The 4 Questions™: Get a job with a mini-business plan

The 4 Questions™: Get a job with a mini-business plan

How to Get A Job Workshop

In the previous installment of this special How to Get A Job series we discussed how to get the inside track on the job you want. This requires connecting with the hiring manager’s circle of friends — people who can educate you and introduce you for a substantive, 10-15 minute talk with the manager. Now you need a mini-business plan using The 4 Questions™. — Nick

Make a mini-business plan: The 4 Questions™

So, what do you do in that brief talk with the manager? (This also works in a regular job interview, if you can take control.)

Outline your business plan for the job

The 4 Questions

Your objective must be to show the hiring manager you are worth interviewing at length. You much show (hint?) that you have a plan to do the job. It really is a mini-business plan. Your contacts to this point should have prepared you to demonstrate you’re there to talk more about the work than about yourself. Your brief talk must reveal that you can answer YES to what I call The 4 Questions™. You must leave the manager wanting more.

Please note that in the next section I’m giving you way more suggestions than would ever fit into a 15-minute talk! In fact, this should be more than enough to also structure a complete job interview later. (Some of the suggestions are realistic only for a full interview.) Choose what you think will work best for you — for the preliminary brief chat or the interview — then bend and shape it to suit your needs.

The 4 Questions™

In my experience, unless someone works out at least partial answers to The 4 Questions in advance, they have no business in a chat or in a job interview with a hiring manager. At least this much is necessary to make you stand out and to make you worth talking with.

1. Do I understand what the work is?
You should be prepared to discuss one or two problems and challenges the manager (or company) is facing. This is what you’ve gleaned from your new contacts! Consider it the minimum ante for your encounter. Even if your understanding is not very deep, you can diplomatically ask the manager what they’d expect a new hire to tackle, fix, improve, make better or otherwise bring to the team.

Another way to address this is to start a dialogue about what are the deliverables the manager expects. In other words, if you were hired, what would you plan to get done in the 1st month on the job, the 3rd month, the 6th 12th, 18th month, and at 2 years?

2. Can I do the work?
Your discussions with the people that got you into this brief talk should have prepared you for this question. Before your talk with the manager, you should have examined your enormous quiver of skills and abilities — but do not overwhelm the manager with your entire quiver! From these, you must thoughtfully select just a few specific “arrows” and demonstrate how you would use them to do the work the manager needs done. (Do not go on about all your “arrows!”) Briefly discuss these and ask the manager for feedback.

3. Can I do the work the way the company wants it done?
This is a matter of work ethic and style. Again, your preparatory discussions should have told you a lot about the company’s and manager’s approach to work. You should be able to say something about how you will fit into the culture (whatever that word really means!). There’s nothing wrong with asking the manager what qualities other successful employees share, and how they work together as a team. (A friend of mine asks Question 3 this way: Can you park your bike pointing the way everyone else does?)

4. Can I do the work profitably?
“Profit” can mean many things: More money, higher customer satisfaction, lower costs, higher revenues, more efficiency, and so on. What we’re really getting at is, will you deliver more than you cost? Can you estimate the added value you can bring to the job?

There is of course no way to state a “correct” number, simply because you don’t have all the information you need to make this estimate!  (Few managers could do this for their own jobs!) The secret to Question 4 is that it lends itself to a discussion. Ask the manager how the job contributes — or could contribute — directly to the department’s or company’s profits or success. Job candidates I’ve coached have wowed managers who have never encountered an applicant who so clearly shows they’ve thought hard about the bottom line — as much as they’re thinking about getting a job! Addressing this question is not about having a “right” answer. It’s about being able to “show your work” and defend your approach and conclusions. It’s about you and the manager rolling up your sleeves to figure this out.

The 4 Questions™ break the script

Perhaps the most fatal flaw about job interviews is that they’re devoid of back-and-forth about the work. I find that when a candidate helps a manager talk about the work that needs to be done, job interviews are dramatically more productive. As we discussed in the last column, we’re breaking the hiring script and creating an edge. The candidate that is prepared to talk shop stands apart.

If you suspect that answering The 4 Questions is also a good script for a full job interview, you’re absolutely right. In fact, some of what I suggest in the four questions above works better in a job interview than in the brief chat with the manager. Turn your job interview into a demonstration! I call this doing the job to win the job.

Never do this presumptuously. Ask the hiring manager (Never attempt this with HR!) for permission to present a mini-business plan for how you would approach the job if you were hired. Then pull out a tablet or ask the manager’s permission to go up to the whiteboard to draw an outline.

