600 Editions: The Best of Ask The Headhunter!

In the November 10, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, we look at the best of 600 editions!

Question

I’ve been reading your Ask The Headhunter newsletter for a long time. Before that, I remember your forum on The Motley Fool going back into the 1990s! I have no idea how many questions you’ve answered in all those years, but I wanted to ask you — is there any topic you have not covered? What’s your favorite topic or Q&A? Thanks for sharing so much good advice all these years and for doing it for free!

Nick’s Reply

Thanks for following Ask The Headhunter for so long! I stopped counting the questions I’ve answered after 40,000. (Yes, I typed all the replies myself! Ouch!) I’ve been saving your note for a good occasion, and this is it.

Nick5bI published the first Ask The Headhunter Newsletter on September 20, 2002. Ask The Headhunter first went online on January 17, 1995 — on Prodigy, if any of you remember that partnership between IBM and Sears Roebuck! But the newsletter actually debuted in November 1999, when TechRepublic licensed a Q&A feature from me for several years. That version of the newsletter was daily!

I had such a good time producing it that I decided to continue it on my own — and over 10,000 subscribers immediately followed from TechRepublic. Today that list is huge, and this marks the 600th weekly edition. I couldn’t do any of this without the great questions from subscribers!

I don’t really have any favorite editions of my own, but there are several Ask The Headhunter articles and newsletters that I think are fundamental to what ATH is all about — so I thought it might be worth re-capping some of the “best of Ask The Headhunter.” I hope you enjoy this as much I’ve enjoyed putting it together! (And I hope you get a kick out of the series of mugshots I’ve used in the newsletter through the years!)

The Basics

If you’re new to Ask The Headhunter, this is a great place to start: The Headhunter’s Basics: Job hunting with the headhunter. This core set of articles explains:

  • What’s wrong with the employment system
  • How to use the strategy headhunters use — yourself!
  • What employers really want — and it’s not your interview skills!
  • The mistakes that will sink your job search
  • How to be the profitable hire that all good employers want

Resume Blasphemy

Nick1cI think my best article might be one I avoided writing for years. People kept asking, How can I write a really great resume that will get me a job?

I’m not a fan of resumes. In fact, I think a resume is the worst crutch you can use when job hunting. But I realized that if I can’t answer this very popular question in some useful way, I have no right to publish Ask The Headhunter. Resume Blasphemy challenges you in a way that — if you do this exercise thoughtfully — will make you throw your resume away and forever change how you search for a job.

Free?

I’d like to set one thing straight. Yes, Ask The Headhunter is and continues to be free — the website, the blog, the newsletter. Literally thousands of pages of advice, tips and insights about job hunting, hiring and success at work.

But some stuff you do have to pay for: my PDF books, which organize my advice around specific topics in depth and detail. These books help offset the cost of producing all the free content you find on Ask The Headhunter — but so do the many clients who have licensed Ask The Headhunter features over the years. I’m grateful to every client and customer who has ever spent a buck on what I write!

Which brings us to perhaps the most powerful Ask The Headhunter advice of all.

Eliminate job search obstacles

nick2When I compiled the 251-page PDF book Fearless Job Hunting, my goal was to help job seekers realize that job hunting is not about “following the steps.” If following steps worked, everybody could get a job easily and quickly. What I’ve learned over the years is that your success depends on knowing what to do when you encounter one of a small number of daunting obstacles that get in your way. Don’t let these stop you from landing the job you want!

Most of the time, the biggest obstacle you face in your job search is Human Resources departments, which seem to go out of their way to block, stop, and abuse you. The best newsletter I wrote about this is Why HR should get out of the hiring business. I think some of my best advice about how to go around HR is from this edition of the newsletter: Should I accept HR’s rejection letter?

Getting in the door

Speaking of throwing out your resume and busting past HR, this is one of the simplest, most powerful methods for landing a job that you’ll find on Ask The Headhunter: Skip The Resume: Triangulate to get in the door. It’ll take you out of the silly “job hunting” mode HR wants you in — and it’ll get you talking to the people who will actually bring you into a company as a new hire!

One of the Fearless Job Hunting books, Book 3: Get in The Door (way ahead of your competition) goes into lots more detail about this.

Oh, those job interviews!

nickhat1cSo much has been written about what to say and do in job interviews that today it’s all one big rehash. Virtually every career pundit regurgitates the same old ideas that have been around for decades — ideas that reek of personnel jockeys who want to “process” you rather than hire you.

This article is so obvious that you’ll “get it” instantly: The Single Best Interview Question… And The Best Answer. But beware: Doing this kind of preparation to win a job offer is a lot of work. And if you’re not willing to do the work to win the job, you don’t deserve the job!

No one has said it better than long-time Ask The Headhunter subscriber Ray Stoddard:

“The great news about your recommendations is that they work. The good news for those of us who use them is that few people are really willing to implement what you recommend, giving those of us who do an edge.”

Arrghhh! I took the wrong job!

My goal all these years has been to help you land and keep the right job. But what no one else tells you is how to avoid the wrong jobs!

Before you accept a new job, check It’s the people, Stupid and — yuck — Don’t suck canal water. I keep telling you that the #1 reason people go job hunting is because they took the wrong job to begin with. Don’t fall into that trap!

nicknew4Everybody wants more money!

Of course, no matter what anybody says about the importance of job satisfaction, nobody’s happy without the money. Everybody would like more money — but few people know how to ask for it so the answer will be YES.

The ONLY way to ask for a higher job offer is not for the meek. It’s as big a challenge as proving you’re worth hiring. But, hey — I never said Ask The Headhunter is the easy way to the job you want. It’s just the best way I know.

The bottom line

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes, which once led me to the realization that, as humans, our biggest problem is our hesitation. Life is short. I try to remind myself of this every day: You’ll be dead soon. It’s how I get on with life and enjoy the choices I get to make!

I hope Ask The Headhunter helps you belly up to the bar to make the choices you face — to enjoy the results of the best and to learn from the rest.

The Best of Ask The Headhunter

Thanks for subscribing and for being a part of Ask The Headhunter, whether you’ve been around from the start or you just dropped in!

The best of Ask The Headhunter isn’t in any of the newsletters or in any of my articles. The best of Ask The Headhunter is the wonderful community of people who continue to gather here to share their stories, advice, wisdom and more questions from their own experience. That’s you!

Thanks to you all!


And to prove it, I’d like to offer you a Special 600th Edition Thank You. If you’d like to purchase any of the Ask The Headhunter PDF books, when you check out, use discount code=BIG600 to save 25% off your purchase! (This limited offer is good only through this week!)


If I may ask you a 600th edition favor:

Please tell your friends about Ask The Headhunter — encourage them to subscribe and join us every week!

As for questions we’ve never covered, this is where to post them! I invite you to ask the questions you want answers to about job hunting, hiring, and success at work!

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Only naive wusses are afraid to bring up money

In the October 27, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader is living in la-la land.

Question

I recently had three great interviews with an organization that I would be proud to work for. Afterwards they asked me for samples of my work and references, but they never brought up salary. I asked them if they had a salary range in mind for the role, and I learned it was $20k lower than what I am currently earning. ? I politely said that I had a higher number in mind, based on my background and experience. I said I hoped there might be some flexibility if I ended up being their finalist. I left them samples of my work and left the interview with no further discussion of remuneration.

la-laWhen I got home there was an e-mail asking me for references, so I took the opportunity to mention my salary expectations prior to moving forward. The CEO responded that they could not match my request, but explained she would go to the board to see if she could increase the pay since the position played an important role in their growth strategy.

