Am I good enough for a higher-level job?

Am I good enough for a higher-level job?

A reader faces a crisis of self-confidence when considering a higher-level job in the August 4, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.

Question

higher-level jobHow can a programmer know that they’re good enough to work as a developer? I found this interesting perspective posted on Quora from someone who has worked in software a long time: “If I only applied for jobs I was qualified for, I’d still be living with my parents.” The person said some companies will take a chance on you. Do you find this to be true?

Nick’s Reply

First, let’s clarify something for readers who don’t know a lot about computer software jobs. In simple terms, a programmer writes the code for a software project. A software developer can code, but is involved in almost all aspects of the project, including creating the concept for a product, designing it, and following it through to production. (Of course, not every programmer wants to become a developer!)

But what we’re going to discuss applies to almost any kind of job, and it applies to your desire to do more so you can earn more.

A chance at a higher-level job

I like that quote: “If I only applied for jobs I was qualified for, I’d still be living with my parents.”

Put another way, loads of employers may reject you because you haven’t already done the job they want to fill. They want to hire someone who’s been doing the job for the last five years — for less money. But you need just one employer to give you a chance to do something new and more advanced for higher pay. So you have to reach!

There are employers that will hire you because they need help and because they believe you will be able to rise to the demands of a higher-level job than you’ve ever had.

I find this to be true in almost all areas of work, not just programming and software development. Some of the best, most highly experienced professionals I know earned their chops by talking their way into jobs they had never done before. They learned through self-study, by taking necessary courses, by doing and by learning from others. I refer to them as people who can ride a fast learning curve without falling off. Companies hire them not just because of what they can do, but for what they can learn to do.

A programmer is good enough to work as a developer if they can show they are good enough, and if the employer allows for a learning curve (and perhaps also provides mentoring or training). For the employer to take a chance putting you in a higher-level job, you must take a chance and try to justify it.

Find an employer that values learning

Peter Cappelli, a labor researcher I know at the Wharton School, has studied why people can’t get hired. He found that one big reason — obviously — is lack of skills. But he also found that there’s a shortage of specific skills because many employers don’t offer existing employees the training required to do more sophisticated work. They’d rather hire someone new who doesn’t need training.

Cappelli found that over the past 40 years employers drastically reduced their investment in training and development. I think this is partly the reason people started “job hopping.” They want to do new things. Programmers want to be developers. Customer service workers want to be be sales people. Bookkeepers want to be cost accountants.

Some of these people make a leap by finding employers who welcome them. Moving up in your chosen career requires learning, even when employers don’t value training. So you may need to get your own training.

Help an employer take a chance on you

You cannot wait for an employer to judge whether you’re “good enough” to do a more sophisticated job. Figure it out yourself first, then help the employer take a chance on you. You may invest in appropriate training, or you may study and practice on your own. Then prepare a mini-business plan showing how you will do the job you want.

Your plan might include some guesswork because you can never know all you need to write up this kind of plan. But what impresses a good manager is how you defend and support your plan. If you can explain this clearly and simply, a good manager may decide you are a good investment and may be more likely to take a chance on you. (See The New Interview.)

It’s up to you to make a commitment, then don’t let your new boss down. Do what’s necessary to come up to speed quickly and prove you’re smart, dedicated, capable and dependable. I know managers who would jump over 10 complacent software developers to hire an enthusiastic programmer who shows evidence of self-motivation and an ability to learn fast.

You may have to hear a lot of No’s before you get to one Yes. But you need only one Yes.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not suggesting that any programmer can start managing a software development project, or that any bookkeeper can get hired as a cost accountant. But if you apply only for jobs you are qualified for today, you’ll never get the chance to demonstrate that you can ride a fast learning curve to the next step in your career.

How do you know you’re good enough? When you can convince that manager.

Do you ever apply for jobs that you’re probably not qualified for? Tell us how you pulled it off! Is it better to wait for a promotion than to change employers to move up? Is this a chicken-or-egg problem, since employers want to hire without offering any training?

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Do I need the job offer in writing?

Do I need the job offer in writing?

A reader needs a reality check about job offers, in the July 28, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.

Question

How important is getting the job offer in writing? And specifically what should I look for when I receive it? Thanks.

Nick’s Reply

job offer in writingJob applicants are often so grateful to get an offer that they cast prudence aside and put their future in jeopardy. Don’t succumb to the thrill of an incomplete job offer. I would never, ever accept an offer I didn’t have in writing, and I’d certainly never resign another job to accept it. Any company that declines to put it in writing is trouble.

Is the job offer in writing?

A purely oral offer of a job puts you in a bad spot. If the terms expressed to you don’t match what you find when you start work, you’ll have little to rely on. Good luck arguing your case without anything to prove it.

Now, an employer can rescind even a written job offer. We’ve discussed this elsewhere. But this is not just a matter of the offer being bona fide; that is, for real. The more likely problem you’ll face if you don’t insist on a job offer in writing is that the details of the deal could deviate significantly from what you thought you agreed to. For example:

  • The offer the manager expressed to you was for the job of Marketing Manager, but the business cards issued to you list you as Marketing Representative.
  • The offer was for “$75,000?” But your bi-weekly paycheck is for $2,790.
  • Your new boss said, “No problem, it’s part of the offer” when you asked for three weeks’ paid vacation, but six months into the job HR says “No dice!”
  • Healthcare benefits were described as “industry standard,” but don’t include levels of coverage you’ve always had.

Either you get the job offer in writing, or you’ll probably be disappointed.

What to look for in a written job offer

“Contract” jobs

Getting a job offer in writing is all the more critical when you’re being offered a “contract” job through a third party. These firms demand your agreement on compensation before they disclose the employer or what the job is. Be careful!

