Notes for job hunters

Although not core to my current work, I occasionally help clients with aspects of the recruitment process, either interfacing with recruitment agencies or, more commonly, using job boards such as Reed.co.uk.  Through this and my previous roles running marketing agencies for twelve years, I have been directly or indirectly responsible for hiring many hundreds of people.

As an independent Change Manager I am inclined to see the potential in each person I meet and thus in each CV I read, but this would be of little use to a client who wants to interview a minimal number of applicants to find a value-adding employee: an employee who has the skills and experience required for the role and also has a good fit to the company culture.

In an ideal world I would pause to give individual feedback to each candidate who applied, but with hundreds of people often applying this is prohibitively time consuming. Hence, instead, I am writing these notes with some general tips that might help readers to get the job they want.

Not all of these points will apply to you and you may even disagree with some of my views, but you will hopefully find something of use in what follows.

Getting employment is not always easy. I remember leaving school, being desperate to get a job and applying for a wide range of roles… essentially throwing mud at the wall. Inevitably I received few interviews for the well-paid positions that I desired and was instead repeatedly hired to do an eclectic mix of things over a ten-year period. Working with mentally handicapped children, selling motorcycles, working in an art gallery, selling commercial finance to small companies: In retrospect, although I didn’t realise it at the time, what linked these roles was some level of obvious passion for either the product or the customer.

It was not a particularly fulfilling time though as I lacked an overarching structure and though it gave me a useful understanding of people and companies, which adds valuable depth to each of the things that I do now, it was no comfort back then!

Preparation

Although you may be desperate for a job, take a step back and think about what you would like to be doing in five or ten years: a hypothetical yet realistic future role that has sufficient income for your modest lifestyle, uses skills that you have in abundance or are prepared to spend non-work time developing and is in a sector that holds some (preferably deep) passion for you. If this seems like a monumental task, then start by listing your passions and your demonstrable skills (those that you can evidence to yourself) and think laterally.

By outlining a notional future job, you can then work backwards to envisage what progression of skills and experience you will need to gain to be able to secure it in five or so years’ time. This makes it easier to evaluate current potential jobs on the basis of whether they move you towards your goal or not. Don’t even bother applying for the latter.

For those that move you in the right direction you already have a couple of advantages that you didn’t have before: a story about where you’re trying to get to and how this role fits in; a better idea of the skills and experience that you don’t have and thus need to gain.

Employers typically want to hire someone who instantly adds more value than they cost (that’s the deal) so securing a job that you don’t already know how to do is either going to be unlikely or frustrating for all concerned and thus short-lived. If you’re unemployed and finding it hard to get a job, then spend a little time each day, even just 30 minutes, developing the skills you already have, as well as those that you are going to need.

Seek to develop an understanding of’ and opinions about the sector you are keen to join. A good way of doing this is by reading the relevant sector press or trade news website each day for just five minutes. Within a couple of weeks you will already be able to speak more confidently about the challenges that companies and their customers face, very useful when you’re trying to show what makes you better than the next candidate in an interview.

CV

To get that interview you need to stand out on paper. If you’re not a natural wordsmith, or English is not an easy language for you, there may be a temptation to get someone else to craft a compelling CV and covering letter. My own advice is that you should choose to value honesty and stick to the truth about yourself… if there is any inconsistency between your CV, covering letter, any telephone conversation and you in person, then you won’t get hired anyway.

Rather than just spinning a yarn (or getting someone else to spin one), address the challenge head-on and spend a few minutes each day honing your writing skills, understanding how you can best demonstrate the skills and experience that you have and your genuine fit to the role you want.

However you lay out your CV, which will vary according to the nature of the role you’re going for, you should make it abundantly clear to the hirer that you have the skills and experience required. By not applying for roles where you don’t have the required skills & experience, you can spend more time adapting your CV to make it easy for the particular recruiter concerned to see potential.

Faced with a hundred CVs, a recruiter typically starts by triaging, quickly looking through each CV for any reasons that might exclude an applicant. Make it easy for them to see that you have what they need and you stay in the (much smaller) pile of potential candidates.

A CV should be short, relevant and easily read. One key thing to avoid is long lists of anything, particularly skills which are not substantiated or random responsibilities.

Covering letter

A covering letter should be used to encourage the reader to read your CV. As with the CV itself, it should be short, relevant and easily read. If particular information has been requested in a covering letter, make sure it’s there since, given the choice of two equally capable CVs, the recruiter will favour the one where it’s obvious the candidate has read, understood and complied with any instructions given. This is a useful indicator of how much attention to detail the candidate will bring to the role on offer.

In cases where you think the recruiter may have obvious questions about aspects of your CV, skills or experience, explain briefly in the covering letter. Examples could include: sharing your five or ten-year goal; where you are seeking to use demonstrable, transferrable skills to move to a different sector; where you are applying for a job that has a lower salary than the one you are working for; where you intend to do a full-time job alongside a part-time role; big or recent gaps in your employment history, and so on.