A couple of weeks later, the CEO got back to me and said she could not get any more money from the board and thanked me for my interest.

Since then they have re-posted twice for the job under a more junior title. I suspect that other applicants for the original posting of Chief Strategy Officer were also expecting a higher salary. They have now changed the posting to Senior Development Officer.

I realize now that I should have waited for a job offer, and then negotiated. But, live and learn, right? I am still very interested in the position but would need them to come up at least $10k.

Do you think I can still approach them or has that ship sailed? Being experienced in recruiting, I would never have taken a candidate that far without knowing where I stood on salary. Do I stand a chance?

Nick’s Reply

No, I don’t think you stand a chance at all. What surprises me is your wishful thinking and rationalizing, since you said you’re experienced in recruiting. The CEO told you it’s over. What I see is you putting your hands over your ears: “La-la-la I can’t hear you!”

But this is incredibly common. Employers will make it clear how much they’re willing to pay, and it just goes in a job applicant’s one ear and out the other. It’s one of the most puzzling phenomena — otherwise smart, savvy job seekers just refuse to believe what they’re told about salary.

Or, is it that some job seekers really, really want to believe an employer will pay more, even when it said it won’t? Then — when no more money is forthcoming — the applicant either (1) gets angry and blames the employer for wasting their time, or (2) blames themselves for not wishing hard enough.

Stop wishing

Consider: The CEO knows what you want. She went to her board, which refused more money. The CEO told you. Yet you still harbor a belief that the CEO will come up with another ten grand.

la-la-2But your rationalizing doesn’t end there.

You’ve seen that the title was downgraded from Chief Strategy Officer to Senior Development Officer — and you even seem to understand why. Applicants like you were expecting higher salaries that the company can’t pay. So the company adjusted the title to reflect the lower salary.

Nonetheless, you’re telling me you should have gone through the rest of the hiring process, gotten an offer, and then negotiated — after the CEO already told you there’s no room to negotiate!

And it still doesn’t end there. You seem to think that because you’re “still very interested in the position,” they’re going to come up with another ten grand! Stop pretending! It doesn’t matter how interested you are!

Having said all that, I can understand why you’re bothered. The CEO never should have taken you through three rounds of interviews without knowing where you stood on salary. You’re right about that. She never asked you about salary, and never told you about the salary range — making her just as guilty as you of wasting everyone’s time!

Are we all on the same planet??

I don’t think so.

  • Wishful thinking about salary is a stupid, dangerous waste of time.
  • Hiding a job’s salary range is a stupid, dangerous waste of time.
  • Hiding your desired salary range is a stupid, dangerous waste of time. (See How to decide how much you want.)

The conventional wisdom — which is proclaimed by “negotiation experts” — is that whoever mentions money first loses! And it’s pure nonsense!

Who wins?

Who wins is the person or employer who knows what they want, expresses it candidly, and establishes common ground before investing time in a hiring process. Only a naive wuss starts talking about doing business without first talking money.

I say naive because most people have no idea how to negotiate, so they pretend instead. Do you pretend? Are you afraid? Try this:

How to Say It

“Look, I have no idea whether we can come to agreement on money, but I’d like us to establish a framework about the money before we start talking turkey — so that we won’t both feel like a couple of turkeys after we invest hours talking, only to realize we’re not even in the same ballpark about money. So, what kind of money are we talking about?” (See “How can I avoid a salary cut?” in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 7: Win The Salary Games (long before you negotiate an offer), pp. 7-10.)

I say wuss because most people are afraid or embarrassed to talk about money until the other person does — hence the silly excuse, “It’s best not to be the first to bring up money!” Whew.

People who know what they’re worth, and what they want, are the ones who are best prepared — both to do the job, and to justify how much they want. They’re the people who are ready to demonstrate their value and to engage in a candid dialogue about it. (See The New Interview and The New Interview Instruction Book.)

When you’re going to do a deal — any deal — negotiating about money starts immediately. Whoever controls this discussion sets the anchor on the outcome. That’s who wins.

The anchor effect

There’s a phenomenon in the science of pricing called the anchor effect. The idea is simple: Whoever brings up money first influences which direction the negotiation will take. If you start talking high numbers, the final negotiation will probably end on a higher number. If someone starts by putting smaller numbers on the table, the final number will likely be lower. That is, the first number that hits the table is said to anchor the negotiation — pulling the rest of the discussion toward that point, higher or lower. (For more on this, see William Poundstone’s excellent and very readable book, Priceless: The myth of fair value and how to take advantage of it.)

Of course, if your number and their number are way off, either try to make your case, or shake hands respectfully and move on. Don’t pretend!

Grow up

Everyone needs to get over their hesitation to talk about salary before interviews proceed. Employers need to disclose — even advertise — a job’s salary range. Job seekers need to disclose how much money they’re looking for. At the very least, both parties should establish an honest ballpark for salary — or stop screwing around with interviews, rationalizations, sneaky tactics, and hemming and hawing.

I know what you’re thinking: “If I say what I want, what if the other guy is actually willing to pay me twice that? I’ll lose out!”

Unless you just fell off a hay wagon, you can’t possibly believe that what the employer was planning to spend is double what you want. Grow up. You’re not going to hit the lottery in a salary negotiation. More likely, playing coy is going to lead you right into a brick wall — when honest mutual disclosure is more likely to result in a healthy discussion.

Where did you go wrong?

When you agreed to the first interview, you failed to ask what the salary was for the job — so you could decide whether it was a match.

Worse, you avoided this because you thought you might be able to play the CEO along, and “convince” her to spend more than her board permitted. This is the old foot-in-the-door tactic of the inept salesman: “If I can get the sucker to invite me in, I’ll just brute-force my way to a deal!”

That’s naive. It’s also — pardon me, because I sense you’re actually smart and capable — stupid. I’ll bet you think it’s professional to not bring up money, and unprofessional to expect the employer to bring it up.

You’re wrong on both counts. What’s unprofessional is two people leading one another on. There’s nothing professional about being afraid or embarrassed to talk money. The CEO is just as guilty. She should have asked you how much you wanted — a range — at the same time she expressed the salary range for the job.

Please: Consider these basic guidelines when applying for jobs:

  • Know what salary range you want, and be ready to express it. (Don’t confuse this with disclosing your salary history. See Keep Your Salary Under Wraps.)
  • Don’t agree to an interview if the employer won’t disclose the salary range for a job.
  • Be prepared to justify the money you ask for, in terms of how you’ll produce more value for the employer than the next candidate will.
  • Pay more attention to what the employer is saying, than to what you’re wishing.

The key to negotiating

Do you know what is the biggest mistake you made, even after you invested time in three interviews without knowing the salary? You let the CEO ask the board for more money without arming her with the justification.

The CEO was willing to go to bat for you — but you sent her to negotiate without a bat!

If you’d given the CEO evidence of why you’re worth $20,000 more than she was planning to spend, she might have gotten more money from the board. Your mistake is that you asked for more money just because you want it. The key is to show what the board gets in return for $20,000. The key to successful negotiating is being able to deliver more value than the other guy expects.

The CEO has struck out. She told you to go home. Sorry — get over it. There is no job for more money. Please don’t make a fool of yourself.

I don’t care what negotiating experts say. Don’t be naive, or afraid, or a wuss about bringing up money first. Winners are prepared to justify what they want, and to show how it will pay off for the other guy. (See “What’s your business plan for doing this job?”, Fearless Job Hunting, Book 6: Be The Profitable Hire, pp. 30-32.) If there’s no match on the money, they move on early and quickly.

