New Grads: How to get in the door without experience

In the April 16, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a parent asks how her son, a new college graduate, can get a job when he’s got no experience.  How can he get experience when he can’t get hired? He’s done internships and earned good credentials in school, but keeps losing out to other applicants. How can he get in the door for an interview without experience?

Nick’s Advice

It’s difficult to guess at the problem, partly because I don’t know what your son’s degree is in and what jobs he’s been applying for. But in general, he’s encountering the age discrimination problem: He’s too young!

hire-new-gradIronic, isn’t it? Either older workers are “too experienced” and “over-qualified,” or younger workers lack skills and experience. Here’s what has become very clear to me, and we’ve discussed this in other columns: Employers demand job applicants who have done the exact job before, and who will take less money to do it.

It makes me wonder what Human Resources departments mean by, “Our company offers exciting new opportunities!” — when they offer no new opportunities at all. Why would anyone aspire to a new job doing the exact same thing they’ve been doing for years already? Why would they take a salary cut to do the same old job? (Peter Cappelli at the Wharton School of Management has documented this in his short book, Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs.)

When you hear the CEO of a corporation proclaim, “People are our most important asset!” it seems what that really means is, “People are a depreciating commodity at our company — and you’re next in line, so take a salary cut to do the same work you did last year!”

Sorry to rant, but I get fed up with companies that pretend they’re offering careers when all they offer is the same old grind. But back to your son: What can he do?

Substitute personal recommendations for experience

New college grads do get jobs, so your son needs to reconsider “How to Start A Job Search.” (Few schools teach effective job hunting to their students.) He should also consider what is an acceptable substitute for experience and skills. I think the most compelling substitute is a personal referral for a job — from someone the employer trusts. This doesn’t mean your son will get hired because he knows someone. It means he may get hired because someone will vouch for his intelligence, for his work ethic, and for his ability to learn a new job quickly. Even a cold-blooded employer realizes it can hire talent at a lower cost if it starts with a new grad who shows promise.

“Promise” is the key, and the lynchpin is the personal referral.

Work backwards

Your son should carefully select the companies he’d like to work for, and then proceed “backwards.” Before applying for any job, figure out who he knows that knows someone at the company. This may require multiple steps — but it’s a time-honored way to get in the door for a first job. He will have to spend time talking with each person along the path, to make them comfortable that he’s worth their recommendation. After all, they’re putting their names on the line for an unknown entity. (Sorry, but a new grad is usually an unknown in the job market.)

Your son should:

  • Contact the alumni office of his school, and identify people who work at his target companies — and then contact them.
  • Talk with parents of former schoolmates — ask for their advice.
  • Ask former professors for introductions to people they know in business and industry.

Then keep talking. Trust is the coin of the realm, and your son must build it if he wants a referral.

Learn to talk shop to get help

In How Can I Change Careers? I offer some tips about “getting in the door” that are perfect for new grads. (After all, shifting from college to the work world is a career change, right?)

Don’t worry if you’re not good at introducing yourself or making cold calls. Write a little script and use it until the words start to come naturally. After a few calls, they will. For example,

“I’ve been considering a move into the widget industry and I want to learn more about it. What books or articles have you found helpful in your work?”

This phone call should have nothing to do with asking for a job. Make it a casual but intelligent discussion with an expert who can educate you. This is a great way to make insider contacts. I know it’s not easy to make such calls, but if you’re asking for advice and insight rather than a job, you’ll find that some people will talk to you for a few minutes. Some may take you under their wing. Why? Because people love to talk about their work with others who are interested. When you demonstrate your willingness to invest time and effort to learn about their business, you’re not likely to be shrugged off as another desperate job hunter.

In short, learn to talk shop!

One problem many new grads have is taking advice from people who might help them. Please see “How to Get Coached.” Don’t waste those new contacts!

We can all cry that this is unfair and that employers should hire more rationally. But there are 27 million people actively looking for work in the U.S. Employers seem to think the perfect worker will come along, so why take a chance? Employers do hire new grads. But with so many new grads looking for work, the personal referral makes a crucial difference.

Are you a new grad looking for a job? What’s standing in your way? What are you doing to overcome the obstacles? Got advice for new grads? Join us in the comments section below!

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Skip The Resume: Triangulate to get in the door

In the April 9, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a transitioning military officer asks how to break through:

I have spent the morning drilling through Ask the Headhunter. Thank you for the time and effort you put into that forum. I especially appreciate the reasoned, personal responses you give to select comments on your posts.

