Discussion: April 27, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter

In today’s Q&A: Last week at the Chicago Booth School of Business I gave the keynote presentation to an alliance of the top 30 Executive MBA schools in the world — including Stanford, Harvard, London School of Business, INSEAD, Duke, UCLA, Northwestern. In attendance were the career center directors from these schools — the folks who coach working professionals about career development and how to get their next jobs.

My topic was The New Interview. And what I discussed was the importance of initiative on the part of the job hunter — executive or otherwise. I told them that the in-your-face question people want an answer to is, How can I stand out?

Without a clear demonstration of initiative, there is no standing out. You’re just another candidate. If you’re an Ask The Headhunter regular, you know what I’m talking about.

What does initiative mean to you when you’re job hunting? If you’re a manager, what have candidates done to demonstrate their initiative to you in ways that matter? (Alternately, how do people blow it? If you’ve got a personal disaster story, please share that, too… we won’t tell anyone… and we might learn something from your experience.)

[UPDATE: Due to lots of requests, today’s edition of the newsletter is now available online: click here.]


  1. Hello Nick, and Hello to all the readers,

    What a great post…I am intrigued enough about this process to have immediately begun looking at how I have conducted myself in past interviews…I know it’s difficult to think that one can take over who guides the interview, in demonstrating how your initiative will add value, and how your previous value adds, created new initiatives in and of themselves…..As an individual with an MBA, we are not necessarily smarter…nope…not at all, I have seen some brilliant individuals with/without the degree, and yet I think about how many facets of the educational process, yields clues as to how to be an initiative driven individual….perhaps even using the initiative it took to create a SWOT or proposal or some other “relevant” tool or other informative communication that leads to an interview….It sure beats blindly sending out another resume for some job that you found on careerbreaker….

    From now on I will select my organizations more carefully.

    I will demonstrate how I can create value through current or newly planned initiatives, and in the same vein, show how past performances yielded and still are yielding value to my past organizations.

    Thanks again for lighting a fire…..I can do this….

  2. I totally agree with your assessment. I applied for various health administration positions. I would get interviews, but not the job. Finally at one interview, I really spent my time asking myself “if I were hired tomorrow, what key initiatives could I improve upon?” After my interview, I sent the hiring manager a bulleted list of initiatives that I believed were areas for improvement along with a proposed plan of how, if hired, I would address them.

    Not only did I get the job, I later found out that almost half of my bulleted list was outlined in a paid consultant report from two years earlier. If you are fortunate enough to get your foot in the door with an interview, make sure you stand out from the rest.

  3. We were hiring for a department director position. It had been a revolving door for a few years. The problems were all laid out for the candidates in the first interview. One candidate came to the second interview with a multi page outline of her plan to fix the department. Before the panel asked her a question, she asked if she could share her ideas. She got the job and is still here seven years later.

  4. Standing out need not always be a good thing, just to share a story of how I did blow it though I didn’t realize it until much later:

    For a contract position, I went into the interview and was asked about my weakness. I gave this rather brutally honest answer of how if I know 101 things that aren’t likely to get fixed this leads me to be unmotivated but that if I have just 2 or 3 things to do that I’m usually good about doing them and staying on top of things. That’s the overview of what I probably spent at least 5 minutes discussing and in the end got the feedback of, “he’d be difficult to manage.” Well, gee how did I not see my answer leading to that response? I was simply oblivious to the point of remembering to be careful about showing one’s bad side in an interview.

    Oddly enough, I think I gave a similar response in another interview but the second time around the result was much better. Perhaps it was that there was more time to go through some things or that somehow I had some other things that overshadowed that shortcoming and the company really wanted to hire someone, anyone and so I got the position. While I may stand out at times, more often I just blend in to the background as I’m used to being the center of attention and have difficulty with focusing on myself.

  5. Great stories. I love it when I post something obvious and get congratulated for it. :-)

    @JB: Don’t ignore another factor that might explain your two experiences. Manager #2 might be more insightful than Manager #1. Of course, there’s no quarter in shooting yourself in the foot, but there’s something to be said for working with people who are candid and honest… Manager #1’s feedback reveals as much about him as about you. “He’d be difficult to manage?” That can be re-stated, “I don’t know how to manage him.”

    Hoo-yah, takes all kinds.

  6. Weakness? Was only asked that once. I replied that I had no idea, because I’d never been faced with a problem I couldn’t solve.

    Difficult to manage? There have been some who considered me so. They were really trying to micromanage and that doesn’t work with me.

    My attitude has always been: “I know my job better than you do, or you wouldn’t be hiring me. Give me what I need, get out of the way and let me do my job.”
    You can tell me what needs to be done, from the company’s point of view, but don’t tell me how to do it. If you don’t trust me to do it right, fire me instead of looking over my shoulder.
    Managers are overhead, like pencils and desks and PCs. Necessary, yes, but still overhead – companies are paid for what workers do, not for what managers do.
    The proper function of a manager is to keep the people upstairs off the backs of the people downstairs so they can get some work done :-)

  7. Ray,

    You don’t need to put a smiley at the end of that.

    The proper function of managers IS to keep the people upstairs distracted so work can get done.

    This is management in 5 easy steps:

    1. Ask your reports, “How can I help you do your job better?”

    2. Shut your mouth and listen to what they say.

    3. Ask probing questions to help your reports make sure that what they say is real/true/beneficial.

    4. Give them what they’ve asked for.

    5. Repeat.

    Every company I’ve worked for that operated this way prospered. Every company that did not, failed.

  8. This is an interesting forum, it reminds me of the research on innovation in organizations – it isn’t that people don’t have innovative ideas, they are averse to sharing them because there are real and perceived risks involved. The same thing applies to initiative.

    Initiative is not a natural state for most employees or job candidates; it has to be fostered. But companies do more to thwart initiative than to promote it and that starts with job interviews.