In the April 21, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader shares a success story. How did he win the job?

Question (actually a success story)

I’ve been following you and your advice since about 1999, and it has helped me numerous times to land jobs. I’d like to share an Ask The Headhunter success story.

success storyI’d been pursuing a technology sales position for a year in 2018-2019 with a former co-worker of mine who is now a manager. We worked together at another company a decade ago, covering different lines of business, so we knew each other well. Finally, last summer he had an opening, said to apply, then we’d talk. He suggested we speak by phone since we knew each other well; no need for me to drive 45 minutes across town.

I suggested we meet in person instead. I reserved a conference room at a co-working space with a huge whiteboard. I re-read your book, Ask The Headhunter: Reinventing The Interview to Win the Job [out of print] and a couple of your Answer Kits once again (Fearless Job Hunting and How Can I Change Careers?), and I mapped out how I was going to succeed at this job —  by “doing the job” in the interview.

I presented my approach to how I would do the job “by the book” and when I got done, the manager was taking pictures of the whiteboard to capture my plan. He offered me the position right there, provided a second interview with his manager went well. It did, and I’ve been with them for 6 months now. It is going well.

This story is a long way of saying thank you again for making my career searches so successful. You’ve been a fantastic “internet mentor” to me and many other people, and you have have done a great service to help people understand how the whole job search process works.

The employment process would be so much more efficient if candidates and hiring managers used your approach. It does take effort and time to do it your way, but it is much more rewarding and predictable than applying for a thousand jobs online.

Please feel free to publish my success story and share it with the ATH community. I’d be honored. If it gives just one person hope and motivation in these challenging times, I’m glad to help.

When family and friends are out of work or looking to switch, I tell them to go to you to learn the facts of job hunting. There’s no better way.

Keep well and keep doing what you are doing.

John Mauro

Nick’s Reply

John, your success story made my day! I think you absolutely did the right thing by insisting on an in-person interview so you could fully show how you’d do the job — something that required a good deal of preparation. Most job applicants try to make their interviews easier, not harder. They’re making a huge mistake.You literally put yourself to work in your interview. Because few managers know how to ask, it’s up to savvy job hunters to prove they can do the work.

What’s behind the success story

The outcome of your meeting says it all: An on-the-spot offer is evidence that your extra effort was worth it, even with the contingency of a follow-up interview with the next-level manager.

John won his new job by raising the standard of interviewing. What did John do?

  • Selected a company he really wanted to work for and studied it.
  • Selected a manager who knows his skills. (John could have spent the year educating and cultivating a manager he didn’t already know.)
  • Did not rely on job-board postings.
  • Did his homework and figured out what problems he could solve for the manager.
  • Avoided a phone interview of low information value.
  • Insisted on a meeting where he could prove his value.
  • Prepared a mini-business plan for the job.
  • Presented his plan on the whiteboard to be judged.
  • “Did the job” in the interview to win the job.

How many of these steps have you tried? Please share in the Comments below!

I think the real story goes much deeper. The manager, like most managers, clearly didn’t expect a complete whiteboard presentation. Like most managers, all he wanted was a phone call and some standard Q&A. But that’s not enough to assess whether a candidate can do a job. And that’s why most job interviews don’t result in job offers. (See How To Hire: 8 stunning tips.)

A great resume is not enough. Nor are excellent credentials, personal referrals, or great answers to the top 10 behavioral interview questions.

The real story is that you commandeered the interview for the manager’s benefit (and for your own benefit, of course). You made your interview harder, which clearly shocked him. You made sure to answer the question he wasn’t going to ask: Can you do the job?

The approach you took reveals the profound weakness in the typical interview process managers rely on. (See Peter Cappelli’s Your Approach to Hiring Is All Wrong.) Interviewers should always ask a job candidate to explain and show how they’ll do the job — right there in the interview!

Choose jobs worth the work

You did the job to win the job. Imagine if every job applicant did that.

First of all, there would be fewer job interviews because no one is going to prepare like you did for every job they find on the job boards. It’s impossible. There’s not enough time in the day, much less motivation!

This one simple fact eludes job seekers and employers alike: To make your interview presentation worthy of being photographed (like yours was), you must choose your target companies and jobs very carefully. Only a select few jobs are worth the hard work it takes to do that kind of presentation — or why apply for them at all?

Your experience also demonstrates that the right job can take upwards of a year to find and land. You cultivated the manager and the opportunity for at least that long. Some might suggest that you landed this job easily because the hiring manager is an old friend. But that would be nonsense, because if that were the critical factor, you’d have had a job at that company two years ago. Nothing about what you did was easy, including exercising patience.

