Oops! There goes another one!

The foreman at a lumber mill is giving a tour to the Human Resources manager. He hears a voice over the din of all the machinery. “Ouch!” Concerned that the new, accelerated production schedule is resulting in accidents, they follow the sound to a worker running a huge saw that slices through trees like bars of butter. “What’s the matter? Why’d you cry ouch?” asks the foreman. “Well,” says the saw operator. “I was trying to put more logs through the saw faster, like we were told, and I just stuck my arm out like this, and… Whoa! I’ll be darned! There goes the other one!” The foreman turns to the HR manager: “Well, that does it. You were right. There goes another one. We need to post these jobs on CareerBuilder long before we need to fill them.”

Once again, a lousy economy is thrusting people into a job market where the talent is running scared. People will snatch up jobs, any jobs, to pay the mortgage.

I try to teach people the importance of pursuing the right job, not just a paycheck. But I always qualify that, because I certainly understand that putting food on the table and paying the rent may be a good reason — maybe the only reason — to take a job, any job. But even in dire circumstances, it’s important to step back and consider the consequences of such short-term thinking and decision making. The trouble is, business is leading the way.

Two articles in a recent edition of Computerworld highlight the problem. In Software Holding Back Spread of Multicore Chips, we learn that new computer microprocessors with four “cores” (translation: four brains) are now shipping to companies that want the extra processing power. But customers and analysts alike complain that there’s no software that takes advantage of this massive leap in computer hardware. Oops. Read more

Armchair Recruiting: Hiring what comes along

Headhunting firms routinely claim they will bring the best candidates to their clients. Employers like to say that people are their most important asset, and they hire only the best.

It’s a load of crap. Most headhunters and employers recruit and hire from what comes along. They not only don’t recruit who is the best in the field; they don’t know who is best because they don’t often seek them out. They don’t make it their business. Hiring managers who fail to recognize this risk the long-term success of their operations, and the people they hire risk their careers.

In Headhunters, Personnel Jockeys & Monkeys I wrote about companies that don’t want headhunters sending them job candidates whose resumes are already on the job boards. It seems the personnel jockeys at these companies are already busy “recruiting” from the boards (that is, scanning and sorting resumes), so why should these companies pay for more of the same?

A couple of headhunters responded to the aforementioned posting, saying that they’ll take their candidates anywhere they can find them. This sharpens the distinction between active headhunters and passive headhunters. It also points out the enormous quality gaffe employers themselves make when recruiting. They are not hiring the best people for the job.

The distinction is sharp and it reveals a fundamental and profound difference in the quality of recruiting and hiring practices among headhunters and employers.

You can identify, recruit and hire the people you want by going out into the world with a set of criteria and tracking down the best people in your industry. You’ll encounter a few surprises and meet interesting people. You’ll become part of their network. A good network is a circle of friends, and those new friends will be your source for future searches, too. You’ll also learn a lot about the industry and profession you recruit for, and that makes you a better and more credible headhunter.

Or, you can sit at a desk and take what comes along. But don’t tell me you’re headhunting. You’re not a headhunter. You’re passive, like the employer’s HR department that does the same. And the quality gaffe you’re making is that you have settled — you have not hunted, found or recruited. You’ve made a forced choice. Read more

Headhunters, Personnel Jockeys & Monkeys

Welcome to the monkeyhouse.
When the economy is tight, the marginal members of the headhunting business get very nervous because the low-hanging fruit disappears. They actually have to work to make a living. Meanwhile, the best headhunters are busy with challenging assignments because The Truth About Speeding Trains is that while they may slow down a bit for a curve, they don’t stop. These companies keep hiring, but carefully.

You’ve probably heard me say that 95% of HR workers aren’t worth spit. And I usually put that in context by adding that 95% of headhunters aren’t worth spit, either. But look at the bright side. 5% of HR workers and 5% of headhunters have no competition.

