I wrote the first version of this article three years ago and have been updating it every year since. I have had a great many people remark to me that it has helped them a great deal (which is the point, I guess.) I have also had several people give me some new ideas and, of course, I have had time to rethink and revise what I had written. And with May thru June being the season for the year’s new graduates to be set free upon the marketplace, I believe revisits and republication of this article will become tradition.
I was watching the movie “The Pursuit of Happyness”, starring Will Smith over the weekend. The movie is the story of Christopher “Chris” Gardner who struggled to win a job as a broker at Dean Witter Reynolds while being homeless and taking care of his son. It is the story of determination, struggle, being the under-dog – looking into the abyss and being absolved.
So I believe that is the point I want to stress this year – don’t let your fears hold you back.
“De l’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours de l’audace” – George Danton
“Audacity, more audacity, always audacity”, paraphrased and made famous by George C Scott in the movie “Patton”, this has long been one of my favorite life’s mantras. I guess it comes down to a predisposition and outlook I have; when most people are asking “why?” – I ask “why not?” When many people might question what “right” they have to belong, or to be hired, or whatever; I never have such thoughts cross my mind. My tendency would be to challenge why I don’t, rather than why I do.
One tale to tell that demonstrates this inherent “audacity” that is my nature was early in the history of my first company, XONITEK.
It was 1989 and my then-recently founded company was struggling like most young companies. All of my bank accounts had only cobwebs in them – and all of my credit-cards were limited-out. I barely had any money at all, anywhere. Certainly I did not even have enough to call it “capital” – most people would just call it “loose change”.
I received an opportunity via a technology provider-partner to pitch their accounting system to a company in Philadelphia called Philadelphia Reinsurance – a major player in the reinsurance marketplace at the time. That I had the opportunity was somewhat remarkable as I did not have any footprint or efforts in the Philadelphia marketplace. The thought of why a big insurance company would buy an accounting system from a guy that didn’t have a pot to piss in didn’t cross my mind – what did cross my mind was how we are going to win this deal.
I did my homework. I researched and found out as much as I could about the company, which was not easy (this, being in the days before the internet and google existed). I conducted several telephone interviews of the key persons involved in the use of the system to get a good understanding of what the operational and functional needs were – as well as to know who were involved in the decision-making process for the final selection of the system. Together with some colleagues and our technology provider-partner, we developed the tactics for winning the opportunity.
Come the day of the presentation, a colleague and I prepared to go to Philadelphia to present our offerings and make our pitch. But as I mentioned earlier; money was virtually non-existent to the point where we were calculating the amount of money it would take to put fuel in the car to get us there and back, and tolls for the highway (both ways). This we had.
What we didn’t count on was that parking the car in Philadelphia was going to cost money – eighteen dollars that we did not have. But we parked the car anyway and decided to figure that problem out later.
The morning sessions of the presentation were going well. Everyone was smiling. We were having a good time. All the users seemed pleased; as were the decision makers.
Then it was lunch-time… And it was decided that about ten of us would go out for Chinese.
Neither my colleague nor I had the money to treat everyone. Nor did we have any room on our credit cards available to pay for lunch. So, we offered to work right through lunch – but the good folks at Philadelphia Reinsurance insisted we all go. But then, miracle of miracles, they offered to buy. Whew…
Lunch was a real pleasure with everyone getting along extremely well. At the end of lunch, I gave my credit cards and all of my PIN’s to my colleague and told him to find a cash machine and a card that would dispense the last few dollars from some account (perhaps a check didn’t clear yet) – and off he went on the scavenger hunt (I just offered some lame excuse for his absence to the others that he was working with another client).
The afternoon session went equally well, with the conversation drifting to deployment details and how we would be doing business together. And to top it all off, my colleague found $30 in one of my accounts, so it looked as though we were going to be able to get our car out of the parking garage and head on home.
On the return trip, we calculated that we could stop at a McDonald’s on the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Thruway and buy one cheeseburger and small soft-drink each in celebration of a day well spent and a presentation well done.
In the week after our presentation and adventure, we won the deal. And it was a transformational deal in that it saved my fledgling company and provided us with enough money (but still not enough to call it “capital”) to go after the next opportunity, and the next, and then the next.
Never underestimate yourself. Be pragmatic in your self-assessment. Know your weaknesses as much as your strengths. But never be afraid of the stretch-goals and never hold yourself back from some misguided sense that you are not good enough, don’t belong, or not otherwise entitled to be there.
