Why un-do your resume? 25 cats.

In the June  25, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader wants yet another look at the resume.

Question

resumeI think you once wrote that your resume can’t defend you, because if the answer is no, you’re not there to defend yourself or explain why you still deserve an interview. I get that, but I still need to use a resume. I like how you turn a resume on its head in Resume Blasphemy, so it seems you’re not entirely opposed to resumes as long as they deliver a different kind of message. Since I’m going to use a resume anyway, got any other interesting ideas about what I could do to make it more alluring?

Nick’s Reply

Sheesh. You want to make your resume alluring? Like fast food, a resume isn’t very alluring! Why not just list your employers, jobs, titles and what you did? Keep it simple. But I think I see where you’re going, so maybe we can have some fun with this.

I’m forever telling people to skip the resume when they’re looking for a new job. And I realize some think this is kooky advice, or that it must be a headhunter’s hyperbole. Actually, my advice is intended to make you think about how to express your value in terms that make dollar signs appear in an employer’s eyes. But there’s another view of what a resume should do: make your story memorable.

The trouble with a fast-food resume

Everyone knows resumes are processed by applicant tracking systems that check your words against enormous databases. So you try to use keywords that might make those databases yield job interviews. But what you may not realize is that few jobs are actually filled that way. You’ve been suckered by Indeed’s, and LinkedIn’s, and ZipRecruiter’s marketing into feeding fast food to their algorithms.

So if you really want to experiment, try some marketing of your own. Here’s an example that might get you thinking about how a resume can be something else — if that’s what you want. Remember, we’re exploring ideas, not trying to come up with a perfect solution.

Un-do your story

My good buddy, marketing guru Mark Levy, tells about visiting a Quiznos sandwich shop in How You Tell A Brand Story Matters. Waiting in line, he read an advertising placard that told “The Quiznos Story.” This sign, of course, is Quiznos’ resume. In his article Levy rips that sign to shreds, while I’ll bet millions of other Quiznos visitors didn’t give it a second thought.

And that’s Levy’s point exactly. The sign turned the story of Quiznos into a cheesy clone of virtually any dish on the menu at Chipotle or Applebee’s, or any of a number of high-volume themed eateries that produce overly cheesy, nondescript chow. It’s all the same.

Levy writes:

“I felt duped. Here I was excited to learn what separated a brand I enjoy from the rest of the pack, and what I was fed was a surface story that… could have been trumpeted by any competitor.”

While I preach un-doing your resume to turn it into a story of how you’ll produce profit for an employer, Levy is more interested in what’s iconic and memorable about you. After all, that’s what good marketing is. I can just imagine what he thinks of resumes he receives himself. Levy’s criticism tears into all banal marketing — including the marketing that comprises your professional resume or your LinkedIn profile.

A resume that makes a dent

What can we learn from Levy’s critique? Is your resume larded with the kind of fast-food twaddle that’s on Quiznos’ sign?

“For a sub shop to say it believes in great-tasting food, consisting of freshly-sliced quality ingredients, is like a automobile manufacturer saying it believes in building cars that drive forwards and backwards. Or, a computer maker bragging about how its machines can connect to the internet.”

Is that what your resume sounds like? I’ll bet you it is. And I’ll bet, like the Quiznos sign, it’s totally forgettable.

“The story Quiznos told may be true, but it wasn’t told in a way that would make a dent in anyone’s consciousness… I’m guessing few customers have read that sign fully or remember what it said if they did.”

And that’s why you come off tasting like just another bag of fast food when you apply for a job with a resume. Oh, the keywords probably match up just fine, along with those in a million other resumes. But eventually the hiring manager who’s going to interview you has to read that thing — and you cannot tell a compelling story in your own resume if you’re using the keywords you found in some advice column about “what employers are looking for.”

25 hungry cats

Levy says your story must include “a context… an insight… a promise… a substantiation… a frank detail… an unexpected bit of color.”

Are all those ingredients in your resume? Or is your story just more bland fast food?

Nothing good can come of this column unless you click to one more page on Mark Levy’s website. Try this resume test. Please read Levy’s follow-up article about 25 hungry cats: The Best Brand Story Is Often Informal.

If you’re going to un-do your resume and re-do it as your “marketing piece,” is your story this unexpected and iconic? Sometimes you have to leave the signs and resumes behind, and tell a story that makes a dent.

What’s on your resume? What do you think of Mark Levy’s example about the 25 cats? If you’re going to do something clever, or creative, or more meaningful with your resume, what is it? Or, should we just leave resumes alone?

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Inside a counter-offer disaster

In the June  18, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader wonders whether it’s ever smart to make or accept a counter-offer.