I would like to ask you for some advice if you have the time. I am retiring from the U.S. Army after 24 years as a senior commissioned officer and rated aviator, but I want to work outside the defense industry. My skill set is very broad and leadership-focused. I’ve been looking for jobs at the executive level, and over the last three months I’ve selectively submitted resumes for jobs (7 total) that I think would rock my world. My evaluation of these job postings put them right in my round-house. I’m not getting any responses to my resumes, though, and I don’t know how to break through. Any advice you have would be appreciated.

Nick’s Reply

Thanks for your kind words about Ask The Headhunter — glad you’re finding it helpful. And more important to me, thanks for your service to our country and to all of us. I’m particularly troubled by how difficult it can be for military folks to transition into the commercial world.

I’ll try to offer a few suggestions.

First, please keep in mind that the average manager spends an average of 30 seconds reading a resume. That means you need to tell managers quickly how you’re going to address their specific problems and challenges. Here are a couple of short articles that might drive this home:

Tear Your Resume In Half

Resume Blasphemy

triangulateI recently gave a presentation to Cornell’s Executive MBA Program — these are managers who’ve been running companies for 7-15 years who invest about $145,000 for a two-year business degree. I’ll tell you what I told them:

When you hand your resume to an employer, what you’re really saying is this: Here’s everything you need to know about me. My education, my credentials, my work history, my accomplishments, my skills — Now, you go figure out what the heck to do with me!

Managers suck at figuring this out. Just consider that they’re looking at hundreds of resumes — not just yours.

In How Can I Change Careers?, I talk about how show a manager that you’re the profitable hire for his or her specific organization. This process can be used to produce a “blasphemous” resume — but the work involved essentially eliminates the need to use a resume to get in the door. It’s all about doing your homework on the problems and challenges the manager faces, by talking shop with people connected to the company. They will educate you and tip you off on what to say to the manager. The objective is to let these contacts lead you directly to the manager, while your competition is sending in resumes.

This set of articles may also help you get started: The Basics.

You have already selected your target companies, so you’re already ahead of the game. Most people can’t do this. They insist on applying for jobs they find.

Please also check this article: Pursue Companies, Not Jobs. Having specific targets is more than half the challenge. Honing in on them is the rest. If you do it this way, it almost doesn’t matter if they have open jobs. Believe me, managers open up jobs when they meet someone who can drop profit to their bottom line. It’s what a consultant does when pitching services to a prospective client. She shows up with very specific solutions.

One caution: Don’t deliver so much up front that you’re doing free work they can poach from you. Offer a plan for solutions, but leave them hanging a bit, until they make a commitment to you.

The best way to “break through” is to triangulate. Find and talk to people near the manager: customers, vendors, other employees, consultants — anyone who touches the operation. Never ask for job leads or to “take my resume in.” Instead, ask for advice and insight about the manager and his operation. Then close by asking if there’s someone in the operation you might talk to, to get more insight and advice: “I’m trying to figure out what I need to do to get ready for a job in this operation.”

Finally, avoid HR at all costs. See last week’s column: Why HR should get out of the hiring business, and this audio segment from KKSF talk radio: What’s HR got to do with it?

I hope you land the job that rocks your world!

How would you advise this military officer in transition? Please post your suggestions in the comments section below.

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What’s HR Got to Do With It?

Fast on the heels of last week’s column, Why HR should get out of the hiring business, I did Gil Gross’s talk radio show in San Francisco (KKSF Talk910 am). We discussed what’s broken about America’s employment system, why good workers can’t get hired, and what HR (human resources) departments have to do with it…

What’s HR got to do with it? This audio segment is about 10 minutes long:

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How to screen headhunters

In Does the headhunter own my job interviews? we explore where headhunters fit in the recruiting equation — when employers contact the same candidates on their own. Who “owns” the candidate and who “owns” the job interview?

The best question that’s come up in that discussion is, What value does the headhunter add? to recruiting and hiring?

exclusiveThe answer goes back to the employer. If an employer wants to do a sound, thorough search for the best candidates to fill a job, the employer will not post the job. (Do you really want 10,000 applicants? If yes, why? Back to Personnel Hell with you.) The employer will conduct its own quiet search, or use a headhunter to conduct it.

In this case, the headhunter has an exclusive on the job. It’s not posted. The employer isn’t doing the search. Nor is any other headhunter. Basically, no one else knows the job is open. One headhunter, chosen by the employer, under a contract, is handling the search.