If you are not good enough, you will soon find-out; then you can deal with it.
As many of you may or may not know, I mentor a great many young adults on their career trajectory and development (both academic and professional.) Besides gaining the personal satisfaction of helping others, I also feel it is a repayment of a debt to those who were my mentors – and trust that those I mentor will one day become mentors themselves.
It is usually this time of year – when the school year is at an end – students come to me for guidance on their professional endeavors; summer internships, career changes, or even that first, entry-level job in their chosen profession. Some of the requests are beyond the experience of many other mentors such as: immigration/emigration issues, long-term financial planning, the work/life balancing act, career “if-then-else”, and the like. I take it all very seriously because it is really serious stuff at a really serious time in a person’s life.
The conversations usually follow a typical pattern; there is the initial contact followed by an inquiry into a position with my firm, a discussion of their intended career path, and a review of their CV/Resume followed by pointed guidance. As is the nature of my firm, we only hire experienced and exquisite “Subject Matter Experts” – those seasoned professionals usually with a minimum of ten (10) years of experience in a specific industry, with a “can-do/is-done” attitude and with outstanding leadership, communication, and analytical capabilities and who also have at least three (3) years as a consultant.
So the very first thing I usually have to do is gently disappoint with respect to a position at my firm while at the same time build their optimism for a position elsewhere, and offer encouragement and guidance for the successful launch of their careers.
So I thought it might be appropriate to share some of my core-beliefs and the advice I give. In addition to the very young in their careers, I believe the advice is also relevant to those who are already on their career path as an opportunity to perform a “self-assessment”.
Best part is; the advice is solid regardless of the formal education you have received.
But beware; although I consider myself an empathetic person, I am also a person who does not easily tolerate a “can’t” attitude – so some of this advice might be considered a bit harsh. We all face obstacles; some are daunting and some are seemingly insurmountable. I have faced a great many such obstacles myself over my life-time – but I never settled for “can’t”. It’s not in my nature.
1. If You Love What You Do, You Will Never Work a Day in Your Life.
This is the most important piece of advice I can give anyone regarding their career, but it is also the most difficult to determine. If you do not love (or at least enjoy a great deal) what you do for a living, you will never be happy – it’s just not possible. Imagine there are approximately 112 waking hours in a week. If we consider that we work 40 hours per week, that’s roughly 1/3rd of our adult lives. I can’t imagine a person is able to be happy if they spend so much time doing something they do not enjoy.
Don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers right now. Your interests will probably change over time, and so will your career desires – this is natural. What is important is that you recognize when you are feeling dissatisfied with your career and have the intestinal fortitude to change it.
I understand that sometimes we will need to take a job to survive – especially in these challenging economic times. However, all too often I see people take such a “stop-gap” job and then lose their ambition, their dreams, and eventually themselves. Someday, just like the sad case that Bruce Springsteen sings about in “The River”, there will be a day of self-reckoning.
“…Now those memories come back to haunt me,
they haunt me like a curse.
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse…”
Be mindful of the choices you make today, the consequences may last you a lifetime. And remember; only you can make your dreams and aspirations come true. Don’t give yourself the chance to let your memories come back to haunt you.
2. “The Millionaire Next Door” and living a sustainable lifestyle.
There are some people who believe that “the person who dies with the most toys wins” – to that, I say “bullshit”. I worked with, and knew, many people in New York City who worked in the financial industry when the financial crisis hit. I never knew there were so many “poor rich people” until then. They were living paycheck to paycheck, leveraged to the hilt to support all the “things” they bought (but not owned); just like many others whose paychecks had fewer “zeros” in it. We read about such occurrences all the time; the movie star or athlete who had millions of dollars and went bankrupt. How does this occur? They take out loans and surround themselves with “things” – and for what?
Mostly, I believe people are drawn to engage in a perverse competition with their family, friends and colleagues of acquiring “things” as some superficial substitute for a void that runs much deeper. It is a game that has been played since ancient times and one that has no winners – where the biggest loser is those who play.
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” — Exodus 20:17
As I have mentioned in a past article, I encourage everyone to read ”The Millionaire Next Door” and to integrate the teachings into their lives. Whether you are a professional, a laborer, or even selling “Spirit Stones” in Sedona; you can live a very fulfilling and joyful life. Remember, money does not buy happiness. But if you live a properly balanced lifestyle, you will obtain a level of freedom – and freedom gets you to happiness.