Question

counter-offerAfter I accepted a new job at a better company, my employer brought me in for a high-level meeting with management and made a counter-offer to get me to stay. I politely turned them down, even though the money was higher, because as I said, the new company is a better place to work. As a manager myself, I’ve never made a counter-offer to a departing employee. My view is, if they want to go, they should go. Am I wrong?

Nick’s Reply

I think you’re right. It’s a very rare situation where a counter-offer is made and accepted and the outcome is good.

Counter-offers are almost always made and accepted out of fear. An employer fears an empty position. An employee fears the next unknown job. But counter-offers almost never resolve the underlying reasons for why the worker looked elsewhere for a job, simply because more money doesn’t satisfy other hungers — which linger until satisfied.

A counter-offer delays the inevitable

Headhunters routinely advise candidates who receive counter-offers from their current employers to turn them down. Some keep a sheet with a list of reasons to reject counter-offers handy. It’s of course self-serving — why would you want a candidate you’re about to place for a hefty fee to stay at their old job?

But in almost all situations, counter-offers are a big mistake for both the employee and the employer. Here’s why:

At the point where a candidate accepts a job offer, the myriad factors that led them to consider a new job coalesce to reveal just how potent the desire for change really is. Relying on a counter-offer to squelch all those factors just spawns other problems, or delays the inevitable until it reaches crisis proportions.

Virtually every case I’ve seen where a counter-offer was accepted still resulted in a parting of ways — it was merely delayed. And that’s why in most cases employers should never make counter-offers. The cat is out of the bag. Let the employee go.

There is no better lesson about counter-offers than the very-high profile story of Robert Kelly, CEO of Bank of New York Mellon, that was reported by Fortune magazine in 2011. It’s a case study that everyone should read.

Wishful thinking breeds mistakes

A person can work happily at a job for years before feeling the urge to move on. But as soon as they realize “it’s no longer working out,” the job is a bad match because something’s changed. There may be no fault in that scenario, as long as the match is broken up before the misery begins.

I often counsel overly eager job seekers that they should be very careful what job they take next, because the reason they’re job hunting is probably because they took the wrong job last time. This goes double for employers.

In BNY’s case, it seems clear Kelly was a bad match from the start. The fault seems to rest clearly on BNY’s board of directors, whose wishful thinking led to a bad hire and to ongoing agonies.

The article describes BNY as “a highly conservative, old-line institution that specializes in mundane, grind-it-out businesses and prizes tradition, self-effacement, and loyalty.” In 2006 the board nonetheless hired Kelly, a CEO with a huge ego who craved publicity, courted controversy, and relentlessly pursued “the next new thing — a grander job, more money, and more excitement.”

Kelly lacked the conservative nature that marked BNY’s reputation, but the board “decided that Kelly was just the change agent it needed to revive the fabled institution.”

Right there the board blew it on the match: Change was the last thing the board really wanted. And his urge for change drove Kelly away from the board.

A counter-offer is a mistake

CEO Kelly secretly pursued a bigger job with the bigger Bank of America. When he finally disclosed his intentions, the board of BNY resigned itself to announcing his departure. But BofA soured on Kelly and never made an offer. The premature news about hiring him turned into a public relations disaster for all involved.

According to Fortune, burned and burned out from pursuing BofA, Kelly returned to the BNY board with his tail between his legs and begged to keep his job — just moments before the board was to announce his replacement. You’d think BNY would have sent him packing, but Kelly pleaded and BNY’s board rationalized.

The board should have considered all the reasons they were already dissatisfied with Kelly; all the disconnects between his style and their corporate mission. An overpaid spendthrift wasn’t the right leader for the bank Alexander Hamilton founded on frugality in 1784.

But they took Kelly back — “not wanting to disrupt the bank’s operations and management, and hoping to avoid a potentially messy succession.” Translation: BNY’s board was scared. They made him a lavish counter-offer even though the guy was on the street with nowhere to go. The board renewed its vows for a bad marriage.

Never take a counter-offer*

The BNY board members weren’t the only foolish party in this story. Kelly’s next two years were marked by the board’s growing suspicions, and by the dearth of loyalty between them. Kelly should have rejected the rich counter-offer the BNY board made, because the factors that drove him away lingered.

BNY feared change. Kelly was terrified of being left without a job. But the counter-offer deal did not resolve the underlying problems between them. The rapprochement didn’t last. In the end, the board gave Kelly such a boot that the story became an expose in Fortune magazine. Then the board replaced him with the kind of CEO that BNY should have promoted to begin with — a lifer whose style and values matched the company’s.