Do you talk money? Or are you terrified to bring it up? Do you wait until you’ve invested hours of time before you find out what the salary is? What’s the best way to ensure everyone is on the same page regarding salary?

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Want a job? Threaten to start a business!

In the October 13, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader wonders whether rejection in the jobs marketplace suggests it’s time to start a business instead.

Question

My husband and I have been in the software business for ten years. Paul was a crucial part of two successful start-ups. The products he developed won awards and were best-sellers, and as a result he was hired by an established company. (They hired me, too.) There, Paul started, designed and finished a small project for a client that was worth about 50,000 euro. Then he showed how his work could be turned into two products — the company’s first. The company was thrilled and so were the customers. The company netted 500,000 euro from his work. The rest has been history for us. Paul became the leader of our team and we have created many more successful products.

business-plan2Now Paul feels he has no room to grow and it is time to move on. The companies to which he has sent his C.V. [what Europeans call their resumes: Curriculum Vitae] are very impressed, but they say he has not managed huge enough projects or teams. He even got a call from a headhunter (his first!), but four weeks after the interview there has been no feedback.

Paul has proved again and again that he knows how to make a product that will sell, but he can’t sell himself. These companies have lost a chance to get a great software developer and businessman! Is there any hope? Should we keep trying to get the jobs we want, or start our own company?

Nick’s Reply

The answer is do both. Trying to start a company can lead to getting a job. I will explain how momentarily.

Paul is clearly talented, and I’m sure you are, too. I believe the problem that big companies have with his lack of experience with “big projects” and “big teams” is nonsense. Narrow-minded headhunters, personnel jockeys and managers miss out on great new hires when they confuse experience with talent. (See Pssst! Here’s where you should be recruiting top talent!)

Lots of people can conceive new products. Some can actually design them. But the rarest worker is one who can conceive and get a finished product out the door profitably and make customers happy. That’s talent. Interviewers often do not know what to do with unusual people like Paul. Investors, however, do.

You are both at a crucial point in your careers. You have proved what you can do. Now you need the infrastructure that will enable you to do bigger projects. If you compromise on that, you will hurt your careers and make yourselves miserable.

Here is my advice. Forget about pursuing jobs. If you want a great job, create your own business. I’m not suggesting this is easy, but it’s a path worth pursuing.

To start your own company, you will need to examine the market and the industry you want to specialize in. You will need to talk with many people, including prospective customers and distributors. You will need to talk to companies whose products will interact with yours, and with companies that produce related or competing products. (See the chapter titled “Scuttlebutt: Get the truth about private companies” in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Full Attention.) All these contacts will guide your product development ideas and introduce you to the partners you will need. They will help you get funding, whether in the form of purchase orders or direct investment. (See Trading your job for venture funding.)

As part of your effort, you will produce a business plan. The plan is actually a substitute for a resume. It shows what you can do. However, unlike a resume, a business plan also shows how you will do it. That’s what gets a company’s attention and its investment. (See Stand Out: How to be the profitable hire.) In the course of talking with these companies, your meetings will be a substitute for traditional interviews. Companies will get to know you far better than they ever would in a job interview. Your business plan and these meetings will help you overcome objections to your lack of “big time experience.”

Some of your new contacts may help you start your business. Others will prefer to avoid competing with you — and they will recognize the opportunity to hire you and Paul. Stimulated by your business plan, they may offer you jobs.

The key is to introduce yourselves with a business plan instead of a resume, and with a business presentation instead of a job interview. That is how you will get past the “employers” so you can meet with the people in a company who worry about profit.

The traditional, small-minded hiring process of big companies doesn’t hurt just the job hunter. It also hurts the employer. Thus, your challenge is to avoid the hiring process. Your challenge is to get to the corporate-level executive (preferably a board member) whose job is to find new ways to make money, to find new products, to create new markets, and to develop new partnerships through investment. You cannot do that with a resume and a job interview.

Paul is a point on the productivity curve, but he is on the very narrow, leading edge of that curve. He is unusual. Few companies will know how to interpret his resume, how to interview him, or how to calculate his future value. He has great abilities. Don’t use those abilities to get a job. Threaten to start a company instead. He will get more attention — the right kind of attention. And he will either get funding, or win a great job.

job-offerWhich will be the outcome? I think it depends on too many factors to predict. The point is, you and Paul need to do the same things to achieve either goal.

For everyone else reading this, the message should be clear. Even if what you want is a job (and you don’t want to start a business), a smart way to do it is to develop a plan for a business and pitch it to the appropriate people — including competitors. (See Put a Free Sample in Your Resume.) I think it’s a sure way to a job offer, because a smart competitor will “buy you out” to avoid competition — by hiring you.

What’s the difference between job hunting and pitching a business idea? Is there really any?

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Is this the worst job ad ever?

In the August 18, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader almost blows it.

Question

A friend of mine is seeking a job as an Event Planner. He did this for IBM for several years. He came upon this job description for an Event Manager — if it is indeed a real job! Check out the “Required Experience” at the end. I’m sure that anyone with that much experience would just jump right into this “purple squirrel” job. What do you think of the “fun” wording that says — between the lines — that one person will be doing the work of three?

Nick’s Reply

Wow. File that under Stuff We Couldn’t Make Up If We Tried. I’m still laffing my A off. I’d love to meet the “passionate” HR wonk that wrote this job description. Of course, it might have been the hiring manager.

[Note: The link above is to a copy of the job posting. The direct URL, which is active at time of this publication, is http://www.indeed.com/cmp/Belgian–American-Chamber-of-Commerce/jobs/Event-Manager-516d0a935ce3bbed.]

over-workedI hate to hold up even the most naïve employer to ridicule… but this is publicly posted on Indeed. Why is this worth talking about? Because employers claim there’s a talent shortage — while they demand decades worth of expertise in a tone that suggests you must sell yourself out to get the job. Since this job has been on Indeed for over a month, I imagine the employer feels it’s hard to find the purple squirrel it’s looking for. (See Roasting the job description.)

But as you point out, the dead giveaway is the closing line on the job posting. How much experience is required to do this “President of Planning” job? One year.

I’m guessing the only thing that’s “one year” about this job is the salary level. (If it’s higher, why not mention the salary range?) But I don’t know the employer and have not contacted it. Like any job seeker, all I know is what’s in that job ad — and that’s the basis on which I judge it.

The trouble with job ads like this — and we’ve all seen enough of them — is that they reveal an employer’s misguided attempt to fill a complex job on a junior salary. (See How to avoid a “bait and switch” job offer.)

They reveal an employer that thinks new hires must “say NEIN to leaving at 5,” and that suggests it’s cool to be the kind of manager who can “persuade volunteers to miss their own wedding.”

The right candidate will have “triple check OCD” and can “single-handedly beat the Red Sox.”

And how about the new standard of motivation the right candidate must demonstrate? “The way you spread your entrepreneurial spirit puts Ebola to shame.”

Is all this cute? It’s so cute that it’s transparent. Beneath the veneer of this job ad is a cynical message that this job may be on a slave ship. Or, what’s the salary for a President of Planning who’s got one year of experience? Some of our over-50 readers might suggest this employer is softening up a very senior, very skilled Events Manager for low pay and lots of abuse. Just how desperate are you for a job?

But that’s not why this is the worst job ad ever. It’s the worst job ad ever because it shrouds cynicism in cool. It markets hard work as something you should be willing to sell yourself out for. And that is why job seekers — from the youngest and most inexperienced to the oldest and most frustrated — are fed up with the behavior of employers that want something for nothing while complaining the right talent isn’t out there.