Most importantly, remember that your Grandkids won’t want to hear about the stuff you owned, but the life you lived and the experiences you had. They won’t ever ask you about the Porsche or the house in The Hamptons you owned – or about your stock portfolio or that “killer trade”. They will ask you time and again to tell the stories about your travels, or school, or the “crazy things” you did when you were younger – and the lessons learned.
So always live below your means (but not one of miserly frugality). This will allow for a cushion for when times get tough, and at the same time deliver a level of freedom, work/life balance, and happiness.
While #1 and #2 above are intended to properly orient you so that you might embark upon a career that is personally rewarding and can bring pleasure to your life, the following are how to go about pursuing and obtaining the career of your dreams.
3. Go Where the Jobs Are
None of us enjoy changing where we live. It’s a big deal and a lot of work throughout the entire process; from planning and preparation, through the actual move, to “finally” settling into your new home. And the power of nostalgia is especially strong when it comes to your hometown where you spent most of your youth. However, you can’t be afraid to go to where the jobs are in general, and where there is a concentration of jobs and industry in your expertise. If you live in a dead-end geography for your industry – eject, Eject, EJECT.
Willie Sutton, a prolific criminal and chronic guest of the prison system was asked why he robbed banks. His response was, “Because that’s where the money is.” The same is true of your career and the job-market – you need to go to where the money (opportunity) is.
Where I grew up in Binghamton, New York, there are very few “major employers”. There is Lockheed Martin in nearby Owego, New York (which is struggling under the defense spending pressure) and BAE Systems (where there exists a smallish operation of the publicly-traded multi-national facing the same challenges.) And although IBM was founded in Endicott, New York (only 10 minutes from Binghamton), there is just a mere wisp of its former self, employing only about 500 or so. Now-a-days and by far, the biggest employer in the area is Binghamton University, but the jobs there alone cannot satisfy the needs and talent of the area.
The challenge in Binghamton now is that excellent positions, not to mention careers, are scarce. And with so few major employers, the “downward pressure” on compensation is significant. It is far better to relocate where there is a concentration of industries related to your field of expertise, as there will be more “upward pressure” on compensation as companies vie for your capabilities.
When mentoring, I often hear people complaining about “no opportunities here”, yet they are too afraid to venture out into the world to improve their circumstances. The result is that bitterness and cynicism becomes an ever-increasing part of their lives.
“Go where the money is.” Better yet, go where the opportunity – and a chance at a future – is greater.
4. Network, Network, Network
Introverts are at a disadvantage when it comes to finding a job and furthering their careers because most people will get hired through referral. To maximize your career potential, you have to get out and network – preferably in person. So, if you are an introvert, you really need to work on your people-facing abilities including; speaking, writing, etiquette and dining skills.
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” More true words have never been spoken when it comes to getting a job. This is something tangible for you to consider; there are only a hand-full of people who have worked for me over the almost 30 years I have been in business who were not either previously known to me (direct networking) or introduced to me by someone I knew (indirect networking). If I respect someone’s talent, and I need more of the same, the first thing I am going to do is ask the person I respect, “Do you know anyone like yourself looking for a position?” And based on my experience with other companies, this is almost always the case – everywhere.
If you are new to networking, start with something simple within your local community: get involved with your neighborhood, school, hobbies, or your place of worship. Starting with familiar surroundings is relatively safe and a great place to hone your skills.
One of the most important things to remember when networking is: “God gave you two ears and one mouth so you can listen twice as much as you talk.”
… For those who feel that too esoteric, try; “If someone else is speaking – you don’t.”
If you are a more experienced networker, or an extrovert, get more deeply involved in your networks in your industry or related to your industry. Sometimes, the best results can be obtained by networking peripherally. For example: years ago, I was heavily involved in the technology sector (specifically in the Enterprise Resource Planning, or “ERP”, industry.) As a matter of course, I went to the trade shows and networking events connected with the ERP and technology industry and with the solutions I represented.
However, these efforts were a waste of my time as I kept on meeting the same people – and most of them had resumes at the ready. I re-assessed and started going to networking and trade events that my customers (or your employers) attended – and this made all the difference.
Trust me when I say, “You limit your opportunities if you don’t put yourself out there”.
5. Social Media
If leveraged properly and consistently, Social Media can be an incredibly powerful tool for developing and furthering your career – and this is especially true if you are a professional (as opposed to laborer) or offer services. But like any other form of networking, you need to begin building your presence (your brand) well in advance of your needing it – because it takes considerable time and consistent effort to create and maintain.
