Debra Wheatman, President of Careers Done Write, provides expert insight to the job search process that puts your career in gear with tips for interviewing, networking, job search strategies and how to create a winning resume and cover letter.
In my job as a career coach and advisor, I have had the opportunity to speak with literally thousands of people from all over the world, with different experiences and backgrounds, who have different end goals. Some clients come to me to rework a résumé or build out a social media plan. Others seek counsel on creating and managing a strong personal brand. Still, others contact me because they are looking to manage their careers and need guidance in doing so. Inevitably, my conversations with them stray from the purely business side of things into matters more personal. After all, when you are busy managing your career, your product is you, and you are a whole person, not merely a professional.
One thing that I have gleaned from my years of working closely with people is that one of the biggest assets not just in your career but in life, is self-awareness. Developing self-awareness is not easy. It requires work, time, and dedication. It is a step toward self-actualization, which is at the top of Maslow’s pyramid, and which few of us will ever fully achieve. Many of us struggle with how to become more self-aware. Here are some practical tips that I’ve come up with:
Accept the past. It is far too easy to say that the past is over, and we should just forget about it. The past makes you who you are today, and influences who you will become in the future. Accept it. Recognize that it cannot be changed. Learn from it.
Don’t focus on what others think. So much energy is expended by wondering and worrying about how others perceive us. Focus that energy instead into striving for your own success. How do you value yourself?
Seek satisfaction and serenity from yourself. Other people, material possessions, and other things outside of yourself will not lead to happiness. You must find that within yourself first and not look to external sources for it.
Develop patience. Yes, there are times that you will have to wait. Impatience is rarely a virtue, and more often than not, can lead to rash, regrettable decisions. You are in this for the long haul. Don’t sacrifice long-term growth for short-term satisfaction.
Recognize your uniqueness. There is only one you. No one else can do exactly what you can do. You have unique skills, experiences, thoughts, and ideas. And that is what makes you you. Celebrate what’s different about you.
Define success on your own terms. Far too often, we define success by measures that we get from other people. Is success having a big house, fancy car, and a fat bank account? Maybe. And if it is, that’s okay. But for many of us, those measures do not bring success. Rather, they are vehicles for achieving success. Being financially savvy may allow you to travel extensively and enjoy a comfortable retirement. Having a large home may mean that you have ample space for your large family and circle of friends.
Investing time in being self-aware is one of the best gifts you can give yourself. You are your primary product, and you’re the CEO not only of your career, but your life. You are a unique individual who has many gifts to share with the world. Make an effort to define what they are, what personal success is for you, and work on being authentic.
Undergraduates who have chosen to major in the liberal arts will inevitably be faced with the question, “What are you going to do with THAT?” I am sympathetic to them because when I was a non-STEM, non-business major, that same exact question was posed to me. In an age in which it seems that STEM is the only thing that matters, where do things like verbal and written communication fit? Are they on their way to being obsolete?
Hardly! No matter how many new microchips come out of Silicon Valley, none will be as powerful or impactful as language. Language has the power to motivate, to discourage, to compel, to coerce, and to connect. Language can be used to manipulate and to control, or it can be used to inspire and to create. I would argue that language is one of the strongest forces on the planet.
Politicians are masters at using language to get people to believe them and to buy into what their positions are. The entire field of law hinges on language and is constantly referring back to primary source documents. Contracts go through multiple reviews as all parties involved come to an agreement on the language.
If anything, language skills have become even more important in the Information Age. People are bombarded with competing messages at a rate previously unseen. Everyone is vying for their attention, and language is an effective way to get it. Think about the power of good headlines, or even the annoyingly compelling power of “click bait.”
Throughout the course of my career, I’ve been a part of countless meetings that discuss language, and the specific words that are being used. Surely you’ve been in meetings where questions like these have been debated: How are we going to position this? What is our message to the market? What is our value proposition? How do we articulate the benefits? I want to communicate X–what is the best way to do that?
