Persistence, Creativity and the Art of Selling Yourself

October 17th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

We’ve often said on these pages that being pro-active in your job search requires an understanding OF the value you provide to a potential employer and the ability to craft an artfully tailored sales approach for an interview. An acquaintance of Holla’s, we’ll refer to as Marc, recently made a new hire into his organization of a candidate that secured themselves the opportunity by following this exact advice.

Marc leads a technology organization within a Fortune 500 company. It’s a role that requires him to direct a staff of over fifty, develop creative concepts and review/approve designs and copy, understand the technical back-end of his product and manage a multi-million dollar budget while interfacing with many of the company’s leaders. Recently offered an opportunity to take control of a new firm-wide initiative, Marc has been actively interviewing individuals to replace him and assume his current role. Despite being referred many candidates, Marc has had a difficult time identifying a successor because of the unique experience required in his position – a combination of skills spanning organizational, technical, artistic, managerial and financial knowledge.

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The Importance of Properly Contacting Individuals You Are Referred To

October 12th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

When I have been provided the contact information for a highly-ranked individual from one of our mutual friends, should I introduce myself as such?

Handle a personal or professional referral with the utmost care during your job search. Other’s reputations should never be treated carelessly and you represent not just yourself but the referee when reaching out to others regarding your job search. Double and triple check your correspondence and resume for spelling and grammatical errors, use a properly customized cover letter introducing yourself through the referee – put your very best foot forward.

It’s always appropriate to use the name of your referee when making first contact but make sure you have permission to do so first. Many times when I am referred by a candidate I represent to someone else, they want to keep our relationship confidential, preserving discretion surrounding their own search. If you’re unable to use the name, any qualifying information you can provide (i.e. someone out of ABC Bank referred me to you) will help to vouch for you. If you can’t disclose anything at all about the referee, an introduction along the lines of “I’ve heard through my network you may be hiring currently” can suffice. Always attempt to provide the name of the individual – much of the weight of a reference comes from how highly the contact regards your referee.

Again, remember that when you are referred to a third party, you represent the person kind enough to provide you with the help of a reference. Don’t jeopardize your relationship by failing to impress when the referee will surely be judged by your presentation and actions.

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Tough Interview Questions: Motivation and Compensation for Your “Plan B” Career

October 10th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Today’s question comes from a job seeker encountering difficulties when expanding their search outside of their existing skill set.

In my previous role I earned just over $100k a year. Having been unemployed for 9 months I’m now looking for entry level roles in a company I can grow with. However whenever I am asked about my most recent salary I get awkward silence or the blatant “we won’t pay anywhere near that.”

During a difficult economy, many job seekers abandon their career path to seek either a “plan B” opportunity or reconfigure their expectations regarding seniority and compensation. The biggest hurdle to finding a less-traditional position is simply getting past the resume screen. The author of today’s question should be complimented on his or her success in that regard. I have no doubt that well written, targeted cover letters and a pro-active approach helped them generate interest from the target firm.

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Avoiding a “No” Answer When Asked About a Technical Skill You Lack

February 25th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

I have an interview coming up for a software development position that I’m really excited about. However, there is a preferred qualification I simply have no experience with (optimization mathematics). How can I best handle this if asked about it? I’ve been trying to read up on it in my spare time but I’m not sure I’m actually qualified to answer any questions about it.

A poor answer to a technical question is a failure that can only be blamed on the interviewer himself. The author of today’s question won’t set himself up for failure – simply reading the description and drafting answers for questions about all areas listed within is the most basic preparation one can do.

There’s a very simple answer to this question:

Know what you know; know what you don’t know.

When technical skills are limited, and book study is the only experience you have, avoiding an incorrect factual answer can sometimes fear a candidate into a simple “no” answer instead of taking the deficiency head-on. Understand that you lack the skill and focus your preparation not on memorization, but on relating past experience to the desired function.