Always insist on a written offer letter before you take an action you cannot undo, for example, quitting another job for this new one.

Here’s a short list of just some of the key things to look for in your written job offer:

  • Does it include all the terms that were agreed to in your discussions?
  • Is the job title what you understand it to be?
  • Does it include a firm start date?
  • Does it refer to other documents, like the company’s benefits plan and employee policy manual? (You’ll want copies of any documents incorporated by reference.)
  • Does the “fine print” include surprises that were not discussed, like a non-compete agreement that might restrict you from pursuing jobs with other companies in your field and industry?
  • Is the compensation explicitly and clearly stated?
  • Do any promised bonuses, commissions or incentives include a clear, objective definition of what they’re based on? (A bonus might seem generous until you realize it’s not achievable.)
  • The offer should state who your supervisor will be. It’s not uncommon to interview with one manager, but to report to someone you’ve never met – and can’t get along with.

There’s more, but we’ll stop here for now. (I hope readers will add to this list!)

The offer should be signed by a manager of the company, not by a headhunter or other agent. If you have it in writing, you’re in a better position to protect your interests if you need to take legal action. If an offer is made only orally, you don’t have as much leverage, though successful legal action has been taken over unwritten offers, too. (Bear in mind that I’m not an attorney, and this isn’t legal advice.)

The more complex the job offer or employment agreement, the more you should consider having a good attorney review it. Bottom line: Get it in writing.

Have you ever been burned by a job offer that wasn’t in writing? What do you insist must be included in a written job offer? How would you advise this reader?

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Get feedback from your boss early and often

Get feedback from your boss early and often

A reader has gotten no feedback at work and wonders what will happen at a performance review, in the July 21, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.

Question

feedbackI’ve been at my current job about ten months. My first review will be coming up but no one has brought up anything about it. Other employees tell me it’s rote. The boss gives you feedback after filling out some forms, you sign them and then HR meets with you. I think my boss is happy with me. She’s had no complaints that I know about and I’m basically happy here except I’d like more interesting work. Should I be worried about my upcoming review?

Nick’s Reply

I worry about people who wait for review time to ask for feedback from the boss. Of course, your boss should be talking with you regularly about your work and your performance. She should be expressing any concerns and letting you know what you’re doing right. Unfortunately, formal performance reviews have become so bureaucratic and rote that many managers avoid them and employees are glad when the meeting is delayed.

Feedback

Don’t  wait for your boss to tell you how you’re doing. Without frequent feedback it’s very difficult to adjust your work behavior so you’ll perform well. In fact, feedback is so fundamental a control mechanism throughout our lives that I wonder how people could miss its significance in their careers.

Almost every life science (biology, psychology, medicine) involves the study of feedback. I remember this question on a biology exam in college: Why do animals have their brains at the front of their bodies rather than on the back end or in the middle? The answer is that, as the processor of sensory input, the brain is near the eyes, ears, nose and tongue. An animal’s sensory apparatus is positioned at the part of the body that goes first when the animal moves.

Why is that important? Because survival depends enormously on the ability to process input quickly. When an animal moves forward, instant feedback about the results of that action is crucial to the animal’s survival. The human brain is on top of the body because that’s where the most important sensory input arrives: a few feet off the ground. (Or so we’re told.)

Imagine what would happen to a horse galloping towards the edge of a cliff. If its brain and sensory apparatus came last, the animal would likely go over the cliff before it could process the visual input that provides feedback about danger and motion.

Get feedback early and often

This is why, when you’re doing your job, it helps to gather feedback early and often – to help you avoid going over a cliff. There’s very little difference between that horse and the employee who fails to get regular feedback and is fired for not doing the work in the way expected.

Make your case

Feedback is also a great tool to help you make more money: How should I ask for an overdue raise?

Studies have shown that people who ask for feedback tend to do a job the way the boss wants it done, and they tend to get promoted. Even more interesting is that younger workers seem to ask for feedback more than older workers. (They get promoted more often, too.)

Asking your boss, “How am I doing?” doesn’t imply that you lack confidence. It shows that you’re trying to do the job the way the boss wants it done. While you may have great suggestions about how to do the work better, what matters most is that you talk to your boss and listen to what the boss has to say. The feedback you receive should direct your behavior on the job.

Create a feedback loop

If there’s a problem, a feedback loop can help you identify it early and give you (and your boss) time and a chance to adjust your behavior, or to make other necessary choices before the matter is beyond your control.

Creating a regular feedback loop is not hard. Keep it informal. One or more of these tips should get you started on a path that avoids surprises at review time.

  • When your boss gives you a new assignment, map out your approach, show it to your boss, and ask for comments and suggestions.
  • When you complete all or part of a project, show the results to your boss and ask for feedback on how you did it.
  • When you encounter problems or challenges on a project, outline the issues to your boss, suggest how you’ll deal with them, and request guidance.
  • A month before your review meeting, make a brief, informal list of your accomplishments during the year. Discuss it with your boss and ask, “Can you give me an idea of what I’ll be working on next year?” Be ready to express a short wish list of your own.
  • Stick your head in your boss’s doorway (or e-mail box) and casually ask, “So, how’s our company doing?” or “How’s our team doing on delivering what management expects of us?” This opens a discussion and a channel for important dialogue on how you fit into the business.

Tune these suggestions to suit your situation, your boss, and your style. The idea is to make your work an ongoing discussion without appearing to lack confidence.

Don’t wait for a performance review

To get a measure of control over your forthcoming performance review, engage in regular discussion about your work and how you do it. By talking about it you’re helping your boss verbalize and express judgments about you. Another fun fact from the world of psychology is that people tend to remember opinions they have expressed out loud. Help your boss say it to remember it and believe it!