Whether you are looking for a new role or building your brand, the language and words you use are critical. Through language, you’re able to not only craft a message, but also to create the reality you want. Your resume should use strong, action-oriented verbs. Your elevator pitch should convey your value clearly and succinctly. When you give a presentation, you should use clear, plain language that everyone can understand.
So if you’re studying the liberal arts, and you’re spending hours reading, researching, and writing, you might feel like what you’re learning is useless. It is not. Your studies are teaching you how to analyze text, how to conduct research, how to organize your information in a logical way, and how to communicate your findings or position cogently.
There is a scene from the first episode of Mad Men, which perfectly illustrates the power of language. The team is sitting in a conference room, worried about how they’re going to continue to advertise their client’s cigarettes in light of the new reports that smoking is a health hazard. The public is being bombarded with messages about the dangers of smoking. Don Draper tells everyone not to worry. Their cigarettes are poison. Ours are toasted.” That one word completely repositions a product from being deadly to being enjoyable. Words have enormous power. Those who can harness language can wield power.
The next time you think that STEM is the way to a career, think again. Words are wisdom. They evoke meaning, power, and action. Business is not just about “the numbers” or “the analysis.” It is also about messaging and delivery that drives action.
Google the words “team, build, work,” and you will get an infinite number of results for pages filled with inspirational, motivational quotes, and uplifting stories of how to build an effective team. You also know the reality of many of the teams on which we work–one person takes the lead, one person’s ideas are rejected, another member contributes minimally, and the rest go along for the ride. We are constantly hearing about how we all need to be team players, but because most teams are dysfunctional, we have no idea how to take on that role.
What happens when teamwork works the way it should, and everyone is equally invested in the same goal? When everyone is on board, teams can function efficiently, communication is expressed effectively, and innovation happens. To illustrate an effective, high-performing team, let’s think of a theatrical production.
Costume designers, set designers, the orchestra, the stage crew, and countless others are vital members of the larger team. The production’s cast is obviously the most visible part of the team, but even that is broken down into very clearly defined roles. Usually, there are main characters, supporting characters, minor characters, and sometimes an ensemble. The mantra in the theatrical world is “The show must go on,” and they truly abide by that. The lead has taken ill with the flu? In comes the understudy, who knows the character’s lines just as well as the lead does. Someone’s costume rips? Costume design to the rescue. Violinist couldn’t make it to this evening’s performance? Another violinist takes her place. And we, the audience, are oblivious to most of this.
The main goal is to create an amazing performance for the audience, and everyone in the company works toward that goal. When someone cannot perform, someone else steps in. When something unforeseen happens, there’s someone immediately on it. Everyone involved has different skills, but they all complement one another. The most talented stage performer would not be as effective without all of the help from the team that supports her.
An effective team, in any context, needs the following:
Clearly defined roles and responsibilities
A clear understanding of the goals of the team
A mix of skill sets and knowledge
A “team” made up of people who all do the same thing will never innovate anything. You need people with different experiences and perspectives to do something different. So if your team is exclusively made up of, say, mechanical engineers, you might want to rethink that. When you build a great team, and they are empowered with the necessary resources to achieve their goal, they can connect, collaborate, and create. Otherwise, it’s that same old group project we all hated from high school.
Over the last decade or so, science, technology, engineering, and math (or STEM) studies have been sold to students not just the key to career success, but as the only way to be competitive in the 21st Century. The result of this has been that public education, already restricted to teaching that which is tested, has shifted its focus to STEM subjects, at the expense of others. While there has been an arguably positive outcome of the focus on STEM (such as a push to get more girls interested in hard sciences, and more women in technology roles), this tunnel vision approach has been “a gross simplification of what students need to know and be able to do.”
