No Question

There’s no Q&A in this week’s edition. Instead, I want to tell you about what someone said to me at a presentation I gave.

I had just suggested to my audience of job seekers that they should consider doing something more bold than applying for jobs. “Stretch! Take a chance,” I told them. “It’s better to cleverly create your own job and convince an employer to hire you to do it, than to chase published jobs and compete with the masses.”

Normal people must wait to get hired

hired or promotedA hand shot up. (I encourage people to interrupt me because this is Ask The Headhunter, after all!)

“Only a LeBron James could get away with that! You have to be a star to name your own game. In my world, only uber-geeks who know 10 languages, 4 operating systems, and 12 databases could even dream of trying that! The rest of us normal people have to apply for whatever jobs we can find and hope there is a good fit!”

That really got to me. It implies that most people will always be stuck because they’re not stars or big experts. There is no bold action they can possibly take. Even if they tried, they’d be laughed at and rejected out of hand.

That’s bunk. To change your life — and your prospects — you can’t wait. To get hired or promoted you’ve got to step out of line and take a chance. You don’t have to be LeBron James or an uber-geek to do it. But you can’t behave normally, either, because (to quote Bruce Cockburn) the trouble with normal is it only gets worse.

Do you wait to get promoted?

We all get stuck in a rut — and if America’s employment system isn’t a rut, I don’t know what is. Convention dominates our thinking and our lives. Especially at work. While we want to get ahead, our first objective is not to rock the boat. We want to protect our jobs, to avoid irritating the HR manager who’s reading our job application, and to come off as being able to follow rules. Who wants to  be viewed as abnormal? What good is thinking out of the box if it gets us thrown out of the box?

So we follow the rules. To get a job, you fill out an application. To get promoted, you wait for your boss to tap you for a better position. You wait your turn, because who wants to tick off the management?

Maybe you should stop waiting.

Out of line, not normal, but promoted

When I was in college, I took a weekend factory job just before Christmas. A nearby Mattel toy factory couldn’t crank our enough Barbie Ferraris for the holiday rush. Any Rutgers student who showed up got hired — no interviews.

I showed up and was handed a punched time card with a red border. (Yah, punched computer cards. This was a long time ago.) The red border meant I’d build Barbie Campers for $3.25 an hour on a production line. Luckier hires became material handlers, operating manual pallet lifts. They didn’t have to stand in one spot for eight hours like the rest of us suckers. They cruised the football-field-sized factory floor, bringing us pallet-loads of parts. They got paid $5.75 an hour. Once assigned, you could not change jobs.

One evening the floor supervisor was in a foul mood, stamping his feet and wiping his brow as he moved along our ranks, assigning us to one assembly line or another. When he got to me, I must have been wearing my naive college-kid smile. “Maybe you’re in a good mood, Kid, but I’m short material handlers. That means the lines are gonna slow down for lack of parts and my production numbers are gonna fall off. I am not in a good mood.”

I looked down at the red-bordered time card in my hand — the dopey card that kept me at the bottom of the Barbie pay scale. I reached out and snatched a blue magic marker from his shirt pocket. Before the blood rushed all the way to his head, I smeared a blue line over the red one, and handed my time card back to him. “Just sign this and you’ve got one more material handler.”

Step off the line

My compadres down the line craned their necks to see whether I’d get reamed or fired. But the supervisor’s frown curled up briefly into a smile. “Turn around, Kid.” He used my back to sign the card. “Find a pallet jack. You’re a material handler.”

I never did get to build a Barbie Ferrari, but my pay went up 75% and so did my confidence. I wasn’t an uber-anything. But I learned that ignoring “normal,” and stepping out of line and solving problems without being asked, would pay off for me again and again throughout my life. It also earned me friends in higher places. But I was lowlier than anyone reading this website when I first tried it.

What about creating a new job?

Assertively reaching for a promotion to a better-paying job is one thing, because you already have a boss you can appeal to. But what if you want to approach an employer with your idea for job you really want that may not exist? That’s another story, and here’s one way to do it: How to create your own job.

The trouble with being normal is that you always have a lot of competition. When you step out of line you possibly become a target, but you do stand out — and that’s your chance to become the next LeBron James. Or to get a job or a promotion. It also saved me from having to box up another Barbie Camper.

Ever take a big chance that got you hired or promoted — or that cost you a job? Have you ever created your own job to get hired? What could you do to stand out, even just a little bit? Or am I just nuts to suggest it?