Obviously, you want to have discussions that put you and your performance in a good light! When your formal performance review arrives, both you and your boss will be on the same page. No surprises. No worries.

While factors beyond your control can affect your job (the economy, the pandemic, changes in management), don’t let your relationship with your boss depend on an annual review. Don’t wait until review time for your boss to tell you how you’re doing. Make it an ongoing conversation about your work.

(The studies referred to above are described more fully in From the Outside in: Seven Strategies for Success When You’re Not a Member of the Dominant Group in Your Workplace, iUniverse, 2005, by Renee Blank, Sandra Slipp and Vincent Ford.)

Do you ever ask your boss about your performance at work? How often? Has a performance review ever turned into a nightmare? How do you know where you stand?

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Over-Worked: Boss is killing us softly

Over-Worked: Boss is killing us softly

A reader who manages a shrinking team asks how much extra work the remaining workers can possibly do, in the July 14, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.

Question

over-workedMy boss just laid off five members of the team I manage and directed that we pick up the slack. So we’ve each been doing multiple jobs. At first it seemed like a challenge and everybody got to it, but now it’s killing me and my team. We all want to prove we’re worth keeping in this grim economy, but we are working over 60 hours a week, some of us including Saturdays. Our “normal” was around 45 hours, maybe 50 when there was a crunch. I need minimum two new staff to stay on top of the work, plus new software and tools. I’m afraid some of my employees will get sick, and others will get fed up and quit (me included). There’s only so much people will take. What do you advise?

Nick’s Reply

“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” Robert Browning famously wrote. I don’t know whether he had met Elizabeth Barrett yet, or he might have said “peoples’ reach,” but you get the point.

We’re all capable of doing more, and challenges test us and often make us better. But Browning never suggested falling into the abyss by reaching too far.

There is no easy, certain or risk-free solution to your problem — especially as the job market spirals down as a result of the pandemic. But tolerating unreasonable work demands is no solution, either. It’s worth discussing options. I’m going to present one, and ask readers to propose others so we can talk about them.

Over-worked

Your boss seems motivated to find out what your limit is. A good boss who tests you will closely monitor your health and manage accordingly. A lousy boss will keep piling on the work and kill you softly and slowly. You should ask yourselves what kind of boss you have.

More important to me is how you manage your boss. My advice is to tell your boss the truth. I know that’s risky, but part of your job as a manager is to speak up. You’re expected to get the work done, but keeping your own team members healthy is also your job. As you note, losing more of your team because they are over-worked is another risk — to the company.

Over-worked and candid

Insecurity can lead an employee — including a manager like you — to interpret unreasonable demands to work longer and harder as a threat: “Do or die!” An insecure manager won’t dare to confront the boss candidly for fear of getting fired. Does your boss want to hear the truth from you? Or does your boss not care? Getting the answer requires a frank conversation. Then you need to present your boss with a realistic and honest choice.

One approach is to say yes to your boss’s extreme expectations, and to qualify it with “but…” Yes, but.

How to say it
“I’d like to give you an update on our productivity. Since the layoff, the new requirement for the smaller team is to add A and B to our deliverables without increasing company headcount. I’ve outlined a plan. Please have a look. As you can see, YES, we can deliver A and B. BUT, to deliver one or the other, we need to transfer one more company employee to our team. To deliver both A and B, we need to transfer two more employees to our team, and we need some new tools. In either case, we can keep up this level of performance for about six months. Then, as you can see in my projections, the stress on the system and my team will adversely affect product quality and delivery schedules. I know this is not what you’d like to hear — it would be great if we could do A and B with current resources, but it puts the rest of our operation at risk. Can we discuss the trade-offs, what is the best choice, and what is a realistic business plan and delivery schedule?” (A related approach works when negotiating salary.)

Of course, you will have to think through your own plan in your circumstances. But this is part of your job. The company is trying to do more with less, when what it needs to do is decide what its priorities are and choose what has to go.

Risk my job?

I know some will suggest that, in the current economy and job market, no one can afford to risk their job by questioning increased work loads or unreasonable employer demands. Everyone must set their own tolerance level. But everyone has a breaking point. It’s important to know in advance where you’ll draw the line.

The cost of consent

If you avoid the discussion with your boss, and are fearful of appearing uncooperative or even incapable, you’re likely to dig the hole even deeper. When you’re already over-worked, quiet compliance just makes the boss think you can do even more. So the weight on your back will likely be increased. There is no good outcome for you. That’s poor management and poor business.

Where I’ve seen this happen in particular, even in good economies, is with managers who are insecure because they lack a college degree, or they are insecure about their skills and judgment. (See impostor syndrome.) They consent to staggering workloads to avoid appearing somehow unqualified, or to avoid calling attention to themselves. All of them almost invariably burn out or take it so far that they get fired.

Yes, BUT

It’s your job to do the best you can so your company will succeed, and sometimes that means working harder and longer in a crunch. But don’t make it your goal to prove you can do whatever is demanded, that you can figure anything out, and that you can be counted on no matter what. That’s the path to catastrophe because you will lose your job soon anyway — perhaps after you become very sick. The only outcome is doom.

Our reach should exceed our grasp, but not kill us. Never over-promise just to “prove” yourself. Part of what you’re paid for is to tell your boss the truth, even if it’s bad news, as long as your assessment includes proposing rational, prudent choices to protect the business and the employees that make it successful. Don’t say “Can do!” to what can’t be reasonably done. Say YES, BUT — and outline the options and their costs. Otherwise, you’ll either go out on unemployment, or get carried out on a stretcher.

