Job-hunting insanity

In an edition of my syndicated column, I ran a poll in The Seattle Times. I asked readers to pick from four methods they’d use to get in the door at a company. In other words, how would you apply for a job?

77% responded that they would pursue the channel that is most closed to them — the HR department. Even though they know that the line is long and the competition is stiff, people still take this path. Something like 40%-70% of jobs are found and filled through personal contacts. I don’t think that surprises anyone, and most people know in their gut that “it’s who you know.”

So, why do people go through HR?

Let’s see if I can help you view this from another perspective. Suppose your boss gave you an important project, and you realized it could not be accomplished by conventional means. In other words, the way it’s always been done ain’t gonna cut it. Your boss just wants the job done. Would you continue applying the same-old methods? Or, would you demonstrate creativity and try something new? (Your boss is watching.)

Hold that thought. Read more

Military transition & discipline

My office is nice and cozy. I have a big cherry-wood desk and a great chair. Views of woods and grass through lots of big windows. It’s a peaceful habitat.  No one bothers me. I know I’m safe, and in a few hours I’m gonna see my wife and kids. So now I’m going to try and show my gratitude to one guy who foregoes everything I just described, every day and every hour, to ensure that I can enjoy what I have all day long, every day. That, and my thanks, won’t make him one bit safer where he is, but I hope maybe it’ll help him through his military transition into a good job when he returns home.

military transitionQuestion


I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog in my free time over the past week. I’m a Captain in the US Army, currently stationed in Iraq and making the transition to civilian life in the next 6 months. I was wondering if you had any tips for someone in this unique situation that could smooth the transition from a mid-level military officer to a managerial or leadership position in the business world?

I’m currently serving in the Logistics branch, so I believe my skill set will translate well, but I need some pointers on how to sell it. As officers, we are bombarded with spam from headhunting firms and database job mills (often to our professional email addresses). The majority of my peers have used these services with mixed results. Perhaps you could give some guidance in one of your upcoming posts?

Thanks for your time,

Kevin W. Ryan
ISF Logistician

Nick’s Reply

Hi, Captain Ryan,

Thanks for what you and all our military do for us — I’m glad to offer any advice I can, hoping it might be useful.

Here’s the best initial suggestion I can make to you:

  • Don’t go looking for open jobs.
  • Avoid the job postings and ads.

If it’s open and posted, the competition is already so huge that your odds of success have dropped like a rock. The quality of your credentials and skills is almost irrelevant because the systems (human and otherwise) used to sort through applicants is not good at separating signal from noise.

Your best bet is to figure out what you’d like to do, and who you’d like to work for. Start with industry — which one? It helps to start with good targets. Don’t waste time with second-tier companies. Start with the best, the shining lights, whether they’re big or small. Research their operations, figure out what job functions might match your skills and interests. (Don’t get too specific. Like the guy said, most of what we know we learned in Kindergarten. The rest is about riding a fast learning curve without falling off.) The key is that it’s up to you to map your skills onto the work, as best you can.

That’s how you pick the job(s) in the company — not from ads.

Once you’ve selected a handful of companies, and identified some functions and jobs, you need to make new friends. Something like 40-70% of jobs are found and filled through personal contacts. So don’t waste time with other channels. The next task is to work backwards from contacts you already have, and ones you can develop quickly, to meet and talk with insiders — people connected to each target company. They need not be employees. They might be vendors, customers, attorneys, accountants, landlords, bankers, etc. Find them any way you can — one good way is business articles about the company. Look for names of such folks. Google them, email them, call them. Be brief and respectful. Explain you’re considering working for company X, and you know they do business with X, and you’d like their insight and advice. Have a few good, friendly questions to ask about the company.

You score when the person personally refers you to someone in the company for more information. That’s when the real fun starts.

Use these introductions (you need only a handful, and you may have to talk to lots of folks to get them) to more closely map yourself to the work and function in the company. The best way to tackle this is to ask:

“What problems and challenges is your company facing in [logistics, purchasing, marketing, whatever]? Can you give me a little insight? I’m interested in working for your company, but I haven’t yet identified where I can contribute the most to the bottom line.”

It takes only one savvy manager to hear the words bottom line, and you’re in.

This is actually a lot of fun, because you’re meeting new people, learning new things, and getting into the circle you want to be part of. If you’ve got six months, I encourage you to start now. It takes time. But it’s the only reliable way to get in the door and find the job right for you.

Employers are lousy at figuring out what to do with job applicants. Most of the time, they realize people are just looking for a job, any job. If you start by picking an industry, a handful of companies, and then focus on mapping yourself onto a company’s challenges — that’s how you use your brain to create your own job opening. More likely, you’ll identify something that’s about to come open, and you’ll be the first candidate to interview. No competition. And due to the research you’ve already done, your motivation will translate into very effective dialogue in interviews. While your competition is answering questions like, “What’s your greatest weakness? If you could be any animal, what animal would you be?”, you’ll be busy explaining how you think you could add 10% to the department’s bottom line. Big difference!