My perspective on covering letters (and in fact on the whole application process) may be at variance to other commentators: my sense is that, provided you apply only for roles which have a contextual fit to your longer term aims, then you should simply present yourself as you are, skill gaps and all. By doing so you are demonstrating that you understand the challenges that the recruiter faces, the skills and experience required by the role and ultimately that you are both insightful and truthful… the latter two are much underrated personal qualities.

Telephone interview

Many people recruiting, especially those like me who look at an organisation in a holistic way, will want to get a sense of how candidates come across on the phone. The reason for this, even in non-telephone based roles, is that a customer should get exactly the same underlying cultural message from each and every potential touch-point. This cultural message can be very different depending on the company strategy, its customers, products and approach to delivery (in a broad sense of the word), but consistency across touch-points (which includes what tipsy workers say in the pub on a Thursday night) within each company is essential.

As a result it is worth reading a potential employer’s website, looking at the product in retailers, reading customer reviews on-line or in trade press, asking friends for their views and even calling the company on a genuine pretext to get a sense of how the company expresses itself. If you have a different way of expressing yourself (and thus might give a recruiter the sense that you won’t fit in) then be prepared to explain how this can be of value to the potential employer or how you propose to adapt. Have the answers ready even if the questions don’t come up.

When it comes to talking to a hirer on the phone, some people feel more comfortable than others. If you fall into the nervous category, make a point of having at least one telephone conversation each day so that you start to feel more at ease. You can even get friends to ask you questions about yourself… it’s amazing how quickly things get easier when you practice regularly, even just once a day.

The key to any constructive conversation, on the phone or in person, is the ability to listen and through this to sense how the other person is feeling. Listen carefully to questions and give honest, straightforward answers. If you struggle answering a particular question, make a note of it and figure out how you might have better answered it afterwards, in case it comes up in the future.

In answering questions, show that you have a wider insight into the role (gained, for example, through the five minutes of reading a day mentioned above) but couch this as ‘your understanding’ if it’s not something that you have experienced first-hand. An example might be to start a sentence with ‘my understanding is that…’, before explaining how your skills fit to that aspect. This demonstrates that you’ve taken the time to form an opinion, which may up-weight a candidate who has an otherwise weaker CV.

Interviews

When it comes to interviews, the preparation outlined above should also help to improve your confidence: your ability to talk about yourself and where you’re trying to get to; your grasp of the sector and role that you’re applying for.

There is more to do. Make sure that you present well visually: our subconscious is hardwired to decide within fractions of a second whether a person is a friend or foe. A quietly confident, smartly dressed individual with a natural smile is more likely to pass this first subconscious test, whilst failing it will make the rest of an interview a real struggle no matter how strong you are as a candidate.

Take the time to press your trousers, skirt or shirt, polish your shoes and so on. Personal hygiene is clearly vital in any working environment and particularly at an interview. A steady, dry, firm handshake, matched roughly to the pressure of the interviewer is your one point of physical contact and thus worth practising if you’re not a natural hand-shaker.

As mentioned above, be honest to a fault even if you are desperate for this role. Exaggerating abilities or experience inevitably leads to being discovered at some point (often during the interview) and the ensuing loss of faith can undermine your credibility, your chances of securing the role, any new work relationships and ultimately your employment. With the range of new stuff and staff to learn about, starting in a new role is stressful enough without trying to keep a suppressed failing secret. Much easier to be open about skill gaps, especially if you then share how you plan to close the gap in your own time.

Have interesting questions ready to ask the interviewer about the role, company or sector, since they will usually give you the chance. This is a good way for them to see how deeply you have thought about this role or company, how you structure questions and thus how you might interact with other employees. Don’t ask the standard questions that are suggested by books on interview techniques. Instead, read about the role, company and sector, any customer sectors and so on and form genuine and relevant questions of your own. Be interested and you will be naturally interesting.

In conclusion

It’s not possible to cover the range of scenarios in a short blog post: my hope is simply that I have inspired you to look at your job search in a different, more fulfilling way.

My approach is not easy: if I were seeking to solve the challenges faced by road-users, I would not be advocating lower speed limits but rather a more sustainable solution that helped people to focus more fully on their driving, on observation and on anticipation. Here then I am advocating that you focus on life, the goals that are important to you and the step by step by step approach that you can take to slowly reel them in. Rather than just throwing mud randomly like I did, I’m suggesting that you take the effort to identify where your niche is and then walk confidently to the wall to neatly fill it.

If it’s of any comfort, you should know that people like me, who recruit for or within companies, see each CV as an individual, a person just like them. Applicant numbers seldom allow for personal feedback and occasionally lead to the human recruiters forgetting to send word of de-selection, but they still want you to succeed in your search for a role.

Good luck with your job search and in getting to your longer term goals and aspirations. I’m thinking of you.


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