This recent article from The Washington Post tells us that Google has finally figured out what many of us have known all along–that soft skills are more important than hard skills when it comes to career success. How often have you heard something like this: “Oh, he’s brilliant, but he has no social skills. He can’t carry on a conversation!”? Sheer intelligence or technical acumen will only get you so far, and as the study commissioned by Google reveals, neither will get you particularly far if not complemented with soft skills.
What are soft skills? They’re amorphous, fluid, hard to define, but easily recognizable. They’re things like empathy, compassion, communication, sharing, kindness. In short, they are the things that make us human. I’ve talked to thousands of people during the course of my career, and the number one thing that people want from their coworkers and managers is empathy. Technical knowledge does not even make it into the top three.
Technical knowledge is great, but it isn’t the only skill you need. Without the ability to work with people and to think critically, technical know-how is simply a commodity. In the real world, people work with people they like, not with the person who scored in the 99th percentile on the exam.
Study STEM if you like, but don’t feel that you must. Hard skills may open the door for you, but they alone will not carry you through your career. Historians, English majors, economists, artists, and social scientists, are all good at critical thinking, problem solving, and making connections. STEM is a good path, but not the only or even best path for future jobs.
You know that I’m all about content, and all about using content as a way to define, promote, and grow your personal brand. But do you think of things like the presentations you give, that thirty-second elevator pitch, or your answer to that often-asked interview question, “So, tell me about yourself” as “content”? Probably not. But you should.
Everything you say, every Tweet, every interaction you have with other people informs them of your brand, and their perceptions of and experiences with you help to define your brand. This is a big deal, and it’s something you want to control. I’m sure you can think of that person whose presentations you try to avoid. They’re too long. They’re too wordy. She shows up with forty slides for a twenty-minute presentation. She reads them to you. Torture. Agony.
You’re probably also familiar with the guy who tells you about his job, and when he’s done, you still have no clue what it is he does to make a living. You know that there were a bunch of words strung together and that they were in English, but you didn’t understand a thing.
The offenses demonstrated in these two examples are rooted in a common problem with content creation–we make it far too complex for our audience’s needs or, more importantly, their interest. Remember what your English teacher told you about writing an essay? That you need to know your audience? She was right. You need to craft your messaging in such a way that it resonates with your audience. There is considerable research into the way that the brain processes information, as well as how the ego responds to it. But the simple truth of effective messaging is this: keep it simple and make your audience feel that it’s about them.
When you’re asked to put together a presentation, it can be really hard to avoid the temptation of including every single detail. After all, you don’t want to be called out for not covering something! When someone asks you about what you do, the desire to impress with excess detail can be similarly compelling. I would challenge you to approach messaging by thinking about the outcome you want it to achieve, and by working back from there.
Truly effective messaging has the following features:
It passes the fifth-grader test. If a nine year-old would not understand it, scrap it and start over. Keep it simple.
It’s re-tellable. Your audience can articulate your message after they’ve received it. This seems simple, but it’s very difficult to achieve.
It centers on one to three big ideas. Effective, persuasive messaging is focused. It doesn’t go into all the details.
It speaks to a problem your audience has. Whether your audience is your coworkers, your boss, an interviewer, or your Twitter followers, they will be much more engaged in your content and its message if it’s about them.
The bottom line.
It’s easy to fall into the habit of delivering messaging that is complex, overly technical, and relevant only to you. Put your audience at the center of your content and craft messaging that relates to them. Keep it simple and make it relatable, and it will be memorable and valuable.
Last week, I discussed the challenges of deciding to remove yourself from the workforce, and how it should be a carefully considered decision. A follow-up to that is another question I get frequently, which goes like this:
I’ve been home with my kids for the last eight years, and now I’m ready to go back to work. I’m really not sure what I should put on my resume at this point. Do I list all of the household duties I am responsible for? Do I discuss how I manage various vendors (plumber, electrician, lawn maintenance) and how I work with my budget?
It is indeed a daunting challenge to seek a full-time position following a period of absence. After deciding to do it, one of the most difficult things can be to write a solid resume that will effectively market you to potential employers.
