I was helping a recent graduate today, and she made the mistake many of her peers make by saying, "I have no experience." It is important to treat professional skills and knowledge learned in school as something an employer needs. Avoid referring to classes or teacher, which only underscores that you were a student. Instead, in both your resume and during interviews, present skills and knowledge as qualities that you can apply on the job. If you're stuck on what you have taken from your degree, get together with some friends and talk about how you can apply what you did in school to what you will do on the job. Another good source of information is job postings. Collect 5-10 job posts for the kind of job you will be seeking. Highlight what the employer is looking for and match it to what you have learned. Don't look back. Look forward. Practice showing an employer how you are ready to go to work. That's your first job.
We are all nervous during job interviews. Some of my clients have tried to come up with scripts to give themselves more confidence. The problem with this approach is that the interview usually does not follow their scripts. Rather than scripting, I urge clients to put an emphasis on listening. Nervousness will not disappear through active listening, but it will be more controlled and your interaction during the interview will be more relaxed and natural. You cannot control an interview with a script. The best we can do is to engage the interviewer through listening.
In a time when it is difficult to find a good job, it might seem funny to say something like, “Thank goodness I didn’t get that job.” A client made this comment a few days ago, and I immediately agreed with her. When I was last looking for work in 2000, I interviewed with a company that I thought I really wanted to work for. The person who would have been my boss was sarcastic and disrespectful throughout the interview.
At first, I felt bad when the company didn’t offer me a position. Then I thought about what it would have been like to work for such a person. Sometimes the best jobs are the ones we want but don’t get. They let us find the places we should be working and the kind of people we should be working with.
I often help clients prepare for job interviews. Almost all start by talking about what they don’t have. They are afraid that the interviewer will immediately detect their weakness and dismiss them as potential employees. Nothing could be further from the truth. Smart employers will, of course, address potential red flags like gaps in work history or a lack of experience. However, they are more interested in what an applicant has rather than what she lacks.
Instead of worrying about what you don’t have, start by focusing on your strengths. I tell clients to prepare for interviews by answering this question: “I will be a good fit for this position because (reason).” If you can convince employers that you have the knowledge, experience, and skill needed to do a job, they will be more likely to overlook what you lack or they will be more willing to train you in that area.
Before every interview, look carefully at the job post and company’s website. List ways you will be an asset to the firm. Practice talking about how your previous work experience is similar to what you will do for the new employer. Demonstrate that you will be able to do the job and that you want to do it. Every employer wants skill. What will set you apart is your ability to show motivation and interest in the company.
After you define your strengths and how they will benefit your prospective employer, it is important to practice how you would address any weak points. Keep these answers short and clear. Whenever possible, demonstrate how you are working on overcoming any problems. But remember that this exercise should not take even half the time you practice different ways to present positive reasons why you should be hired. Employers want the best person available. You are more likely to be that person if you know how to sell your strengths.
One of my clients, let’s call him Fred, is an executive in his mid-sixties. He’s told me more than once that he plans to retire at 70, so I was surprised last week when he informed me that he’s interviewing for a new job. He’s happy with his current position, and he’s been with the company for six years. When I asked why he’d consider leaving. Fred answered, “I might get a better deal,” adding that he thinks the new position could pay him as much as $10,000 more a year.
His response opened my eyes. Even if someone is only going to work for three or for more years, a annual salary increase of $5,000-$10,000 is a lot of money. Fred then put his decision in a better perspective: “How do I know what’s out there if I don’t look? Going on this interview might convince me that my current job is great, or it could give me a chance for something better.” Throughout his career, Fred has consistently moved when he found a good opportunity. He didn’t stay with an employer out of a sense of loyalty or, worse still, fear of change. Over the years, he’s been laid off a few times, but his approach to the job search has always led him to find new opportunities.
My take away from this story is that a smart professional never stops looking for a better deal, especially in an economy where most employers are stingy with raises and generous in giving more work. Changing jobs can often bring a higher salary and other perks. It can, as Fred pointed out, also show that the current employer isn’t so bad. Looking for something new brings perspective, which is good in any aspect of life. Start looking. Who knows what you’ll find?
