Defining Your Skills

In my career coaching experience, two of the hardest things for most people are to:

  1. Truly describe a skill they have
  2. Provide a complete inventory of their skills

What do I mean by the first one? Here is an example. When I say “creative” what comes to mind? Dictionary says this: ” involving the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work”. Creative is a very rich word. It has so many different incantations, depending on your frame of reference. But if you limit it to “artistic”, you miss a lot

Artistic? I joke that I cannot draw a stick man. Painting? Ha! I am not a singer. As a dancer, I can get by passably with Rose as my partner, but no one would confuse me with someone who has great rhythm and flows on the dance floor. I am not a flower arranger. Nor can I look at a room or a stack of cloth to create something beautiful from it. So, does this mean I AM NOT CREATIVE?

No. I think I am creative. I am a real out-of-the box thinker. I am good at looking at situations from a totally different frame. I think most of my clients who have gotten to know me would say that I am very creative in coming up with the right questions to stimulate thinking. I write a blog every week, so I am a pretty creative writer.

My point is this. If I allow others to define “creative”, I just might come out with a really low score. Additionally, if I look at “creative” in a narrow sense, I might hold myself back.

About my second point above, I was reading a fascinating passage in a book talking about the “senses”. If you ask most people “how many senses are there?”, they would probably answer “Five” -sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. Some people might add a sixth sense, intuition. But the consensus is pretty clear at “five”.

Until you stop and think a little more. What about the sense of direction? The sense of balance? Some consider the ability to know the differences in temperature (hot and cold) in our environment (“thermoception”) a sense.  A sense of balance is an imperative skills for a gymnast. We all would prefer a taxi (or Uber) driver or a hunting guide with a great sense of direction. The point is that the original consensus need not be right.

When we think about skills, we tend to underestimate the richness of the skill. When we start to look at the senses from a new perspective,we see much more than was originally there.

So what does this have to do with job seeking and careers?

Everything.

Do we really think deeply about our skills? Probably not. We think through the most apparent ones. More dangerously, we default to the skills we have used the most at work, whether we like to use them or not. Does our familiarity with what we have done put blinders on us?

In job seeking, are we so focused on getting the basics done first – the resume, the LinkedIn profile, the networking meetings – at the expense of this deeper thinking? When you expand your thinking, you realize you have skills you did not originally think about. Or, you remind yourself of skills that just don’t come to mind initially. Maybe there is a latent skill not being used. We have skills not used at “work” but used in other parts of our life. We all have the habit of underestimating ourselves. Don’t do it!

Self reflection is a great way to expand your list of skills. It can be enhanced by talking with another person. When you work with another person, you get the opportunity to benefit from a different perspective. They have a different definition of a particular skill. They might challenge you to look at things a little differently.

Think about it this way. Someone asks you a question about what you are known for or what you are good at. If you have done your preparation, you might have a really great answer. It may make all the difference.

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Tell your Story vs. Fill in the Blanks

As job seekers, we are often told to “tell your story”.

But what does that mean?

It means being in control of your narrative. You choose to be in charge. Otherwise you allow someone else to be your biographer. You are trying to fill in the blanks for the other person. If you don’t tell your story, the other person will fill it in with their own assumptions. That is just the way we are wired. In the absence of information, the other person will make assumptions.

Most of us don’t like missing information. Like a puzzle missing some key pieces, we are drawn to filling them in. Face it. When you see someone of a certain age, you make some assumptions (for example, who doesn’t do that for Millenials?). See someone with their face buried in their phone. What do you assume? See someone dressed a certain way. What story do you narrate? If I asked you to draw a picture of a “boss”, what does it look like (male or female? how are they dressed? What facial expression?). I could ask the same question with “accountant” or “engineer” or “cook” or “teacher”.

I was speaking with someone the other day who said they “liked to manage people”. What might that mean to you?

  • They like to be a manager of people?
  • They like to mentor/coach/help others?
  • They want to be in charge of a large group of people to direct them towards achieving some goal?

In the absence of more information, you will fill in your own version of the story. Their story, but with your spin on it.

In this case, after some conversation, it became clear the person got their energy from working with others and helping them navigate the corporate world. Whether it be mentoring others on how best to deal with a coworker, providing career guidance, or being a person that just listened, they enjoyed themselves. They did not need to be managing a large group. They didn’t even really want the burden of managing big projects and the stress that comes with them. They simply wanted to be able to make a (sometimes informal) difference in people’s work lives.