When reading up on a very particular field like optimization mathematics, first look at what other technical areas formed the base of the specialty. An example in the programming field might be C++ as the precursor to the more modern C# language. Have you had experience with the broader skill set in the past? If no, try to expand further into a “grandfather” level of progression, i.e. C, C++, C#. Is there relatable experience there? Similarities to system designs you’ve operated or hardware by the same manufacturer?

Rather than simply saying “no,” make an attempt to draw these very reasonable parallels. Few, if any candidates, possess 100% of the required and preferred skills of a job description. When an answer ties honesty, research and thoughtful associations together, your interviewer will remember only your response and not the fact that you lacked the skill in their original question.

Aim to relate two or three projects that all required you to use programming languages or network protocols that are in the same family or general technology as the skill you lack. For example:

Mr. Interviewer, the opportunity to work with optimization mathematics is one of the reasons I was attracted to this job, but it’s not an area I’ve had a lot of exposure to in my current role. I’ve had several other recent projects that used other quantitative skills that I think will greatly shorten the learning curve I’ll require to bring myself to speed.

Notice how in the above example, we don’t lead with a negative, as in, “I don’t have any experience with that skill, but…” A quick tie in to your positive motivations in seeking a new opportunity (as discussed in this article) is an additional way to subtly reinforce your candidacy.

“No” should rarely be a word in a job seeker’s vocabulary. A “no” indicates a lack of understanding about the job or failure of preparation on the part of the candidate. If one answers “no” to something that was on the materials they received to prepare, only they could have prevented the collapse.

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Why Simply Applying Online Isn’t Getting You Anywhere

February 18th, 2011 § 1 comment § permalink

I have been doing a lot of job searching online, but feel like emailing my resume is ineffective. I’ve been considering physically going to the company and handing in my resume in person. What are your thoughts on this?

You’ve certainly got the right sentiment regarding your job search but I doubt that most building security desks would let you into their tenant’s offices without an appointment. What your question really looks at is how we can be more proactive (a recurring theme of Holla) when seeking opportunities during our search.

Applying for jobs online has simplified the process for candidates in almost a detrimental manner. When the baseline effort required to submit a resume is easy as signing up for an account at or Monster, one can apply for a hundred jobs in 15 minutes plus a few seconds per posting. The inevitable result is a recruiter on the other end of a job board pipeline that flows endlessly with unqualified candidates. The small percentage of legitimate candidates for the position can be easily passed over as the pipeline continues to flood. Just the time required to review so many resumes occupies time that could be better served speaking to more in first round phone screens than is actually possible. With so many individuals all vying for small slices of a recruiter’s time, being proactive, creative and aggressive with how you contact a potential employer can provide a significant competitive advantage.

Submitting via a job board is not really emailing a resume.

The question from today’s job seeker indicates that “emailing” his resume has produced little in the way of positive results. It is safe to assume that by “emailing,” he really means “submitting via a job board.” There is a very real difference between the two. Resumes submitted through a job board all arrive in the same format: consistent subject lines with the title and candidate’s name, a table of information in the body and a resume attached. Glossing over these similar emails in one’s inbox is just one reason why job boards are ineffective. The difference between really emailing a resume and just submitting via a posting will put your details into an inbox where they’ll stand out – not some Outlook sub-folder that’s combed through once every few days. A little extra effort to ensure your resume gets to the eyes of a hiring manager can significantly increase response rate during a job search.

Begin by scouring the description you have available for clues as to who the hiring manager might be. Often these posted specs include a phrase like, “Working for the Vice President, Financial Reporting, you will be responsible for…”  that will tell you exactly the name of the individual you should source to present your resume to. Researching the individual’s actual name is easily the most difficult part of your research. Using tools like LinkedIn and Spoke to uncover names and titles can be very effective but isn’t perfect or complete. You’ll locate some people but not others so set your expectations appropriately.