I interview clients to obtain information needed to write a resume. Many of them, as many as a third, talk about their work as “We”: “We follow a Six Sigma Methodology for project management.” “We measure sales success based on new accounts.” I’ll often stop clients who do this and remind them that employers do not hire “we.” They hire you. Whether you are writing a resume or interviewing for a job, it’s important to let the interviewer know what you can do.
When you use collective or team-based language, the employer has no way to understand what you did. Some people are uncomfortable using the first person, but it is necessary if you want to give the employer a clear picture of what you can do, what value you will bring to the company. It is equally important to use language that anyone in the industry will understand. When a client uses something that sounds like company jargon, I’ll ask: Will anyone working in your industry understand that term? If not, it’s time to do a little translation.
Keep the focus on you and the value you will bring to the employer. Practice saying sentences that start with “I.” The employer needs to know who you are and what your best selling points are. Don’t exaggerate your skills and achievements. But it is equally important that you don’t undersell what you have to offer. Know why you are good at what you do and be able to tell that story to potential employers.
I’ve had a big problem over the last week: my company’s email system was down. In that time, a few clients called to ask what was wrong, which I appreciate. It also let me remind them of one of my most important career management strategies: If it’s important, call rather than email.
It’s very easy to dodge email contacts. If you’re clumsy like me, it’s also easy to delete or clump email together in a way that makes it easy to lose a connection. Finally, as in my sad case, there are times when systems go down. Generally speaking, none of these problems are as bad if you use the phone.
I also prefer phone contacts because they enable better communication. If you follow up on a job interview by phone you can ask questions and engage the employer in a way that email does not allow. You can also set up another interview in real time rather than going back and forth by email.
If it’s important, use the phone. It’s the best way to follow up.
In the Grid section of today’s Chicago Sun-Times, Tom Moran of Addison Group gives some great advice about how employers evaluate candidates. I urge you to read the article, but here are three quick tricks that you can use:
Prove you are organized: Moran will ask candidates to see their wallets as a test of organizational skills. You can do the same thing by keeping your wallet (or purse) organized, and use it as an example at interviews.
Reliability: Be able to say why you stayed at jobs as well as why you left. Moran doesn’t want to hear stories where the candidate blames someone else or is negative about why they left a company. You can follow a similar path by identifying something you were not able to do at a previous employer that you will be able to do at your new job. Again, keep the tone positive and forward looking.
Thank you and follow up: Moran tests candidates by giving them a business card at the end of each interview. He expects thank you note by email within 5-7 hours of the interview. You can ask for a card and follow up quickly, which will show your interest in the job.
Overall, I would sum up Tom Moran’s advice in these words. Show that you can do the job, and show that you want it.
Many clients tell me that they follow up with employers by email after job interviews. They also seldom get a reply. Here’s a better strategy: Use the phone. While it is possible to dodge a message as easily as it is to delete an email, a phone call carries more weight. The interviewer hears your voice and remembers that you’re a person. Better still, if the interviewer picks up the phone, you get the chance to ask questions and engage the interviewer.
An email message is passive, and it gives you no chance to ask questions or answer them. Some clients think they are being polite by using email. Think about it this way: You took the time to interview with a company. Don’t they owe you the respect to reply to a phone call?
Know what you want to say when you talk to the interviewer. The key question is: “Are you still considering me as a candidate?” If the answer is yes, ask when the company expects to make a decision. Don’t leave it there. Follow up with this question: “I am very interested in this position. What else can I tell you that would help you make your decision?” If the interviewer tells you that she is not considering you as a candidate, ask: “Thank you for considering me. Do you have any advice for me as I continue my job search?”
In either of these cases, the interviewer could give you an answer that isn’t helpful. On the other hand, if you don’t ask the question, they won’t be helpful because you’re not asking for it. Use the phone. Ask questions.
I was helping a client prepare for an interview. He kept talking about what he has done over the last three years at his current job. While his experience is good, he has more to offer. More importantly, he missed several opportunities to show how his experience, education, and qualities meet the employer’s need. In the end, the interview is not about you. It’s about the employer and how you can solve her problem.
Too often job seekers get tongue tied because they want to phrase the perfect answer. A better way to interview is to listen carefully and speak to the employer’s concerns. If you do that, you will be focused on what the employer needs and, in most cases, feel a lot less nervous. Stay focused on what the employer needs, and you’ll know what to say about yourself.