Take a moment to think about this. Do you want control over your story? Or do you want to cede control to another? It is not necessarily an evil person taking control. It is just human nature. Why not tell your story? Why not fill in the blanks for the other person?

Lets make this real. Lets say someone is 57 years old, has been a higher-level manager, worked in a particular functional area of a company for multiple years and was making a salary over $80,000 for a long time.

In the absence of more information, which of these assumptions might someone make?

  • This person is going to want a job at a similar or higher level of prestige, responsibility and challenge
  • They will want to be compensated at the same amount (even if they say differently)
  • They are probably set in their ways
  • They are only going to want to work for another five years or so, then retire

As the job seeker, you have two choices. Skirt around those assumptions. Or hit them head on. Which of those choices gives you the best chance of getting a job? It might be awkward telling someone you want less money and responsibility. It might feel odd having to tell someone that you want to work more years than they might expect. You might feel like you don’t have to justify yourself to someone else (especially someone younger or less experienced). But you do.

Be your own storyteller. It will work out better for you. And the tale that is told is closer to the truth!

Learning from an Impromptu Group

Over the past six weeks, I have had the opportunity to work on a special project to create resumes for more than 50 people across the country. While this group may not represent a true random sample, nor does it meet the criteria for statistical significance, I think the broad trends I have witnessed are instructive.

Here is what I observed with this cohort:

  • All of the people had good results and good performance reviews
  • Over 90% of them were over the age of 50
  • Average tenure with that same company (or an organization that company had acquired) was over 14 years.
  • All of them had survived multiple previous downsizings and mergers
  • About 40% were caught by surprise that they were let go this time around
  • Nearly 2 out of 3 had not done a resume in the last 15 years
  • More than 75% had not done anything on LinkedIn until they knew they were being let go
  • At least half was very apprehensive about working on their resume
  • More than one third of them did not have details of job tenure or specific, measurable results from their job tenure
  • 85% did not have any additional education since college/grad school. More than 70% had no relevant or sustained volunteer activity to point to
  • 90% were unaware of most aspects of the modern job search, other than what they heard in the webinars. Things like Applicant Tracking Systems were not known. The power and impact of LinkedIn caught them unaware. How to structure a resume for maximize readability and impact was not known.

What’s it all mean?

There are a few instructive lessons for the rest of us.

Be aware. Look at the raw statistics above. If you are over a certain age, or have been with a company for more than ten years, you really need to focus on creating a career plan. If your company has had numerous downsizings, mergers or restructurings, you need to realize that at some time you are going to get caught up in one of those. If you think it won’t be you, you are wrong. If you are at the higher end of the pay scale for a particular job, you are a prime candidate for cuts.

Be vigilant. Smart, accomplished, valuable people missed the signals. Or perhaps they chose to ignore them. More likely, they survived before and felt they would survive again. Just because your performance has been rated highly for a long time does not mean you are indispensable. Look for warning signs of change (got a new boss?, acquiring another company?) and act.

Be your own advocate. Ask for opportunity to take additional training. If you don’t get a “yes”, figure out ways to get training on line or at a local college or library. I was surprised how few people were proficient in all of the Microsoft Office applications. Figure out a way to volunteer somewhere. This creates personal connections with others. It rounds out your skills. It shows you have more to you than work

Be prepared. A little time spent getting prepared for modern day job search is worth the investment. If you “look” like the folks described above, learn from their situation.  Awareness of the modern job search process would make the transition a little easier. As the old saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of a cure”.

George Santayana once said, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it”. I have seen a very clear history that I have shared with you. I would prefer you do not get caught up in it. Let me know if I can help.

What if Job Search isn’t about you?

One of the most common misconceptions about seeking a job is that it is about you. It really isn’t.

Job search is really all about an organization needing someone to solve a business problem or fill a business need. You just might be what they are looking for.

We might see company job postings that say “Are you an experienced (fill in the job) professional looking for a new opportunity with a stable, customer-oriented company? If you enjoy challenges and are a self-starter with a strong track record of success, we invite you to consider (our company)”. But that’s just the teaser, not the job qualification.

We might hear that companies are looking “to hire veterans” or “hire more minorities and women”. Those might be laudable goals and give us hope if we are in those categories. But there is a unspoken caveat to those goals. You have to be able to solve a business problems they have or to meet a business need they have. No organization is going to hire someone just to give a person a job.