If employers like this one chafe at criticism, I’d like to see them address the job seekers they really need with candor and respect.

Perhaps this job pays $150,000. What’s your take? Have you seen better examples of the worst job ads? Please share examples and your comments!

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Don’t let employers always call the shots

In the July 7, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader gets fed up with a company president who dawdles.

Question

I just had my first — and I think best — “Nick C. ATH” interview with a start-up. I communicated only with the president — two interviews, one phone, one in person. At the end I said, “I want this job!”

All seemed well — he discussed salary (we are both on target — he spoke first about their salary intentions, I congratulate myself on this) and then… it happened. A total regression to stupid, pointless, time-wasting, moronic game-playing.

call-the-shotsHere I am, hoping, praying to the employment gods that the offer is imminent. But it wasn’t. He said, “Well, I have one more person to interview. What I’d like to do is maybe have you come into the office to fill out an application so we can run your background check.”

Floored and disappointed (and I’m sure it showed), I struggled to remember what Nick says to say in this situation. Couldn’t remember, then calmly asked, “When do you intend to make a decision?”

“About three weeks,” he tells me. Three weeks? WTF?

Shook hands, yada yada, I went home like a stunned bunny. By the time I got there, I was feeling furious!

My take is, it’s over. He’s not going to offer, and I’ve decided I will only fill out paperwork and do the background check when I have a firm offer on the table in writing. If it’s contingent upon a drug test and references, no problem, I’m aces. But I gotta have the offer.

Later that day, I got an e-mail from a previous employer (HA!) asking me to apply for a particular position. I intend to use this to get the first employer’s best-best offer on the table, if by chance I should get a call back from him. My sister suggests I call him personally to let him know that “something suddenly came up” and that this prior employer tagged me for a job. I think she’s right.

Any insights? Thoughts about this employer’s behavior? Is he gaming me?

Nick’s Reply

No one bats an eye when an employer lays down the rules and says they’re going to talk to more candidates, or makes an offer and says you’ve got three days to make a decision about it.

Employers do this to maintain control over the hiring process, and because they control the purse strings. But, in today’s “talent shortage,” good job candidates control an important asset, too — the talent. Without good talent, employers can’t run their businesses.

Of course, no matter who is calling the shots, it’s always a risk. There are no sure things in this process. Jobs disappear, but so do great job applicants. The question is, are you always on the receiving end of ultimatums, or do you give ultimatums, too? (We discussed this once before in Why & how you should give employers an ultimatum.)

It’s time to show some control. I’d let the employer know you want the job, and that if they’d like to make an offer within five business days, you’d welcome it. (Of course, you’re still free to reject it if you don’t like the terms.) Explain that, past five days, you respectfully withdraw your application. If they ask why, tell them you’re discussing a job with one of their competitors — and remind them there’s a talent shortage.

(Caution: Do not disclose who the other employer is. It’s not hard for one disgruntled employer to nuke your offer from another.)

Who’s always in charge?

The problem for job seekers is, employers feel no pressure to make a decision. They drag out the interview process beyond what’s reasonable. Give them a friendly, reasonable deadline, and you’ll find out how serious they are. If they’re not serious, why bother getting frustrated with them?

Of course, you must decide what’s reasonable. Do you think your interviews are really sufficient for this employer to make a hiring decision? Since he’s the president of the company, it might well be. That call is yours to make. Is five days to make a hiring decision adequate, or should you ask for a decision on the spot? Again, only you know best.

Call some shots!

The point is, sometimes you should be the one calling the shots. If your gut tells you it’s a waste of time to stretch out the waiting process, then get it over with so you can pursue other opportunities with a clear mind. Waiting on a dawdling employer can be incapacitating.

Let them see that you made the decision, and that you ended the engagement. Let them go figure out what just happened. Meanwhile, there’s a good employer out there that will deal with you candidly and quickly, whether they hire you or not. Someone actually understands that talent can quickly disappear.

Learn to say “We’re done!” to indecisive employers who think they hold all the cards.

Have you ever told an employer to fish or cut bait? Do you think that’s an unreasonable position to take in some situations? Or do you think employers always hold all the cards?

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niib-coverThe original edition of the book that launched Ask The Headhunter — The New Interview Instruction Book — is available for a limited time. Click here for more information!

This classic is available only while the limited supply lasts!

“Thanks for making The New Interview Instruction Book available.  I bought a copy as soon as you announced it, it arrived quickly, and I finished it in two days. I have been following you and recommending ATH for some time. Even so, The New Interview is right now helping me as I am trying to find a new position — glad I ordered it! Also, thanks for the hand-written note on the shipping document.  Nice to know that you still take that kind of personal interest. If I had ordered The New Interview Instruction Book about three days earlier, I think I may be having a different outcome on my most recent job interview.”  – Chris Hogg


 

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How HR optimizes rejection of millions of job applicants

In the June 23, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, Nick responds to readers who want to know what he thinks of a Time magazine cover story about employers that use “XQ” to assess job applicants.

Your XQ: More HR B.S.?

Readers have been peppering me with questions, asking my reaction to a recent Time cover story: How High Is Your XQ? It’s about “strange questions you need to answer to get a job in the era of optimized hiring.”

Translation: It’s about employers’ new-found love for letting third-party personality-testing companies decide whether to reject you before the employer even meets you.

I give the author of the article, Eliza Gray, credit for dealing with “optimized hiring” candidly and critically. The article is worth reading. (If you don’t subscribe to Time, you can’t read the full story online. Everyone, however, can read an online companion piece, Find out if your personality fits your job.)

In this week’s newsletter, I’m going to tell you what I think, and suggest how you might deal with this latest effort by HR executives to abrogate their responsibilities for hiring.

But what really matters in all this is what you think, because that’s what will rattle these employers. Read on, then join me in the discussion below. We’ll talk.

A $2 Billion Industry

Time reports: “Convinced by the gurus of Big Data that a perfect workforce can be achieved by analyzing the psyche and running the results through computers, hundreds of employers now insist that job candidates submit to personality tests.”

stuffed-animalA $2 billion testing industry, funded by your friendly neighborhood HR department, “evaluates” job applicants even before an employer decides they’re worth interviewing. Yes, you too can get rejected before you’re even considered.

What does all this entail? “Tests that can take anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours,” says Time.

Why does HR do this? It’s simple. HR doesn’t want to recruit, judge job applicants, hire, or be held accountable. So HR execs farm their work out to third parties that are not regulated — but who control whether you get a job.

What it means: HR has left the building. There’s a stuffed animal in the HR VP’s chair signing contracts, outsourcing hiring to clowns wearing psychologists’ hats. These employers consider their employees fungible commodities. (See An insider’s biggest beefs with employment testing.)

My advice: Strike back, especially if you’re gainfully employed. “Sorry, my policy is not to take tests or fill out voluminous forms until the hiring manager and I decide there’s good reason to continue talking. When can I meet the manager?”

I realize that if you’re unemployed, you might hesitate to be so assertive. But consider that after you invest your time, odds are very high that you’ll be rejected by an algorithm — time you could spend interviewing with a human who really wants to hire you.

Bottom line: Any employer that won’t take the time to meet you before rejecting you operates without integrity and is not one to work for.

The No-See-Um Assessment

What are HR departments looking for?

algorithmTime reports: “It isn’t an IQ rating or even EQ, the emotional intelligence quotient that came into vogue in the 1990s. There’s no name yet for this indispensable attribute. The qualities are so murky that often not even the employers chasing it are able to define it; they simply know that an algorithm has discovered a correlation between a candidate’s answers (such as an expressed preference for classical music) and responses given by some of their most successful workers. So let’s call it the X quotient… your XQ test, an exam that no one has prepared you for.”