There is no easy answer to this problem. So let’s talk about the hard but honest answers. When the chips are down and your company asks the world of you, how much should you deliver, and under what kind of deal? How would you explain it to your boss? Would you even try? What risks would you face? Are there any benefits?

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Predictions for post-pandemic job market

Predictions for post-pandemic job market

A reader asks what will be different in the job market in the June 30, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.

Question

The coronavirus pandemic is a game-changer for the job market. What changes do you see coming in the new normal? Any tips on how to be one of those who can get a job again as things open back up?

Nick’s Reply

post-pandemic job market

This could be a long discussion! I’ll try to stick to a few points that I think I’ll be able to defend when the discussion starts in the comments section below. I can’t offer much evidence yet, but my gut tells me employers will be more selective when hiring going forward, so you will have to adjust your job-search methods accordingly.

Why?

Selective hiring in post-pandemic job market

Over 40 million people have lost their jobs and filed for unemployment since the pandemic began. That’s a lot of jobs. I don’t think it’s hard to predict that when employers start hiring again they will re-fill only a portion of them.

It seems Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell agrees. He recently told a gathering of bankers there will be “well into the millions of people who don’t get to go back to their old job. In fact, there may not be a job in that industry for them for some time.”

Employers will have to be more selective simply because they won’t be able to hire as many workers. The reason is elementary: In the post-pandemic job market, companies will have to save money, many of them without choice.

Managers will do their own recruiting

Wharton labor researcher Peter Cappelli has pointed out that modern corporate accounting systems treat vacant jobs as a reduction in costs, and thus as an increase in profits. My good buddy Jeff Pierce, an executive in the IT services industry, calls this “junk profitability.” I think he’s right.

UPDATE: The Economic Policy Institute reported on June 29, 2020 that Nearly 11% of the workforce is out of work with zero chance of getting called back to a prior job.

“Of the 164.8 million workers who are either in the labor force or who have dropped out of the labor force as a result of the virus, 11.9 million workers, or 7.2%, are out of work with no hope of being called back to a prior job; 5.7 million workers, or 3.5%, expect to get called back to work but likely will not; and 14.8 million workers, or 9.0%, may reasonably expect to be called back. In other words, even if all workers who can reasonably expect to be called back to their prior jobs were called back, the share of the workforce out of work would still be 10.7% (7.2% plus 3.5%), higher than the highest unemployment rate of the Great Recession.”

As businesses try to recover, I believe they will spend less on staffing. But managers will likely face the same, if not higher, productivity expectations. Managers will have to operate on lower staffing levels, and this will force them to step up to the challenge by hiring more carefully.

I think the best managers will handle more recruiting on their own because they know HR has no skin in the game. Fed up with HR organizations that have always shoveled the wrong candidates into interviews, managers will rebel. They will take hiring into their own hands because not to do so could risk their own jobs.

Job seekers who’ve got game will prosper

Employers will invest their salary budgets prudently and selectively. I believe managers will be much more receptive to job candidates who walk into an interview and demonstrate, hands down, how they will do the work and do it profitably.

In a recent article, Job Search During The Pandemic, Jason Alba suggested that job seekers need to be on their best game: “The pandemic makes it necessary to do more of what we know works best.”

This means:

Job ROI will matter

The University of Chicago’s Becker Friedman Institute projects that up to 42% of the pandemic-related layoffs in the U.S. will be permanent. If you are a victim of these cuts, how will you position yourself for a new job?

If managers have less money to spend, they will monitor hiring ROI (return on investment) much more closely. Every hire will matter more. This means what you can offer employers in the post-pandemic job market will matter more.

I think this will be a smart employee’s market where the best workers will pursue jobs where they show how they’ll make a difference — and thus be able to negotiate good compensation packages. Job seekers who keep dialing for dollars by playing the numbers game with job applications will lose.

We’ll see if I’m right. Now let’s hear everyone’s comments.

What are your predictions for the post-pandemic job market? How will the massive, pandemic-related job cuts affect your ability to get — or to fill — a job? Will those jobs ever come back? What will make you worth hiring in the new economy and job market?

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I stopped shortchanging myself and my career

I stopped shortchanging myself and my career

A reader who’s been shortchanging their potential has an epiphany in the June 23, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.

Question

shortchangingYou get a lot of questions. I thought you might enjoy an answer I discovered.

I finally ironed out the details of my new job and my relocation (very generous and I really expected nothing). During my morning shower, I had this fleeting thought, “Wow. They are really paying too much for me to take this job. With benefits like moving expenses, closing costs, salary and bonus, I am really being paid way too much for this job. I would have taken it for a lot less.”

Then I stopped and chided myself for these negative thoughts.

Obviously, I realized, I must be filling some need that they are willing to pay me this much for. And, I thought to myself, I am very good at what I do, I know the company, know the people and I know I will do a great job in this position.

Of course, I am sure there are cases where people are paid far more than they are worth for a job. But I realized this morning, really for the first time, how much I have shortchanged myself over the years by thinking things like:

  1. “Oh, I don’t think I could do that job,” or
  2. “They wouldn’t want someone with my background for that,” or
  3. “I know they wouldn’t be able to meet my salary for that position.”


I realized this morning that I have really been selling myself short in a lot of ways in my career, rather than “reaching for the brass ring,” and extending myself a bit farther to achieve more.

Now I know that the first step in looking for a better position is valuing yourself and what you can really do for an employer, regardless of your job history and industry background. Today I stopped shortchanging myself. The answer to my own doubts is that undervaluing myself is a mistake. I hope I never make it again.

Nick’s Reply

The Question in this column doesn’t always have to be a question! Your story is one of the most eloquent, wonderful expressions of newfound career wisdom I’ve ever read. And we could end this column right there. It’s enough to prompt discussion all by itself.