Job Search is about an organization looking to fill a need or solve a problem 

Companies have projects that need managed. Perhaps they have an IT infrastructure issue that needs analyzed and changes proposed. Maybe an inefficient operation must be fixed. They need money to stay in business, so they are looking for salespeople or grant writers. They have a need for someone to maintain their infrastructure, write  compelling  materials or close the financial books monthly. Their Director of Marketing is retiring, so they need a replacement. The problem might be the company is growing and it needs more software coders, order takers or engineers.

But in the end, the company is hiring to fill their need. Not to fulfill yours (getting a job).

I believe therein lies part of the problem of job search. Two parties are talking about “the same thing” (a job posting), but in vastly different ways. The organization is listening for how you might solve the problem. You are telling them how you can help them. That may sound like the same thing. But it isn’t.

Two parties are talking about “the same thing”, but in vastly different ways

The company might even ask questions that sound like they want to know about you. They do. Sorta. But it really comes back to them and their need.

Consider this

As you think about your resume, LinkedIn profile, positioning statement and networking strategy, carefully consider the end goal. How much is it about what you have done versus what you can do (to help fulfill a need or fix a problem)? You need to stand out from all of the other “hard-working, team-oriented, strong-communicating, motivated” candidates.  State how you can fulfill a need. “I am passionate about helping an organization connect their clients to the right products at the right time while fostering long-term benefits for both parties”.

When you write a cover letter or thank you note, keep in mind the other’s mindset. If you can clearly articulate their need (“you are opening a new production line and need a skilled project manager to drive completion on time”), you get their attention. When you remind them in a thank you note about how you conversed about potential solutions or similar experiences you had, you connect and reinforce.

Preparing for an interview is not just cramming about a company. It is also trying to formulate questions that will get them to help you understand their real need. “One year down the road, what would have to happen for you to say you hired the right person?” How would your boss articulate what he/she wants the person in this position to do?

I’ll finish with an analogy.

You know how we all get annoyed with the used car salesman? I think it is because that individual is trying to shove a car down our throats. The salesman is thinking, “Look, you came to the used car lot, so you must need a car. I have a car. So buy it.” It makes sense from their perspective, not yours.

Exaggerating a bit, might a job seeker sound the same? “Look, you posted a job, so you must need someone. I need a job. I have the qualifications to do this job, I would be perfect. Hire me.” It makes sense from your perspective, not theirs.

I hope none of us are that bad at job search. But if that little story makes you pause and rethink your strategy, it served its purpose!

Job Search is a Sales Job – but you can do it!

I think probably every job seeker has heard that they are “now in sales”, or, “you are now a salesperson”. Finding a job is a sales proposition. There is a buyer (an organization looking to fulfill a need) and a seller (the job seeker). Like any good sale, the two must come in contact with each other at the right time. The sale needs to be a fit (skills, experience, interests and culture match). And the price (salary) must be right. Like most important sales, it takes time to complete the decision-making process.

Trying to be a salesperson is hard for most of us. We are not naturals at talking about ourselves. We are not accustomed to searching for prospective buyers. We are not used to rejection.

I have been thinking about that sales metaphor. It really has some challenges and richness to it. For those of us who are not naturals at some aspects of sales, we might actually be pretty good at other aspects of sales, but we just don’t know it. If you can come to that realization, you might discover some ways to engage in the job search process in a more productive way.

Job search (or sales), like any job, has parts we like and parts we don’t like. It is knowing the difference between enjoyable and not, persevering through the bad parts -and shortening them as much as we can – and relishing the good parts that can bring joy.

Sales includes things like the following. So does job search. You are definitely good at many of them.

Cold Calls. This is the toughest part of sales. Approaching someone we don’t know and seeing if they have a need we can fulfill is really awkward. Salespeople know that you have to have a lot of “suspects” who you can turn into “prospects” who you can then turn into “customers”. The rest of us? That’s too hard. How can we non-salespeople make cold calls less intimidating? Use a connector. A Bill Powell, Ann Riegle-Crichton, Steve Browne, Mike Bevis, Don Gray or John Farrell seem to know everybody. And they love to connect people. Get to know them, and they can make your cold calls less cold.

Following up. Is a thank you note a good idea or not? How much time do I give the other to get back to me? Do I ask for the sale, or at least a time frame, before the meeting closes? If I don’t hear back from them, do I contact them again? Who do I contact, the recruiter, HR, hiring manager or someone else? These are all difficult questions. If you are a very organized person, decide on a way you would like to follow up. Are you a good writer? Then thank you notes can be your specialty.

