Icebreakers for the end of winter job search blahs

It’s barely March and in the Eastern US, at least, it still feels like frigid February. Staying on track with a job search is rarely easy, but when it’s bleak outside, it can be even harder not to internalize the weather.  Here are some ways I’ve found to make it through the final stretch as painlessly as possible until the real Spring thaw. Try these out for the next two weeks and watch your job search energy soar along with March temperatures.

Go with the wind. Stop fighting against the elements and indulge yourself a little. Cut back your search time by 30 minutes a day and use the time to phone a friend, do easy reading or catch an episode of your favorite series on Netflix.  Add popcorn and hot chocolate.

Start to un-hibernate. Warm up your contacts with face to face interaction. Social media is great, but overdoing it can add to end of winter feelings of isolation. Try to plan at least one early a.m. coffee or after hours get together each week. When the weather warms up, add more.

Break the ice each day with just one main focus area.  For instance, devote Monday to LinkedIn updates, Tuesday to scanning relevant industry job boards, Wednesday to researching targeted employers of interest, etc.  Friday is a great day to chart your plan for the week ahead, including any checklist items you might want to fit in over the weekend.

Plan an early Spring meetup with local friends and colleagues also in search mode. It can be as simple as an energizing walk in the park followed by coffee and lead swaps, or as elaborate as a Saturday of self-run workshops, idea sharing and an inspiring guest speaker or two.  The main point is to surround yourself with positive people who will support and encourage each other.

And here’s an encouraging thought for starters:  along with the ice, there are some anecdotal signs that the job market is finally starting to thaw.  I’m hearing about more success stories every month, including among long-term searchers and those over 50.

What are you seeing out there? Any tips to share for getting through the last windy gasps of Winter?

Getting past “Blue Monday” — and getting real about New Year’s career resolutions

Tradition holds that the turning point on the calendar is January 1, a time when resolutions to be lighter, healthier and better employed will transform us when the clock strikes twelve.  However, just this year I learned of two other milestones.

The first is January 6, officially considered the most depressing day of the year. January 6 apparently marks the convergence of some pretty gloomy forces:  return to the daily work grind; realization that dreary weather is here for the foreseeable future; an avalanche of holiday bills; and for many mortals, the acknowledgment that well-intentioned New Year’s resolutions are already far in the rear view mirror.

And if that wasn’t enough, we’re coming up on the dreaded Blue Monday, “celebrated” on the third Monday of every January. The term was coined by Cliff Arnall, a British psychologist and academic researcher specializing in seasonal disorders, who correlated the date with variables ranging from debt levels to plain old post-holiday mood deflation. While his findings were met with skepticism by some and the seven-variable algebraic equation he used is too elaborate for this former English major, it does raise the question of why we humans choose this time of year to set the loftiest of goals.  Does this feel like self-sabotage?

But here’s the good news:  we survived January 6, and Blue Monday  – January 20 this year — is almost a memory.  While it may feel like we are barely slogging through daily obligations, there is now a window, albeit frosted, for more clear-headed consideration of attainable career goals for the year ahead.

As a lifelong dieter, I see many parallels between weight- and job-related resolutions.  For starters, there is the pressure, internal and external, to go for broke, to set larger- (or smaller-!) than-life goals that set us up to feel like failures if we miss the mark.  In the dieting realm, this might look like “I will lose 30 pounds in 6 months,” or more tactically, “I will cut back to 1,000 calories a day and commit to daily workouts.” In the career space, it is often expressed in big-picture statements like “I will have my dream job by the end of the year” or more tactically, “I will set up three networking meetings every week.”

It’s not that setting blockbuster goals is inherently bad.  In both the weight loss and job gain spheres, the problems come when we don’t have a concrete – and this is the key – sustainable – path to achieve them.  And even before finding our path, we often need to answer the bigger questions: Whose goals are these anyway?  And, what are meaningful measures to assess my progress?

There is a classic saying in business that you can’t manage (or by implication, change) what you don’t measure.  In something as individualized as career search, we need to design measurements that are meaningful and not self-defeating.  This means setting goals — and milestones — that are both affirming and elastic.  Affirming means having just the right balance of challenge and achievability, and elastic means that every resolution is malleable and subject to human adjustment. Career exploration in your own voice ultimately means setting goals and tracking progress on your own terms.