What it means: You apply for a job. HR has no time to interview you. (See 7 Mistakes Internal Recruiters Make.) It makes you take a test instead, saving its time and money, while you play outsourced psychological games, spending your time like it’s free. These tests reveal correlations, which reflect nothing about your skills or ability to do a job.

Your answers to useless questions like, “Do you understand why stars twinkle?” correlate with the answers of successful employees. But statistical correlations don’t prove anything. They merely suggest you’re similar to someone else. If you’re not, it doesn’t matter that you can do the job better than any other current employee. You lose.

My advice: Don’t play the No-See-Um Game, in which no one interviews you. Insist on being seen by a hiring manager in person. There are many companies that respect job applicants and assess them face to face. (See Kick the candidate out of your office.) Don’t feed the $2 billion racket. Find an honest employer instead.

Meet Andy Biga

If hiring decisions that are based on test correlations are really not a good thing, why do employers rely on them?

jet-blueTime tells about a JetBlue HR executive named Andy Biga who “optimizes hiring.” He processes 150,000 job applicants for the airline, and hires 3,000 of them after they “get past the battery of tests Biga’s team designed.”

Biga says, “I believe this is really the future for hiring.”

Oops: It seems Andy Biga is full of baloney. I know, because I spoke with Dr. Arnold Glass, a leading researcher in cognitive psychology at Rutgers University. Glass adds a measure of Real Science to Biga’s claims about Big Data in the service of HR:

“It has been known since Alfred Binet and Victor Henri constructed the original IQ test in 1905 that the best predictor of job (or academic) performance is a test composed of the tasks that will be performed on the job. Therefore, the idea that collecting tons of extraneous facts about a person (Big Data!) and including them in some monster regression equation will improve its predictive value is laughable.”

The Time reporter “called Biga and his protege, another 30-something data wiz named Ryan Dullaghan, after the conference to see if they’d talk me past the buzzwords and through what they’re really looking for in a new hire. No dice. After all, if the traits they wanted in an employee were printed in TIME, they said, job applicants might be able to game the test.”

What it means: JetBlue and companies like it don’t hire you for what you can do. They hire you because you correctly agree or disagree with statements like, “I feel stressed when others rush me.” What that means is a secret. That’s how they game you.

ftcMy advice: Buy a lottery ticket instead. Because, can you imagine how Andy sorts through 150,000 applicants? BZZZT! That’s a trick question! He doesn’t. Nobody at JetBlue does. If JetBlue had any idea how to recruit the right people, it wouldn’t throw 150,000 strands of spaghetti at the wall.

Andy has a big problem: The FTC is looking into how these hiring algorithms promote bias and discrimination. Ashkan Soltani, the FTC’s chief technologist, says, “We have little insight as to how these algorithms operate, what incentives are behind them or what data is used and how it’s structured.” CIO magazine reports that the FTC has formed a new Office of Technology Research and Investigation to look at bias in hiring algorithms.

Soltani cautions: “A lot of times the tendency is to let software do its thing. But to the degree that software reinforces biases and discrimination, there are normative values at stake.”

Oops. There goes Andy Biga’s future.

Meet Charles Phillips

This racket is so corrupt that I couldn’t make up what Time disclosed.

Time reports: “One of the bigger outfits is Infor, a New York–based software company that claims to assess a million candidates a month–a number that translates to 11% of the U.S. workforce.”

b-s-buttonHertz, Boston Market and Tenet Healthcare outsource candidate testing to Infor. The company “concocts a job applicant’s ‘Behavioral DNA,’ a measure of ’39 behavioral, cognitive and cultural traits,’ and compares them to the personality traits of the company’s top performers.”

What it means: “Behavioral DNA” is a B.S. marketing term with no scientific meaning. Now for the good part. Says the Time reporter: “Infor CEO Charles Phillips admitted he’d never taken the test when we spoke, adding, ‘I’m scared of what I might find.’”

My advice: A CEO who admits he won’t eat his own company’s dog food — but wants to feed it to you — has no business rejecting you for a job at arm’s length. Kudos to Time for exposing Infor. Look up the list of Infor’s clients. Would you apply for a job at any of them, knowing how you’ll be “assessed?” Find employers who don’t serve Charlie Phillips’ dog food to people who apply for jobs.

Correlation Is King

What is Infor selling to gullible HR executives who couldn’t recruit a dog to bite a mailman? Correlations, reports Time.

Phillips and his testing chums sell “a mostly unchallenged belief that lots of data combined with lots of analytics can optimize pretty much anything–even people. Thus, ‘people analytics,’ the most buzzed-about buzzword in HR circles at the moment. Included in people analytics is everything from looking at the correlation between compensation and attrition to analyzing employees’ email and calendars to see if they are using their time effectively… Correlation is king, even when causation is far from clear. So it’s only natural that data worship would take hold in hiring.”

Remember what Rutgers’ Dr. Glass said: “The idea that collecting tons of extraneous facts about a person (Big Data!) and including them in some monster regression equation will improve its predictive value is laughable.”

Meet Ray Dalio, animal wrangler

According to Time, one employer that does its own “people analytics” is Bridgewater Associates, the world’s biggest hedge fund. The company’s founder, Ray Dalio, expresses a belief that HR execs are quickly adopting:

wild-animal“Without data, we are no better than cavemen he says. ‘Society is in its animal, emotional state that is the equivalent of the dark ages. We are in this transition period where all that is hidden in darkness will come out through statistical evidence,’ he says.”

What about all this testing, correlation and prediction to assess candidates for jobs? Peter Cappelli, a leading HR researcher at the Wharton School of Management, cuts to the chase: “Nothing in the science of prediction and selection beats observing actual performance in an equivalent role.”

But none of the executives cited by Time select candidates by observing them actually performing a job.

The Science Of Snake Oil

dissedIt’s no accident that Andy Biga, Charles Phillips, and Ray Dalio are not scientists. They’re snake oil salesmen using fake technical lingo (Behavioral DNA? Jump, Spot, jump!) to impress lightweight HR executives. “Big Data” impresses HR charlatans who hide behind other charlatans to whom they outsource their own jobs — recruiting and hiring.

The bunch of them love to pontificate about “evidence based” assessments. Yet real HR researchers, cognitive psychologists, Time magazine, and the FTC tell us there’s no evidence, no science, and possibly no integrity in any of this.

(There are ways to apply for a job by going around these obstacles. See Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3, Get in The Door (way ahead of your competition)).

We Have Met The Enemy

Job seekers at every level — including some of the smartest, most educated people in America — have met the enemy on the jobs battlefield. And the enemy is job seekers themselves. They’ve let themselves be suckered.

As long as job seekers consent to be treated like commodities, as long as they let their teeth be checked like horses at auction, as long as they subject themselves to imperious bureaucrats who hold up hoops to jump through, then they’ll be abused.

Job seekers are their own biggest enemy. Folks, you have to grow some integrity of your own and refuse to be abused.

So, how do I get a job?

Job seekers tell me all the time that they’re terrified to buck the system. So, how can they possibly land a job in this miasma of phony science, trumped-up hiring technology, and HR bullying?

It’s simple. Please pay attention.

Time reports that job seeker Kelly Ditson finally landed a job after subjecting herself to demeaning online applications and personality tests. She stayed up “as late as two in the morning to finish just four applications.”