Comprehending the customer’s real need. We all are buyers. Sometimes we just are not sure what we need. We think we might want one thing, but then we change our minds. Sometimes we know what the need is, but we cannot describe it very well to others. It is the same with jobs. A job posting does not always tell the real story. It might have been a copy of an old description. The hiring manger let someone else create it. It may not be well written. After some time has passed and a couple interviews have occurred, the hiring company may see that certain skills are more important than originally thought. As job seekers, we need to help the hiring company understand their need, react to their change and clarify. That is what a great salesperson does. Change your mindset. Recognize you are selling a product, you. Be yourself. Help them understand exactly what they are getting when they choose you. That is what a great salesperson does.

Understanding the sales cycle. Learning how to read a customer’s vibe might be something you are good at. Some customers are shoppers. They want to look at all of the options. They don’t like to make snap decisions. Important decisions take time. Others just don’t know what they want. Some are too busy. Don’t we run into the same thing with job openings? Companies tell us they have more people to interview. All-of-a-sudden, a job is put on hold because the company is rethinking some part of the hire. We might go through an interview that is not quite structured correctly because the company is still trying to figure things out. Realize this happens. “Rejection” is not your “fault”. The company is in a long and unclear sales cycle. Don’t take it personally.

My point is this. If you are “now in sales” recognize that is a pretty broad job. It is not just “I have something to sell (me)”. It is the whole job, the complete mentality. And you might find you are really good at some of the aspects of it.

It’s Unknown

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is famous for this quote:

“There are known knowns. These are the things we know that we know. There are the known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are the things we don’t know we don’t know.”

When I worked for NCR Corporation, I had a lot of known knowns. I knew that I liked most of the people I worked with, work was generally interesting, I was well paid, I got to move around to different assignments if I worked hard, etc. The know unknowns were clear also. For instance, every year in October, we would hear rumblings of lays offs. They always happened before year end. We “knew” layoffs would happen, it was unknown how many people and who exactly would be let go. But the unknown unknown came suddenly and unexpectedly. It was the decision by the CEO to move a company over 100 years old with thousands of employees from the founding city to Atlanta, GA. We were all unprepared. Who could have predicted that?

That is what Rumsfeld was talking about.

Similarly, most people I career coach have experienced “known unknowns” – a new boss wanting to bring in new people, cost cutting, mergers, divestitures, and outsourcing.

My experience is that VERY FEW people do any preparation in the face of the “known” or “unknown unknowns”. A few might prepare a resume. Some might reconnect with former colleagues. Some people begin to discretely look around for a new job. But those folks are in the vast minority (They must have been Eagle Scouts or Girl Scouts.) Most of us, in the face of these known unknowns, do nothing.

Doing nothing is a product of some mix of:

  • Inertia
  • Denial (“It won’t happen to me”)
  • Fear
  • Working too hard (“I am too busy to do anything else right now”)
  • Self Deception (“if I stay busy, they will see my value and keep me”)

In their book The Knowledge Illusion, the authors Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, write about this issue of lack of knowledge. They ask:

How can we get around, sound knowledgeable, and take ourselves seriously while understanding only a tiny fraction of what there is to know? We do so by living a lie. We ignore complexity by overestimating how much we know about how things work, by living in the belief that we know how things work even when we don’t. (emphasis mine) We tell ourselves we understand what’s going on. . . We tolerate complexity by failing to recognize it.

So what does this have to do with you and your career?
Are you thinking about the events that could happen, you just don’t know when?

We tolerate complexity by failing to recognize it

Think an unknown unknown won’t happen? Who could have predicted Amazon getting into the grocery business? How about Uber or Airbnb? Berkshire Hathaway, JP Morgan Chase and Amazon have agreed to get into the health insurance business. How about the rise of crypto-currencies like Bitcoin and Etherium? I hear people dismissing them. Is that a good idea?

So how do you prepare yourself for the things you don’t know will happen?

Recognize and Acknowledge that “know unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” exist. If you find yourself thinking, “it wont happen to me” or “I will make it through the next layoff again” or “Everything is great now at work” stop doing that. Those are great phrases for tipping you off that you are in the “unknowns” stage

Keep your skills up-to-date. Most companies do not pay for education any more. You need to find the opportunities to do so on your own. Lynda.com is business-based training available through LinkedIn (as a side note, most libraries have a subscription that allows you to take the classes for free). MOOC’s are a great way to get free, or very inexpensive training on a variety of subjects taught by professors at the most prestigious universities in the country (Try EDX.org or Coursera.org). Here is a four minute video on MOOCs  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eW3gMGqcZQc

Add new skills. See the above note about educational opportunities. Volunteer to do something you have an interest in but no experience (bookkeeping, fund raising, event planning).