I imagine all the personnel jockeys tugging at the underwear wedging itself up their butt cracks. Oooh… How silly not to post the job! How will the world know about the job? You’ll miss tons of great people!

Yep. You’ll miss lots of tire-kickers and the “recruiters” who drive them around the job boards. No job posting. That’s where the headhunter adds value. That’s what the headhunter is paid for.

Here’s what you need to know: Only the best headhunters get assignments like that. The rest are scraping job listings and resumes, trying to talk their way past one another and past the employer itself.

So, you want to know how to screen headhunters that contact you? Ask the headhunter, “Do you have an exclusive on this job?” If the headhunter claims yes, ask who the hiring manager is. If the headhunter has an exclusive assignment, he’s got no worries about divulging his client’s name. The hiring manager isn’t going to “go around him.” The headhunter has a contract. The headhunter controls the interviews at that point. And you’re not competing against tire-kickers and the “recruiters” who are ferrying them around the Net.

If the headhunter doesn’t have an exclusive, or is worried that someone is going to beat him to the placement, you’re probably wasting your time. Hang up.

(For 62 more myth-busting answers about nagging headhunter questions: How to Work With Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you.)

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Does the headhunter own my job interviews?

In the February 5, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter wants to know who comes first: The employer, or the headhunter?

I have a thorny problem. A recruiter just called me with a great job opportunity. I said, of course, submit me! Then, minutes later, I got an e-mail directly from the same company saying they’d seen my resume on a job board, and would like to talk to me about an open position.

Do I let the hiring company know that they should talk to the recruiter, or should I call the recruiter and say, don’t submit me, they contacted me directly? Which way is better overall? Does the headhunter own my interviews just because he found my resume online?

Nick’s Reply

resume-for-saleAh, your online resume bit you unexpectedly. And now you’re in a bad spot. For all you know, the recruiter found your resume the same place the company did.

First, you can’t tell the company to contact the recruiter, because it already found you itself. It’s not going to want to pay a recruiter.

(Of course, it’s possible the employer is trying to stiff the recruiter. You’ll never know.)

Second, you can’t tell the recruiter to forget it. You already told him to go ahead. When he calls the company, they’re going to tell him they’ve already talked to you. If he argues that he’s “representing” you, then the company may drop you like a hot potato. You lose. This is the sort of thing that can kill a candidate’s credibility.

The way that’s “better overall” is to stop posting your resume on the Net. The situation you’re in is why. For all you know, 20 recruiters have already plucked your resume and have forwarded it to hundreds of companies on their own letterhead. That’s one of the many risks you take when you publish your resume online — whether it’s on a job board or on LinkedIn. It can result in what’s referred to as a “fee fight.” If you’re hired without a recruiter’s direct involvement, the recruiter can still claim he’s owed a fee because he submitted your resume (even if it’s without your permission). The company might argue. The recruiter might sue.

But companies don’t like being put in this spot. More likely, they just decline to talk to (or hire) the candidate to avoid litigation. Like I said, you lose.

The generally accepted rule in such situations is this: Whoever introduced the candidate to the company first gets credit for the placement, and earns a fee. But that doesn’t preclude a fee fight.

What if some headhunter submits your resume to a company without your approval, and claims a fee when you don’t want him involved? Lotsa luck. How can you prove you didn’t approve the referral through the headhunter? Is the company really going to spend time gathering evidence to battle over you?

Heads up: This is how lots of “headhunters” operate. (I discuss how to distinguish the slime balls from the legit headhunters in How to Work With Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you. The book includes an entire section titled How to find a good headhunter.) Not understanding how the good headhunters and the lousy headhunters operate can cost you a new job — and a whole lot of money.

So, what’s your best bet in this situation? Since the company controls the job and the fee — and also decides whether to interview you — I’d accept the interview from the employer promptly, and notify the headhunter that the employer has contacted you directly as a result of its own efforts. He cannot guarantee you a job interview. It’s not his to offer.

Unless the headhunter has a written contract with the employer, and can show he has prior claim to an interview that he scheduled between you and the company, he’s out of luck. This is how many “headhunters” (I hesitate to even call them that) get themselves into trouble: They don’t cultivate relationships with candidates and their clients. They find resumes online and they play the match game too fast and loose. In the end, this controversy is between the employer and the headhunter, because you’ve got no contract with the headhunter. Heck, he’ll be lucky if he has a contract with the employer. The only claim he can make is on the company — he can make no claim on you.

