The great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”
I agree with Wooden 100%. Many clients come to me almost paralyzed with areas of weakness and career obstacles. In almost every case, these people have been successful in their careers or just completed a new degree. My job, one I greatly enjoy, is helping them see what they have to offer. Most people have made great contributions to their employers. Their problem is telling the story. They think too much about what “they cannot do.” Instead, as Wooden recommended, the secret to know is what you do best. Play your strengths.
Jim (not his real name) is a client who's having trouble with his job search. He graduated with a degree in Marketing in 1998 and worked in marketing positions for two large firms over the next ten years. In 2008, he was laid off with tens of thousands of other Americans. His job search did not go well. His mother had a contact that got Jim a job in customer service, a position he held for the next seven years. Now, he wants to look for work in marketing, not customer service. He has taken a part-time job in retail that will let him take his time and be selective in finding a position in the field he loves. The problem is his mom. She worked in customer service for 30 year and has broad industry contacts. She is pressuring Jim to take another call in a field he has no passion for. She says he needs to get a job as soon as possible. That advice is terrible. Jim's strengths are in marketing, and he enjoyed great success over his first 10 years in the field. I recommended that Jim does what he wants to do. The easiest job to get is often the worst one to take.
I recently met someone who spent ten years managing a small organization. He had to leave the position after suffering a stroke. Now, after two years of rehab, he's ready to go back to work full time. During his recovery, he was able to work part time as a consultant. The gap in his resume is short, not significant. Still, his first question to me was, "How do I deal with my deficit, my health condition?"
My advice was to flip the coin: Demonstrate your strengths. I definitely think we all need to be able to answer questions about our weaknesses, but we should spend twice or three times as much time thinking about our strengths. I told the man who was worried about his health issues to start with these two questions:
1. Why are you good at what you do?
2. How will you bring value to the employer who is interviewing you?
No one will ever be hired because of their deficits. We need to be able to put potential employers at ease about them, but it's more important to know and promote your assets. Practice interviewing by focusing on your assets and strengths, not your deficits and weaknesses.
Clients frequently ask about difficult job interview questions. They want to know how to speak the magic words that will turn into a job. Here's the real question: What does the employer need? The better you can understand what the employer is looking for, the more likely you are to get the job. Rather than study canned answers to interview questions, I recommend preparing for an interview this way:
1. Know your strengths. Practice talking about why you are good at what you do. Be able to tell stories that will help an employer see how you have used your strengths on the job.
2. Listen and ask questions to learn what the employer needs. An interview should be more of a discussion than a test. Your challenge is to understand what the employer is looking for and show that you are the solution to the company's problem. I recommend asking this question: What are the three biggest challenges I'll face in this position? After the employer answers this question, demonstrate how you can meet these challenges and be an asset to the company.
It's never easy to get a job. Rather than worry about questions you might not even be asked, figure out what the employer needs and demonstrate why you are good at what you do. If you can do those two things, employers will want to hire you.
A good job search should focus on why you are good at your job. Many of the clients who work with me on interview skills focus too much on what they don’t have. They worry that an interviewer will ask a question that they will not be able to answer. Here’s another way to approach interviewing: Focus on your strengths.
No employer will ever hire you for what you don’t know or can’t do. They want to know why you will do a good job. The best way to impress an employer is to play up your strengths. To define your strengths, start with your resume. Use the margin to note key words that will make you an asset to the employer. Look at your achievements and think about how each of those examples reflects a strength. What makes you good at what you do? That’s the key question to answer.
When I ask clients to name their strengths, they often point to broad qualities or skill sets, such as, leadership, communication skills, and flexibility. Too often that’s where they stop. The trick to good personal branding, networking, interviewing, and resume writing is to take this kind of strength and project it to the different audiences you interact with. For example, a senior sales professional and an office manager both need good communication skills, but they are different. Sales representatives present, negotiate, and train to sell. Office managers negotiate to buy products and train employees in job skills. They might also lead meetings. Whenever you are promoting yourself as a professional, think about the person or group you are addressing. What do they need to know about you? What is their biggest concern? Give them what they need to know, and they will give you the kind of respect that opens doors.
I recently met a prospective client who had significant managerial experience. He was frustrated because he had applied to several jobs and never received a call back. I asked to see a sample of the type of jobs he was applying to. In almost every case, they were entry level or had nothing to do with the managerial experience that was presented on his resume.
This client’s experience is typical of one of the biggest mistakes a job seeker can make. If you aim low in the kind of job you apply to, but keep your resume focused on higher level experience or skill, don’t expect a call back. Most employers will consider you to be overqualified and will expect you to jump to a new job at the higher level as soon as one becomes available. Applying in this way will become frustrating, and soon you will think no one will want to hire you.
What’s the answer? Apply at the level that fits your skills. Show employers why you can fill the role that is open. If you decide to “down shift” and attempt to get a lower position, write your resume so the employer can see how you can fill the role that is open. I would still expect most employers to see you as overqualified, but at least you will be showing them your qualifications to fill the open role. My advice in most cases is to play to your strengths. Don’t look down.
I frequently help clients prepare for interviews. Almost everyone begins with a worry about gaps in work history, lack of experience, or weak computer skills. What’s wrong with this kind of thinking? It ignores a very important fact: The employer likes something about the client that she will invest time on an interview. That means they see strengths that should be emphasized during the interview.
I’m not saying that we should not worry about preparing for any possible obstacle before an interview. Be ready to speak to any possible weaknesses. However, you should spend twice as much time thinking about your strengths and how to present them. Start with the job post. What do you have that the employer is looking for? Then go to the website and other sources to learn about the company. Again, think about how you can make a contribution. Practice telling stories about your achievements. The employer needs to see why you’re the best candidate for the job. You won’t be at your best if you’re only working about weak points. Play your strongest hand. Show why you’re the best.
A client called today to go over some points before a job interview. He was worried about a small gap in his resume and the level of his Excel skills. I reassured him that a small gap was not a problem. I also pointed out that his Excel skills may not be a problem. He would learn more about that during the interview.
While it is important to think about any weak points before an interview, it is more important to know and be able to present your strengths. Here’s a simple way to evaluate your strengths: Why are you good at what you do? Make an inventory of your achievements and success stories. Be sure these points are highlighted on your resume and that you are able to present them during a job interview.
We tend to focus too much on the question: What can go wrong? That leads us to think about our weaknesses. A good interview must convey competence and confidence, not weakness. Know your strengths and be able to sell them. That’s the key to a good interview.
A new jewelry store has opened near my office. Every day the store owner puts a sign in the window saying what she is thankful for that day. We need to do something similar with our careers, and there is no better time to do this than Thanksgiving. Take 10 or 15 minutes and write down everything you are grateful for as a professional. Even if you are unemployed, think about your strengths and be thankful for them. Psychologists have found that expressing gratitude helps us stay balanced and keep a positive outlook. My wish for you this Thanksgiving is that you find many reasons to be grateful, especially when it comes to work and your career.
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