Becoming suddenly aware of how you’ve been shortchanging yourself and your potential is the kind of “Aha!” experience that will make others start thinking, too. That makes this epiphany as important as the questions I answer in this column. Thanks for sharing it.

Shortchanging yourself

I’ve experienced the kind of misgivings you have, and I’m sure many others have, too. We all doubt our worth sometimes. The three examples of shortchanging yourself that you shared are the kinds of doubts that stop us dead in our tracks. Rather than ask ourselves, “Why YES?”, we say “NO, but I don’t know why!” — perhaps because it’s easier!

For some people, self-doubt can be a serious problem called impostor syndrome. Most of the time it’s a passing worry that we overcome by recognizing and enjoying our achievements. Sometimes it’s debilitating and leads to needless failure.

While criticism and disparaging remarks from others can spark a crisis of self-confidence, we tend to doubt compliments and praise. Sometimes praise is casual and perfunctory; sometimes it’s genuine and well-deserved, like the exceptional job offer you received.

The best praise is our own honest judgment of ourselves that’s based on solid facts and success. I think your job-offer success is quite solid!

Shortchanging your potential

Every time someone asks me, How much money should I ask for? or, What am I worth?, I want to say to them, You’re shortchanging your potential! Don’t get stuck on what you’ve done. Plan what you can do by realizing your potential. That’s your worth.

People who acknowledge their potential know what they are worth. They have a power that surpasses the greatest negotiation skills. Their self-confidence is anchored in self-knowledge — knowledge of their skills and ability to create, fix or improve something, and to recognize opportunities they can capitalize on. That’s what the employer discovered about you. Now you see your potential, and that the money follows.

Potential value = more money

Once you accept your potential value, it’s easier to express it in terms of what another person (or business) needs – and that gets you more money. (For another approach to how to judge your own value please see The Cardinal Rules of Worth.)

Someone values you enough to pay you more, and now you know you deserve it. You’ll never be the same again for this realization. It will spur you to deliver even more value because now you know your value doesn’t depend on your credentials or on your history. It depends on what you can do. And that’s wonderful. Thanks for sharing your epiphany!

Do you shortchange yourself? How do you calculate your worth — and then express it to get a better job offer? What metrics can we apply, other than a resume, credentials and experience? (Or is that all of it?)

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Headhunter demands I quit my job before his client will interview me

Headhunter demands I quit my job before his client will interview me

In the June 16, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter an executive gets an ultimatum from a headhunter.

Question

headhunter demandsI am an executive at a large U.S. bank. I was approached by a headhunter and have had serious and positive discussions with a company he represents. We were at the next stage of me speaking with the CEO of the company. However, it turns out that the company is a business client of my bank and the CEO of the company is good friends with my boss. On account of this, the CEO is not comfortable meeting with me. The headhunter informed me that the CEO has asked me to resign or notify my boss of my intention to resign before he will meet with me and resume discussions. While they have indicated that they would then “fast track” the process immediately after that, it’s not a guaranteed offer. This seems absurd to me. The headhunter tells me this is not unusual at my high level, but I have never heard of such a practice. What are your thoughts?

Nick’s Reply

This is a good example of the headhunter’s version of mixed signals. “Let’s talk about a job!” Then “We can’t talk to you about a job!” Not unless you quit your job first. Go, then stop, then go? What’s behind all this? The headhunter’s naivete or the CEO’s incompetence?

You’ve had multiple interviews with the company. They have undoubtedly read your resume and know where you work. So does the headhunter and the company’s HR department, which knows the company’s recruiting policies. Now the CEO interjects and implies there’s some sort of conflict in even talking with you because he’s your boss’s friend and the company does business with your bank.

What a mess. How absurd. How unprofessional. Why did they bring you in to interview at all?

Recruiting conflicts?

Perhaps the CEO thinks he’s a paragon of ethical behavior in not hiring anyone that works for any of his friends or who works at any company his company buys from. He has manufactured a significant and risky constraint on who his company can hire.

Podcast

Last week I chatted with Mac Prichard on his “Find Your Dream Job” career podcast. Have a listen: Choosing your target companies, with Nick Corcodilos.

I might understand if you worked for a customer of the CEO’s company. Then the CEO might risk losing the account. But would the CEO forego hiring an employee of the electricity provider that services his building? A lawyer from the company’s law firm? An employee of a restaurant the CEO frequents? A programmer from Apple if the company uses iPhones? Where does it end?

The only true conflict would be if the company’s contractual relationship with the bank forbids the company from recruiting its employees. I’ve never heard of such a thing. (However, it is common for a contract between a headhunting firm and its client company to forbid the headhunter from poaching the client’s employees. But that’s a different story.)

Friends and fiduciaries

If the friendship between the CEO and your boss is the issue, then that CEO should stop recruiting anyone. How many friends does he have and at what companies?

The CEO has a fiduciary obligation to his company. This means he must act entirely on his company’s behalf and best interest. That includes when hiring. Unless there is some contractual or legal obligation preventing him from recruiting and hiring you, the CEO may be violating his obligations to his board of directors. His duty is to hire the best candidates, whether his friends like it or not.

Do you think the CEO disclosed to his board all the companies where he has friends, and from which he will not recruit candidates (like you)? Does HR know which companies represent forbidden fruit? Apparently not. That headhunter certainly doesn’t know.

The CEO’s company will have no access to all those potential candidates (like you). The company would be foolish to limit its access to good candidates.

Headhunter demands it

Far more bizarre is that the headhunter demands you resign your current job just for the chance to meet with his client. Absurd? It’s insane, irresponsible, kooky and the sign of an employer you should cross off your list and warn your friends about.