Your mini-business plan for the job interview

Lay out your plan. Keep it brief! I think it’s far better to actually sketch this out than to merely talk about it. Clearly, this is based on The 4 Questions, too.

  1. You understand the job. In just 3 or 4 bullet points, briefly outline your understanding of the work to be done: What are the outcomes (goals or deliverables) the manager wants? Coax the manager to help you get it right!
  2. You know how to do the work… List the tasks necessary to achieve the desired outcomes. This is your map, or plan, for doing the job. Then back it up. Explain how you’ll apply 3 or 4 of your specific skills appropriately. (Work this out well in advance!)
  3. …the way the manager wants it done. Query the manager about how the team’s style and culture contributes to (or interferes with!) getting the work done. This is a discussion that can give you insight on how to handle the rest of your interview!
  4. You can do the job profitably. This is the fun and risky part! Draw a line beneath your presentation so far, and write a number in dollars — your estimate of what you think you can contribute to the bottom line. (You must do your estimate in advance.) The number almost doesn’t matter! Explaining how you arrived at it, and the ensuing discussion, is what matters! It shows a smart manager that you’re not there just for a paycheck. You’re thinking about the company’s bigger picture, and you have at least attempted to tackle the bottom line.

I poll managers about how they’d respond to a job candidate who showed up with a mini-business plan like this. The answer is always the same: “Are you kidding? I’d be shocked and stunned and ready to talk!”

This works only if you choose targets carefully!

Remember our discussion about why there aren’t 400 jobs out there for you? There is no way you could perform like this for 400, or 100, or even 10 jobs! You must choose your target employers, managers and jobs with care. As you work out what you want to say to a manager, whether for a short get-to-know-you chat or for a real job interview, I think you will grasp why I say If you can’t pull this off, you have no business meeting with a busy manager!

What makes you a truly worthy job candidate? How would you apply The 4 Questions to get in the door and stand out in an interview? What is the minimum ante — or preparation — to warrant a meeting with a hiring manager? Does it seem to you that most job interviews fail to yield offers because the candidate isn’t ready “to do the job in the interview?” (Ah, that’s a loaded question!)

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Success Story: I did the job to win the job

Success Story: I did the job to win the job

In the April 21, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader shares a success story. How did he win the job?

Question (actually a success story)

I’ve been following you and your advice since about 1999, and it has helped me numerous times to land jobs. I’d like to share an Ask The Headhunter success story.

success storyI’d been pursuing a technology sales position for a year in 2018-2019 with a former co-worker of mine who is now a manager. We worked together at another company a decade ago, covering different lines of business, so we knew each other well. Finally, last summer he had an opening, said to apply, then we’d talk. He suggested we speak by phone since we knew each other well; no need for me to drive 45 minutes across town.

I suggested we meet in person instead. I reserved a conference room at a co-working space with a huge whiteboard. I re-read your book, Ask The Headhunter: Reinventing The Interview to Win the Job [out of print] and a couple of your Answer Kits once again (Fearless Job Hunting and How Can I Change Careers?), and I mapped out how I was going to succeed at this job —  by “doing the job” in the interview.

I presented my approach to how I would do the job “by the book” and when I got done, the manager was taking pictures of the whiteboard to capture my plan. He offered me the position right there, provided a second interview with his manager went well. It did, and I’ve been with them for 6 months now. It is going well.

This story is a long way of saying thank you again for making my career searches so successful. You’ve been a fantastic “internet mentor” to me and many other people, and you have have done a great service to help people understand how the whole job search process works.

The employment process would be so much more efficient if candidates and hiring managers used your approach. It does take effort and time to do it your way, but it is much more rewarding and predictable than applying for a thousand jobs online.

Please feel free to publish my success story and share it with the ATH community. I’d be honored. If it gives just one person hope and motivation in these challenging times, I’m glad to help.

When family and friends are out of work or looking to switch, I tell them to go to you to learn the facts of job hunting. There’s no better way.

Keep well and keep doing what you are doing.

John Mauro

Nick’s Reply

John, your success story made my day! I think you absolutely did the right thing by insisting on an in-person interview so you could fully show how you’d do the job — something that required a good deal of preparation. Most job applicants try to make their interviews easier, not harder. They’re making a huge mistake.You literally put yourself to work in your interview. Because few managers know how to ask, it’s up to savvy job hunters to prove they can do the work.

What’s behind the success story

The outcome of your meeting says it all: An on-the-spot offer is evidence that your extra effort was worth it, even with the contingency of a follow-up interview with the next-level manager.