As an example, someone contemplating a job change for the first time in 15 years might not feel immediately ready for a steady diet of weekly networking meetings.   Perhaps a more reasonable and helpful milestone would look like scheduling a couple of sessions with a career counselor to define goals and priorities.  For someone exploring a brand new field, a career resolution could be as simple as committing to attend a few meetings of the local chapter of a specific professional association.

Still more liberating, we can resolve to take these steps any time of the year, maybe ideally when we’re feeling warmer, less debt-laden and more acclimated to the cadence of regular work weeks without visions of Christmas cookie platters everywhere!

With Blue Monday almost behind us, let’s first resolve to shift our outlook on resolutions.

Talking horse? In job search, placing connections ahead of agenda

With a tip of the hat — and the reins — to New York Times contributor Tara Bennett-Goleman, I  was inspired today by a thoughtful piece on how horses build connections, The Horse Sense That Builds Trust.  The author draws a powerful comparison between “collaboration in a herd…the way horses look out for each other” and the perhaps more human tendency to take an “us-versus-them approach” to interacting in the workplace.

Using a “horse-whispering” term, ‘join up’, Goleman-Bennett describes the profound difference between going in for the quick sale versus taking the time to truly ‘join” with the customer to build a connection that transcends a single transaction.  Her column made me think about a lot of conventional wisdom we offer to job seekers.  “Target your prospects.”  “Use your connections to make a contact.”  “Have your talking points ready.”  And yes, “close the sale (interview).”

None of this is bad advice, of course.  Strategic principles of marketing and tactical selling strategies can translate quite well to the job-search process.  But without meaning to sound too new agey, how often do we lose a greater purpose in the journey?  How many opportunities do we miss to truly “join” with connections rather than viewing them as stepping stones to a narrowly focused agenda?

Just recently I had the privilege of interviewing a human resources executive who modestly described a path of “bumbling” into good fortune in his career. However, as he expanded on how he availed himself of continuing education opportunities, learned from those around him, and always stayed open to how and where he might best contribute his talents, it was clear that he was anything but a bumbler. Rather he made deep and lasting connections, and was not constrained by such a tightly scripted career plan that he might have missed out on a few meaningful sidesteps along the way.

According to Goleman-Bennett, the key to building trust and connectedness is demonstrating that you can “speak horse,” that you operate with kindness and an authentic interest in meeting the needs of others.  In the currency of the employment market, I would define ‘horse speak’ as demonstrating an appropriate degree of self-interest within the broader context of genuinely wanting to help solve a problem. If you were hiring, would you prefer the candidate who purports to be all things to all people — or the one who knows when the fit isn’t quite right (and doesn’t hesitate to recommend others who might fit the bill more closely)?

Networking comes to mind as well. Fluency in ‘horse speak’ suggests listening, then speaking versus talking and waiting. Rather than steering the reins back to a pre-set agenda (for example, the common advice not to leave a networking interview without the names of two additional contacts), it suggests staying in the moment, and appreciating the dialogue with the person right in front of you. While some argue that job search is just a numbers game, horse speak says that if you focus on making every connection deep, you may never have to learn how to count all that high.

In closing, Goleman-Bennett cites a pearl of wisdom by a longtime mentor and expert on horsemanship:  “Don’t put your purpose before your connection.”  These could be words for all of us to live by, whether giving or receiving advice on navigating a job search. Purpose shifts — as it should — with time and perspective.  Horse-worthy connections can last a lifetime.

A Tale of Two Job Markets

As both a career counselor and a recruiter, I see the state of the job market from many vantage points.  Frankly, it’s a confusing picture that  looks like two parallel graph lines that refuse to intersect.  On one line — let’s call it Line E for Employed —  there are my well-employed clients and colleagues who are increasingly being pursued for roles that directly leverage their current and marketable experience. Terms like “multiple offers” are in the vernacular again. 