Additionally, the headhunter’s explanation is disingenuous. If the company has a no-recruit list and your bank is on it, why doesn’t its headhunter know about it? Why did he recruit you from your bank, on behalf of the CEO’s company,  and put you through multiple meetings? The headhunter is wrong. He owes you a big apology for his and his client’s unprofessional conduct. (For more about how to deal with headhunters in such situations, please see How to Work With Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work with you, pp. 26-33.)

Off the rails

This is so far off the rails that you might consider having some fun with it. Tell the headhunter you’ll quit your job if the CEO will write you a check for a year’s salary if he doesn’t hire you for at least a 15% compensation increase within 3 months. You want the check now. You will refund the money if the CEO hires you.

Alternately, tell the headhunter you want to hear this directly from the CEO. You want to see the “no-poach” agreement the company has with your bank. You’ll get none of this, of course, but it’s a conversation I’d love to hear!

Good for you for stepping back for a reality check. You’re dealing with a very naïve headhunter and with a CEO that’s mismanaging his company, from the HR department up to the C-suite.

Perhaps he should hire his friend (your boss) to protect their friendship. Maybe that’s what he’s planning anyway.

On to the next!

What do you make of this bungled recruiting episode? Has a headhunter ever issued bizarre demands like this? What would you do if you were the candidate? What would you say to the CEO and the headhunter?

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Which managers hire the best?

Which managers hire the best?

In the June 9, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a manager asks how managers hire.

Question

managers hireWhen you’re hiring, how do you know who you want to hire? By that I mean, how do you identify the job you need done, the skills and potential for growth you require in a job candidates? I admit I’ve made some hiring mistakes as a manager, but it’s awfully hard to pinpoint what I’ve done wrong. It’s just as hard to figure out what I did right when I picked my best staff members!

Nick’s Reply

I don’t think the problem for most managers is knowing what they want. If they don’t know what work needs to be done, they have no business managing.

Managers hire for profit

If you have doubts about what a job is all about, here’s a good test: It must involve work that is profitable to the company. If it’s not profitable, question the legitimacy of the job.

Of course, this means you must understand how the work of each one of your employees fits into the big profit picture. Most managers I’ve said this to roll their eyes and tell me they’re not finance managers and it’s not their job. If they really believe that, they need to sit down with their company’s CFO and figure it out. Profitability is every manager’s job. Or, why are you even a manager?

The problems with hiring

But let’s focus on hiring.

I think the challenge for most managers lies in the faulty hiring process they’ve been taught. This process emphasizes talk rather than demonstration, and personality rather than ability. It hampers their ability to hire well.

There seem to be two main problems with how managers hire.

Problem 1: Hiring to the job description

Most managers know what they need to get a job done. However, they are usually saddled with over-written, static job descriptions that better serve the requirements of a Human Resources applicant tracking system (ATS) than the ever-changing needs of their company.

Don’t believe me? Is your own job and the work you do today the same as your original job description? How much has your job changed since you started it? (I’ve asked this question of hundreds of times. All I ever get is bitter laughs.)

When a manager interviews to fill the job description, that may satisfy HR. But is it going to meet the manager’s changing, evolving needs? Worse, is HR sending candidates to the manager just because their resumes and applications contain words that match words in the static job description?

Hiring to the job description is a mistake. (The problem of job descriptions themselves is for another discussion.)

Problem 2: Managers hire people they like

Generally speaking, managers are schooled by HR experts in the art of interviewing, if they’re schooled at all. But, what does HR know about hiring anyone but HR staff? HR is not schooled in specific work disciplines like engineering and marketing. Consequently, HR’s interview instructions tend to emphasize only general attributes, mostly relating to personality and attitude.

Managers that know what they want often don’t dare ask candidates to deliver it because to do so would violate the traditional rules of interviewing. Whoever heard of putting a job candidate in a room with all the tools they need and asking them to demonstrate how they would do the job?

Instead, managers learn to sit and talk banalities with applicants. Even managers who know what work they need done end up hiring workers based on irrelevant rules and criteria that have been hammered into their brains by an antiquated and ineffective employment system.

An executive of a multinational telecommunications firm complained to me that his company keeps making the same mistake. “We hire based on personality,” he said. “More specifically, we hire people we like because the interview methods we use don’t really reveal whether the person can do the work.”

Put another way, managers focus too much on who they want, rather than on what work they need to have done. “To hire” does not mean to acquire a worker; it means to acquire the use of (that is, pay for) certain services to get certain work done. The focus must be on the person’s services and on the work. Unfortunately, most managers have absolutely no concrete proof that a job candidate can do the necessary work until after they hire them to do it. This never comes up in the interview, because the manager is too busy trying to “assess the candidate.”

Can the person do the work you need done?

The hiring process has become warped into a personality assessment. Consider the common questions asked in interviews: What is your greatest strength? Your biggest weakness? Where do you see yourself in five years? Such questions are so general and meaningless that hundreds of books are available to teach you how to respond with equally trite answers. But what has any of this to do with the work a manager needs done? Next to nothing.

In what I call The New Interview, the manager and the candidate work together on a “live” problem or task. This maintains a focus on the work that needs to be done, rather than on the keywords in a job description. The best example task is one that clearly affects the profitability of the department. My guess is that, if you were to review your interviews against the success of your hires, either you’ve just gotten lucky some of the time, or your best hires actually showed you they could do the work.

In my experience, if an interviewer conducts such a working meeting with sleeves rolled up and focuses on an actual work task, the candidate will quite naturally reveal their personality, attitudes, skills, growth potential and “fit” on other scales. It comes out in the conversation and in the shared experience of working together during the meeting — just like it does at work. No clever interview questions are required. (You’ll still learn whether you like the candidate, but your opinion will be based mostly on whether they can do the job!)