John won his new job by raising the standard of interviewing. What did John do?

  • Selected a company he really wanted to work for and studied it.
  • Selected a manager who knows his skills. (John could have spent the year educating and cultivating a manager he didn’t already know.)
  • Did not rely on job-board postings.
  • Did his homework and figured out what problems he could solve for the manager.
  • Avoided a phone interview of low information value.
  • Insisted on a meeting where he could prove his value.
  • Prepared a mini-business plan for the job.
  • Presented his plan on the whiteboard to be judged.
  • “Did the job” in the interview to win the job.

How many of these steps have you tried? Please share in the Comments below!

I think the real story goes much deeper. The manager, like most managers, clearly didn’t expect a complete whiteboard presentation. Like most managers, all he wanted was a phone call and some standard Q&A. But that’s not enough to assess whether a candidate can do a job. And that’s why most job interviews don’t result in job offers. (See How To Hire: 8 stunning tips.)

A great resume is not enough. Nor are excellent credentials, personal referrals, or great answers to the top 10 behavioral interview questions.

The real story is that you commandeered the interview for the manager’s benefit (and for your own benefit, of course). You made your interview harder, which clearly shocked him. You made sure to answer the question he wasn’t going to ask: Can you do the job?

The approach you took reveals the profound weakness in the typical interview process managers rely on. (See Peter Cappelli’s Your Approach to Hiring Is All Wrong.) Interviewers should always ask a job candidate to explain and show how they’ll do the job — right there in the interview!

Choose jobs worth the work

You did the job to win the job. Imagine if every job applicant did that.

First of all, there would be fewer job interviews because no one is going to prepare like you did for every job they find on the job boards. It’s impossible. There’s not enough time in the day, much less motivation!

This one simple fact eludes job seekers and employers alike: To make your interview presentation worthy of being photographed (like yours was), you must choose your target companies and jobs very carefully. Only a select few jobs are worth the hard work it takes to do that kind of presentation — or why apply for them at all?

Your experience also demonstrates that the right job can take upwards of a year to find and land. You cultivated the manager and the opportunity for at least that long. Some might suggest that you landed this job easily because the hiring manager is an old friend. But that would be nonsense, because if that were the critical factor, you’d have had a job at that company two years ago. Nothing about what you did was easy, including exercising patience.

More is not better

If job seekers took your approach as their standard, they would select employers and jobs much more carefully and thoughtfully. Only a few jobs are worth that kind of effort and preparation – and those are the only jobs people should pursue to begin with! The whole employment process would change because applying to more jobs is not better. Likewise, employers should not recruit and interview using the popular fire-hose approach to getting candidates — because collecting more candidates is not better.

The message your story delivers is powerful: Pursue the right job and be ready to deliver your plan to do it. (This approach to interviewing is outlined in The New Interview. For a detailed discussion, please see Fearless Job Hunting, Book 6: The Interview: Be the Profitable Hire, pp. 12-13, “A killer interview strategy.”)

My highest compliments, John. If anything you learned from Ask The Headhunter helped, I’m glad! Thank you for your very kind words and for your permission to share your success story.

Have you ever “done the job” in the interview to win the job? How did you go about it? Did it work? Did you ever take control of a job interview from the manager? If you’re a manager, how do you determine whether an applicant can really do the job?

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I think they expect me to work for free

I think they expect me to work for free

In the October 15, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader wonders whether he’s being asked to do a job interview or to work for free.

Question

work for free

I’m interviewing with a large start-up co-working company. The position is in part a strategy role. They asked me to create a fairly involved business plan for a product launch that they are planning to offer in a few months. I am concerned that this is an effort to get free analysis out of me. They’ll take my plan and then leave me in the cold. Do you see a way to move forward without providing free consulting services?

Nick’s Reply

I think it’s actually a good sign when an employer asks you to “do the job to win the job.” In fact, I teach job candidates to offer to do the work during the interview process, to show they’re worth hiring. (See The shortcut to success in job interviews.)

But I draw a clear line between a demonstration and working for free.

Start doing the job

I suggest you take them up on their request. Tell them you’re excited about the opportunity.

How to Say It

“I’ll prepare a plan and show you what I can do. And by the way, if I can’t demonstrate how I can do this job in a way that will bring more profit to your bottom line, you should not hire me.”

That’s a very unusual, powerful position to take that will make you stand out. It also requires that you are prepared and know what you’re doing — or why attend such an interview?

Stop doing the job

Then deliver a skeleton of a plan — just one or two powerful pages — that will leave them wanting more. Yes, tease them. Leave plenty of room to hang details on the bones later. Don’t explain why you cut it short. Let them call you to say they want the rest.

