I am an observer. People fascinate me and I enjoy listening to their stories, challenges and triumphs. As the Managing Partner of a national executive search firm, I have interviewed and spoken with thousands of individuals in career transition over the last 10 years. These interactions, along with my other experiences in executive search, have helped me develop a firm opinion about the obstacles that often deter people from landing a new job. Let’s call these obstacles land mines.
The image in your minds right now is probably of someone stepping on a hidden explosive device buried in the ground-the traditional land mine. In a job search, there are an endless series of land mines, often of our own making, which prevent well-intended candidates from reaching their goal of a new career opportunity. In my opinion, these fall into three distinct categories: Fear, Stuff Your Friends Should Tell You and Predictable & Avoidable.
Fear can be paralyzing. Fear, accompanied by desperation and financial pressures, can be almost unbearable! I see countless candidates in transition who are dealing with some form(s) of fear and they are either unaware of the problem or don’t know how to deal with it. Here are some examples:
- Fear of conflict. Conflict avoidance is rampant in every company and certainly in many job seekers. There is a desire to avoid offending or bothering others who can help in a job search and opportunities for positive engagement are lost. Fear of conflict also prevents one or both parties from speaking with candor and transparency.
- Fear of rejection. This goes hand in hand with fear of conflict and is a very common problem. Candidates often avoid asking for assistance from friends, former co-workers and others in their network. Most importantly, they fall short of diligently and aggressively pursuing job leads with potential employers because of this fear. Each rejection only compounds the problem for the job seeker and makes it grow in intensity over time.
- Fear of the New, or Unknown. Many job seekers find themselves woefully unprepared for a job search when they begin. Technology, new methods of networking, social media options, new interviewing techniques…the list of changes seems endless and can be overwhelming. Many people don’t even know where to start.
Helpful Tip: Start by naming what it is we are afraid of! Being self aware enough to list our strengths and weaknesses is critical. We must identify and understand our fear if we hope to conquer it. Some times getting a little momentum going is all you need. Of the land mine categories I have listed, this is the most challenging. But, ask yourself these important questions: What will happen if I don’t overcome these fears? Is my fear of being unemployed stronger than my fear of conflict, rejection and the unknown? John Reetz, President of JR Media Solutions Group, former GM of COXNet and a recent job seeker himself, offers this insight: “Don’t let paralysis set in. Any job change is a challenge, and the best way to confront it is to immediately get back out there, offering your skills and expertise.”
Stuff Your Friends Should Tell You
There are likely people in your life who are helping and advising you to some degree on your job search. Call them friends, call them accountability partners…the important thing is to have people with whom you can share ideas, frustrations and have candid conversations about your job search. A recurring issue I have observed for years in the candidates I meet is a surprising lack of candid advice and insight from their network of friends and fellow job seekers. This lack of candor is likely related to the fear of conflict we identified in the first land mine category and is absolutely detrimental to many job seekers. Here are a few examples of feedback your friends should share with you:
- “Your resume needs work!” I see countless resumes each month which need significant work to make them more appealing to prospective hiring managers. Often, the changes are simple and include having a clear and unambiguous objective, listing quantifiable accomplishments, don’t embellish, limit resume to 2 pages, etc. Let others see your resume and ask them to be honest with you! They may not want to hurt your feelings, but they are actually hurting your job search more by withholding the truth.
- “You are coming across as desperate and needy.” Nobody wants to share or necessarily hear this feedback, but many would benefit from this coaching. Every week without a paycheck and every month of lowered self-esteem only fuels desperation. It is completely understandable! But, channeling that desperation or neediness to a networking contact or in an interview to a potential hiring manager will result in disaster.
- “Stop letting your pride and ego get in the way.” Compromise is an ugly word for many people. In a job search, you may have to compromise on title, income, scope of the role and possibly geography in order to find a new role. Project and consulting work should also be up for consideration. Many candidates need to hear this, especially at the beginning of a job search when they see no reason to accept a lesser title or income. It is 4+ months of frustration later that a friend should be whispering to you: “Your ego is getting in the way of good opportunities and you are missing out!”
- “Stop being reactive!” This one may seem obvious, but I see countless candidates who send their resume out to a few companies, post it on Monster, build a profile on LinkedIn and then…wait. In this economy, jobs will definitely not come looking for you. My friend Brandon Smith, Principal with Core Growth Partners, offers this advice: “I often meet individuals in transition who hold a reactive orientation toward both their search and how they approach their resume. It is as if they are saying, ‘here I am-you tell me what I should or can do for you.’ This orientation will almost always conjure up fear and anxiety because we are waiting for others to determine our fate. What if they don’t pick me? What if they don’t see what I can do? How long will it be? Rather, I would encourage those in transition to ask ‘Why does the world need me today more than ever?’ Use the answer to that question to fuel you, give you a sense of purpose / mission and make your resume and job search more purposeful and proactive. The difference will be clear.”