What’s a manager’s job?

If you’re a regular reader, you’ve heard me say this before. A good manager should be spending 10-15% of their time every week identifying, recruiting and cultivating people to fill current or future positions. Hiring is a key management function and you need to develop your skills to do it well.

A job candidate must be able to do the work. If you don’t — or cannot — directly assess this, why are you even a manager? I mean no offense, but I suggest you think about it.

If you’re a manager, how do you hire? Do you put 10-15% of every week into hiring? Who was the best “hiring” manager you’ve ever known, and how did they do it? What are the worst hiring practices you’ve encountered?

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Too busy to hunt for a job

Too busy to hunt for a job

In the June 2, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader worries about being too busy to find a new job.

Question

too busyBefore this coronavirus thing hit I had decided it’s finally time to leave my crummy job. I say crummy but it pays the bills. With record numbers of people having no job at all, believe me, I’m grateful I have a job. I took on more tasks from people who were furloughed. But I could become one of those millions out of work any day now. Guess you could say I’m scared. The thing is, even though I’m working from home, there’s no time to look for a job! Is it unreasonable to want a better job right now? How do I do it while working and during this COVID-19 disaster? Thanks!

Nick’s Reply

The world could be ending and you could still hate your job. One has nothing to do with the other. I’m glad you’re able to separate how you feel about your job from the fact that you need it for an income. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get a better job even when jobs may be hard to come by.

You cannot ignore the coronavirus and the shutdown and the gradual reopening of the economy, but you can’t control any of that, either. Let’s focus on a problem many people have whether times are good or bad: they’re going about their job search all wrong. You can do something about that!

Too busy to search for a new job

My favorite excuse for conducting an inept job search — or for not starting a job search at all —  is, “I’m too busy working to find a new job.” Don’t blame your busy schedule for your career woes. You must make time. (Believe it or not, employers have a complementary problem: Small Business Owner: I’m too busy to hire help!)

People offer this excuse because they have the wrong idea about what constitutes a job search. You may be surprised to learn what smart “job hunting” really requires. It isn’t scouring job postings or sending out resumes. It isn’t going on informational interviews. It isn’t taking a sick or personal day when you can, to contact your network and to call prospective employers.

You can practice the best form of job hunting while you do your job.

Make time, take time, steal time

I make no judgments about it, but people shop online, read the news, check their social media and manage their investments while they work. Some even play games. Right or wrong, they literally create time for those tasks and still get their jobs done.

Even if you don’t do any of those things, even if you are hard at work all day long, you can make time to search for a job because you must if a new job is really important to you.

This might mean stealing time from other pursuits during your workday, and it might mean doing a bit less work for your employer. There, I’ve said it.

Every work day has its limits. When you agreed to do the work of others who were furloughed, you somehow blasted through those limits. Now you must retreat a bit, and still do your job. As you’ve noted, you could lose your job tomorrow, whether you’re doing your own job, or one and a half jobs, or two. So you’re at risk anyway.

As long as you’re doing a good job, you’re not stealing time from your employer. But you must do a bit less of your job to protect your having a job at all. Make time, take time or steal time from your day.

Job hunting on the job

So, how do you search for a job while working?

You might understandably respond that it’s not appropriate to search for a job during your work day. You might worry that it’s awkward or risky to have such conversations with people you work with. This is all about being thoughtful, tactful, discreet and careful. Don’t do anything that would risk your current job. Don’t do anything that feels wrong to you.

It involves talking with others about their work in the context of your work. If you talk with customers during the day, it’s about discussing your work and their work, and discreetly asking questions about their company — which could be your next employer.

If you deal with vendors, consultants and other professionals, remember that they have other customers like your company. Job hunting is about gently inquiring what other companies are doing. Which companies does your vendor or consultant admire and like doing business with? How’s that company doing during the crisis? Who are the “shining lights” at that company?

How to Say It
“I’d love to meet some people there — can you recommend a specific person I can talk with?”

If you use online resources to do your job, reach out to those resources differently. E-mail them. Call them. Have a good business reason for the call, then pause and ask them, “How are you doing through the crisis?”

You’ll find some are doing okay, some aren’t, and some face problems and need help. But almost every one of them will pause and share the moment with you. Take the opportunity to talk shop with them, express your interest in their work and in their company’s business, products or technology. (See Shared Experiences: The key to good networking.) Every one of those people knows other people in companies that might be your next employer. Ask for a casual introduction.

Don’t be surprised if they pick up on the opportunity to open up a bit with you, and wind up asking you for introductions to people you know.

Tap into the grapevine

Anyone you’re in touch with during your job is a potential link to a new job, as long as you don’t lead your discussion with “I need a new job.” First, you need insights and advice about other companies and managers that need help, even if they’re not hiring. Such discussions can turn you into the insider who’s “wired for the job” when one opens up or before it’s even advertised.

There is a grapevine of information about companies and managers that need help — and about who’s a good person to talk with about it. Don’t be too busy to set aside a few minutes every hour and tap into the grapevine.

Advice, insight & referrals

If you want to be more blunt and direct, make a list of people you talk or e-mail with (or with whom you could do so) in the course of doing your job. Make guesses about which other companies they likely have contacts in. The next time you communicate, try this:

How to Say It
“Hey, would you mind if I ask your advice about something not related to our work? If someone like me were interested in working for [company X, which your contact may work for, or which your contact has other business with], what kind of advice would you give me?”

If the response is helpful, take the next step:

How to Say It
“Is there someone at the company that you might suggest I get in touch with?”