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  1. This courageous method is exactly how I rebounded from being RIF’d back in 2001. Day before 9/11, I was greeted by HR at my office to be informed my position was eliminated. Package in hand, I set out to find a job. Strangely enough a former direct report called me to say a customer heard the demise of my position and asked to meet for lunch.

    We met and talked for hours about his business… good, bad, ugly. and mostly the later. Extremely profitable but organizational nightmare. Since I had nothing going on I offered to conduct a situational assessment with recommendations for implementation. He agreed on the spot.

    After talking with his executive team and several employees he wanted me to interview, we sat down and discussed the cold hard facts. Afterwards, He couldn’t hire me fast enough. I’ll never forget when he said; “When can you start?”

    For the next ten years we implemented every initiative I recommended. Profitably!

    • @Paul: That’s what I call doing the job to win the job. My compliments, and thanks for sharing your story. It does indeed require some courage.

      I want to caution others, however. What Paul did was a calculated risk. He could have wasted his time. The employer could have stolen his ideas and kicked him to the curb. So you must judge each case individually. Don’t work for free.

      Clearly, being unemployed, Paul had some time on his hands. Nonetheless, it’s important to give the prospective employer enough to want to hire you, but not so much that the result is they don’t need to hire you!

      Thanks again, Paul!

  2. Over a decade ago, I responded to a job posting that seemed like it had been directly extracted from my resume – a very uncommon combination of management experience, language skills, and technical skills that had been requested by a Government client and characterized by the hiring manager as “unicorn level”. Based on the posting, it certainly looked like my Dream Job.

    However, once hired, the client was more concerned about being in control than effectively using his “unicorn”. Since I knew that it was my Dream Job, though, I stuck with it. Over the next six months I gradually interpreted the client’s guidance in a way that made use of the skills I was hired for. When the client finally saw the results and realized what I’d been doing, he was ecstatic and his management style changed from “how” to do my job to “what” problems needed to be solved. And since our project was staffed by a team of genuine subject matter experts (SMEs) with decades of experience, his new management style also flowed to them. Unsurprisingly, the level of collaboration and mutual respect among the SMEs was second to none.

    The very successful project lasted for over five years and, to a person, all of my fellow SMEs agreed that it was the best work experience of their careers.

  3. My wife and I for several years were directors of a professional placement program in Salt Lake City Utah. Our strategy was to have job Seekers search the web pages of their prospective employers for job descriptions at San Jose engineer level 1 2 3 4 5. If they were a engineer to, we would have them eggs extensively examine not only the engineer to job requirement but three four and five and put in the job applications in their resume anything that they had done that met the higher-level job requirements. We found that employers were all too happy to create a in between or even a higher level job. They always got a higher pay.

  4. After faling out of my first year of college, I applied at the summer fair. While we were standing around, waiting for the Job Service person to assign us to the various food wagons, I saw a couple of guys struggling with attaching a motor to something. I walked over and offered to help. They accepted my help and I worked at that food wagon through the rest of the fair.
    It wasn’t a special job, but one of my coworkers was a beautiful redhead and she was my summertime girlfriend at a time in my life when I needed to feel good about myself.

    • @Michael: Standing around in lines is a great way to meet people who could lead you to a job. I’ve done lots of business by talking to people who were standing near me.

  5. I was hired for an in-house equipment/chemical sales position. That company published a monthly magazine for employees and franchisees. Before starting the job, I had figured out that I really enjoy writing. So, without being asked to, I started submitting articles for the magazine. They were immediately accepted – especially because (they informed me) they didn’t have to do any heavy editing with my pieces.

    When I left that job a few years later, I began writing and producing a newsletter directed at contractors in the field I had been selling to. For a little while, I also had to continue in sales to supplement my income. But eventually, due to the newsletter and my connections on social media, I regularly began writing blog articles and other writing assignments for those same contractors. Now I do writing full time. It took a while to reach my goal, but if I hadn’t taken that first step, I’m not sure what I’d be doing today.

    • @Mark-great real world story with a positive twist. Have you ever thought mentoring young people with out of the box entrepreneurial ambitions? Common sense nuts and bolts insights out have could really help younger folks.

    • @Mark: That’s how I started Ask The Headhunter. I self-published a book for job seekers (The New Interview Instruction Book) and started promoting it on Prodigy, one of the early commercial Internet services. I started answering questions from job seekers on one of Prodigy’s discussion boards where people gathered talk about careers. My dedication to answering every question asked generated a lot of trust from other users, so I created my own thread. What to call it? Ask The Headhunter seemed okay. My goal was to promote my book without violating Prodigy’s “no advertising on the discussion boards” rule. I got very good at it. I answered thousands of questions, which got me invited by The Motley Fool to move ATH to their corner of AOL.