Then there’s Line U (for Unemployed). While the market seems to be loosening up for some of these folks (and I stress that my evidence here is anecdotal and experiential, not Department of Labor empirical data), many remain stubbornly in transition purgatory. I’ve written before about the “over-50 and overqualified” factor and that is certainly part of the picture.  While there are no magic paths from Line U to Line E, here are a few strategies that seem to be working for some:

–Changing sectors.  Moving from corporate roles to non-profit, higher education, etc.  This tends to work better for “infrastructure” functions like finance, human resources and communications.  Compensation level can be a big trade-off (though not always as much as you might think), along with adjusting to more consensus-based management styles and decision-making processes.  However, the over-50 crowd is well represented and anecdotal reports of job satisfaction and perceived stability are plusses.

–Relocating.  Not a viable option for many but for those who can make it work, competing for roles in less geographically desirable markets can be a way back in and doesn’t have to be a forever move. Some organizations — knowing that they have tough markets for relocation — are even open to partial arrangements like holding onto a house back home and living in company-sponsored housing during part of the typical work week.

–Joining synergistic alliances.  Consultants who collaborate rather than compete can create a broad scope of services as well as widespread geographic representation for prospective clients.  While some organizations will always favor large-scale consulting firms, others find price and service advantages in hiring these kinds of consultant consortiums, especially when the principals have previous big-company experience in their backgrounds.  

So once again, no magic bullet — but a few ideas to evaluate as we all search for ways to help two job markets converge into one that offers opportunities for anyone who wants to stay in or get back in the game. 

What are you seeing out there?

  

When your job search sounds off key — finding the right pitch for you

You know when you’re singing out of your natural vocal range.  Maybe there’s a crack from straining to reach a high note or a grunt from landing too low.  It’s the same with searching for a job.  You know when you’re off key — and probably others pick up on it as well.

Job searching off key means singing so far out of your natural range that you hear it from the very first note.  But how to reconcile this twinge of recognition with the seemingly one-size-fits-all advice coming from every direction? Without meaning to belabor the metaphor, a simple sound check is a good place to start.  Start with the tactics you probably use  most often — your finely honed “elevator speech,” your LinkedIn profile and the resume you painstakingly crafted before customizing it for specific roles.

Let’s take the elevator speech, your opportunity to wow anyone in front of you in 30 seconds or less.  The challenge is, unless you are a pitching an investment opportunity on the reality show “Shark Tank,” many of these can sound too canned and ramped up for most listening ears.  Try describing something that sets you apart from the crowd in a couple of sentences and talk in your most natural voice, cadence, pitch and all. If your natural speaking style is fast and animated, great. If it’s thoughtful and a bit lower key, bravo as well.  Your goal is to deliver a message that gets attention — but also one that you can stand behind and reinforce without sounding strained or phony.

Ditto for your resume.  Does yours sound like an endless string of “keywords” but devoid of soul –  words that describe you and not a thousand interchangeable others? While you want to use appropriately chosen key words reflective of both your field and the roles you are targeting, your own voice has to chime in as well.  Try this  simple test:  read your resume intro aloud.  If you find yourself tripping over the words, or worse, eyes glazing over from a jargon-laden monotone, you’ve likely lost the reader as well.

As a recruiter specializing in the communication field, I’ve probably seen some of the most eloquently written resumes out there.  And yet, even the former journalists and poets who have channeled their talents into corporate communication roles can easily fall prey to using indistinguishable resume-speak rather than the crisp, compelling language that made them successful in the first place.  In this case, if your role as a communicator is to translate jargon into readable and actionable language for diverse audiences,  the resume presents a golden opportunity to illustrate your ability to do just that.

Finally, your LinkedIn profile offers an unparalleled opportunity to put your real voice out there. Here you can actually talk about yourself in the first person, and there are no time or space limitations.

Bottom line:  the key to finding the just-right pitch — in every sense of the word — is to make your job search an extension of your most comfortable self. Consider the alternative: if you sell yourself to a prospective employer in someone else’s voice, what happens when you’re on the job and they ask you to sing?

Over 50, overqualified…and everywhere

When I was 32 and just starting out in the recruiting field, I admittedly had blinders on about the whole working over 50 thing. Sure, very few hiring clients asked for professionals with 25 or more years of experience, and 15 years was a typical top range stated for pretty senior talent. And though I never hesitated to present qualified — and motivated — candidates who exceeded that experience range, I will cop to not giving much pushback when less experienced individuals on a candidate slate were selected to move forward.