Even if you part on good terms, remember that the decision to part company probably stems from a complex tangle of factors that cannot be so easily cut with a counter-offer.

* I can think of only one case where a counter-offer turned out very well for both the employer and employee. Maybe you’ll get lucky!

Have you ever made a counter-offer to keep one of your employees who already had both feet out the door? Have you ever accepted a counter-offer yourself? Did the counter-offer change any factors that triggered the departure?

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Should you kill the Buddha?

In the June  11, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader questions using a personal marketing plan and the power of an executive coach.

Question

executive coach

I hired an executive coach with whom I’ve spent many hours developing a personal “strategic marketing plan.” But I have failed to meet the deadlines for some of the objectives we came up with. So, I have cut off working with this coach. I am not so quick to blame the coach. It may be a matter of my own preparedness. I’ve learned a lot, but I wonder now if this personal strategic marketing plan has not taken over my daily calendar and my life. Have I made a misguided plan, or am I just not an adequate strategist? What is your view on coaches and this general approach to planning — written goal, objectives, strategies, tactics?

Nick’s Reply

It can be useful to develop a detailed plan for yourself, and it is certainly a lot of work if you pursue it with care. I believe in careful thought, preparation and planning in life. But when I hear, well, marketing phrases like “personal strategic marketing plan,” I cringe.

Coaches & plans

There are good coaches out there who can help you, but when you hire any kind of coach — a career coach, a psychological therapist, or even an accountant (they’re all coaches of a sort) — you’re subjecting yourself to the coach’s philosophy. That means you must judge the fit. If your philosophies don’t mesh well, you could be headed for serious trouble.

However, you may also be falling for a marketing pitch yourself, and for a pricey bundle of hoopla that’s more fluff than substance. (There is an ugly under-belly to the coaching industry that you should be aware of: “Executive Career Management” scams.)

Assuming it stems from a legit coaching program, any detailed plan will nonetheless encounter obstacles, and some of them can be fatal. On the other hand, some important and satisfying milestones can be achieved along the way. But must a person achieve every milestone defined in a plan? Further, does failure to meet the plan’s deadlines suggest the person is doing something wrong?

Planning & living

This is where I part company with dogmatic coaches who impose rigorous planning and schedules on their clients. Life can turn into a series of bets on the plan. Rather than being instructive, the inevitable failures can be debilitating. Worse, as you note, this planning process can become a lifestyle in itself and distract you from real life. This can make your plan an albatross.

There is a line in a John Lennon song (though he may have borrowed it from cartoonist Allen Saunders): “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

I try to remind myself that at any moment, in any day, I may have to drop my plans, because something more compelling confronts me and I have to deal with it — like it or not.

I think planning is a good thing because, as you point out, you can learn a lot from the process. But planning is an idea. It’s not real life.

Coping vs. planning

In a short, potent book called Management of the Absurd, Richard Farson suggests that there is no such thing as planning — only coping. He says that coping is far more important a skill than planning. Why? Because the world keeps coming at us in unexpected ways. Planning implies controlling the world around us. Coping — to Farson and to me — implies changing ourselves to effectively meet the challenges of what the world throws at us.

The planner can be left destroyed by the unexpected. But the coper can ride any wave, to one extent or another, and survive or even flourish.

Plan as best you can, but be ready to cope with all the wonder, pain, disaster, and opportunity that life throws at you. That’s where life is — on the edge of change, in the way we deal with everything we encounter, and in the ways it changes us.

Kill the Buddha

Please don’t surmise that I believe coaching or getting coached is a bad thing. But you hired the coach, and only you can fire the coach. The coach might have been wonderful, and now it may be time to stop working together. It may be time for you to cope with your coach.

Remember what the guru told the pilgrim who was searching for the Buddha. The pilgrim wanted to know, “When I find the Buddha, what should I ask him?”

The guru replied, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

Hmmm. The bookend to John Lennon’s quote may be the title of a (very good) Van Morrison album: No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. Could it be that at the end of every path you choose, the best answers must come from within yourself? Should you kill the Buddha? Don’t ask me.

Have you used an executive or career coach? What was your experience? What advice would you give this reader — and others — about coaching services? Do you believe in planning, or in coping?

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How down-hiring destroys companies

In the May 21, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader worries down-hiring is an irreversible catastrophe.

Question

down-hiringI joined my company six years ago mainly because every manager and employee I met impressed me. For the first couple of years, we were wildly successful. I’m convinced it was because of the people. As a manager, I am careful to hire only people who match that caliber. But things changed. A mediocre vice president was hired who brought in two managers who were not technically competent. They in turn hired weak staff. Customers started complaining.