      Like you, I gave my work away until I had a loyal audience. The other key is that, like you, I’ve always delivered “camera ready” content to my content licensees. Few writers are good at editing their own work.

      My compliments for stepping out of line! The only other point I’ll make to others is, you might have to step out of line many times before something good comes out of it. Be patient and persistent.

  6. I’ve tried this several time and failed each time. Most recently, I saw a gap in our communications process to our clients. We are a growing company that is hiring left and right. I put together a proposal outlining specific methods and resources that would boost our efficiency and ROI in our communications that would help lead directly to more product sales (B2B) – ending with the idea that I would be promoted into the role of organizing that. My VP just looked at me and said, “No, we are not going to do that.” When I showed the same plan to others, suddenly, other departments were doing some of the things that I brought forward. I should mention that I get very high performance reviews, etc. And my high-results work ethic only seems to get me more workload, but no promotions. It is possible that my outcome is the result of bias against me – a woman, over 50, with a funny, foreign name? Your method might work for people who look and come from the exact places as their bosses, (i.e. mostly white men), but for me, not much.

    • @Garine: I can’t say whether the idea will or won’t work for some people, but I do know it won’t work in certain situations. For example, I quickly conclude from your story that your boss probably isn’t worth working for. His dismissiveness tells us he’s got issues of his own. Clearly, your ideas have value.

      Sometimes we need to stop working with jerks and find better people and employees to work with.

    • When you can’t change their minds, change jobs

  7. In the early 2000s, shortly after the Y2K boom (which I was fortunate to be a part of), I got cut from a good job and had to temporarily settle for any job that put food on the table.

    I ended up working in local schools, first as a substitute teacher, then as a teaching assistant. This “got me by” for a while, but it also limited the ability to look for whatever I really was searching for.

    Finally I became outspoken and critical of the management of one local school, definitely putting my job at risk. It didn’t happen as quickly as I hoped, but eventually I was asked to resign at the end of the year.

    It did, in fact, lead me to the time needed to improve my search and ultimately land at one of the best places I ever worked.

    In my first month, I accepted additional responsibilities, coordinating testing activities for several organizations across the company and conducting tight, concise meetings to communicate critical changes and ensure that each organization had appropriate information to evaluate the changes and communicate any issues encountered.

    This led to a couple of additional opportunities, working on special projects and identifying solutions that others either did not understand or did not have the time or inclination to pursue. All in all, it led to 3-4 years of some of the best assignments of my career. Even when the opportunities faded, I was notified in advance of changes and paid to look for my next job. That was unheard of, and the best ending to a position I’ve ever experienced.

  8. The comments above suggest this works better for men than for women.

    Women managers often feel threatened by women underlings who have ideas and can implement.

  9. With all due respect, I think it has nothing to do with either your sex, age, or name. Some places are just run by jerks.

    • True.

      So, one either has to grow thicker skin or move on since the Supreme Court ruled
      that being a jerk isn’t against the law being that “mean”, “rude”, “jerk”, as well as many
      other words, are relatively subjective.

      Most relevant is the fact that being a “jerk” isn’t class protected as far as
      discrimination law is concerned.

      In summary, anyone can be an equal opportunity A-hole without fear of legal consequences.


      Unless one can specifically prove discrimination

    • Well spoken!!

  10. Well said. Most (all?) Managers are not qualified, or so says 60 years’ experience. Most are merely friends, neighbors, family. No qualifications. Most have no management training or understanding. Something you need to check out during interviews. Most never check out the managers several layers up.

    • @Wes: This is the danger of applying for lots and lots of jobs. This increases the chances you’ll go to work for a lousy manager simply because the baseline probability that any particular manager is a jerk are very high.

      “Most never check out the managers several layers up.”

      Yup! Check out the managers and the people before you invest time pursuing a job with them. Because if you don’t, and you invest a lot in interviews, and they make you an offer, you’re very likely to take an offer from a jerk just because they made you an offer — and you will rationalize your decision simply because you put so much time into it.

      Pick your target companies and managers thoughtfully. Interview people upstream and downstream from the job you want. Pursue companies, not jobs:

  11. Great article, as usual.

    One of the important things to focus on when you want a promotion, more money, more responsibility, or something similar, is to put your attention on THE WORK THAT NEEDS DOING. (As opposed to the narrow definition of “the job” which is often misaligned with the needs of the business)

    It’s interesting that when people put their focus on solving problems that need to be solved, smart people often recognize and reward that behavior.