Have your basic career tools in place. Creating a resume that includes your most recent accomplishments is pretty easy to do (I could do one with you in less than two hours). Make sure you are active on LinkedIn (got 15 minutes a couple days a week to read and comment on articles?). Keep your network of friends, former co-workers, customers, people you volunteer with active (ever go out for a drink or lunch?).

Still don’t think this is worth it? Here is a challenge

If you think this writing about “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” is crazy, try this. Write down 3-5 predictions that will happen this year in your life, work or in the country. Set aside your predictions. Check on them six months later. See what you got right. What did you miss that was critical?

BTW – I did that for 10 world events. Three came out right. Not bad! However, I missed predicting about “fake news”; I did not get any of the events around Amazon, cryptocurrencies or Berkshire Hathaway mentioned earlier. I did not predict I would be working for LHH part-time. So, I got a few right, but missed some really big things.

Transitioning Your Career

(This post takes about 3.5 minutes to read)

My wife recently saw the off Broadway musical “Chicago” with my son. She had a great time. One of the stars of the show was former football player Eddie George. Eddie was the Heisman Trophy winner in college, an award given to the best football player that year. He spent 12 years playing in the NFL. I was awed by the change in career that he made.

I am interested in understanding how he got to this spot, making a huge career change – and how that might help us consider something similar.

How did Eddie George make such a huge transition?

I don’t have all of the facts, but I think I can guess at some of the major elements of his journey.

Let’s be honest up front. Eddie George had a long NFL career. He made a lot of money. So he could afford (financially) to take a chance. But once past that, there was a lot of work to do

Step 1: Self Reflect

He probably spent a lot of time looking at himself. He must have decided to do some self-reflection at some point. I suspect he asked questions such as:

What do I like? What am I good at? What skills and interests do I have? What energizes me? How would I like to spend my time?

I don’t know the answers he came up with but I think this might have been part of his thinking:

  1. Entertaining others. As a professional athlete, he did that
  2. Teamwork. To succeed in football, it takes a large group with diverse backgrounds and skills – fellow players, coaches, trainers, support staff. You know that you don’t succeed in sports without all of them. Plus, one of the allures of sports is the camaraderie and togetherness of a team. He probably thrives in that team environment. The same thing happens in a large production off-Broadway
  3. Risk-taking. Playing football is very risky. Injury is a constant threat. Every mistake – big and small – you make is scrutinized and debated. You have to be willing to expect failure, and to have your failure scrutinized. Singing and dancing on stage seems risky too. Mess up a line? Stumble while dancing? Not hit the right notes in a song? Everyone notices and comments on it.
  4. Loving to learn. Moving from high school to college to professional football requires a progression of skills and concepts you must learn. Many of them never get noticed by others. But you must learn them to progress. Performing in a play requires a similar level of learning.

Step #2: Consider Transferable Skills

I suspect next he looked at what skills he had that could be transferable from football. Some that seem apparent to me are:

  1. Hard work, often behind the scenes, to get the job done
  2. Willingness to do all of the tasks, including the small things and the less glamorous tasks in order to do a job right
  3. Humbleness – willing to start from the bottom and work my way up
  4. Determination
  5. Desire to learn
  6. Mental discipline to follow a script – and know when to adjust
  7. Knowing when to lead and when to listen to the advice, counsel and direction of others (even if they are subordinate to me)

BTW, if you think, “my job is so unique, I don’t have a lot of transferable skills”, I say “hogwash”. Football is a very specific sport, yet many of the skills/experiences are transferable.

Applying this to us

So how does this apply to us?

Major News Flash. We can do what Eddie did. No, not play professional football or be the lead in a off-Broadway musical (picturing myself doing that would only work as a comedy farce!). But we can:

Take some time to REALLY focus on our transferable skills. It would have been natural for Eddie to think that his football skills might translate to a sports broadcaster, coach or fitness trainer. But he looked waayyyyyy beyond the obvious. Why not us?

Put in the work to get from “here” to “there”. Eddie George did not get selected for this  Broadway role because of his football ability. He was willing to train. He was willing to start over. He took a significant pay cut. He took a “responsibilities” cut. Why not us? Maybe we don’t have to do something as drastic as Eddie. But maybe we do.

Why not us?

Be willing to be a lifelong learner in whatever interests you. Eddie had to study dance. He had to learn how to sing and act. The way a play works, the terminology, the interaction with others, the culture, the understanding of who is in charge is vastly different from what he did before. He learned it. Why not us?