Helpful Tip: Carefully select accountability partners, not just close friends, who will speak the truth to you about your job search. You need the truth and a heavy dose of reality while in career transition, not sugar-coated platitudes. Also, always analyze what you are doing and determine if you are being effective. Be willing to switch gears and try new things and above all, don’t blame the economy for everything. You play the most important role in your job search and a little self awareness coupled with straight talk from candid friends and partners will help you along.
Predictable & Avoidable
I am constantly amazed by how surprised job seekers are when they lose their jobs. I am not in any way trying to be unkind, but there is a shocking lack of preparedness affecting many of the job seekers I encounter. The reasons are manifold and include everything from ignoring bad economic news and company performance leading up to a layoff to suffering from “It could never happen to me!” syndrome. This lack of preparedness spills over into mistakes candidates make in a job search and many of those mistakes turn into big problems later on. Here are a few of the predictable and avoidable mistakes I have seen over the years:
- Starting a job search without a viable network. This is a huge issue for so many job seekers: leaving a job and having to build a network from scratch. We get so comfortable in our jobs that we ignore the necessity of staying connected to old classmates, former work colleagues, industry counterparts, etc. These networks are the best resource for a new job and many candidates spend the first 60-90 days of a job search simply building a new network. This is completely avoidable and hopefully the lesson will sink in that we must maintain good networks if we are employed or not.
- Putting all of your eggs in one basket. You hear about a great job opportunity that is a good fit and put all of your energy and time into pursuing this role. Weeks go by, you go through the interview process, are named a finalist and…they give the job to the other candidate. Yikes! You just wasted weeks of time focusing on this one opportunity instead of aggressively pursuing multiple leads and never stopping until you have a written offer in your hand. Common problem, easy to avoid.
- Time, Attitude and Effort. A job search may take a long time-longer than you are likely anticipating. Magic rarely happens and you need to be emotionally, financially and mentally prepared. Your attitude is everything. Despair will definitely creep in if you are not careful and you must stay positive. A job search is actually a full time job and it requires maximum effort for you to be successful. I have seen countless examples of one or all of these factors derailing a candidate in a job search. Adequate attention to time, attitude and effort is critical!
- Being unable to “brand” yourself. Knowing how to appropriately sell yourself and your skills is critical in a job search and yet, most people I encounter struggle with this challenge. Mike Jones, a former Coca-Cola marketing executive who is in transition, recently shared with me this insight from his job search: “It took me some time to realize that I was struggling at first in my search and transition. Here I was a senior executive from a Fortune 50 company who worked on branding and positioning multi-million dollar brands all the time. And yet, I couldn’t accurately describe myself in a concise manner for others to understand who I was and what I could do.” What are you great at? What is your value proposition? What are you famous for? Figure out how to sell yourself and your brand early in your transition to avoid this land mine!
Helpful Tip: In an age of predictable economic cycles, when company loyalty to employees can not always be counted on and downsizing is commonplace, we need to accept that nobody is immune to being laid off. We need to do the best we can in our careers, but be well prepared for the possibility of unexpected career transition. The key is to maintain strong networks, stay abreast of current trends and technology, continually work on building your personal brand and be prepared for the fateful pink slip I hope you never receive. Preparation, active listening and learning from mistakes will help you minimize these obstacles.
Looking for a new job can be a long and painful journey which will severely tax your financial, physical and emotional resources. My intent in writing this article is to help people in career transition overcome the self-created obstacles which only make landing a new role more difficult. This list is by no means complete, but over the years these examples continuously pop up during interviews and conversations and I am hopeful they prove useful in your job search or that of a friend. Consider this helpful perspective from Nancy Vepraskas, former VP of Human Resources with Genuine Parts, who has witnessed job transition from both the company and personal perspective: “A job search, like all major life changes is a marathon event. It’s important to stay physically and mentally fit, and pace yourself for the long miles ahead.”
The economy is a formidable problem for the job seeker today. The news is often bad and it is easy to feel deflated about your efforts. However, people are still getting new jobs every day in spite of the current climate. I encourage you to think very objectively about your actions, mindset and results and determine if you are potentially creating the land mines I have described. The goal is to find a great new role as quickly as possible and it is my sincere hope that by identifying these obstacles and removing them early in a job search, you will reach the goal in a shorter period of time. Remember, the best way to avoid stepping on a land mine is to avoid planting one in the first place!