Let me start by saying that no, you do not want to list your household activities on your resume, ever. I’ve seen resumes that have household management duties or child rearing duties and achievements, and they make me cringe. Although managing a household and caring for children are both undeniably “work,” neither are career accomplishments. A resume is a tool that highlights your professional achievements, and should focus on those.
If you are considering returning to the workforce, hopefully you have been doing something to keep yourself current on your skills. Maybe you’ve been volunteering or working on a freelance basis. If you haven’t, I suggest you start there. You’re going to need recent professional experience–whether paid or not–in order to market yourself in a professional context. For example, I had a client who was very involved with a local, nonprofit animal rescue. She volunteered her time to promote the organization by running all of its social media, and she built its social media presence from scratch. This was something that could be highlighted on her resume as a significant achievement. After all, what hiring manager doesn’t want someone who can build something from the ground up, and who can work effectively with very little budget? It shows ingenuity, problem solving, and creativity.
This brings me to another point. Resume trends have changed over the past decades. No longer are they merely a listing of jobs and duties. They are truly promotional materials. As such, it is no longer enough to say that you are a creative, motivated problem-solver. You need to demonstrate it. So avoid the temptation to merely list a bunch of adjectives that describe you. Instead, use anecdotes that can serve as proof points.
Use a reverse-chronological format for your resume. You have my permission to ignore anyone who tells you to use a functional or “skills based” resume. Hiring managers and recruiters hate them. It is difficult to understand your career progression, and they look like you’re trying to hide something–namely, gaps in employment.
It is perfectly acceptable, and even expected, to list volunteer positions on your resume. It is also okay to list any freelance or per diem work you may have done while you were in a role of full time caregiver. Just remember to highlight your professionally relevant skills and accomplishments. When you’re returning to work following a protracted absence, it is even more important that you write a killer cover letter that sells you as the answer to the hiring manager’s problem. The job search process will probably take longer than it would for someone without a lengthy gap in employment, but with perseverance and drive, you can return to a professional position.
I frequently field questions from new moms who are struggling with the realities of returning to work. They usually go something like this:
My daughter just turned three, and I just had my second child. In reviewing our family’s finances, it seems futile for me to return to work when my entire take home pay will be gobbled up in daycare expenses. I’m seriously considering quitting to stay home with the kids while they are young. I can always return to work once they start school. What is your advice?
My advice to these women (I’ve never had the question from a Dad who wants to stay home) is always the same. Think about the decision to remove yourself from the workforce very, very carefully. I know that childcare is expensive, and I know that the decision to place your baby in someone else’s care can be heart wrenching. But voluntarily removing yourself from the workforce for a period of years can put you in a precarious position. Consider the following:
It’s not just about the here and now. In the immediate present, the financial costs of daycare can loom as the most persuasive reason not to return to work. But, it’s not just about the costs of daycare now. If you stop working, you stop progressing in your career. I’m sure someone has crunched the numbers and has come up with the real cost of putting your career on hold, in terms of salary increases, promotions, and currency of skills. I don’t have any such numbers, but I can tell you that it can be significant.
You won’t be saving for your retirement. You won’t be putting money into a 401(k) or other retirement account. All financial planners will tell you that the earlier in life you save for retirement, the better. Also, you won’t be contributing to Social Security, which means your retirement benefits from them will be smaller than if you had continued to work.
Speaking of Social Security. . .did you know that if you have not paid into Social Security for ten years and then become disabled, you may be ineligible to receive disability benefits from them?
It won’t be easy to return to the workforce. In fact, it will probably be very difficult. Yes, some companies offer “returnship” programs for people who’ve been out of the workforce for a number of years, but those programs are still somewhat rare, and are highly competitive.
Your skills will become outdated. The truth is that even if you stay up to date on the latest software, as an example, if you’re not using it in a job, many hiring managers and recruiters will consider it irrelevant. And the fact is that without being an active participant in the workforce, you will become rusty.