    There is an infinite amount of valuable, useful, productive WORK that needs to be done. “Jobs” that were invented and administered by people without any skin in the game, a much smaller number…

    One of the most profitable business deals I ever did came about because I presented the client with a solution to a problem I knew that they had – before they asked for my help. They were grateful I was paying attention. I was happy for the business. They got a great solution and I made a nice payoff.

    • @Eric: “put your attention on THE WORK THAT NEEDS DOING”

      I could copy/paste that here 100 times, but I hope everyone gets the point. Failure to do this may very well explain 99% of failed interviews and wrong job choices.

  12. In that job where I made a difference, I volunteered to coordinate and lead a cross company testing effort, to 1) make sure that any changes to the every day software continued to work properly, 2) that the major changes to replace the legacy hardware and software was thoroughly tested – and coordinated – so that every organization would get a chance to test, without having “repeated collisions” in their testing – EXCEPT when we wanted to do real life capacity testing, which was a specific test scenario.

    You’d be surprised how good engineers are not always good writers, good organizers, etc. I knew that others could work and code faster than me, but my meeting organization skills and attention to detail helped fill a void that only a few people were able to handle.

    One thing I learned is to provide a skill that is scarce, encourage others to handle things that they do best, and find ways to bring out the best in everyone while keeping focus on the things each person is responsible to handle.

    • @Brian: “One thing I learned is to provide a skill that is scarce, encourage others to handle things that they do best, and find ways to bring out the best in everyone while keeping focus on the things each person is responsible to handle.”

      There’s a lot of debate about what defines a great manager. I’ll vote your [perhaps unintended] definition one of the very best.

  13. Not personal experience but here goes.

    Author of book on career dev had his own publishing company. Interviewing someone for editor position.

    Becoming clear candidate not a good fit.

    Then the candidate has a good idea. She’s a really good book designer, so if she got hired, the company would have nicer looking books and the editors could concentrate on the actual editing tasks, giving more readable books as well.


    Happy ending, worked out just as the candidate suggested.

    I’ve never found a time to do this myself. Possibly because of the narrow niches programmers tend to be hired for.

  14. On creating your own job. In sum. The short story, Yes you can define and pitch your own role. You are not bound to follow the typical and habitual SOP for looking for a job. Simply put, don’t look for a job, look for a company and define to them/hiring manager what you fervently believe to be your value add. It’s not easy, but it can be done. It’s not easy because you definitely are in sales. Selling YOU AND some idea or role that may be new to that company. Go for it!

    Done this as the hunter, and manager. The only regret I didn’t do it sooner & more often.

    You’ve got nothing to lose. If it doesn’t take, what are they going to do? Take you to the parking lot and flog you? Go for it. The longer rationale as to why opportunity creation is doable follows.

    This is fertile ground for one of my mantras…Don’t look for jobs, look for companies. Companies who play in a space you want to play in & believe where you can add value.

    Habitually, most job hunters, are well, job hunters. Conditioned to rules of employer engagement & processes that are job centric. As the guy who raised his hand said, you look for openings and get in line. A line created by the employer. No one asks you to be creative & do a job selfie.

    A company focus has one universal job description. that applies to everyone.. “Do what you can to make the company or your home organization successful.” If
    you think about it, that invites defining a role or roles that do that. It applies if you’re outside looking in, or already in.

    This discussion is in the twilight of finding the legendary “unadvertised jobs”. In reality these are not BS. Inside a company they abound,..usually in the form of unfunded managerial and/or SME ideas. Often picked up from talking to people like you, hunting for a job, or hunting for a company.

    And as a manager, along with peer managers I can assure you the way the HR game is played is “No budget, no search” Stealth use of existing resources aside..what breaks an idea free, is you…the right person who finds their way to managers and their ideas, at the right time. Usually 1 of 2 ways, you got in that lob line and via a sidebar a HM discovers a like mind on a pet idea(s),& the know how to pull it off, or you’ve networked to the manager, or vs versa. Usually HR is not help here, they aren’t that deep into the head of the HM to even look.

    As a hiring manager, I can tell you, that pitching a real live person works way better than pitching what to my funding manager(s) is an abstract idea. You now
    become a hiring opportunity which ideally and often does, turns into an incremental hire. (additional headcount) Or. I hire you, live without what the job
    description says you’d do, and you & I open new ground.