More is not better

If job seekers took your approach as their standard, they would select employers and jobs much more carefully and thoughtfully. Only a few jobs are worth that kind of effort and preparation – and those are the only jobs people should pursue to begin with! The whole employment process would change because applying to more jobs is not better. Likewise, employers should not recruit and interview using the popular fire-hose approach to getting candidates — because collecting more candidates is not better.

The message your story delivers is powerful: Pursue the right job and be ready to deliver your plan to do it. (This approach to interviewing is outlined in The New Interview. For a detailed discussion, please see Fearless Job Hunting, Book 6: The Interview: Be the Profitable Hire, pp. 12-13, “A killer interview strategy.”)

My highest compliments, John. If anything you learned from Ask The Headhunter helped, I’m glad! Thank you for your very kind words and for your permission to share your success story.

Have you ever “done the job” in the interview to win the job? How did you go about it? Did it work? Did you ever take control of a job interview from the manager? If you’re a manager, how do you determine whether an applicant can really do the job?

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  1. In my second managerial position, I was tasked the responsibility to hire outside sales reps. The company directive was to give more consideration to applicants with at least three years experience in outside sales. I had to devise my questions, format, and anything that would separate the wheat from the chaff, so-to-speak.
    I intentionally had two chairs facing each other. The applicant sat in one and I in the opposite chair. Immediately I began the process first going over aspects of the applicant’s resume. After this I gave the applicant several real scenarios of what they would encounter in the field. The purpose was to determine how they handled unpredictable situations plus their adaptability and ability to process and think on their feet. Each scenario was taken from my personal experience in dealing with an assortment of prospects.
    On average 2 out of every 3 applicants failed because of their lack of experience but more importantly their inability to handle unforeseen circumstances. I buzzed the applicants on ethics to determine if they would engage in kickbacks, unauthorized discounting, and truthfulness. Interestingly, 1 out of 3 applicants who did not have outside sales experience performed better than the applicant with the experience.
    This process resulted in getting better outside sales reps whom I could trust and also did the most important aspect of any sales interaction, they asked for the order. Our turnover rate became lower, revenue increased on average 20% and clients became more loyal to our company. After three years there was a change in top management and everything went south. Outside sales reps were forced to go by a script and procedure that was insane and obviously devised by someone who had no sales experience.
    After I left the company, I retained my interviewing process and the results were always positive. I refused to let HR participate in the hiring process.
    Now that I’m owner of my business, I still utilize the tried and effective methodology and the company is quite capable of dealing with bigger companies. In fact, my sales reps often are able to “steal” clients from bigger named firms.

    • @You’re Hired: I love it. Thanks for sharing your interview approach.

      “Outside sales reps were forced to go by a script and procedure that was insane and obviously devised by someone who had no sales experience.”

      I’m a big believer in scripts for newbie sales people. When I started headhunting, my training consisted of 3 days working one-on-one with the owner of the firm after she hired me. Still green, I worked from a script she gave me. The more calls I made, the more I tweaked it until it sounded like me and I was comfortable. Soon I had internalized it and was able to work on my own.

      But scripts for sesasoned sales people? That’s just nuts. Why hire experienced people at all? Just hire newbies and give them the script – save money! (Ha ha to that.)

      I’m glad it works for you. I’m curious — do you let candidates know what you’re going to do in the interview before you bring them in? I have a reason for asking.

  2. Nick –

    Just thought I’d let you know that a recent interview with a company in the tech sector for a director-level position resulted in a “final” interview of “present your business plan based on these two existing customer case studies.” Basically, “do the job to earn the job.”

    It was gratifying to see them actually putting applicants to the test.

    No word yet – they’re supposed to decide early this week – but it was a great experience as a candidate.

    Keep pushing “the real deal!”

    • @Mike: A company that does this on its own! Very cool! I hope we’ll hear more stories like this. Please let us know how this turns out for you. Thanks for posting! Best wishes on the deal!

      BTW, “do the job to earn the job” — that’s a very nice twist.

  3. I stumbled upon the “do the job interview” procedure about 40 years ago as a teenager. I was tired of working fast food and wanted to try installing car radios. I pestered a local mom and pop shop for a month or so and finally convinced them to hire me for a week without pay just to see if I could learn the trade without risk to them. We both knew within the first hour that I was going to get the job based on my performance of the very first task he demonstrated. No, I never got a paycheck for that first week. Worth it? Certainly.