Now my team and I spend most of our time putting out fires. Recently the first two people I hired quit in disgust. It’s hard to keep others who report to me motivated. I was asked to do a presentation to our board of directors and I was blunt with them. Two weeks later I was offered the job of CEO. I’m not sure I want it. Is the damage reversible or should I move on?

Nick’s Reply

Strong managers work to build the success of a business by hiring the best people. Insecure managers struggle to preserve their positions in the pecking order by “down-hiring.” That is, they hire weak employees who will not threaten their status.

A people hire A people, but B people will hire C people. When enough B and C people fill critical roles, A people leave. That VP you mentioned — and the weak managers she hired — are bringing down your company because its best people won’t tolerate it.

Like a virus, one B person can devastate your entire organization. I think you need to decide whether you can turn the company’s management team and staff around. That’s a tall order.

Rebuilding by hiring and firing

Think about the critical path: While you can try to purge your company of B and C people, the real challenge is keeping A people focused on hiring more A people.

Companies routinely delegate the hiring process downward to managers and staff who have progressively less skin in the game. If you become CEO, you need to take complete control of hiring until you have re-set the standard. You need to eliminate every B and C manager and replace them with A managers — then ride them to re-build the organization. (Eliminate might mean mentoring and training B’s and C’s into A’s, but that depends on the resources at your disposal and the time frame in which you must pull this off.)

Is this possible and worth attempting? I can’t tell you that. You have to make the judgment. I agree that you need to think hard about accepting the CEO role. I’ll try to offer you some thoughts that might be helpful, with the disclaimer that I am not a management expert. My suggestions are based on what I’ve seen and heard in many years of helping companies hire. I expect lively debate from readers about this Q&A!

Never down-hire

Always try to hire people better than yourself, and reward your managers for doing the same.

Your first problem may be in your human resources department. HR often fails to ensure managers are up-hiring. It lets managers down-hire. That’s no strategy for any company. HR’s job is to up the ante and to raise the standards of hiring.

Many HR departments routinely reject what they term “over-qualified” job candidates, fearing these folks will become quickly dissatisfied with the job and the pay and quit when something better comes along.

This is corporate suicide. Turning away “over-qualified” job applicants is a tacit admission that a company is already infected with B managers who don’t know how to profitably apply the extra skills that the most advanced job candidates offer. Worse, it reveals that a company is not a learning organization — it does not advance itself by adding and developing better talent.

A company’s response to “over-qualified” candidates should be glee. It should find the money and tweak the job so the company can benefit from the extraordinary good luck it has to hire extraordinarily qualified talent.

Down-hiring results in more B and C people in the ranks. The objective must always be the opposite.

Judge managers on the quality of their hires

If managers can’t find, hire and retain A people, fire the managers. (Don’t blame HR alone. It’s up to managers to manage hiring. HR is only a tool.)

You can tell quickly which managers are A people: They build teams filled with A people who meet challenges and deadlines with smiles on their faces. (See Talent Crisis: Managers who don’t recruit.) There’s no serious dissent among them because they all respect one another, their work, and their bosses.

Perhaps most obvious: Your best managers are not afraid to hire people who are smarter or more talented than themselves. They manage talent; they are not threatened by it.

Sever the rotting B manager, or lose the whole body. In this case, the head can be grown back if you have one A person who can take control.

Reward performance quickly

As you’ve seen in your company, when you let B people hire C people, your A people will leave. A people don’t stick around B or C companies. That’s the disaster of down-hiring.

When you bring an A person on board, you must reward them. The most effective reward you can give an A person is more A people to work with. (You’re the best example. The presence of A people inspired you to join up.) The next important reward is authority, which an A person will use to hire more A people and to weed out B and C people.

But don’t forget that another critical reward is money. A people can always get more money, but will they get it from you, or from a competitor? Feed your A people, and they will build an A company to ensure your success along with their own. (See Why employers should make higher job offers. My HR buddy Suzanne Lucas agrees.)

Can you fix it?

It’s a good sign that your board listened to the blunt truth you shared and trusts you to run the company. You need to make sure the board will back that up and fully support you. I’d ask to meet with a few of the key board members individually. Meet each for a working breakfast. Satisfy yourself that this request to turn the company around is real. Then have similar meetings with your best A managers and A employees. Ask for their judgments, advice and support. Only then would I make the decision you face.

Do I think up-hiring can fix a catastrophe caused in part by down-hiring? It matters only what you and your prospective new team think. I wish you the best.

Is my taxonomy of A, B and C people legitimate? Are B and C people really the problem this prospective CEO faces? Do you think it’s possible to turn this company around?

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