When they ask you where “the beef” is, chuckle, then say the following.

How to Say It

“I love you guys and I think I could make a big impact on your launch. I’ve got the rest of my plan outlined and I’d be happy to flesh out the details for you when I start the job. Of course, I’d be glad to complete the plan in any case if what you really want is a consulting engagement. My daily consulting rate is $2,000 remote and $2,500 on-site.”

Say no more than that. Don’t quote an hourly rate. The best consultants quote daily. Then let them decide what they want to do.

Now wait for it

What’s important about this approach is that you’re not saying “No” to their request. You’re saying, “Yes, BUT.” Yes, you’ll produce what they asked for, but it’s not free.

Then wait for it, because it’s their move.

My guess is you’ll hear nothing back. If I’m right, I’d forget about them. They know you’re smarter than they’d guessed, and they’re cheapskates who aren’t going to pay anyone fair value even if they make a hire.

If they’re really interested in your ideas and willing to do business with you on the up and up, they will respond. They may not want to use you as a consultant, but they may suggest an alternative, fair way to proceed — as you just did.

Work for an offer but don’t work for free

Never work for free. I’ve seen this “put a plan together for us” gambit from unscrupulous employers many times. It doesn’t turn out well.

But give them a chance to appropriately explore with you the possibilities of working together. Determine whether they’re ready to pay you, one way or the other. Maybe they have integrity. This is how you find out.

Have you gotten burned by employers that want free work? How did you handle it? Do you agree that it’s a good idea to actually demonstrate how you’ll do a job? How do you tease without giving it all away for free?

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Want a job? Threaten to start a business!

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

Question

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

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

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

Nick’s Reply

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advice for the long-term unemployed

In the May 23, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks how “starting a business” can be the path from long-term unemployment to a new job.

Do you have any advice for the long-term unemployed? Since I’m not getting anywhere by job hunting, I’m considering starting a business, if only to keep myself busy! Then I remembered: You wrote somewhere that, in this economy, starting a business might be the best way to get hired. This sounds like a mental puzzle. Can you explain?

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

You say this sounds like a mental puzzle, but it really isn’t. You’ve been brainwashed to believe that your objective is to find a job. It’s not. Your objective is to make money and to earn a living. Shift your focus, and you’ll save yourself a lot of agony…

What does it take to start a business? You need a concept, a business plan, the right talent, and evidence that it will work. Ask any venture capitalist: That’s what she looks for before investing.

…To get a business started, you need to demonstrate that it will produce profit. Otherwise, who will give you money? Not investors and not customers. (Whether they realize it or not, this is why employers don’t give out job offers, either. They don’t see the profit.) So, you must bust your buns to produce a sound plan. That’s really what this is all about.

…In the process of producing a plan to start a business, you’ll show how you’d “do the job.” In courting investors and prospective customers, you’ll have proved your concept and yourself. You will have gone a hundred miles beyond the typical job candidate, who sits and answers canned questions with clever answers culled from some book that lists thousands of them.

What’s this got to do with ending long-term unemployment, and getting a job?

The plan is the job. When you deliver your business plan to a savvy prospective customer, to a potential business partner, to an an investor, to a supplier, or even to a competitor, you will find that some of these folks will want to hire you to work for them.

This is how I once landed a job. I shared my plans to start a business with the president of a company that would have been my competitor. (Don’t be surprised—such discussions happen all the time. Smart executives are always glad to meet with up-and-comers. It’s their way of defending their turf.) When he saw how good my plan was, he realized I would be serious competition. Since I’d “figured out the business,” that made me worth hiring. There was no job interview, just the discussion of my business plan. I planned this from the start, but the company president never figured that out. I made a lot of money for that guy—and for myself.

(…Sorry, but you must subscribe to the newsletter to get the entire “Answer” and commentary in the newsletter… Don’t wait til next week… Sign up now… it’s free!)

(Don’t wrinkle your nose or shake your head, just because this suggestion is foreign to your notions of what job hunting is. Remember? They’re not giving out jobs. So, why worry whether this is “proper job hunting?”)

People wind up long-term unemployed in this economy for many reasons. One step out of this quandary is realizing that you must be able to show how you’ll make money and profit — so, get to work starting a business. Formulate a plan — it can be a very simple one — and shop it around. Do you really think a resume would be more impressive?

Tired of being unemployed? Hire yourself. Or threaten to. A competitor might hire you first. Can a business plan really get you hired?

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