    That career lasted 20 years until I transitioned into IT because I was tired of crawling around under dashboards.

    For that transition, I once again entered a field without training and did the job in a tentative interview that I set up through a mutual friend.

    I know it isn’t quite as impressive as the seasoned pro methods that typically get discussed here but thats how this Systems Administrator earning a good salary got his start.

  4. It was so heartening to read this success story — especially in these unmoored days when people’s worries seem to be leading them to seeing only the fearful. This was a real ‘ray of sunshine’ and a lovely escape from most online forums and the endless ‘news’ shows. Thank you, John Mauro, for telling your story. And thank you, Nick, for publishing it. Best wishes to you both!

  5. I’ve been requesting to do job shadows in recent years prior to accepting a position. Most employers balk at it, or flat out refuse, so I have learned to walk away at that stage.
    I requested to do a half-day job shadow at my current employer of 7 years now prior to accepting employment. They surprisingly granted it. While I didn’t see all the ins and outs, I did get a general idea of what the drill was like there. Not my first choice, but sometimes the best job is the only job, and I needed a job!
    The “tell and sell” technique mentioned here by the reader is my personal preference, but has taken a back seat to the “fog a mirror/have a pulse/warm bodies” hiring approach. In the past, I’ve carried a portfolio with pictures and other credentials to interviews in an attempt to present qualifications above the average joe, but have been snubbed and dismissed.
    The reader mentioned having history with the hiring manager, and that he was already invited to the interview, so the “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” appears to have played into the decision to hire him. While this approach is a novel concept, I’d wager some professional courtesy was granted due to their history, and an affirmation of an interview granted already.
    “If you’re a hiring manager, how do you determine if the candidate can really do the job”? Good question I’ve asked myself for over 40 years now. Few hiring managers, or HR types, have ever exhibited a lick of skill, intuition, objectivity, or savvy in determining if I could perform the job, or mesh with the culture. I in turn had to pull teeth to get even a vague answer to what the expectations for the job were, and that was often a fabrication, or totally off the cuff.

    • @Antonio: More interesting than the fact that few employers ask candidates to show they can do the job, and to invest some time shadowing, is the fact that so many employers balk when the candidate suggests it! I’d love to get a room-full of such employers so I could ask them a few questions…

      I don’t know many companies that train managers in the art of candidate assessment.

      That makes me wonder, why isn’t this a popular interview question for candidates who want a management job: “Show me how you would interview a job candidate for a position on your team”?

      • @Nick Corcodilos, “I’d love to get a room-full of such employers so I could ask them a few questions……”. Interesting you make that point. When I’ve asked for a job shadow, and mostly been denied, I’ve asked why. For those few who answer, here’s been some reasons.
        1. “Proprietary reasons”. My reply “I don’t work for your competitor, and I work in a completely different industry than your’s”.
        2. “Safety and insurance reasons”. My reply “well, I’ll be wearing appropriate PPEs, in the presence of an employee/employees, following your EHS requirements, and not operating any machinery or equipment. I’m simply there to observe, interact, and see if it’s a fit”.
        3. “It’s an inconvenience”. The most common reason. In that case, if the owners, hiring managers, and HR types are that lazy, disengaged, or cavalier about hiring right, and investing in workers, then what’s the point? Cut my loses and walk away.

        “I don’t know many companies that train managers in the art of candidate assessment”.

        Having over 40 years in industry now, I can give an accurate assessment of hiring, from what I’ve been told to my face, overheard, or been privy to, at least in manufacturing and parallel industries. Some examples-
        .This candidate went to my alma mater.
        .This candidate pledged to my fraternity.
        .This candidate has all sorts of (useless) credentials (e.g. six sigma lean, green belt, black belt, etc.).
        . This candidate is young and trainable (that is if he/she shows up regularly and on time, works the entire shift, and puts forth any effort).
        .I met this candidate at the bar I frequent, and he/she seems like a “good old boy/girl”.
        .This candidate is my lodge brother, on my bowling league, or in my garden club.
        .This candidate gives me the tingles, or warms the cockles of my heart (no kidding).
        I could write endless paragraphs of what I’ve seen, been told, and witnessed first hand. The same goes for the reasons for rejecting qualified candidates.
        Trusting one’s gut, talking to references, and allowing a job shadow scenario is pretty much non-existent today. As you’ve said time and time again “the hiring system is badly broken”.