If, after carefully weighing all of these, you make the decision to stay home to be a full-time caregiver, here are my suggestions:
Do your best to stay current in your field. Continue to attend professional networking meetings, volunteer with organizations that can use your expertise. Even if you’re volunteering with your kids’ activities, look to the “business end” of volunteering–fundraising, marketing, promotion.
Consider using the time away from full-time employment to work on a degree or a professional certification. I recently worked with a client who had been home with her kids for 10 years, but during that time, she had earned an MBA and passed the first of her actuarial exams. She was able to find a full-time position much more easily than some of the other clients I’ve had who have had their careers in “park.”
Consider working part time or on a freelance/per diem basis doing something related to your field. Not only will this help to keep you current, but it will also help to keep you connected.
The bottom line
Manage your expectations. Working full-time with small kids is hard. Staying home full-time with small kids is hard. Returning to work after a period of voluntary absence is really, really hard. It’s all about choices, so understand the risks before making a decision based only upon the immediate financial impact.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. This worn out and tired saying is so often repeated (and, therefore, worn out and tired!) because it is true. The beginning of a new year is a good time to reflect on what you’re going to do differently regarding your career and your job search.
We all know that the employee-employer contract is fundamentally different than it was thirty or forty years ago. You can no longer rely on your manager and your employer to map out your career trajectory. That is entirely incumbent upon you. Is this the year you decide to go back to school, to go for that promotion, or to change industries? If you’ve been with the same company or in the same role for a number of years, have you become complacent? Are you comfortable, but not challenged? Are you content, but not particularly engaged? These are some self- awareness inventory questions to ask. Similarly, are you still jazzed about the field you’re in? Does your job stimulate your intellect? Do you wish it did?
If your job search strategy has been to go online and apply for every position for which you moderately qualify, how has that been working for you? Do you invest time and effort into really conducting a targeted job search? Do you say the same things to all interviewers? Do you feel like you’ve been reading off of a script?
If none of these tactics are working for you, it’s time to change it up. Maybe that means going out and actively networking. Perhaps it means getting a new certification that will allow you to advance in your field. It might mean that you need to revamp all of your job search materials. What changes do you need to make to what you’ve been doing to get to where you want to be?
We toss the word “strategy” around all the time–so much so that it has lost its core meaning. A strategy is a plan that moves you forward to achieve a goal. Having a career management strategy means knowing what your goal is, and then working backward from there to come up with the actions that will be necessary to get there. After you’ve done that, you execute on the strategy.
What is your strategy for 2018? And most importantly, what is it that you’ll do differently this year? Think about what success looks like to you, and what you’d like to be able to say you’ve achieved this time next year.
Happy New Year, and best wishes for success! Here’s to being the best YOU you can be!
2017 was a year of change in the job market. The improving economy and market record highs have made for low levels of unemployment. Just a few short years ago, employers held all the cards, but that has changed. In a tight labor market, candidates wield power that they didn’t have until recently. The job market is projected to continue its current trajectory into the New Year. Here are some trends that we can expect to continue and to increase in 2018:
The role of social media in recruiting. A recent study found that 70% of employers are screening candidates via social media before hiring them. 54% have decided not to hire a candidate after screening their social media profiles, and 57% are less likely to consider someone for an interview if they can’t find them online.
The role of social media as a job search tool. The importance of LinkedIn cannot be overstated. With more than 450 million members, LinkedIn is the place for job seekers to be. Not only do recruiters and hiring managers look to validate candidates via their LinkedIn profiles, LinkedIn allows you to advertise yourself to millions of potential employers and clients.
A rejection of ridiculous employer demands. Some ludicrous employer demands were borne out of the Great Recession. Come in, meet with nine different people, prepare a presentation, give us your full salary history, how about a DNA sample? In a tight employment market, top talent will not comply with much of this. They have many other options. Hiring companies will need to rethink their recruiting strategy, and reframe it as wooing candidates rather than filtering them out.
