Don’t Stop Until the Door Slams (or Opens)

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Private clients, business school students, and corporate clients have frequently asked a basic question about executing a successful career transition:  How many times do I contact someone I want to meet until I get a response?  Or, how many times do I call or email before I can get an answer, any answer, about the job I interviewed for?  

My standard answer is “Until the door slams.”  In other words, until there’s a firm “no.”  Or, we hope, the door opens: “We want to make you an offer,” or “I’d be glad to meet with you; sorry it took me so long to get back to you.”  We want that door to do something.  There are exceptions, as when you start to feel that it’s pointless or that the situation isn’t important enough to keep putting yourself out there.  Or that the job wasn’t that great to begin with, and the non-response is telling you something about the organization’s culture.  Career transition is tough enough, right?  Maybe you just are tired of going after that one situation, without any response, after you’ve tried so many times.

Many think all this persistence is standard sales technique.  In many ways, it is.

A View from Within the Organization

A while back, when I was a staffing officer with what was then called The Chase Manhattan Bank (employees referred to it frequently as “Mother Chase,” since in those days you could count on lifetime employment in many departments), I dealt with many external recruiters. 350 of them when I first started; no exaggeration.   

This was in an era of the brand new fax machine – the one that created an odor throughout the entire 22nd floor of 1 New York Plaza, which used a slick, oily paper roll feed.  The resumes from recruiters literally flew out of that machine.  And, unfortunately, the phone never stopped. No answering machines allowed in the office in those days.  They were considered impolite and possibly a missed business opportunity.  Needless, to say, no pc’s on individual desks yet (and, of course, no email).  

By the time I left “The Chase” after five years, I had learned an amazing amount about corporate hiring practices, i.e., networking, ads, internal referrals, logistics of setting up interviews, how to make which referrals to whom in the organization – and, most interestingly, how the utilization of executive search/recruiters works.   The recruiters exhibited a wide range of behaviors – relentlessness, dishonesty, misrepresentation of clients via doctored-up resumes, high quality clients, factory-produced candidates who may or may not have matched specifications, bribery of astonishing breadth (that’s a whole other article, but I must mention the word “kickbacks” here), and both excellent and terrible social intelligence.   

The most important thing I learned was that the relentlessness part was the characteristic that was most successful, in presenting candidates for open positions, whether or not we liked the recruiter. After the incessant phoning, the key was presenting quality candidates.   Some of the most successful recruiters were… obnoxious.  

I certainly wouldn’t suggest to people I advise that they become as relentless as the recruiters with whom I worked .  Unlike career transition, the chemistry between them and me or others on our staff wasn’t all that important.  I figured that out by the time I was about to leave the bank, and was training my successor.  He was surprised to hear that our “core” list of recruiters didn’t necessarily consist of people we liked; he was even more surprised that I couldn’t stand spending time with about 7 out of the 10 I worked with most.  I mostly cared about their presenting quality candidates for open positions.  Of course, that latter proportion is not appropriate for what we’re looking for in a career transition, where chemistry and fit are critical.  

A Recent Client Example

I’ve been working with a client recently who has a combination of strong presentation and impressive credentials.  She’s what I call a “walking unique selling proposition.”  Unfortunately, she is hitting her market at a time where the politics of her geographic area are having a profoundly negative effect on opportunities in her profession.  This means a rapidly shrinking market for her unique skills.  

She’s been relentless.  Not like the recruiters mentioned above, but in very subtle, sometimes indirect, always intelligent ways, which will work far better than the hard sell techniques I discussed when talking about recruiters working with The Chase Manhattan Bank.  

She was introduced to a major figure in her field, a man who could open many doors for her, not to mention that he ran an organization of great interest to her.    

The meeting went poorly.  Something was off, and my client couldn’t figure out what.  But the dynamic just wasn’t there, and the conversation went nowhere.  Of course, this happens frequently in any career transition, and you never know what happened.  Maybe the other person had a migraine?  Or just wasn’t in the mood for an informational meeting?  Too many variables to fully understand, unless you might’ve said something that you knew was off the mark.  My client had no idea what the problem had been.

I told her not to beat herself up, that bad meetings in this process happen sometimes, with no clear reason.  One of the hardest things in career transition is that it’s so isolating, and people end up ruminating about every aspect over and over again, which frequently ends up like an exercise in reading tea leaves.  Some introspection is good for a job search, but there have to be limits.  Otherwise, the whole exercise becomes self-defeating, and a job seeker becomes reluctant to risk making mistakes.  That fear, of course, could easily create a diminished search. 

My client continued her relationship building (otherwise known as networking), and oddly, two of the next people she met suggested she meet the man with whom she had had the bad meeting.  She was reluctant to follow up on their suggestions to contact him; I thought she had nothing to lose, and maybe he had forgotten the first meeting.  Her two contacts also mentioned that he was hiring for his own organization.  This was too tempting to pass up.  To hell with ego and fear of rejection.  

She contacted him and arranged a meeting.  This time was an entirely different story.  He did remember her, but the conversation flowed, and she now has a job interview with his organization set up.  She couldn’t figure out what had gone wrong in the first meeting, but it didn’t matter!  

Her persistence paid off in getting an interview for a job she really wanted.  Her key was to keep going until that door, in her case, actually did open.  

