Job Hunting Reinvented

If you are competent, this method will demonstrate it to employers.

Posted Jul 07, 2015

Tax Credits, Flickr, CC 2.0
Source: Tax Credits, Flickr, CC 2.0

Job seekers nor employers trust the hiring process.

A good candidate may worry that unless s/he gift-wraps herself in infographic or video resumes, fully primped interview coaching, and a professionally massaged resume, s/he'll lose out to a less competent but more packaged candidate.

Employers worry that resumes, cover letters, and interview responses may more reflect the candidate's willingness to dissemble and/or spend money on a hired gun than on the candidate's competence to do the job. And everyone gets good references but in too many cases, the accolades are inflated.

Job seekers that truly would be competent at their target job can, with integrity, offer themselves up in a way that will be more compelling.

Practical courses, certificates, and mentorships may impress more than degrees. We all know well-degreed people who are not effective in the workplace. While they may know lots of theory or what worked in pat case studies, they lack the expertise to succeed in the real work world.

In many fields, you may be more likely to acquire practical competence by completing practical courses offered, for example, by your professional association or with a certificate program at a University Extension. For example, if you wanted to work in a weight-loss/eating disorders clinic, an employer might well be less impressed by a master's in counseling than by a certificate from UC Berkeley Extension's ceritificate program in Weight and Eating Disorders followed by an internship with one or two master eating-disorders counselors.

Of course, because of many employers' natural bias toward degrees, your cover letters and interviews must explain how your training's practicality will make you a more effective employee than if you had spent all the time and money on a theory-heavy university degree program. While you're enrolled, keep a log of practical non-obvious learnings, perhaps using PAR stories (See below.) and submit it with your application.

Prioritize answering ads rather than networking. Of course, if your abilities and skills are unlikely to make you top-of-the-heap for your target job, you'll probably need to network your way into a job. Why? Because only if someone is emotionally connected to you, will they hire you if you're not top-tier.

But if you think you are top-tier for your target job, it may be more time-effective to spend most of your job-search time finding and responding to on-target ads placed by desirable employers. Why? Networking can take so long to pay off that before it does, you're homeless. If you're answering ads, your efforts are, for the most part, aimed at actual job openings. Top-tier candidates that use the competence-revealing strategies below may find answering ads to be the fastest way to landing a good job.

Respond to a job ad with a point-by-point cover letter. Forget the flowery language about what a "goal-oriented self-starter and team player" you are. Instead, in your cover letter, list the main job requirements listed in the job ad and below each, state how you meet the requirement, ideally with an indicator of your work's quality. For example, you might include a comment from your employee review or explain that the process you developed is still used by your employer.  It's tough for the screener to eliminate a candidate who, point-by-point, states how s/he meets the job requirements in the ad.

Of course, if you don't meet the job's main requirements, don't apply. From a selfish standpoint, you want to expend your job-search energies where it will likely do some good. If an employer is willing to endure the hassle of reviewing the dozens or hundreds of applications that come in for most jobs, s/he's not going to hire someone who lacks a key job requirement. Even if you manage to convince them to hire you, there's a good chance you'll do poorly, be unhappy, and perhaps get "laid off," and have to explain your short tenure to subsequent employers. From an altruistic standpoint, if you're not well-qualified for the job in terms of ability, skills, drive, and temperament, a better candidate won't get the job. I understand that most job seekers choose not to be that altruistic but I do want to raise that for your consideration.

Show don't tell.  "Show don't tell" is a core axiom in screenwriting but it's as true for job seekers. So in your resume, cover letters, and interviews, do one or more of the following:

  • Show your stuff with three or four PAR stories: one that describes a problem you faced, the clever or dogged way you addressed it, and the positive result. Pick problems that would impress your target employer. Don't be afraid about repeating a story in your resume and again in your cover letter or interview. They won't mind. Use PAR stories whether you're responding to an ad, trying to get your network to tout you, or are cold-contacting a target employer that isn't currently advertising an on-target job.
  • Include a work sample: A report you wrote, an interface you designed, software you created, etc.
  • Include a white paper. Especially if you have little or no experience in your target job, you can demonstrate current expertise by writing a few-page white paper, which is like a term paper on a practical topic. Sample title: Four Trends in social media marketing for 2016.
  • Include a project proposal or business plan. Even if you're applying for nonprofit work, it can be impressive to submit a sample business plan for an initiative you might lead if hired there. Of course, acknowledge that your business plan is merely a sample to give the employer a window into the way you think, that it was necessarily created with insufficient knowledge of what the organization has already tried, the organization's culture, priorities, etc.
  • Propose a job description tailored to your strengths.  Of course, the job description may be cast in stone but surprisingly often, it's cast in jello. If you sense that's the case, propose a job description that maximizes use of your strengths and interests while keeping in mind the organization's likely priorities for the position. Do that and you'll have demonstrated your enthusiasm and take-charge attitude, and have crafted a well-suited job description.

Use plain English. Some  "professional" resume writers often use jargon such as "spearheaded, "self-starter, "dynamic," etc., They're stuck in the '80s. That technique was used then to breathe life into yawner resumes and cover letters. But today, that tactic has been around so long that it's often perceived as B.S.. It certainly doesn't build credibility.

Instead, in plain English, explain what you bring to the table: Honest self-appraisals of your skill level for key job requirements, invoking PAR stories as appropriate. Savvy employers will appreciate your lack of hype and weaker ones won't--and you don't want to work for a weak employer anyway.

Acknowledge at least one substantive weakness. Whether or not you're asked the lie-prone "Tell us your greatest weakness?", resist giving stock, eye-rolling answers such as "I need to watch my workaholic tendencies" or somesuch. Everyone has weaknesses and by volunteering yours, your stated strengths will be more credible. So, for example, in cover letters and interviews one might say, "I am bad on teams---I tend to be a little dominating. But if I can work well solo, I can usually handle long, intellectually difficult projects very well."  That will get you rejected from ill-suited jobs and more likely to be hired for well-suited ones.

In interviews, consider taking charge. Of course, some interviews, especially in government or unionizied situations, require that all interviews be identical to reduce the possibility of discrimination. But most interviews are more flexible. If you sense it's okay, at the right time, ask if you might, for example, go to the white board to demonstrate how you'd tackle problem X, organize your team, etc. Or pepper the interview with thoughtful questions, for example, "I've noticed that your competitor is doing X but it doesn't appear you are. May I ask why?" A defensive employer may think less of you for daring to ask such questions but an employer you'd want to work for will be impressed.

Include reference letters with applications. Most job seekers don't provide references until the end of the interview process. Mistake. Unless you're afraid your current boss might find out, if you can get great letters of recommendation, it's wise to get them upfront and include them with your applications. It's a way of getting to brag without your doing the bragging.

Of course, everyone has good reference letters. If you are--as is the presumption in this article--a strong candidate for your target job, you need to get reference letters that make that clear. In today's era of inflated letters of recommendation, anything other than a gusher will likely be viewed negatively.

If the person writing your reference letter is unlikely to come up with good PAR stories, offer to provide them to  "use, adapt, or not use as you see fit."

Of course, also post your awesome references on your LinkedIn page.

In sum

The standard job seeker puts too much emphasis on patina, thinking that's required. In fact, when day is done, presenting honestly and with little varnish is the most likely route to getting hired for a job at which both you and the employer will be happy.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.

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