We spend quite a bit of time throughout our childhood and young adulthood learning specific skills. Whether it's basic math in grade school, chemistry in high school or strategic management in college, our education is focused heavily on attaining a functional knowledge of pre-selected tactics.
All of the skills we learn are valuable in some fashion (although for me, the most valuable lesson learned from chemistry is that I should just stay away from vials, beakers and anything that could potentially cause any type of chemical reaction), and the case could be made that they are fundamental in teaching us not only the basics on those specific topics, but also how we learn most effectively (visually, verbally, etc.). That said, one of the things we learn almost immediately as job seekers is that, unfortunately, most of these skills are commodities. In other words, you won't compete for most positions on your mastery of multiplication tables, as it's implied that you have a similar competency to all other applicants (and, in the end, your 12 year old self was right—for most jobs, you are never going to need to know those again).
Struggling to differentiate ourselves from the hordes of other job seekers, then, can be a difficult and deflating exercise, and I think this is even more of a factor for those who have already been in the workforce for at least a few years. Having slogged my way through the process many separate times, perhaps the most important thing I've learned is that, at least in my experience, getting the new role or promotion you want can be less about the unique skills and qualities you offer, and more about how you position them, and yourself, to your desired organization.
I wanted to share my experiences and lessons learned with you in the hope that you can use them to your advantage next time you're looking to take the next step in your career/life.
Show/Tell What You Can Do Outside of Standard Titles and Job Descriptions
Until quite recently (spanning from my time as an unpolished entry level candidate to interviews for executive level positions), I would often receive the same response from hiring managers after I had given my spiel on why the company should hire me: "So, you're a writer, then?" My first reaction was inevitably frustration, because I believe I offer so much more than that. After it happened a few times, however, I began to see that I was unintentionally penciling myself into a corner (writing pun intended) in an attempt to fit a job description or answer the inevitable "strengths" interview question.
I realized that, if I was inadvertently positioning myself as "just a writer," then there's a good chance other candidates were as well. Instead of focusing on the hard skills portion of the role, I needed to tell the story of what makes me different and sets me apart. It sounds like common sense, but it made a gigantic difference in how I represented myself to interviewers and even to new friends and acquaintances at cocktail parties. Here's the elevator pitch I came up with:
"I'm Dan Martin, and I'm a content marketer. The difference between a writer and a content marketer is that, in addition to knowing how to write, a true content marketer also knows what to write, when to write, where to write and, most importantly, why to write. The ability to envision, craft, deliver and measure content that answers each of these questions is what I believe sets me apart."
Crafting a better narrative about myself helped me land the job I wanted, and it also had the unexpected consequence of making me more confident in my overall value as a marketer and asset to my chosen organization. As I've mentioned in previous posts, the nagging doubts we all have about ourselves are natural and powerful—I didn't know it then, but before I made an impression on an interviewer, I actually needed to convince myself that I really was "more than just a writer" in the first place.
One way to make this stick is, when you’re in transition, to start calling yourself what you want to be immediately. For example, if you're changing careers and you want to be a graphic designer, but don’t have the official title yet, don't be afraid to think of yourself as a graphic designer and to tell others that's what you are. The title itself matters far less than your skill and inner belief in who you are and what you can do.
And if you haven't yet found your confidence, and you begin to experience Impostor Syndrome, read this beautiful anecdote from bestselling author Neil Gaiman's blog. If Neil Armstrong feels this way, then there's a good chance everyone does. As Neil Gaiman puts it, "Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for."
Separate the Implied from the Important in the Job Description
As the world has changed around them, much like photocopiers, many job descriptions have unfortunately stayed the same. I can say from experience that I have been guilty of rushing to update an old description and sending it out just to get it off my plate, and this absolutely does job seekers a disservice. Many descriptions are, also in my experience, written with a vision of the pie-in-the-sky, best-case scenario candidate, and are therefore often unrealistic for the budgeted salary (and likely to scare off great candidates with ludicrous minimum requirements).