Nonetheless, I wish you the best. You’re going to need it. Posting your resume online might seem a great way to increase your odds of success, but it also increases the chances that your resume becomes a commodity out of your control. The headhunter doesn’t own or control your interviews — the employer does. The only thing the headhunter controls is the copy of your resume she plucked off the Net. Good luck getting control back.

Have your job hunting efforts ever run head-first into a headhunter’s? What happened? Has your online resume caused you problems like this? Help us sort out this mess.

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The shortcut to success in job interviews

In the January 8, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter asks whether I really mean it:

I agree with your non-traditional approach as the means to take control of one’s destiny in terms of choosing the work as well as the firm you want to work for, versus just scanning websites and settling for what’s available. However, you say, “demonstrate you can do the job.” Every company is so different about how they go about even routine requirements! The only way I can think of for someone to be able to do this is, you have to get connected to folks in the organization you want to work in and get them to tell you what is lacking and how they do things. That’s the only way for you to be able to demonstrate that capacity to the hiring manager.

Am I missing something? Are there alternative approaches to prep for the “demonstration?”

Nick’s Reply

(Note: Today’s question comes from a sales executive in a top U.S. company, and he asks if I really mean it when I say you have to talk to company insiders before you even apply for a job. Absolutely! What a great way to start the New Year! Let’s be perfectly clear about what effective job hunting really means!)

Get the factsNope — you’re not missing anything. You’re correct: “you have to get connected to folks in the organization you want to work in and get them to tell you what is lacking and how they do things.”

There is no shortcut

A shortcut to success in job interviews doesn’t exist. This is why effective job hunting is a challenge. You can’t approach 50 companies that have jobs posted. You have to focus and do the work to get connected so you can get the information required to make a potent presentation. Get inside the organization and get the facts!

This truth is incredibly difficult for people to accept, no matter how experienced or savvy they are. You’re a sales executive. You already know the truth, but “the employment system” has brainwashed even you to believe otherwise. Imagine meeting with a prospect to sell your services. Do you do a cookie-cutter presentation, a one-size-fits-all sales pitch to close a deal? Of course not! You’d never waste such an opportunity. You research the prospect’s business, talk to as many insiders as you can, and you figure out exactly where they’re having problems so that you can show exactly why doing business with you is the solution.

Too much hard work?

It’s no different when approaching a company about a job. The single biggest mistake job hunters make is to shotgun the market, using the same pitch everywhere. It just doesn’t work. But people resist what I suggest because it’s a lot of hard work. Of course it is. So’s that great job they say they want!

LinkedIn can promise you all the “connections” in the world, and SimplyHired can promise you all the job postings you can possibly respond to. It’s all bunk if you don’t do the hard work for each and every job you pursue. Each and every job, and each and every manager.

So let’s start off the New Year with an unambiguous statement about what Ask The Headhunter is all about:

You must talk to people connected to a company to learn exactly what problems and challenges the company is facing — so you can be ready to walk in and demonstrate how you’re going to help tackle those problems and challenges specifically.

Not ready to do that? Then you have no business in the interview, and I can’t help you. There is no easy way out of this requirement. The alternative is to be one of the millions who apply for jobs that come along, and to sit around waiting for some personnel jockey to figure out whether you’re “a fit” from a list of keywords. The sad truth is, personnel jockeys — and most hiring managers — stink at figuring this out. You must explain it to them. And there’s nothing to explain if you haven’t first figured out exactly “what is lacking and how they do things.” (I discuss this in The Basics: The New Interview, and I flesh it out in “how to” detail in How Can I Change Careers?, which is not just for career changers, but for anyone who wants to prove they’d be a profitable hire.)

Nice work!

My compliments for finding the fundamental message in Ask The Headhunter. I’m not making fun of you for asking whether you understand it correctly. I know you won’t read or hear this message anywhere else, so it seems odd. But you’ve got it exactly right. Understanding the other guy’s specific problems is a fundamental basis for proposing a business relationship.

The good news is, now you know exactly what you must do to succeed — and I’ll bet once you get past the horror of it all, you’ll realize this puts total control over your job search in your own hands. Employers are dying to meet someone who understands exactly what they need — someone who can deliver.

Is there any other way to land a job that’s not a crap shoot? Am I nuts? Is there really a shortcut to success in job interviews? Post your comments below so we can discuss the truth, no matter how much it hurts.