The resume will still be relevant. Despite LinkedIn, digital resumes, and social media, the “old school” Word or PDF resume will still be relevant. As in recent years, the resume of 2018 must focus on achievements and accomplishments rather than on tasks, duties, and responsibilities.
A focus on “what’s in it for them.” More than ever, focusing your pitch, your resume, and your interviews on the problems the hiring manager has will be critical to success. People want to know what you can do for them, not a list of reasons why you’re so great.
The importance of soft skills. What sets you apart is your personality, soft skills, and fit with the company culture. Your resume, cover letter, calls, and in-person interviews should reflect that. Be sure that when you’re communicating with recruiters and hiring managers that you come off as a unique human being, and not as an emotionless robot.
Better perks. With a dearth of candidates, and a desire to recruit and to retain top talent, companies are striving to make work seem less work-like. They’re doing this by offering perks like free food, onsite dry cleaning, gym memberships, or paid parental leave. Don’t mistake perks for company culture, though. It is easy to be lulled by benefits, but it’s still important to vet out the culture before you make a decision.
We all know that recruiting and retaining top talent is a major concern of business leaders. Turnover most interferes with an organization’s success. Rampant turnover can negatively impact the employer brand. And, of course, there is the financial cost of turnover. The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) estimates that it takes employers the equivalent of six to nine months of an employee’s salary to find and train their replacement.
Despite the significant costs of turnover, far too many employers still do not make an upfront investment in recruiting by training hiring managers in interviewing techniques, by benchmarking salaries, or by researching the current employment market. Many regard recruiting and hiring as a necessary evil, and not as critical to their businesses. What do we see as a result? Lazy recruiting. Maybe lazy recruiting was a moderately effective strategy when unemployment was in the double digits, but in the current tight labor market, lazy recruiting is not going to fly. And really, regardless of whether lazy recruiting is effective, lazy recruiting is still bad business.
This is what I was thinking about recently when a client told me that he’d just taken a pre-employment screening test. This is a guy who has decades of experience in his field, a wide professional network, and many former colleagues and managers who can vouch for him. He surpassed ALL sales goals over the course of his career – ALL OF THEM. You know the saying “Can sell ice to an Eskimo.” This guy is that guy. After his initial screening call with HR, he was asked to take an online “assessment” before proceeding to the next step in the process. He complied. That was three weeks ago, and he has not heard anything back from them. Perhaps the position has been put on hold, or maybe the hiring manager has been traveling. We don’t know. But both he and I assume that the reason for the radio silence is due to his “score” on their assessment.
But lazy recruiting leads to unstructured interviewing. And unstructured interviewing wastes everyone’s time. Recruiters and hiring managers often judge candidates based on subjective, rather than job-related, criteria. So, pre-employment assessments can seem like a quick solution. The problem is, these assessments neglect to assess important details. They don’t consider how willing (or able) someone is to learn and improve. Additionally, some cognitive ability tests have been deemed by the courts to be discriminatory. None of these tests give the whole picture on a candidate, but all of them assume that people come from a standardized mold.
My client was given a cognitive ability test that asked him things like “What is the next number in the series? 24, 31, 38, 45, 52.” And, “circle, triangle, square, octagon—what should the order be?” Are you kidding me?!?! What does any of that have to do with his ability to communicate the value proposition of a company’s solutions to the market? How does his lack of recalling tenth-grade geometry relegate him to the “no thanks” pile? I can only imagine what may have come next—maybe they require candidates to diagram sentences, too.
Compared to other hiring selection practices, pre-employment assessments are among the least effective in predicting job performance. Companies that rely on these assessments to evaluate candidates are going to find themselves spending more money on the back end of the deal. This is NOT a way to hire. This is a great way to repel top talent.