Years ago I was talking to a section of the Graduate School of Business at Stanford and asked the following question:
A candidate finds their dream job in the career section of the newspaper. The job description explains that only people with 5 years of newspaper ad experience need apply. The candidate has no experience with newspapers, as they are a young silicon valley go-getter who has spent all their time developing a new market called “online advertising.” So the candidate contacts a friend who works at the company to get the scoop on what will really be required for success with the job. The friend replies “The hiring manager doesn’t know it yet, but we are getting out of newspaper advertising. We think the future is in online advertising. So you are actually a perfect fit for what the job really needs. But the hiring manager can’t come to grips with that, and is making this all about newspaper skills.”
I then asked the class “So what do you do? Do you confront the hiring manager with their myopic view of the future? Do you pass the job by, even though you are perfect for it? Or do you lie and say that you have years of newspaper advertising experience, knowing that once you get inside you can show people how to succeed in this new market?”
The discussion was a spirited give-and-take. Of course they asked for my opinion, and I gave the same advice I give today, 10 years later. Be honest, but make sure you know the specific question before you give a specific answer.
Think of the job description like a series of questions. When a job posting says “10 years of experience required” it is asking you “Do you have that much experience?” An inexperienced job seeker might be tempted to say “No” and move on to the next listing. But “10 years of experience” isn’t specific, and it isn’t really telling you the whole story. It is often worthwhile to answer a question with more questions: “What do you mean when you say 10 years experience? 10 years doing the exact same thing? What problem are you trying to solve by hiring this person?”
In short, don’t penalize yourself by answering a general question with a specific answer. “Do you have 10 years experience?” does not require you to answer “I only have 7 years of experience in segment advertising.” If you have 7 years in segment advertising and 3 years in marketing communications, you can truthfully answer “Yes, I have 10 years of experience.”
But don’t leave it there. Use that opportunity to start asking specific questions of your own, like “What types of problems are you trying to solve, and how can I show that my previous accomplishments prove that I can help you solve those problems?”
Honesty is always the best policy, but make sure you understand the real question before you go disqualifying yourself from what otherwise may be a great opportunity.