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No College Degree, No Problem

In the December 11, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter wants to know how to get past the college degree requirement when he’s sure he can do the job anyway.

I just discovered your blog and have purchased How Can I Change Careers? and Keep Your Salary Under Wraps. I have some questions regarding the job hunting process that keeps biting back at me.

How do you get past the stigma of not having a college degree? I am reading my way through your website and have taken in some of the information, such as networking to meet the people in charge of making the decision. However, I want to know how can I compete for jobs that require degrees when I am fully capable of meeting the job requirements as listed?

Many employers set this as a requirement and don’t even want to talk to you unless you have a degree, regardless of whether you can do the job. I appreciate your help.

Nick’s Reply

Success requires turning the job hunting process on its head. The way it normally works, you provide your credentials and they decide whether to talk to you. If your keywords (that is, college degrees) don’t match, they tell you to go pound salt.

But there is another way to approach this that can get you past the college requirement. Learn to talk shop before “credentials” dominate the transaction. ATH reader Thomas Lafferty explains it in the comments section of this blog posting: You can’t get a job because employers hire the wrong way. Tom basically wrote this column for me.

Take a look at his approach and, more important, his attitude. First, he dismisses his resume and avoids triggering the college credentials problem:

I’d also like to ring in on the discussion about the effectiveness of demonstrating your abilities in an interview: It works. If I had relied on my resume for the last 3 jobs I had, I would not have gotten them. I had neither the experience nor the education, so my resume definitely hid my ability.

Lafferty says he’s got no degree, but that didn’t stop him:

This [demonstrating his ability to win the job] worked so well that in the first job I’m talking about I was the only person on staff without a degree or experience.

Employers require degrees because the degree is considered a proxy for skills, knowledge, or ability. Managers don’t have time to vet every candidate thoroughly, so they depend on this institutional stand-in for a value judgment. It borders on irresponsible, but they do it. Some of the time, it works. But, understanding why they rely on degrees in the selection process should help you address what they really want: Proof you can do the work and proof that you have the sophistication to grow in the job.

Sometimes, as Lafferty points out, you have to take a lower level job so you have the opportunity to demonstrate what you can do over time:

The second job was created for me after I had already been hired at a lower level.

Most people would balk at a lesser job. Not Thomas. He capitalized on it and got more than most job hunters do in the end: a custom job. Not bad, eh?

In another case, he earned the job on the fly by doing the job in the interview:

The third company I’m talking about hired me without going through the traditional four-tier interview, and again I did not have the background or the education. In any case, what I did have was the skill to do the job and to prove it in an interview as well as a good dose of passion.

Resumes and degrees are not always valid indicators of ability to do a job. So, help employers by giving them other ways to judge you. No one says this is easy — sometimes you have to be clever. I know one guy who followed a manager to a professional conference, chatted him up, talked shop, and got an interview and an offer. This shared personal experience tops any formal credentials — but it’s a lot of work. It should be. Managers are sometimes foolish to hire based on a piece of paper, or on a sheepskin — because candidates who deliver credentials can’t always do the job.

Since you have a copy of How Can I Change Careers?, check the sidebar on page 9, “Create your next job.” Pretend you’re creating that job from scratch. Prepare a brief plan for how you will contribute to the business through your work — and through that job. Be as specific as possible. Once you’ve got your notes together, try to write a resume with a “Free Sample” in it — page 23.

Finally, and most important, check page 27. You must enter the “Circle of Friends” that the manager is part of. I know this seems daunting if you’re a bit shy or lack confidence, but it’s critical. (If you need more help, try a few Toastmasters meetings — learn to be more comfortable breaking the ice with others.) Make one phone call to an insider — and ask just one question. Get the info you need, politely say thanks and end it. Don’t push yourself. Try two and three questions on the next calls. It gets easier. The contacts you make turn into advice and referrals and gaIn you the credibility you need with the manager. And that renders the college degree (and other indirect judgments about you) less important.

You can compete for jobs that cite criteria you don’t meet, if you take an alternate approach that addresses what the employer really needs: proof that you can do the job.

(Special thanks to Thomas Lafferty for his candid and inspiring comments on the blog that served as the guts of this Q&A column!)

If you’re without a college degree, have you nonetheless won jobs that required a degree? How? Have you overcome other “requirements” to win a job? Tell us your story — give us some inspiration and alternate ways to prove you can “do the job.”

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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,

Melanie

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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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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