With the hiring manager’s name at hand, determine their email address. Visit the firm’s website and write down their URL domain. It’s likely that email addresses are “” and the only other detective work required is determining the formatting of the “something” before the @ symbol. Using the wildcard symbol when searching Google can help you uncover this information. Search for “*“. The results should boldface email addresses for various company employees that appear on the web. Skip through “” and “” as these won’t help you reach individuals. It’s finding several addresses listed publicly that follow a “firstname_lastname” or “f.lastname” format that will allow you to contact directly the hiring manager you seek.

When you can’t locate the title of the manager, use an educated guess to drive your research or if all else fails, the same resources should allow you to locate with greater ease the proper HR contact for the position. While an email to a hiring manager would be more likely to increase your chances for success, taking the time to send directly to HR will also make your application more visible amongst the crowd.

Don’t squander the opportunity you’ve just created for yourself.

Assume that the result of this hard work and creative effort is that someone in a position of power takes time from their day to carefully read your cover letter and resume. Since you’ve taken the time to present yourself directly, make absolutely sure that the presentation you’re putting forth is the best one possible. Your cover letter should be carefully crafted, specific to the job you’re applying for, and contained both in the body of the email and as a separate Word or PDF attachment. Your resume should be properly formatted and have a legible filename that includes your full name and the position you’re applying for.

Since the candidates sourced from job boards are, on the whole, very sub-par, the expectation a hiring manager has for an individual who seeks them out directly is significantly higher. Make sure that you beat that expectation with a well-targeted application for the firm’s opening.

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How to Get Past the Phone Screen, Every Time

February 16th, 2011 § 1 comment § permalink

I’ve been getting a decent response rate to my applications, but I seem to be getting weeded out during the phone interviews. Could you provide some information about how to get past these gateway phone interviews and what the interviewers are really looking for?

With hundreds of applicants for each opening, the initial phone interview has become a crucial tool for professional recruiters. Expect a phone screen to be much shorter than an in-person meeting – 20 to 30 minutes at most – and to touch superficially on a large number of topics as rather than delving deeply into a few. Usually conducted by an HR or recruiting professional, it’s nearly guaranteed you’ll be asked these three key questions that are the pillars of every interview.

Tell me about your experience.

This topic has been covered elsewhere but it always bears repeating. Know backwards and forwards each job, accomplishment and bullet point you list on your resume. When asked something such as, “do you have experience with the Great Plains accounting software?” the correct answer is not simply “yes.” Articulate about everything you’re asked by the interviewer. A great deal of what eventually will determine your success or failure in the phone screen is attributable to your general manner of speaking, something that goes beyond avoiding “like” or “um” when considering a question. Truly “knowing one’s experience” comes from the detail and context provided in your answers in addition to simply being well spoken. » Read the rest of this entry «

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The Complexities of Providing References While Employed

February 16th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

This company is the only real experience (spanning almost 5 years) I have for the type of job I’m interviewing for. The company I’m interviewing with asked me for a manager’s reference when they consider hiring me and I can’t provide it as my company is small and it would really jeopardize the position I’m in. How should I address this with potential employers?

Professional references are gathered and checked for every type of job one could apply for, from a McDonald’s cashier to the director of a trading desk at a major investment bank. Nearly always conducted as a last step of the process, your references will hopefully confirm the positive image you conveyed to your interviewer during the courtship. As individuals move through various firms during career changes, keeping in contact with former colleagues isn’t just good business networking – it’s maintaining your network of character references as well that will help you as you interview for positions of increasing responsibility.

Potential employers will typically ask, when you apply, for at least two supervisory references from your last two employers. A supervisory reference doesn’t necessarily have to be your direct manager. Many positions require you to interface with managers who do not have oversight of your employment or conduct your salary reviews – working with a Finance Director on a Tax project or a UX designer on a back end data migration. In some instances, these “internal clients” can provide an equally compelling opinion of your work even though they didn’t initially hire you or conduct your performance reviews.