In one case, “she made it to the 95th question on the Chili’s [restaurant chain] application only to have [the] wi-fi connection cut out. She had to start all over. Chili’s had no comment for Time. Ditson said she was exasperated… In the end, she got her job the old-fashioned way: calling the manager at the Olive Garden until she hired her. She started in March.”

Ditson went and talked to the manager she wanted to work for. One on one, not one in 150,000.

No one can make a fool out of you if you don’t let them. (See Employment In America: WTF is going on?) When will HR wise up and realize it’s losing the respect of job seekers every day? When will HR realize it’s being played for the fool by software companies masquerading as scientists? When will HR realize that “the people game” is played with real, live people — not phony “evidence” derived from “Big Data” by tech wonks working for stuffed animals in the HR suite?

HR will realize it when job seekers stop rolling over.

My Advice

HR execs say there’s a talent shortage. That puts you in the driver’s seat, folks — it’s a seller’s market!

keep-calm-and-have-integrityThroughout Ask The Headhunter — the website, blog, newsletter, books — I talk (write) myself blue in the face about how to demonstrate that you’re the profitable hire. (For example, Fearless Job Hunting, Book 6, The Interview: Be The Profitable Hire.) The best employers hire those that can do the job — they don’t diddle databases to find people who hate opera singing, know why stars twinkle, or would like to be the color red.

If you don’t say no to employers who treat you like a dog begging for a bone, you’re going to wind up in the dog house. There are good employers and managers who respect talented workers. They will meet you and judge you in person. They will introduce you to their teams and assess whether you can do the work, get along with others, and contribute to the bottom line.

HR executives and the employers they work for should be ashamed of themselves — outsourcing hiring, the most proprietary edge a company has. Ray Dalio is wrong. You are not an animal in an emotional state. Tell any employer or testing company that treats you that way to shove it. And go work for one of their better competitors.

That’s the only way to end the optimized rejection of millions of job applicants.

Is there an end to this? Have you been abused by employers and subjected to “evidence-based hiring” that relies on phony “science” and made-up “tests?” Are you ready to say NO and move on to employers that respect people enough to talk to them rather than “analyze” them blindly? Let’s hear about employers that are worth applying to!

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6 Secrets of The New Interview

In the June 16, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, an old friend re-surfaces… for a little while!

The New Interview Instruction Book is BACK!

20 years ago, Ask The Headhunter was born from a discussion forum I started on Prodigy (does anyone remember Prodigy?) and a book titled The New Interview Instruction Book. The book was for sale only by mail order direct from me and from the Motley Fool, the personal finance site that hosted the ATH discussion forum — before I created the ATH website, newsletter and blog.

niib-coverIt was in The New Interview Instruction Book that I introduced the key concepts and methods that are still the foundation of Ask The Headhunter — methods for landing the right job by demonstrating that you can do the job profitably.

The book was taken out of circulation when Penguin Putnam bought the rights and issued a revised edition named Ask The Headhunter: Reinventing The Interview to Win The Job (1997). That book became a bestseller, and finally went out of print a few years ago.

Until now, neither edition has been available (except used). Now a limited number of copies of the original book are available until the supply runs out.

If you don’t have The NIIB or its successor, you can order your own original copy of the classic NIIB for $29.95 + shipping. (This is a physical, 157-page book, not a PDF. Check out the Table of Contents. All orders will ship Priority U.S. Mail. Note: This book is similar to the successor 1997 edition issued by Penguin Putnam as Ask The Headhunter: Reinventing the interview to win the job.)

Of course, a 20-year-old book has some anachronisms in it! But the concepts and the how-to are exactly what we discuss in this newsletter all the time — except there’s more how-to and much more detail! The methods in this book are just as valid and powerful today as they were in 1995! Please note that because quantity is limited, there are no returns or refunds on this book.

In this edition of the newsletter, I’d like to reprint a key section of The NIIB: The Six Secrets of The New Interview (pp. 21-24). I hope you enjoy it!


6 Secrets of The New Interview

The Six Secrets of the New Interview are not really secrets, because every good headhunter recognizes these facts, and uses them every day.

  1. Insiders have the best shot at the job.
  2. The real matchmaking is done before the interview.
  3. The interview is an invitation to do the job.
  4. The employer wants to hire you, and he will help you win the interview.
  5. The boss wants one thing from you: he wants you to solve a problem.
  6. You will win the job by doing it.

Let’s look closely at what the Six Secrets of the New Interview really mean.

1. Insiders have the best shot at the job.

Other things being equal, the boss will hire someone he [or she!] knows before he hires someone he does not know. Why? Because he has more information about people he already knows, like other company employees, than he has about you. And, the information he has is more reliable.

Part of a headhunter’s job is to build his candidate’s reputation within a company before the candidate goes on the interview. You can accomplish this for yourself, if you know how. In the sections that follow, we will discuss how you can make an employer perceive you as a valued employee rather than an outsider.

2. The real matchmaking is done before the interview.

The work of matching a worker with a job takes place before the interview, not during the interview. You have heard it said that in a courtroom a lawyer never asks a witness a question to which the lawyer does not already know the answer. Similarly, a headhunter never sends a candidate to an interview unless the headhunter already knows the candidate can do the job. You must ensure the same for yourself.

3. The interview is an invitation to do the job.

Most people treat an interview like an interrogation. One person asks questions, the other gives answers. This is wrong. Headhunters go out of their way to structure interviews to avoid this very unfavorable scenario.

An interview is a meeting between you and the employer — you are equals. The traditional notion of the all-powerful interviewer and the deferential candidate is hogwash. Unfortunately, this notion is promoted each time someone says that a candidate was interviewed by an employer.

The root of the word “interview” means between. “Interview” does not imply that one person is doing something to another. It refers to an exchange of information between two or more people. Specifically, it does not imply that the employer has power over you, the candidate. The only power either of you has is power you have each granted to the other. If you grant an employer the power to intimidate you and interrogate you under a hot light, then that’s your decision. Unfortunately, that’s what a lot of candidates allow to happen. Interviewers (and personnel jockeys) take advantage of it.

There is one power you and the employer share. If you can capitalize on it, you will turn the interview into a decisive problem-solving experience that will make the employer view you and treat you like a member of his own team. This power lies in your choice to work together, with the employer, to get the job done. This means avoiding interrogations. It means doing the job in the interview. We will talk more about how you can put this power to work, and thereby avoid getting interviewed in the traditional sense.

4. The employer wants to hire you, and he will help you win the interview.

This might seem absurd to some. It’s not. It is precisely why the employer is meeting with you. Every headhunter knows that. The headhunter counts on the employer being ready to hire the candidate. So should you. If the employer hires you, he wins, too. He can stop interviewing, and he can start earning the profits that having you on the job will yield.

Give the employer what a good headhunter gives him: proof that you can do the work. He wants you to be the right candidate. Half your battle is won. No other single fact about interviewing ever made me more relaxed, comfortable and powerful in an interview when I was looking for a new job.

5. The boss wants one thing from you: He wants you to solve a problem.

Every employer who interviews you has a problem: a job that needs doing. Most candidates don’t solve the boss’s problem because they don’t know what the problem is, and because they’re too busy “doing the interview”. That’s what keeps headhunters in business — job candidates who can’t identify and solve the boss’s problem.

A headhunter makes sure his candidate knows exactly what problem he has to solve to win an offer. If one of your predecessors had proved they could solve the employer’s problem, the employer would not be talking to you.

Ask yourself The Four Questions before you meet the boss. If you can answer them all “yes”, go in and do the job. How do you do the job before you are hired? Solve one or more of the manager’s problems during the interview. See what happens.