    This brings up another important piece of job creation. when you hunt companies, you’re hunting for a particular kind of boss, one who’s not risk & change adverse. Because usually you are proposing via a new role for yourself, you’re most likely also proposing changes.

    And the right manager will not be afraid of taking a risk.. By moving into the firelight of top management and wrestling them to the ground. New role creation is a team play, you bring an idea, a manager sponsors the idea & you, knows the way around the corporate jungle, and runs interference all the way through to approving your hire, possibly a new role, including working with. HR to legitimize the new role and a reasonable comp.

    Same thinking applies to those e.g. @ Garine who make ongoing incremental changes, taking on new duties which in effect create new roles. A good manager isn’t blind, and works the admin system, modifies the organization if necessary to recognize the person with a job created for them.

    All Above is a key reason why having & using a strong INSIDE and external network is important to you & your potential boss. (To find people like you)

    Where do you do this? What’s a target? For sake of discussion, I divide the employment world into 3 types. 1. Where Business is seemingly stable, organized, earning money, and the job is to manage status quo
    chasing growth. Especially in large regimented companies. With the exception of internal startups, this
    is usually not the best target to self define. There’s no original thought & someone’s likely thought of someone like you, or per insider promo opportunities you’d likely have competition.

    2. Positive chaos. Characterized by very fast growth. Disorganized, death march workloads and hours, due to understaffing and inattention to business. They can hardly get out of their own way.

    3. Negative chaos, operating in survivor mode, people bailing or being helped to do so. same scene death march workloads etc.

    #3 may seem counterproductive. But there is opportunity in Chaos. Chaos lives on an exhausting line separating exhilaration from panic. If you’re already there, you can quickly retool yourself by taking on what obviously needs to be done. As an outsider if you can get a manager’s (not HR) attention, you’ll have a chance to strike pay dirt even in companies or organizations going down the slippery slope.

    There’s an old saying “when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. When they do, holes open up that may give you a break. It’s not your life’s work. The place just needs to last long enough for you to pull off the chance you want. And the company may effect a turnaround.

    How do you get attention? It’s worth repeating, do your homework, read, research, and network, preferably the manager’s personal network.

    Have I done this? My 1st job sorta. Actually a friend (teens not out of High School) had this idea that a local restaurant could use curb service, walked in
    suggested same to the owner who hired us both (for tips). I didn’t create the job, but I learned from it.

    A good boss of mine pitched transferring me overseas (Singapore) to set up & run a software dev lab. Which I did. No existing job for this. Internally it was a
    lateral. I appointed myself a Director, printed biz cards as such, uncontested, And I was a Lab Director for all to see

    As a Manager I had a (computer) lab tech working with me. He was obviously underutilized, smart & wanted to be an engineer & targeted to be part of a team on a new project. So I started giving him the engineering work. He in turn worked the hallways and got to know the PM. I don’t know how HR knew, but the HR Manager, protested in the assignments. …he’s only a tech, it’s engineering work etc etc.

    I thanked him, then formally assigned the tech to the team as our rep working with developer SMEs (our rep was their test guy). When project was done I set out to fix HR’s problem by promoting him to Software Engineer. I asked the SME Team Lead to send me a note attesting to the tech’s skills, contribution, performance etc. Explained why. He was astonished that he wasn’t an engineer. He sent the note, I used it to leverage it to the promo. The guy that wrote the note walked on water, outside HR’s pay grade. I didn’t do this myself I had a boss too, and he backed me.

    And take note. The project didn’t live. Eventually it was killed. So what. It served the purposes of my tech and me. He walked in as a tech, and walked out it as a software engineer & with the respect of some important techies & development managers.

  15. I thought this was a great post by Nick. There’s a lot of truth to “leaning in”. Be curious. Offer to help. Dig in. Ask questions. Be confident but humble.

    Companies need good people. Challenge is today’s hiring system where plug-and-play often dominates. That probably works for some roles, but not where intellectual curiosity is needed. I would encourage some creative thinking, stretching a bit without hype. Be real. YOLO.

  16. Nick,

    Bruce Cockburn…I’m impressed. There are more sides to you than one could imagine.

  17. Reading all the replies, suggests that there is a shift of mindset described here. The shift is from job seeker to service provider. The job seeker goes out to discover someone who is offering what they need and is very often disappointed in both the job and the compensation. The service provider goes to discover what services they can offer and find who would be interested in that. This approach is more likely to result in more job satisfaction and possibly better compensation. Making that shift in attitude from job seeker to service provider can be revolutionary. If I may, I would suggest that it also improves ones emotional and spiritual relationship to work.