While two is the minimum number acceptable number of references, you should strive to provide more, if possible, and to vary the level and specialty of the people who will speak on your behalf. By including managers from within and outside of your particular group you can demonstrate a positive impact made at various levels of the organization. In tough economic times, companies strive to do more with less and aim to draw as much value as possible from each employee. Your references can relate, for example, that you are an accounting professional who can also scope requirements for a financial system upgrade. References from those in “less typical” reporting relationships can reveal strong additional value a candidate brings to the table in areas outside of what, in this example, a typical accountant will be able to handle.

Carefully handling references from your current employer while still working there

Searching for a new career opportunity while currently employed presents a few specific and difficult challenges. Managing one’s calendar for interviews during the work day, being quickly responsive to a recruiter or hiring manager while in the office and, most importantly, providing professional references from the firm that currently employs you are all obstacles that must be planned for in advance.

While widely spreading word to the office that you’re looking for opportunities elsewhere is certainly not recommended, it’s likely that you have one or more trusted peers that you can freely discuss your careers with. Often the individuals in your hiring class or in similar positions with different departments become close confidants as you move through the organization. Hopefully they will approach you first with a comment about their own aspirations that might lead you to think they’re looking elsewhere so you can naturally segue into conversations about your own career search. Assuming you have some of these colleagues you can trust, they can serve as excellent character references in the absence of a supervisory one. Employers understand that it’s often not possible to speak with a manager when a candidate is employed and will substitute a peer or an indirect manager. In these cases it becomes even more important to provide true supervisory contacts to provide positive references from companies you’ve worked for prior to your current role. The combination of past supervisors and present peers, along with a background check, can typically satisfy any hiring manager’s needs and assuage potential concerns.

How do you want to present yourself through your references?

When you provide a potential employer with professional references, give thought not just to the specific individuals you will use but also to the story that multiple references, when taken in context together, can tell about you. During the interview, did you spend a large portion of time relating a specific project that is relevant to the potential new role? If so, providing a direct manager as well as someone intimately involved with that particular assignment – a Project Manager or line manager from another involved group you worked closely with – can provide more detail specific to the area that you chose to highlight as a reason the company would want to hire you.

Ideally, when moving on to another company, you’ll leave with a positive impression and a continued working relationship with your former colleagues. Knowing that how you exit a firm will leave the most lasting impression on the people you work with is important – you’re going to need assistance from a number of them in the future and maintaining that productive relationship is important. Ensuring that your reputation isn’t tarnished in part or all of your former employer will allow you to call on individuals at all levels in the future to provide reference details that will help you land another job.

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Tough Interview Questions: Reasons for Leaving

February 15th, 2011 § 4 comments § permalink

What are decent answers to the “Why did you leave your last job?” question? Mine are always a bit complicated, and I never quite know how to respond, particularly in a situation where I hated the company and just had to get out.

Any recruiter or hiring manager will want to know why you’ve left previous positions. An answer to that question divulges quite a bit of information about a candidate – what their motivations are, how seriously they act to achieve their career goals, and whether title, comp or responsibility are most important in their search. Unless you were involuntarily terminated, each career move you’ve made should be supported with well-considered reasons that every proactive job seeker should be prepared to discuss during the interview. Without basic preparation for this very important question, you can easily say something that can hurt your chances of being successful in landing this role.

Never mention compensation as the primary impetus for looking elsewhere.

We’ve all got a job to do and each of us is compensated differently for it. Whether you’re enthusiastic or disappointed with the compensation you currently receive or for a role previously held in your career, never mention this as the primary reason you chose to leave that opportunity. Even if money was the true and sole guiding factor in pushing you away from that employer, there are better ways to present this to a hiring manager looking for a self-motivated, technically apt team player. No manager wants to constantly worry about a perpetually-dissatisfied, money hungry employee. If there truly were no other reasons outside of comp that caused you to look, focus not on the opportunity left but the opportunity gained, like in this example:

While I enjoyed my role with Widgets, Inc., I was primarily drawn to the increased responsibilities that were afforded to me at Gadgets Limited. The prior role required me to spend most of my time working only in CAD, developing technical schematics for their products and provided limited exposure to the product development lifecycle. I was interested in and ultimately accepted the role with Gadgets because it allowed me to gain a greater understanding of the entirety of product development, not just the technical aspect.