Six Ways of Reading a Work Culture – BEFORE Accepting the Offer

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I hear this question almost as much as “Should I change the 15th line of my resume, because someone on the street I just met said it was important and would change my life…” or “Should I tell them my salary requirements the first time I meet them just to avoid wasting everyone’s time?” or “If I send out 500 resumes to HR departments, the odds are this will result in interviews, right?”

How many times have we heard “if only I had known!” after a job didn’t work out? Figuring out how to read the culture and your potential fit in it, of course, is critical in the decision-making process.

Here are some recommendations for figuring out some of the critical information. It’s actually possible in many instances to make an intelligent choice about accepting an offer, based on solid, and even gut-level, data.

1) Tapping into your network to see if anyone has worked, or is employed there now, is the obvious way to go. One or two opinions are not quite enough. But it’s a start.

2) Check out some of the websites where employees write about their organizations (I’m thinking of Glassdoor as an example). In the past, similar websites have frequently not been good sources for information and have been more of a venue for unhappy employees to whine. Of course, it’s important to realize that it’s tough to characterize an entire organization by one or two comments, and it would be good to get as much data as possible. But I have seen some possibly useful comments on these websites in the past few years.

3) Basic research about the organization will create some more depth of information, particularly through databases like Factiva, where there is information about how the company is doing and is perceived by several media. This research is imperative, anyway, for preparation for interviews. Wouldn’t it be helpful to find out if there have been downsizings, or shifts in direction, or any other major changes? These facts can be a resource for finding out about recent or upcoming
culture changes.

4) Pay close attention to the recruiting process. A good attitude to adopt is, if the process is unusually slow, erratic, not particularly well organized, or involves some bad behavior (missed meetings), it might be a major clue about the organizational culture. I like to think that if that first foot forward is a negative one, then the candidate shouldn’t want to see the rest of the body. There are a few notable exceptions, though. One technology giant comes to mind. Their recruiting process is awful and chaotic. I’ve had some clients have up to 15 different interviews, and then never hear back again! This is the exception to the bad foot forward idea, because the culture at this company, other than its awful recruiting process, is among the best in the world.

5) The negotiation phase of a hiring process is probably the best time to find out if the organization is the right one. Concerned about the work/life balance issues? Then ask, towards the end of the negotiating list, if the company is an early in the day one or a late in the day one. If the answer is something like “We all work very long hours” or “We work extremely hard, no matter what it takes,” then that’s saying something which might be a part of the decision. Or, if more clarification about reporting relationships is needed, then ask about how that matrix management thing actually works there. Or, what are the mobility options? A clear answer to that may be the factor that completes the decision. These questions are always among the last ones to be asked, after the money/vacation/benefits, etc. have been clarified. Many worry about asking too many questions. My take is…if not now, when?

6) Since it’s always a good idea to arrive at an interview (all interviews!) 10-15 minutes early, why not make a trip to the restroom for five of those minutes? Maybe a conversation can be overheard, and another sense of the organization can be attained that way. While we’re at it, if there’s a waiting room/reception setting, pay attention to the person at the front desk (and anyone who might pass by). Listen in a little! In most cases, even if that reception person or others are levels below the targeted position, an organizational attitude will frequently filter from the top all the way down, and be yet another piece of the process.

There probably isn’t a surefire way of knowing everything about a prospective employer. But it’s certainly worth making the effort to find out how to make the decision a more logical one.

SURROUNDING THE POSTING – Making the Low-Odds Technique Work More Effectively

As mentioned in many of my books, articles, and blogs, and in those of many others
in my profession, answering postings is not a very successful technique for career
transition - less than 10% market penetration. This statistic is even lower when
minor or major career changes are involved. I hope most job seekers learn this
quickly, and use their search time more efficiently.

There is, however, a method of making a job posting lead to improved opportunities
for interviews.

I was reminded of this the other day, when a client was discussing his search, which
had largely consisted of answering postings. Yet, something was different with his
approach. I was all set to go into my rant about not depending on online postings as
a primary source for job opportunities, when it became clear that he instinctively
understood that just answering wasn’t enough; he wanted to “surround” the
posting.

In other words, he should fully investigate the possibility of knowing, or getting to
know, someone in the organization. If he could find someone, he would contact that
person the same way one would contact anyone for an informational interview. A
method of finding that person (or persons!) could be research instruments that
would disclose personnel information (websites, data collections like Hoover’s or
Factiva) or investigating on LinkedIn.

LinkedIn, of course, is a valuable tool for finding the right people. Try to find
someone whose role is connected, in some way, to the role posted. Write a
personalized invitation, even if you have Premium service, saying that you see that
the two of you have things in common, like ________ and ________, and you’d welcome
the opportunity to be part of her network. Chances are good that you’ll get a
positive response, which is your opportunity to write a standard approach email for
an informational/due diligence/market research meeting. As usual, you’d prefer in
person, but if not possible, Skype or phone will do.

At the meeting, treat it as a standard networking meeting, without, of course, ever
saying the word “networking.” Mention towards the end that you have applied for a
position posted at that organization, and are curious if she knows anything about
the area. She’ll get the point. Don’t ask for a direct introduction; if you’ve made
your credential apparent through your excellent opening pitch, she’ll possibly offer
some advice or information, or maybe, if you’re lucky, even an introduction for an
exploratory conversation. The very least you’d hope for is some insight into the
organization and/or position. The best? The direct introduction.

That’s “surrounding” the posting. Answering the posting is only an initial step.
Doing more than that might help a low-odds job search approach become a more
successful one.