6. You will win the job by doing it.

You will not win the job by talking about it. Managers end interviews with, “I’ll get back to you” when they can’t decide whether to hire you. That’s because they’re not sure you can do the job. What more compelling way is there to convince a manager to hire you than to do the job the way he wants it done right there in front of him? If you waste your meeting answering questions rather than doing the job, you will lose the job to another candidate who was well prepared to do the job.

Good headhunters know these secrets and apply them all the time. They treat all interviews as practical meetings with a purpose, and the purpose is to show that a job candidate can do a job so that he or she will be hired. The headhunter devotes all his energy to achieving this purpose.

I niib-coverhave shared these ideas over the years with job candidates I’ve sent to meet my clients. It is important for candidates to recognize how important they are to the employer. I want them to see interviews for what they are: opportunities for skilled people to demonstrate to an employer the best way a job can be done.

These ideas will change your job hunt in some very important ways if you put them to work. You will be freed from the banality of the traditional interview. You will form a relaxed attitude about interviewing and develop the confidence and power a talented worker should have. You will blossom from a job candidate into the solution to a manager’s problem.

I know I’m making you wait, but I can’t teach you how to use methods that work until you first understand why the rules drilled into your head by the employment industry are a waste of your time. In the next section we will look more closely at why traditional interviews don’t work. We’ll take a practical look at why companies use the traditional interview process, how they misuse it, and how this puts job hunters at a disadvantage. Understanding the problem will help you make the best use of the concepts presented in this book.

[The New Interview Flowchart shows the key steps to a job offer, from p. 154.]

Reprinted from The New Interview Instruction Book. This classic is available only while the limited supply lasts!


These are age-old ideas for landing a job. When I wrote a book about them long ago, I didn’t expect I’d be discussing these ideas with you 20 years later! Do they still hold up? I think they do — mainly because thousands of you have proven it to me! Are there secrets of your own you’d like to add?

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Branding yourself suggests you’re clueless

In the May 26, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, readers ask about branding themselves and about self-marketing. Two brief questions this week reveal the bunk in “branding” yourself when job hunting. The fallacy in this marketing tactic is that getting a job is about you. It’s not. It’s all about the employer and the work you need to configure yourself to do.

Question

What is your advice for promoting oneself through personal branding? How can a person do it elegantly, effectively, and without overdoing it?

Nick’s Reply

Michael Jordan has a brand. So does Madonna. You don’t have a brand. (I’ll prove that to you in a minute.) You have a reputation.

Here’s the problem with applying “branding” to yourself. Consider the definition of “personal branding” on Wikipedia:

Personal branding is essentially the ongoing process of establishing a prescribed image or impression in the minds of others about an individual…”

The point of branding is to fix an image in people’s minds. It’s to define the person or the object and maintain that prescribed image — like Michael Jordan and Madonna.

cluelessBut consider what happens when you apply for a job. It’s the job that’s prescribed, not you. Your objective is to map your skills, abilities and qualities onto the work. Conveying a fixed image to an employer tells him he must fit his job to you. But what he wants to see is how you will fit yourself to the job. Winning a job means showing how you’ll apply yourself to the work; it doesn’t mean displaying your brand and waiting for the employer to figure out what to do with you. (See The $30,000 Strategy.)

Sports stars are brands. Star entertainers are brands. When your name is worth millions, you’ll be a brand, too. In the meantime, figure out how to shape yourself to meet the requirements of a job.

Don’t come off as clueless. You can try to show the employer your brand, or you can do what really matters in an employment transaction: Demonstrate that you understand the employer’s problem. I think the single best way to promote oneself is to promote the company’s overriding objective:

  • Show how your work will help produce profit for the business.

It’s so easy to forget this when the media scream at us that success is all about “branding.” Bunk.

Think instead about your reputation. A reputation for focusing on your employer’s bottom line is the best way to be successful yourself. (Unless, of course, you want to start your own business and hire others.) Don’t wait for management to figure out how you contribute to the bottom line. Tell them before they ask. (See Fearless Job Hunting, Book 6: The Interview: Be The Profitable Hire.)

One Ask The Headhunter reader explained what he did in a job interview:

Instead of worrying about my credentials or self-consciously seeking their approval, I talked about their business and how I could impact it. It was a working meeting [Book 6] more than a job interview, and I felt more like an employee than a job seeker. They called me the next morning with the offer.  – R. David Fox

Question

From the recruiter’s perspective, what are the self-marketing techniques that really impress a potential employer?

Nick’s Reply

What did people do before marketers sold them self-marketing? Like branding, I think that self marketing is bunk. The purpose of such terms is to sell books and services about self marketing!

The basics have been around forever. What impresses me in a person is their reputation — and the hard work they have done to earn it. A person who has devoted time and effort to be among the best in their field — no matter what it is — is a person whose name is on the lips of others in the business. Good headhunters, and smart employers, find their best candidates through personal referrals. (See The preemptive reference.) But that’s not marketing; that’s earned respect.

  • Rather than branding and marketing yourself, pick something and get very, very good at it.

If you have a good reputation, then I’ll find out about you. No marketing is necessary when respected people recognize your value. Their recommendation creates your future because they’ll hire you and tell others to hire you. (See Tell me who your friends are.)

You could try to focus on marketing your brand; or you could focus on being very, very good at your work — and by working with others that are, too. (See Work with people who are better than you.)

Here’s truth in the face of feel-good marketing: Winning a job is not about you. It’s about the employer and the work.

Michael JordanI said I’d prove to you that you don’t have a brand. After brushing aside the marketing bunk, it boils down to this:

  • Are employers calling you with huge unsolicited offers?
  • Are the media interviewing you and writing headlines about you?

Please take no offense, but you’re not Michael Jordan or Madonna. You might get famous, and one day your name might be worth millions.

On the other hand, you can prove today that you’re very valuable to an employer if you show you’ve got a clue about how to improve the business. Don’t talk about yourself. Produce a business plan that shows how you’ll do the job that needs doing.

How do you market yourself? Do you have a personal brand that anyone recognizes? What convinces employers to hire you?

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Why & how you should give employers an ultimatum

In the April 21, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader meets an employer who is losing the best job candidates to the competition because he uses interviews to reject applicants — not to hire them.

This week’s story is long, but it puts a sharp focus on the trouble with employers these days. It just seems that, no matter how motivated a manager might be to hire, the actual process to hire has gone haywire. Demoralized by such experiences, job seekers often go along with silly demands from employers. In my reply, I offer a solution that more folks need to learn how to use.

Question

I had an interview with a VIP at a huge local tech company looking to hire a designer with video/animation experience. Our initial phone interview started with him sounding very disinterested. After briefly explaining what he’s looking for, he said he’s disappointed with the candidates he’s getting because they are all print designers. As he spoke I uploaded a few of my videos to my website and told him to take a look. His demeanor completely changed. “This is exactly what I’m looking for! I’ve gotta run to this meeting but do you have time again today to talk more?” He came right back from that meeting to continue our call.

wasting-my-timeYou would think this would have a happy ending, no? No.

First, he ends the call not by inviting me in for an interview, but by saying, “I think I’ll have all the candidates look at the stuff we’ve had done by an agency (which he wasn’t happy with) and see what you all would do to redesign it.”

Oh, great, the “test,” that is, work for free. The call ended and I wrote the place off. Then HR e-mailed, saying he’d like to schedule an interview. It lasted 90 minutes. I have never had a better interview experience. More than once he said that I’m the only candidate who appears qualified. Again, it ended a bit sour with him saying, “I’ll probably have the final candidates come back and meet with the team”: the dreaded “approval by committee.” But I left feeling good.