Perhaps the role at Widgets Inc. paid more and that was why you were interested. While that’s certainly valid, it’s not the impression an interviewer wants to have of you – the forever dissatisfied and jumpy individual who is less career-minded than they are money hungry. There are always other and, frankly, better reasons to discuss what motivated you to change jobs.

Be careful to not speak ill of a former employer.

When laid off or forced out of a previous employer, it can feel natural, even satisfying, to talk negatively about your experience there. Despite this, it is imperative that you refrain from casting your former or current complier in a negative light. Why, you might ask? If I’m not currently working there, why would being honest about my negative experience hurt me during an interview with a different company? The answer is simple and so obvious it’s easily overlooked. If hired by the company you’re interviewing with, what would prevent you from spreading potential falsehoods and a general feeling of distaste about them when you actively look next? A manager knows that while many hires are successful and result in successful, long-term employees, just as many do not. Having former workers floating on the market while continually spreading bad press about the hiring manager and their firm is something that no company wants. If you’ll speak ill of one employer, it’s a guarantee that you won’t be shy with your feelings no matter which particular company is the target of your distaste.

Relate the career moves you’ve made to a desire to advance your career.

Above all else, we should look for new careers when we feel we’ve gained all there is to benefit from our old ones. Searching for a new opportunity should be driven by a desire to manage a staff, learn a new product or service, or work in a different industry sector. Telling an interviewer you’re interested in a job for the challenges it presents is a good answer to a question, but weaving motivation behind that into your career history strengthens the impact. Managers want to hire employees whom they can challenge to continually do better and reward that by offering you advancement, new opportunities and increased compensation. Only when an employee’s progress outpaces a firm’s recognition and reaction of that success should an individual look elsewhere for employment.

Much that is said when speaking of past employers relates back to a candidate’s character. You must be restrained when criticizing former employers while being tactful and polite when relating stories about delicate situations. Strive to convey that you are a successful potential employee who works to beat the expectations of the company that employs them.

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Proper Display of Promotions and Employment Dates on a Resume

February 13th, 2011 § 2 comments § permalink

Seemingly small errors and omissions on a candidate’s resume can have disastrous affects during the interview process. Today’s question addresses the specifics of listing title and employment dates for each employer on a resume:

I have been at my current job for a few years. In that time, I have worked my way up to program manager after starting as an entry-level assistant. How do I format my resume, when the time comes, to indicate that not all of my experience at this company has been in a managerial role? It would be misleading to put ABC Company, 2007-2010: Program Manager.

Dates of employment are an area where candidates tend to take a little more leeway than in other components of their resume. Whether not including months in addition to years when referencing full time roles or including only certain titles as part of one company, any ambiguity can lead to an uncomfortable false assumption during the interview process.

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Top Of The Class and Without a Job to Show For It

February 13th, 2011 § 1 comment § permalink

This question comes from a recent graduate that expected to receive his degree on top of the world. The realities of today’s competitive landscape in New York job market were a shock to him and tell a disappointingly common tale.

I graduated in December at the top of my class (Summa Cum Laude) with a bachelor’s degree in finance from a respectable state school. I now live in the NYC area, and am having absolutely no luck with my job search. I must have applied for about 100 jobs by now, and I’ve only received 2 call backs. Can you offer me any advice? I’m starting to become discouraged (although this may be a bit of an understatement at this point).

As a recent grad, it can be difficult to understand why, despite impressive accomplishments, the market for you seems limited. Entry-level hires will always be a cost to an organization – coming in with only your education, most practical skills for the job will have to be developed at the employer’s cost and time. With both being limited resources in a down economy, the number of roles appropriate for college graduates is far fewer than the top candidates coming out of the nation’s best schools.

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