’s what it takes to get hired.

Why do people have such a hard time understanding these simple points?

Nick’s Reply

There are two big misconceptions that lead people astray very quickly when job hunting. The first is that because they want a job, they’re worthy of being hired for any job they apply for.

The second is that applying for jobs gives them an honest chance those jobs. But reality tells us neither idea is true. What you say is absolutely crucial for every job hunter to think about.

  • I want to work at the companies I apply to, and I tell them why in a customized cover letter. I detail how my strengths match their needs, and I’m honest about what I still need to learn.

I’ll ask anyone reading this: Can you say this about the way you approach an employer? As a headhunter, I’ll tell you that it’s a rare person who takes this approach. And the failure to approach only companies you really want work for is fatal. There aren’t 400 jobs out there for you, so why do you apply for them all?

  • If you’re just “looking for a job” and spamming your resumes to all job postings, then it’s no wonder that employers don’t spend any energy following up on your “interest,” since it can be pretty obvious you didn’t spend much energy asking to be considered.

I love it when I get a letter or e-mail from someone who tells me they “want to express their interest” in this or that job, or in “working with me.” It’s nonsense, because there is no further indication or proof that they know anything about me or my business. When they apply for a job, all they know is that they saw an ad. Period. And they sent in “their information.” That is why most applications die on the vine.

What’s the necessary approach? You gave it to us. Go after companies you really want to work for. Demonstrate your interest. Prove you have abilities that are relevant to the employer and job. Anything else is sloppy and obviously gratuitous (or desperate). Yet the employment system encourages gratuitous and desperate applications, so we can say that employers get what they ask for.

But they don’t hire that way. It’s up to the job hunter to do it right, even when the employer tells you to do it the wrong way.

Do you just zing out your resumes and applications to every job you find that looks “of interest?” Or do you carefully target and demonstrate your worth to each employer? I think most people succumb to the quick-and-easy spam-a-lot approach to applying for jobs — because it’s what employers ask for. What do you do to educate the employer — and prove you’re worth hiring?

This blog posting is brought to you in spite of Hurricane Sandy. Ask The Headhunter HQ is still without power, 7 days and counting, with no thanks to the inept disaster management planning of Jersey Central Power & Light. Many thanks to American Power Conversion for keeping the joint running.

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