For instance, I have been building my “Operational Excellence” brand since June of 2008 – and it was not until 2010 that my “brand” started to gain real traction. That’s two years of diligent effort before it began to yield results. Rule: Networking and Social Media Branding require a long runway.
For careers and career building, I would suggest you use Linked-In. Make sure to build-out your profile as completely as possible – don’t be modest, but don’t exaggerate. Join relevant groups and make sure to engage the membership by adding thoughtful discussions and comments (not to mention, mining the “Jobs” board). Get “connected” to those who you know or engage on the site. Above all, get “Recommendations” from your connections; especially those with whom you have engaged professionally, and not just friends and family.
Facebook might be a great avenue for promotion of your locally-oriented “service or entertainment business”. But please be very careful with what you post (and what you allow your friends to post) as Facebook tends to attract a lot of “graffiti” which your customers might not appreciate.
However, there is one simple rule when it comes to Social Media, “Don’t ever write or post anything that you would not mind anyone in the world reading.” This is actually a good rule that can be applied to any form of communication. This is not to say that you can’t engage in debate or discourse, nor does it mean that you should shy away from engagement or an expression of an opinion. All of which can be done with a level of civility, intelligence and politeness (not necessarily “Political Correctness”, which I personally abhor).
Some of the things that people write and post really amaze me – especially today, since there have been countless stories and warnings regarding the perils of posting before this one. Some things that should never be posted include (but by no means should be considered an exhaustive list.)
- Threats of any sort against anyone, anywhere
- Rants against your employer
- Cursing, slurs and hate-speech
- Bragging about sexual conquests, being drunk, or getting high (pictures are worse)
- Being chronically pessimistic, cynical or otherwise being the “perpetual victim”
- Personal financial, legal or health issues
- Abject ignorance or extremist views (regardless of whether “right” or “left”).
Remember, the internet never forgets – and all of these are career killers.
Reference: “How to Leverage Social Media”
6. The Cover Letter and Resume/CV
Make no mistake about it. In the absence of your being in front of the prospective employer yourself, your cover letter and resume becomes you! Therefore, you have to prepare your Cover Letter and Resume (also known as “Curriculum Vitae” or CV for short) so that they are dressed for success and prepared to act the part as you. But please keep in mind and as mentioned above, even before your prospective employer looks at your paper credentials, they will look you up on LinkedIn. So make sure your on-line professional presence is as thorough as possible.
One common mistake that most people make in drafting a Cover Letter and Resume is that they expend a lot of effort addressing their own goals and aspirations. As a prospective employer, I really don’t care what your goals and aspirations might be or that you want to “grow into a management position” or other such drivel (well, maybe I do, but just a tiny bit – but it is certainly a secondary consideration). What I want to know is; “What value will you drive to my company if I hire you.”
So let’s start with the Cover Letter; it must be exquisitely well written without any spelling or grammatical errors – and without any “social media shorthand”. Although you might have had help in writing the Cover Letter, it should be in your own words – words that you would use in the interview. Otherwise, I will know it, and you, are fake. You also must take the time to research my company and specifically refer to it (and me) by name. And you better note what it is that my company does, why you are interested in a position with my company and what value-add you expect to deliver.
A friend of mine once told me he worked for the Syracuse Catholic Diocese and “had thousands of people under him”. What he didn’t tell me is that he cut the grass at the cemetery.
… I don’t care what your title is, I care about the value you will drive to me.
Your Resume/CV should highlight the positions you held and tell a story of how you added value to your employer. List the employer, your position and the dates you held the position. Don’t tell me your responsibilities here – and I don’t care about your “management / leadership skills”. I want to hear about value of your efforts realized by the company. I want to hear of how you saved money, increased revenue, helped to create a product, or how your innovation improved your company and the circumstances of those who worked there. Make sure to include your schooling information (not your coursework.) I would also recommend that you include a professional picture of yourself with your personal information at the top (this is standard practice outside the United States, less standard – perhaps even discouraged – within the United States). If you have a Linked-In Profile (and you should, right?), make sure to include the link.
Keep your Cover Letter to a single page – I won’t ever read the second page. The same goes with your Resume/CV – just the most recent highlights. If you have a considerable list of noteworthy historical efforts (articles, talks, inventions, etc…), add an addendum or “bill of accomplishments”.
Reference: How to Write a Cover Letter
Reference: How to Write a Resume/CV
7. The Interview
This is where the rubber meets the road – and obviously you will either win the position or lose the position based upon how you conduct yourself and how the interview flows. There are many good resources available (on the internet, your local employment office, your school, etc…) to coach you and prepare you for the interview, so I won’t dwell on that in this article.