When I did push back, the counterarguments made sense on the surface of it.  Candidates with considerably more experience than a job description called for might grow restless and leave for greener pastures when a better opportunity arose, the thinking went. Flash forward about two decades, and somehow I’ve grown into the over-50 group.  I don’t recall anyone giving permission for this, but nevertheless I’ve arrived.

As a recruiter and career advisor, one of the gifts that has come with 50 has been a broader and more seasoned view of the workplace in all its multi-generational splendor. With the benefit of more contemporaries in the over-50 demographic, now I can see so clearly the fatal flaw in the “greener pastures” argument for not hiring beyond a pre-set range of experience.  It’s all about life stage, and how every individual defines and modulates career aspirations.  Still more confounding, the conventional wisdom around how to assign age ranges to life stages just doesn’t work anymore.

Consider a stereotypical highly accomplished working woman who “off-ramped” for a decade to focus on family and now wants back in.  Even a generation back, she might have stepped out at 30 and re-entered at 40. Today she might not even take that off ramp until around 40, potentially pushing back re-entry to the half-century mark. Or the seasoned manager in his or her  early 60s who needs — and wants — to stay in the workplace for years to come but who would rather play the role of a senior individual contributor role than people manager. Or…the ever more common over-50-something pursuing an encore career in a different field that leverages existing skills and experience.  

I might say we could “imagine” each of these scenarios leading to an application that looks “overqualified” on line or on paper (even the career changer), but the truth is, we don’t have to imagine very hard because we all know so many people in these circumstances. There has been a seismic cultural sea change putting these applicants front and center of potential candidate pools. I speak with hundreds of these individuals every year and take in their acute frustrations, from on-line applications with forced data fields for graduation years to fears about not looking or acting young enough to compete. Should their resumes ditch all that hard-earned experience from more than 10 years ago? Does anyone still wear stockings? (No, not necessarily, on the first count, and regrettably, yes, on the second).

So here’s not the part where I presume to dispense catch-all advice to my 50-plus cohort.  Instead I offer a call to those in the hiring seats to think more expansively than I did 20 years ago.  Consider candidate motivation and life stage on an individual rather than on a group basis.  While there will always be candidates in every age group using an opportunity as a short-term placeholder, the non-traditional, overqualified hire may well be worth taking the risk.   

 

 

  

 

 

 

Your turn — asking the right interview questions for you

You’re anticipating an interview for your dream job. You’ve done your homework — researched the organization’s website, searched the blogosphere for commentary, and tapped your network for the inside story. You’ve practiced telling your stories in a problem/solution format in anticipation of behavioral interview questions that probe details of your past experience to better predict your success.

But there’s still one really important item on your preparation checklist: coming up the “right” questions to ask your prospective employer. Typically, you’ll have at most 5 or 10 minutes to address your questions, so you want to ask the ones that really count. So what are the right questions? OK, that’s a trick question. The truth is, there is no one-size-fits-all list of questions for every interview scenario. The only right answer is to ask the questions that if given the opportunity will help you decide whether this job is really the one for you.

Here are some guidelines to help get you started:

Think about behavioral interviewing in reverse. Just as an employer asking you to list your strengths is less helpful than asking you a question that demonstrates them, asking a prospective employer a general question such as “what is your culture?” will likely result in a pretty general, superficial response. If you want to understand the culture, why not take a page from your interviewer’s book and ask about, say, a time when the company went through a very stressful period and how they handled it?

Interested in whether the company promotes from within? Instead of asking the question in a yes/no format, you might ask for examples of people who came up through the ranks in the department where you are interviewing. What is the interviewer’s own history there? Remember, you don’t want to come across as an interrogator. You want to demonstrate healthy, completely appropriate curiosity.

Show you’ve done your homework but be wary of asking “showboat” questions that won’t really add to your own decision-making process. For example, if your role will have an international focus or you are interested longer term in an international assignment, you might learn a lot by asking your interviewers to expand on the website description of their presence in Tokyo or Sydney. But if this is not a focus of either the role or your longer-term interests, you probably don’t want to use one of your precious question opportunities there.

Strike a balance between questions that show you have done a thorough research job and those that reflect your true interests. Not only will you come across as more engaged and sincere — because you will be! — but you will also come away with knowledge that will inform your career search. Besides, employers can usually detect formulaic questions, the ones that sound like “I’m asking this because I’m supposed to,” a mile away.

Any questions?