After revealing tales of job applicants who disappointed, disconcerted, or generally weirded me out in my last column, I thought it only fair to share stories about prospective employees who surprised me in positive ways. Even in lean times, job candidates who show that they know what an employer is up against and have insight into how to make things more effective are always in short supply. Here are eight stories of job-seekers who made good by standing in their power and helping employers see their value.
1. A Bit of Free Consulting
I'd already interviewed a half-dozen contenders for director of internal communications when Diane arrived. Her professional background included stints at top-tier consulting firms, but I wondered whether our company's breakneck pace and "Ready! Fire! Aim!" leadership style would throw her. "Traditional top-down communication will not do the trick in this environment, in my view," Diane told me. "What other alternative is there?" I asked. To my delight, Diane launched into new-client-consultation mode—right in the job interview. By the time we finished our chat, we had a rough communication plan outlined and Diane had consulted her way into the job.
The lesson: Use your interview time to learn the business conditions, not passively answer questions. People hire people they believe can help them, not the most-groveling or most-docile applicant in the mix.
2. Up From McDonald's
Twenty-plus years ago, I interviewed John for a client-service job. We were both 21; John had just graduated from college, and was working as a crew member at McDonald's (MCD). "Tell me about McDonald's," I said, and John jumped into an explanation of the company's supply chain: "It's incredible," he said. "They know exactly what each store sold on each shift yesterday, so the distribution center sends us just the items we need, based on projected sales for today. The feedback mechanisms are impressive. It's an incredibly efficient information flow." John used his ringside seat to study the operation in a situation where many of his colleagues merely flipped burgers. He saw the bigger picture, paid attention to the critical points where service and profitability were made or broken for the restaurant, and used the job interview to share what he knew. John got the client-service job, and today runs a research organization.
The lesson: You can get altitude on your business from any vantage point. Don't just complete the tasks assigned to you. Use your perch as a place from which to learn the business, and be able to talk about what you know.
3. Showing How You Do It
This story comes to me from my old friend Alice, who was interviewing for an admissions coordinator job at a tony prep school in central New Jersey. The admissions director liked Alice's down-to-earth communication style and her administrative background, but wasn't totally sold. "We multitask here every day, under tight deadlines," said Alice's prospective manager. "Let me show you what I can do," Alice replied. The admissions director said: "Go to the desk out in front of my office, and put together a spreadsheet of information on the competitive private schools in this area." Alice jumped online, got on the phone, and went to work. One hour and a dozen phone calls later, she had compiled a detailed spreadsheet on the prep school's competitive set, showing everything from year established and student/teacher ratios to after-school programs, tuition costs, and class sizes. She got the job.
The lesson: Don't be afraid to show, rather than tell, what you can do for your next boss.
4. "I'm Making a Big Decision Here, too"
David was interviewing for a senior engineering role, and he'd just finished a day of interviews in our research facility. He surprised me with his next observation. "I really like the direction you're headed, software-wise," he said. "I am not as comfortable evaluating the hardware side of your business." Hmm, I said, or something to that effect. "I have a friend," continued David, "who is a hardware ace. I'd like to have him come in and meet your people and give me his thoughts on your hardware strategy." Cheeky? We saw David's pluck as a plus, since he had the time and energy only to join teams he saw as likely to win in the marketplace. David's friend arrived, liked what he saw, and both of the tech gurus ended up joining our firm.
The lesson: Don't be afraid to propose nonstandard ideas as you work through the hiring pipeline. Being compliant is seldom the way to help an employer or make your own best mark.
5. Speaking the Truth
Michael came in to interview for a vice-president-of-training role. He was in a training leadership job already at world-renowned employee development leader GE (GE). "I don't see why you'd want the job," I told him. "You work for one of the most esteemed training organizations in the world." "I work for great people," said Michael. "I keep an excellent engine running. I want to build my own engine here." "I get that," I said, "but how does this job fit into your career plan?" "I'm going to be [chief operating officer] of a large organization, at a minimum," said Michael. "I love to build and run operations." Michael didn't worry about appeasing the person in my chair, someone who might bristle at a job-seeker's lofty aspirations. He knew that confident people hire people smarter and more confident than they are. Michael got the job and before long was COO at a global bank.
The lesson: Tell the truth—your truth—on a job interview. If the person on the other side of the desk can't handle the real you, do you really want to work for him or her?
6. Who You Are Trumps Where You've Been
I met Jennifer at a networking event and chatted with her at another one a few months later. During the tech downturn, Jennifer lost her programming job and began managing an Aveda salon. The next time I saw her, I admired her new glam look, and she told me about her career switch. "A hiring manager might look down on me because I got out of programming," she said. "A smart one would realize that you're plucky and indefatigable, as well as flexible," I said. Jennifer parlayed the salon-manager job into a marketing job for the swanky mall where the salon rented space. With a year of marketing under her belt, she applied for a job running my company's marketing group, and got it. Programmer to salon manager to marketer? Why not?
The lesson: Network like a fiend—and not only when you're job-hunting. The people who know you business-socially are your best conduits to jobs that become available because they know more about you, your brains, and your values than a flimsy two-page résumé can convey.
7. Negotiating for What You Need
Christa was in my office talking with me about an HR leadership job. "Look," she said, "I work for a company that wins awards for flexibility. However, it's a consulting firm, and there isn't any policy I know of that can keep consultants off airplanes." I asked how that figured into her job search. "It makes no sense for me to come over here unless this company is more family-friendly than my last one," she said. "Gee, I've never dealt with that request before," I said. I didn't have kids, and neither did most of my teammates. "It will be a good thing for you to get used to dealing with it," Christa replied. Christa took the job, and two years later, we both gave birth to sons, a week apart.
The lesson: Let an employer know what you need. No employer will value a candidate who doesn't value himself or herself.
8. Seeing Your Value
When Sallie walked in the door for her interview, I was startled. I'd been interviewing twentysomethings all week long, and Sallie was 65-plus. As a young supervisor, I'd never interviewed anyone so much older than myself. "You may have questions about my suitability for this job because of my age," said Sallie. I demurred profusely, but Sallie continued. "I see hordes of very young people in this department and I love that energy, but it's nice to have some balance and some life experience in the mix also." I couldn't disagree with that. "You'll have young people coming in here and leaving continually, and I'll be here, keeping the client-service fires burning. Also, I love to explain procedures, and you've undoubtedly got customers who'd prefer to hear a mature voice on the phone." Sallie got the job and was one of the company's best employees.
The lesson: Look at what you bring from the standpoint of what the employer needs. "I need the job" is not compelling. "Here's why you might need someone like me" is.