However, the one point I will stress is that this is the opportunity to deliver your value-proposition in person. Do not place the focus and emphasis on you and your needs, but rather on what you can do for the company should they hire you. Talk about the return they will receive by their hiring you and investing in you – extrapolate from the returns realized by your previous experiences. Make sure they know you won’t be a lone rogue, but rather that you enjoy working as part of a team and that your orientation, alignment, and commitment will be to drive value to the company.
To paraphrase John F Kennedy; “Ask not what your company can do for you, but what you can do for your company.”
When I was 13 years old, I was earning $0.50 per week in allowance and I decided I needed more. I asked my father (who was a manager for IBM at the time) for a “raise” to $0.75 per week. He asked me to write a paper as to why I deserved the raise. So I wrote a paper and explained at-length how fifty-cents didn’t buy anything and how I needed the extra money.
After reading the paper, my father denied my request – telling me; “You told me why you need it, not why you deserved it.” Ouch…
The next day, I got off the bus early and asked Donald Ferguson at Nanticoke Gardens for a job. He hired me for $1.85 an hour doing odd-jobs around the farm. Next thing I knew, I was earning $50 per week and my brother was doing the chores I used to do.
1) It does not matter what you need, it matters why you deserve it.
2) It does not matter that you need; you have to have a want.
I recently mentored a friend of mine here in Germany. He had decided to leave his position as a consultant for a major consultancy firm and move into industry. In a very short amount of time, he had offers from four companies (three “Fortune 500” and one privately held company, but with revenues close to $2-billion), and several other offers pending – and he was asking me to help him decide which offer to accept by weighing the pros and cons of each offer and company. I knew he was a bright and capable individual, but I was very impressed and queried him as to how he had so many offers in such little time.
He told me that he changed the “interview process”. Instead of sitting down, Resume/CV in hand, and exchanging interrogatories with the interviewer, he walked the interviewer through a presentation in two parts.
The first part was an introduction of himself; his personal life, philosophies and beliefs – and some of his professional highlights.
And the second part was about the approaches and methodologies he uses so that the company can realize the value his skillset offers.
He then offered some additional insight to his job-seeking experience.
The companies he solicited and with whom he had an interview fell into two camps; those who let him present himself as he wanted during the interview, and those who were only comfortable interviewing in the “traditional manner” of mutual interrogatories. The outcome was that he only received offers from the companies who allowed him to present himself.
I was left wondering; “If you are looking for a job as a “change-agent” (as he was), is the company who refuses to change the interview process the right candidate company for you?”
The lesson learned is that you can’t be just a piece of paper – you need to stand-out from the crowd to increase your chances of winning the position.
Reference: How to Interview
8. The Follow-Through
It is polite and shows good form to send a “Thank You” note after an interview. In the fast-paced business of today – where time and timing matters more than in the past – my recommendation is that this note should not be hand-written and mailed, but rather sent by email. I would also strongly recommend that you keep the note short and succinct, but taking the opportunity to highlight one point from the interview which focuses attention on a particular strength you might have. Also close by indicating when you will contact them for a follow-up (no less than one week.)
Remember, there is a fine line between enthusiasm and stalking.
8.5 It’s Not Over Once You Have the Job
Once you land your job; remember that this is just a single stepping stone on your career path – it is almost certainly not your last job. You may evolve within the company, or you may decide to change companies (or even careers.)
Complacency kills careers – and will erode your passion. If you don’t stay ever-vigilant in honing your skills, re-assessing the level of pleasure your chosen career gives you (or the way your current employer delivers that pleasure), or the threats that might render your career obsolete; you risk discovering that what you came to expect as granted is, in fact, gone.
Reference: “Who Moved My Cheese”
“If you can’t fly, then run, if you can’t run, then walk, if you can’t walk, then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.” — Martin Luther King Jr
By Joseph F Paris Jr
Paris is the Founder and Chairman of the XONITEK Group of Companies; an international management consultancy firm specializing in all disciplines related to Operational Excellence, the continuous and deliberate improvement of company performance AND the circumstances of those who work there – to pursue “Operational Excellence by Design” and not by coincidence.
He is also the Founder of the Operational Excellence Society, with hundreds of members and several Chapters located around the world, as well as the Owner of the Operational Excellence Group on Linked-In, with over 45,000 members.
Connect with him on LinkedIn