The following week, I get an e-mail from him: ”You have offered examples of your work, however, I am asking all candidates to take a shot at creating something for us.” And he listed not one but three design projects he wanted to see redesigned. One was a video. “Just re-do the first 30 seconds.” WTF? This guy clearly has no clue as to how much work and effort goes into something like this. So, I did a few story board sketches, made a few recommendations and ended the e-mail by saying I have received an offer for another opportunity and hence am no longer available.

And that was the end of that. No doubt he will either continue to struggle to find the “perfect” candidate or he’ll just send my comps to the agency he’s currently contracting with. And I have gone through this exact scenario more times than I care to recall over the years.

Initially, I blamed my field of design, but I don’t think it’s that anymore. I met a guy over on StinkedIn, a systems analyst with a Ph.D. who’s in his 40s and unemployed for two years. He flew out of state for an interview, met with twelve people over two days, showed that he knew his stuff (“here’s your problem, here’s what I recommend”), they were clearly excited and he thought for sure he’d get the job. He didn’t. When he asked why, the hiring manager told him the two twentysomethings on the team didn’t like him because he “came across as arrogant.”

So, who’s to blame for these scenarios? HR’s only job here was to schedule the meetings. Do they send a brochure to all who put in a hiring request with tips on how to disqualify your best candidate? I dunno…

Nick’s Reply

Thanks for sharing your story. (Readers may have noticed this “Question” was no question!) You should have just given that VIP an ultimatum. I’ll explain why and How to Say It.

While I advocate a “show what you can do” approach to interviewing, there’s no guarantee that any method will lead to a hire — or that an employer won’t abuse the candidate who’s ready to show he or she can do the work profitably. You must know where to draw the line with greedy, unreasonable employers like the manager in this story.

And if you manage to get a meeting with a manager who’s also a jerk, jerk-ness spoils any intelligent interview activity of the job seeker. Anyone who wastes your time is a jerk. (See Work for free, or no interview for you!)

This manager will keep looking for the “perfect” hire — while his competitors eat his lunch. They will jump to hire people like you, rather than concoct yet one more exercise to get free work out of you.

There are two important lessons here. One is to use the ultimatum, and the other is to survive and thrive if it doesn’t work.

First, never get bogged down in just one job opportunity. Really, really wanting one particular job is a dead-end strategy. You took the wise route. You controlled your outcome by developing other opportunities in parallel, so you wouldn’t get sucked into waiting and wishful thinking. You put that greedy VIP into healthy competition with another employer, so you won. He lost.

I’m a big believer in showing how you’ll do the work in order to get hired, but when employers demand free work during the interview process, tell them to take a hike. (By the way, I think you made a big mistake in delivering those story boards, having already seen what the VIP was up to.)

Second, force the manager to decide now. You handled this well, but I’d have given the VIP an ultimatum. After he told you that you were the only qualified candidate, you could have told him you wanted a decision on the spot.

commitHow to Say It: “I’d like to work on your team. With the right offer, I’m ready to start in two weeks. You can keep looking for other candidates, but I agree I’m the best for this job. I can do it for you profitably. Either hire me, or let’s end this process, because if you don’t hire me, your competitors will. You need to decide now.”

Sometimes the strongest position a candidate can take is to draw a line and insist on a decision. Be ready for NO, but also be ready to walk away from an indecisive manager who probably doesn’t know what he wants — and who routinely loses his best candidates to competitors, which is probably where you should be working.

Congratulations on a successful job search. I hope others consider the lessons from your story. Employers lose their best candidates all the time because they think their mission is to hire perfection and to ensure they reject anything less. It’s how they wind up with weak candidates who will do anything for a job.

I discuss more methods for “Playing hardball with slowpoke employers” and how to “Line up your next target,” in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 8: Play Hardball With Employers. You don’t need to be the one left holding the bag!

Do you have the guts to issue an ultimatum to an interviewer? Or am I nuts? Where do you draw the line with a greedy employer?

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How to fix a bad reference the hard way

In the March 17, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader needs to deal with an old boss who’s probably also a bad reference.

Question

bad-referenceI just had an interview where I followed your advice in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 6. I took control, offered to show how I’d do the job, and demonstrated to the manager how I’d take care of one of her most perplexing problems. She loved it, and I think I’m going to get an offer. Sounds great, right?

It is, except for one problem. This manager — let’s call her Ann — knows one of my past employers quite well (let’s call her Brenda). Brenda probably will not give me a glowing reference. I suspect Ann will contact Brenda. How do I handle this delicate situation?

Nick’s Reply

I’m glad to hear Book 6 got you so far! References are a very valuable asset — learn to manage them all the time, not just when they turn into trouble. (See Take Care Of Your References.) Now let’s deal with your problem.

Even if the reference is unfavorable, a smart employer will rely first on her own judgment — and ask you to explain your old boss’s comments. So, anticipate the question and be prepared with a good answer that is honest and not defensive.

Then there’s the tactical approach. Tell the new manager (Ann) what your old boss (Brenda) is likely to say before they talk. Since you cannot block that conversation, own up to the facts and impress Ann with your candor.

The Hard Way
When confronted with a problem like this, I like to take it head-on. Talk to your old boss! It’s the hardest way, and it will force you to develop the best solution. I think it’s the best way. If you leave this to chance, you will have no idea what the outcome might be.

Call your old boss before Ann does. Surprise Brenda and ask her permission to list her as a reference. You might have to swallow your pride, but nothing of value comes easily.

If she agrees, fess up that you believe that, when you worked together, Brenda may not have seen you in the most positive light.

How to Say It
“I know I could have been a better employee, and I could have done better at XYZ. Since then, I’ve beefed up my skills considerably. [Explain how, but keep it brief.]”

This may allow Brenda to blow off any steam about you before she speaks with Ann, and give you a chance to change her mind a bit. If Brenda responds candidly, pose this magic question:

“May I ask you for some advice? I really want continue to get better at what I do. What advice would you give me about improving my performance or anything else about how I do my work?”

Profit from The Outcome
Then be quiet and listen. If your old boss blasts you, or explains that you’re better off not listing her as a reference, then you know what’s coming when the new boss contacts her. Now you’ll have to use the tactical approach I mentioned above: Prepare Ann for what Brenda will say, and explain yourself. You will have profited from the call.

On the other hand, your candid phone call to Brenda might help her see you in a new, more positive light. Discussing how you’ve changed and improved might give her the words she needs to soften the reference when she talks to Ann. Now you’ve really profited from the hard way.

This might work. It might not. I just believe in facing problems like this head-on, and in trying to make the best of them.

Do you see what we’re doing here? We’re trying to influence Brenda to help the new, improved you. In the process, you’re also learning how this may play out so you can better manage your discussion with Ann.

Whatever happens when you talk with Brenda, you’ll learn something, and you’ll be better off for knowing. Be polite. Be respectful. Do not argue. Don’t be defensive. Listen carefully and try to get some good advice. Say thanks and move on.

Congratulations on impressing the new manager. Now get your old boss on board — or mitigate the damage she might cause.

There are other very powerful ways to use references and to parry bad ones. I discuss these in lots of how-to detail in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3: Get in The Door (way ahead of your competition), “Don’t provide references — Launch them!” and “The preemptive reference,” pp. 23-25.

Can this reader avert disaster? Have you ever turned around a bad reference? Are my tactics risky?

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