Do me a favor and stay in touch. I’m glad to help. You’re ahead of the pack already because you took time to make contact in the business world. Keep doing that. Reach out to insiders in your target industry and companies. Forget the job applications and resumes. Do this right, and you won’t need a resume. The conversations you have will evolve straight into interviews.

You might have noticed that I didn’t mention military transition once except in the title of this post. That’s because the same methods that work for everyone else will work for you, because this is all about delivering profitable work, no matter where you’re coming from.

The edge you have is discipline. The military has given you that in spades. It’s something every job hunter in the civilian world needs, because roaming the job boards isn’t a task. Identifying your objective, focusing on it, pursuing it, and not stopping until you attain it requires… well, you get it. You don’t need to transition. Just apply your discipline to the task at hand and don’t abandon what you learned in the Army about getting the job done. Not to be rude, but civilians won’t be much competition.

Start with The Basics: Pick your targets. You know the old saying, you can’t get there if you don’t know where there is.

Be safe. I’ll be thinking about you.

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Career guidance from the netherworld

If my views on job hunting and hiring (and career development) seem different from most “experts” in the field, it’s mainly because I see the most fruitful ideas on these topics coming out of the netherworld. That is, from non-career-related areas. Unfortunately, the career industry spends so much time chewing and re-digesting its decades-old cud that its pipeline is clogged with crap. But, there’s guidance elsewhere, if you pay attention and look for it.

I should share more of the source material I find, so here are a couple of bits you might enjoy — and find stimulating. (Where do I find this stuff? It’s my lunch-time reading. I get more subscriptions than you’d ever want in your mailbox. Actual printed rags mean more to me than stuff published purely online. The way I see it, when a publisher spends money on paper and ink, what he publishes will be better than most of the mush we find online only. I emphasize most. There’s some great stuff online, of course…)

Fortune magazine has a cover feature this month titled Go Get the Money: How to sell in any market. (It’s in the September 29 edition, but not all the material from it that I discuss below is available online. So, buy a magazine that you can read anywhere.)

Item 1: Job hunting and hiring are 90% about selling. And 90% of sales is about your attitude and about the attitude you project to employers, job hunters, headhunters, and anyone else you brush up against in when your objective is to match a person with a company. Read more

How not to get get a job

We talk a lot around here about how to interview well, how to win the job, how to be successful. Sometimes it helps to take a good look at all the dopey stuff we do that doesn’t work. Hey, you can’t perform well if you keep doing the same-old, same-old that relegates you to the bottom of the barrel.

James Maguire at Datamation just interviewed me for an article titled How to Not Get an IT Job: 10 Tips. Only two of the tips we discussed are specific to IT (information technology), but all of them are relevant in one way or another to almost any kind of job.

So, don’t walk out of your next interview with a dumbfounded look on your face: “Duh, I think I blew it.”

If you wanna do it right, learn what to stop doing that’s wrong. Which reminds me — after you’ve dropped the bad habits, try a refresher course on The Basics. In this spiraling (down) economy, one thing matters most, and it’s what we discuss all the time: creating profit. If you can’t do it, show it, and prove it, it’s gonna be a long way back up out of that barrel.

Do you know where those references come from?

Is it okay if you write your own recommendation or reference letter and let your boss sign it? What does that say about you? About your boss?

Since it’s appeared in two recent editions of the Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, the volume of reader mail has pushed this topic to the blog. I want to make it easier for everyone to talk about it. The pertinent newsletter editions are:

A boss who — when asked if he’ll write a recommendation — tells the individual to write their own reference letter so the boss can sign it, is an irresponsible jerk. He’s dissing his own company, dissing the employee, and dissing the entire business community. Who’s going to read that reference and base a hiring decision on it — at least in part? (Is this where crummy hires come from?)

There are some legitimate ways for an employee to make the task a bit easier for the boss, and to reasonably influence the result, and I discuss those in the newsletter. But, a manager signing someone else’s judgments as one’s own — that undermines business at a fundamental level.

Most readers got their hackles up over this one. One said his former boss did this routinely, and called him “a feckless loser.” One called the failure of managers to actually take the time to write a reference “another example of the general malaise that exists in Corporate America; it is like a cancer that is spreading exponetially.” Consistently, readers focused on the bigger underlying management problem. One put it very simply: “Not only is it deceitful, it’s also lazy and bad management practice.”

One reader explained that this is just how business is done and chided me for not accepting it. Bob Hooson wrote (and gave me permission to print): Read more

Double-0 Headhunters!

I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

Three years ago I reported on Deceptive Recruiting: HR’s last stand? The column was about John Sullivan and his sidekick Michael Homula, and their anything-goes, slimeball recruiting methods, all done up nice and pretty with a case study and many self-congratulatory pats on the back.

This week, The Wall Street Journal features the latest in rip-roaring, on-the-edge recruiting stories in Snack Vendor — or Undercover Job Recruiter? To Fill That Open Position, These Guys Go to Extremes; Stalking on the Ski Slopes.

