Career Advice, Interviews

The Job-Seeker's Secret Weapon: It's Pointed

I was having lunch with my friend Jane, a plainspoken sort.  She asked, “Have you always been a career advisor?” “Heck no,” I said. “I was a corporate HR VP for ten million years.”

“So, now you’re doing penance?” she asked. I love HR. I still think of myself as an HR person. I just hate the way HR is practiced in way too many organizations. So, I work with organizations that share my view: that hiring smart people and letting them loose to solve tough problems is good business. And, I work with job-seekers who are looking for a way to scale those barbed-wire fences and stone walls with shards of broken glass sticking out of ’em. I’m referring, of course, to corporate recruiting processes.

“Is there a secret weapon for job-seekers to know about?” asked Jane. “There are a bunch of them,” I said, “but here is the first one for job-seekers to think about.”

“Okay, shoot,” she said.

“Let me ask you a super common question,” I said. “Job-seekers get asked this question all the time. The question is, ‘What do you do?'”

“So how do you answer the question?” Jane wanted to know.

“Here’s what you don’t do,” I replied. “You don’t say ‘I have ten years in oil and gas, and four years in aerospace, and I worked in sales for an electronics corporation, and lately I’ve been working for a real estate investment trust.'”

“That’s a pretty typical answer to the question ‘What do you do?’,” said Jane, “But I agree it’s not exactly compelling. What is wrong with that approach, and how can a job-seeker change it?”

“We start by talking about history, going way back,” I said, “mainly because we don’t know how to describe what we’re looking for in a job search. We are more comfortable saying “I did this and that,” and letting the listener decide what it means. We do the same thing in our resumes. We don’t decide who we want to be in the job market. We waffle. We say “I have experience in sales and operations.’ We say to the reader of the resume, “I did this and that and the other thing. What does it mean? You got me. You decide.'”

“And that’s bad because…” prompted Jane.

“Because no hiring manager and no HR screener want to do that heavy lifting for us,” I said. “We have to know, right off the bat, what business problem we solve. Maybe we cut operational costs, or maybe we know how to launch a new distribution channel or rev up an online marketing program. Maybe our thing is getting business press or generating repeat visits to a website. Maybe we’re experts at cutting call-center hold time. We have to know. We have to declare what we do and why anyone should care about that. That message must come through in the first five seconds as a person reads our resume.”

“Oh Lordy,” said Jane. “I think I’ve got some resume writing to do.”

“I call that resume message ‘The Point on the Arrow’,” I said. “Without it, we don’t have any brand, or any force in our resume. If we present a bundle of miscellaneous skills, we’re missing the first, critical step in a proactive job search.”

“Okay, give me an example,” said Jane. “Here goes,” I said. “One job seeker says ‘I’ve done sales and marketing and a little customer support.’ That tells us almost nothing we need to know. What kind of sales did he do, and what kind of marketing? When he did those things, was he good at them? We have more questions than answers. A second job seeker says “I’m the guy who manages $1M/year accounts and keeps new orders coming, through careful listening and problem-solving.” This second job-seeker does sales, just like the first guy. But this second guy can tell you exactly what problem he solves – the problem where huge accounts need a lot of hand-holding, and the type of salesperson who’ll probe and work the org chart to uncover business opportunities. If that type of salesperson isn’t on the case, the hand-holding goes on but the orders don’t arrive. That’s a biggie for a lot of vendors.”

“So we all have to be specialists?” wondered Jane. “No way! We don’t have to be specialists,” I said. “We will use all sorts of skills on any job we take. We only have to know what we’re really good at, that the market also demands. We can have more than one prong in a job search. Of course, every prong will need its own pitch, and its own resume. We just can’t be a big mash up of skills with no point on the arrow.”

“We have to find an intersection between what we do well and what employers need,” Jane paraphrased. “Yes,” I said, “and it takes some work and some self-reflection to get there. We can use job-search aggregators like Indeed and SimplyHired to tell us what jobs employers are filling. We need to know how those business needs match our own skills, and then we have to pick a job search message that nails that intersection. We can’t be all things to all people – not in the job market, anyway.”

“A point,” said Jane. “It makes perfect sense. But we’ve been trained, via all the resume-writing books and seminars, to say things like ‘I’m a business professional with experience in sales, operations, marketing, customer support and the kitchen sink.'” “Too bad there are no jobs like that!” I said. “I’ve got my goal for this weekend,” said Jane.”A point on my resume. I like it!”