That said, one can often read between the lines of the job description in an attempt to understand the hiring manager's most important pain points. The way I like to go about this is to start by making a list of the skills and/or qualities that appear to be implied or expected for the role, and a separate a list of the skills and/or qualities that would separate a successful candidate from the proverbial chaff.
A tip here is to take a long, hard look at the summary at the top of the job description (if included), spending less time on the ever-present list of job responsibilities. In my experience, the bulleted list is a catch-all for everything the hiring manager might ever want in a single candidate (if this candidate could actually fill every role in the department). The summary at the top (not including the boilerplate language about the company), however, is likely written specifically for the role, and could include a few nuggets about what the manager is really looking for in the successful candidate.
For example, if the summary asks for a "brilliant strategist who can deliver content quickly and effectively against a set strategy," then the exhaustive list includes three bullets regarding organization and coordination, I would make the educated guess that the company's greatest need is for content, and that they would prefer, but not require, someone with project management skills. These insights can be helpful in gleaning the actual daily work of the role when you make it to the interview process, and testing whether or not your hypotheses are correct. As every interview is a two-way street, it's just as important for you to understand if the role is right for you as it is to understand if you are a good fit for the organization.
The Inestimable Value of Critical Thinking and Communication
One of the things I’ve struggled with in attempting to take the next step is deciding whether or not to try to improve my qualifications to meet a job description. The temptation is to focus on taking an emergency class or training to better understand the hard skills “required” for the role (I.e., Google AdWords proficiency, Adobe Creative Suite experience, WordPress development, etc.). This type of professional development is certainly not a bad thing, but from my experience, if you’re focusing on self-improvement, two areas that make a massive impact on success at almost any job are actually considered soft skills: critical thinking and communication.
In my opinion, critical thinking is the largest difference maker in separating good employees from great ones. While we are furiously learning skills or memorizing vocabulary and history in school, very few of us are taught how to think critically, and that hurts us in a world where the vast majority of projects rarely play out as planned. Critical thinking can be defined as "the ability to examine and reason through any claims, assertions, premises, and conclusions, and arrive at a decision regarding its truthfulness."
Now, there are certainly jobs and roles in which skill is the most important factor. We need our web developers to be masters of coding and our pharmacists to know how to measure out the correct dosage. Yet, the ability to be able to think on your feet, to solve problems creatively and to make decisions based on an understanding of both the present and the future will make you inherently more valuable in nearly every job. For perspective on becoming a masterful critical thinker, you can find everything online from comprehensive coursework to simplified blog posts. To start, I like the high-level tips in this piece from LifeHack.org. Regardless of where you place yourself on the critical thinking scale, it's useful to know that this is something most organizations are looking for.
The other soft skill, communication, is something that is listed as a proficiency on nearly every resume out there, and yet it appears next to critical thinking as one of the key areas in which business leaders believe candidates fall short. Getting the job is one thing, but communication skills are perhaps the single most important in keeping the job. At least in my experience, it's far less likely to see colleagues fired or moved off of projects for incompetence than it is for interpersonal issues. As with critical thinking, there are so many wonderful outlets online to help us become better communicators. To learn from a master when it comes to communication, emotional intelligence and culture, follow Travis Bradberry on LinkedIn. For a more job-specific look at communications and other job search insights, check out Liz Ryan (another of my absolute favorites).
I've been guilty, as have most of us, of trying to tell people about how I'm a great communicator - spoiler alert, it doesn't work (Hello, Irony? It’s me, Dan). My most important communications tip is to find a way in your cover letter, your LinkedIn summary and, when you land it, your interview, to show you are an empathetic, perceptive communicator. That means having examples ready for every scenario, and even writing down a few in story form (whether or not you have a place to publish them).
Living Your Persona
Positioning yourself the way I’ve described will only work in the long run if the person you’re showing is truly you. As my wife Kristin put it, you need to live that persona in your life as well - it can’t just be invented for the sake of a job or job interview. I made the mistake early in my career of trying to be someone different at work than I was at home, and it's just not sustainable. It was truly a relief when I made the decision to be the same person in both worlds.
I wish all those who are in a time of transition and working hard to find that next job, promotion or career all the best. Be your best you, and show them what they’ve been missing.