Many “headhunters” don’t know how to find new clients, and they sure don’t know how to find the best candidates. They pick the low-hanging fruit and call it a job. Let’s take a look at what this means, and how it affects you.

Don’t give us low-hanging fruit.
A headhunter recently wrote to me, complaining that her corporate clients don’t want her to submit resumes of people whose resumes are already plastered all over the job boards.

We have seen a couple of clients indicate that they do not want to see resumes of candidates who have been sourced on the popular job boards (even if they have not sourced the candidate themselves). [“Sourced” means “found.”] We always clear the candidate on the client company to determine if they have been contacted or applied to the company. We would never submit a candidate who has indicated contact with a client company.

Translation: We find resumes on Internet job boards and we send them to companies, hoping to get an interview, a hire, and a fee. Read more

How much can you afford?

Many years ago I worked for a small, scrappy, successful company that cut the floor out from under its competition every day. No one could touch us — not on value, and not on price. But we always turned a very nice profit. Our competitors could never figure out how we did it. It’s a lesson in shrewd customer relations and sales.

When a sales rep would moan to the company president (and founder) that a prospect could not afford our price, his answer was always the same. “Sure they can afford it. Just lower the price.”

This drove new sales reps to distraction because they were not permitted to sell at a loss. “But we’ll lose money!

“No we won’t. Take something out of the product to reflect the drop in price. Then show the customer which part of our great products and services she’d have to forego to save a few measley dollars.

Ask the prospect how much they can afford. How much do they want to spend? Lower the price if you have to. Remove features from the product or service to make the product reflect the price. (Or, offer a different product that costs less.) But never walk away from the deal. Always let the customer spend what the customer says she wants to spend. Your job is to sell the benefits of the product, and to help the prospect realize she will get what she pays for. (And, of course, be ready to deliver everything she needs if she is willing to pay for it.)

At that little company (which became a very big company through acquisitions), the most valued sales skill was knowing how to give customers what they asked for, and then to show them the benefits of buying greater value. In other words, how to get lots more value in exchange for spending just a bit more money.

My good buddy Bob Lewis discusses this in another context in his Keep the Joint Running newsletter. Never say no, even when you can’t say yes, suggests Bob. “Your alternative to yes and no is, as always, “here’s what it will take.” You can get from here to there, but not for free. Some alternatives will require investment; all will have risks attached.”

When a manager suggests a job offer at salary $X, you can tell him you’d accept it, “if what you’ve described as the job is all you want me to do for you.” When the manager gives you a quizzical look, offer more. “Well, I could do the job you want. But I could do a lot more. For example, I can show you how I believe I could increase your departmental profitability by 5%-10%. I’d expect a higher salary for that, but that’s up to you.” (That’s at the heart of The most important question in an interview.)

What someone can afford is always a function of how much they get for their dollar.

How many employees is one customer worth?

Company CEO’s love to say, “People are our most important asset!” Uh, except when it comes to investors. Then the CEO proclaims, “Customers are our most important asset!”

So, which is it? Rob Preston asks in InformationWeek, Should Your People Come Before Your Customers? He lends his own logic and analysis, and his article is well worth reading, but I’ll tell you how I look at it.

  • What’s your company’s product?
  • Who builds/creates it?
  • Who improves it and adds value to it as the market becomes more competitive?
  • Who pushes it through the sales-and-distribution pipeline to generate revenue?
  • Who picks your company back up when it falls down?

Employees, of course.

Now, we must also ask, who forks over money (aka, revenue) to your company? Customers, of course.

Ah, but who finds, gets, brings, keeps customers?

Obviously, we need both to run a successful business. Since companies have limited resources, they must decide where to deploy those resources. They must decide whether to be more employee-centric, or more customer-centric.

Now, how many employees is one customer worth? And, which would you rather have tomorrow — a great employee, or a great customer?

My vote is easy. I go with the employee, because one employee can bring me many customers. Customers don’t bring me good employees, and good employees are hard to find. Am I nuts?

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.

: :

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 hired

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