Look out, boys and girls, these headhunters are exciting, daring, and they watch a lot of 007 movies. Some are ready to hang upside down from a tree like a monkey when you pass by. Why else would the esteemed Journal do a story about them? Headhunting is actually pretty boring, if you do it right. (Employers, listen up: Beware lest you retain a headhunter who turns you into the horse’s ass in the rear-view mirror.)

Let’s see what we’ve got here… and please post your own stories if you can beat these from the Journal… Think you know how to judge a headhunter?

One headhunter poses as a food-truck guy to spy on top talent at nearby companies. Another stalks an exec into the Montana wilderness to pitch a job while the guy’s fishing. Then there’s the headhunter who pays off a janitor to get a CEO’s phone number — for the phone in the exec’s private john. (“Uh, how would you like to talk about a new job? Or should I wait while you tug on the Charmin’?”) How about the headhunter who sits for a day-long shoe-shine, after he learns where his quarry gets his shoes polished, so they can “bump into” one another? The recruiter who poses as a waiter, approaches the candidate in a restaurant, and slips him a note offering $500 if he’ll talk?

Had enough? Wait — there are headhunters who will huff along behind you on mountain-biking trails (“Fancy meeting you here!”) and play ski patrol on the slopes, waiting for you to fall (“Can I help you get up?”)

Then there are headhunters who are boring, respected, respectful… and when they leave a message, execs return their calls.

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How to beat the age objection

A popular article on the web site is Too Old to Rock & Roll? People naturally worry that as they get older, employers will discount them or flat-out discriminate against them.

Yah, poor judgment knows no bounds. I have another point of view on age and job interviews. A reader recently  asked:

I have an interview with a large company. I possess all of the qualifications asked for and have used some of your techniques to bypass HR and contact the hiring manager. It worked. I have been out of work for over a year and as I prepare for the interview, my biggest concern will be age. As soon as I walk in they are going to know that I am in my 50’s (mid-50’s, actually). How do I confidently address the age issue? Do I even bring it up? What if I sense that this is the only thing holding them back? I don’t want to draw attention to it, but I also don’t want to lose a potential offer because of it.

You’ve heard it said that “whoever controls the agenda, controls the meeting.” Well, employers notoriously control job interviews. So, change that. Tell ’em what they need to hear. Modify the agenda to one that may jolt the interviewer out of mindless worry about your age — and take control of your job interviews.

Try The New Interview. Quickly shift the discussion to how you’re going to improve the company’s bottom line. (Of course, you should not be pushy or presumptuous.) The interviewer will forget your age. Employers think first about profit. Help the interviewer think about it more.

Decide for yourself the best way to do this, but ask the interviewer — who I hope is the hiring manager, or why are you wasting your time? — (the sooner the better) to outline the problems and challenges they want the person they hire to tackle. “What’s the realistic impact you want to see to your bottom line by filling this position?”

If they tell, then it’s up to you to outline how you will achieve the objective. (This is the hard part. You must be ready. If you’re not, you have no business in the interview.) Show some respect: ask permission to outline your plan. Use the white board or a piece of paper. Engage the manager in the discussion, as though you’re already on board and getting your boss’s input and buy-in for your plan.
That gets their minds off your age like nothing else I know: Profit.

Can you pull that off?

Meet your competition, Stupid

Recently we talked about how companies mouth the words, People are our most important asset!, while feeding  assets into the hamburger grinder. Your comments have made me more aware of articles on related topics, and I’d like to share a couple of good ones. One will make you grind a fist even harder into your palm, and the other will make you take stock of the supplies you’ve laid into your career bomb shelter.

Over at Networkworld, a guy who’s recently been through the grinder — Ron Nutter — shares 20 Ways to Survive A Layoff. I like the article’s fresh-out-of-the-trench smell. Nutter doesn’t pull punches, and he sticks to what matters. There’s no career-expert drivel here. Nutter shows that getting fired is a state of mind — not the end of your life.

Computerworld‘s Mary K. Pratt delivers Five Ways to Drive Your Best Workers Out the Door (as if you couldn’t give her 20 more), and — like Nutter — nails the bigger point in her article’s subtitle: Employees don’t quit the job; they quit you.

The problem of corporate productivity is lost behind corporate PR about “our people.” The solution to being out of work is hidden by news stories about the pain of unemployment. Whether they’re employed in smelly corporate trenches or busy climbing back up out of the smelly trench of unemployment, people in America stand up to downsizing and they move on because Yankee ingenuity kicks in and reveals we’re all built to survive.

If only employers could find and harness that talent for survival and put it to profitable use rather than stupidly drive people away, only to watch them re-surface working for a competitor, we could all get on with driving our economy a little bit faster and a lot more smartly.

It’s the people, Stupid. Whether you dump them, lose them, or ignore them — they clean themselves off, find the next place to plant their foot, survive, and thrive. They are the seeds of new businesses, new companies, and new innovations.

Sorry to sound like a rah-rah American, but my money is on the individual with a brain, an aspiration, a hunger, and a need to pay the bills and feed the family. Keep dumping on them, but they’ll come back every time. Meet your competition, Stupid.