We all know far more people in the world than we think we do — and every one of them is a potential introduction to your next boss. As long as you don’t come across as an opportunist who abuses relationships for personal gain, you can ask for advice and insight about other companies to get useful introductions.

While talking with people you interact with during your work day, there’s nothing phony if you ask:

  • Who do they think are the “shining lights” in the industry or business?
  • What articles, books or people influence how they do their job?
  • What are their thoughts and predictions about the industry?
  • What are their interests and aspirations? (Then you can share yours.)

This often — but not always — opens the door to discussions about careers, jobs, and — most important — about companies that need help.

Where jobs really come from

You can do all this in the course of doing your job, because the right people to talk to might be the ones you do business with: co-workers, customers, vendors, consultants, accountants, bankers and even investors, to name a few. These people are where jobs really come from.

If you’re busy doing your job, you’re not too busy to job hunt — because you’re probably already talking with someone that knows your next boss.

Don’t make the fatal mistake of thinking that actively searching for a job requires hours of surfing job boards, writing cover letters and filling out job application forms. That’s not how most jobs are filled.

Help managers find you

I think that, especially in a time when tens of millions of people are looking for work, managers are overwhelmed with incoming job applicants. The people they know and trust in their field are the most efficient and accurate sources of good hires. Your challenge is to tap into those channels of trusted referrals. While there are many such channels, don’t ignore your work contacts.

Make, take or steal time to protect your livelihood. An active job search is about taking an extra moment to connect with people you do business with on another level. It’s not about asking for a job lead, or even about disclosing that you’re looking. It’s about asking for their advice, their insights, and for introductions to people they know who might offer more advice, insights and information about companies and managers you might be able to help and want to work for.

How does anyone make time to search for a job if they’re too busy working? How can you be more efficient and productive when hunting for a new job? What are the best paths for getting to hiring managers? Is what I’m suggesting too risky?

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A Top 10 Stupid Interview Question: What’s your biggest weakness?

A Top 10 Stupid Interview Question: What’s your biggest weakness?

In the May 19, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader grapples with the biggest weakness and with trick questions.

Question

weaknessIt just happened again. An interviewer asked me one of those trick questions. “What is your biggest weakness?” I actually researched this one. There are all kinds of recommended answers you can memorize. It’s also true that it might be an honest question to get you to talk about yourself, or it might be a trick and they’re looking for some particular kind of answer. I stopped trying to psych this out. But I would like to know what you think.

Nick’s Reply

I don’t believe in rehearsed or “canned” answers to interview questions. Every candidate, manager, job, company and situation is different. Each requires an honest answer to sincere, relevant questions.

That’s assuming the company and the manager are honest, sincere people who ask questions that actually assess your fitness for the job. But we all know that many employers rely on a list of prepared interview questions that they ask so routinely, you wonder why. Such interviews feel stiff and there’s no real conversation going on about the job or how you would do it. Many of these questions fall into a category I call The Top 10 Stupid Interview Questions. (Disclosure: There are more than 10!)

Your biggest weakness

I don’t believe in canned questions in job interviews. But, there’s one Top 10 interview question that really irritates me because it’s so loaded, so stupid and so common that it’s worth discussing. And that’s the question you’re raising here:

What is your biggest weakness?

The clever rationalizations behind this question are myriad. I’ve heard every explanation there is for asking it. My favorite: “It’s a good open-ended question that will tell you lots about a job applicant.”

Give me a break. It yields no more than asking what animal the applicant would like to be. If the question was ever legitimate and sincere, it’s been worn out from overuse. When some wag came up with the best answer I’ve ever heard – “Chocolate!” – it was time to stop asking it.

I don’t want to suggest an answer to this question, because there is no single answer. But, I’d like to discuss why I think the idea of “weakness” is worthless to an employer, and perhaps that will change your perspective about interviews in general.

What weakness?

This question doesn’t show up just in job interviews. A prospective client once asked me what my biggest weakness is. This is how I answered it – as honestly as I could.

There are a million things I can’t do, but they don’t reveal any weakness. Weakness is the unwillingness or inability to tackle a challenge. I suggest you first judge my willingness to help you, then my ability.

I can and will tackle anything that’s worth doing, and any task that’s part of the job if you hire me. But weakness is not part of my work equation.

What matters is my motivation to quickly develop the strength I need to perform a task or handle a problem. I’m good at figuring things out and learning whatever is necessary so I can perform the work I’ve committed to do. That’s what has made me successful.

Success requires intelligence, motivation and persistence. Those are my strengths, and they enable me to get a job done. I can hop up on a fast learning curve and ride it without falling off.

There is no weakness; only things I haven’t done yet. If you want to know what I can do, show me what you need done – and I’ll show you how I will use my skills and abilities to do it.

There’s a very powerful interview tactic hiding in plain sight in this approach. Can you find it?

Reveal your strengths

It’s something few job applicants ever ask an employer: “Show me what you need done.”

This is powerful because you cannot effectively show that you can do a job — and get hired — unless you know exactly what the work is. You must ask  because most employers will not tell you of their own accord. Only then can you explain and show how exactly you will do the work — even if there are aspects of the work you’ve never done before. Talking it through with the manager reveals your strengths — your ability to understand, plan, learn, and execute.

If you have the intelligence, motivation and persistence to do what needs to be done, and if you are good at learning, then you have no weakness.

Instead of trying to answer that question with a clever rejoinder, try having a conversation like this instead. Asking what exactly the manager needs gives you a chance to show you have no meaningful “weakness.” Then you can show your strength is figuring things out.

What other Top 10 Stupid Interview Questions have you been asked? How do you answer the “biggest weakness” question? What’s the most important question to address in a job interview?

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