Sheila Curran talks with Sara Nordhoff of the Forte Foundation in a webinar titled Smart Moves for Your Career: Positioning Yourself for Success in a Down Economy, January 21, 2009. The audience is women undergraduates interested in business, but the messages are applicable to all students and graduates. Sheila maintains that success in the job search is all about attitude, focus and strategy. The text of the webinar is below:
Sara: What does your crystal ball say about the employment outlook for college women?
Sheila: Well, Sara, there’s no doubt that there are dark clouds on the employment horizon. The US lost over a million jobs in the last two months of 2008 and conservatively, the projection is for 2 million more people losing their jobs in 2009. And by all accounts, on-campus recruiters are making about 20% fewer offers than last year. So, it’s going to be more difficult to find jobs—whether in business or some other field. But there are jobs out there. What we’re going to be talking about today is how to put yourself in the best position to get hired.
But first we need to talk about the elephant in the room…..
Sara: What is the elephant in the room?
Sheila: For those unfamiliar with the expression, the elephant in the room refers to something big that’s in front of your eyes but no one talks about. In this case it represents the fact that probably 50% of those listening are thinking in the back of their minds that if this “job” thing doesn’t work out the way they want, they’ll go to graduate school. In fact, applications to grad school at places like Duke are up over 30% from last year. Faculty are undoubtedly encouraging this trend.
Sara: Why shouldn’t recent grads go to graduate school? It’ll make a lot of parents very happy, and students will be be able to ride out the recession.
Sheila: My strong advice is if you weren’t seriously thinking about graduate school before the economy tanked, don’t jump on that bandwagon now. For a woman interested in business, grad school may just be a fast way to more debt, and may not increase your chances of getting ahead.
Sara: Students are probably not hearing much about why they shouldn’t go to grad school immediately after graduating from college.
Sheila: You’re right, but I posed the question to a number of experts outside academia. Here are their responses:
Expert #1, employed in NYC: It’s all about having work experience. A master’s candidate without experience is much less useful that a bachelor’s candidate with experience, and is therefore less likely to get the job
Expert #2, business career advisor for undergraduates and graduate students at a top university: Students with master’s degrees and no relevant experience often don’t fit into employers’ hiring plans. And, they’re perceived as being too expensive.
Expert #3: Highly successful businessman: Don’t go immediately to grad school. Get experience. I don’t care whether it’s working at McDonalds. More school immediately after college will not be to your advantage
So don’t believe me; believe the people doing the hiring in this economy.
Sara: Just to clarify, are you including MBA courses in what you said about grad school?
Sheila: No, MBAs are completely different, because you almost always enter business school with several years of experience. The hiring situation is also difficult for B-School grads, but the strategies we’re talking about today are equally applicable. And, just to clarify, there definitely are jobs where having an master’s degree could be to your advantage. My advice, though, is to not assume the benefits of a degree program you’re considering without checking out those assumptions with hiring managers.
Sara: So, if employers aren’t looking for women with graduate degrees, what are they looking for?
Sheila: They’re looking for KSA: Knowledge, skills and abilities. The good hiring manager, who’s been trained to interview (which is not always the case), is going to compare the needs of her employer to your qualifications. If your major doesn’t indicate that you understand the industry where you’re applying for a job, you need to find a way to show you have the required knowledge through courses, work experiences and possibly even extracurricular activities.
Skills and abilities are less likely to come from the classroom, but you can draw from all your college experiences—on and off campus. Hiring managers may make assumptions about your level of competence from your GPA and your major, but they don’t know about your skills and abilities unless you highlight them. That means specifically mentioning skills and abilities in your resume and cover letter and giving examples.
Sara: So what you’re basically saying is that in the absence of a personal connection, it’s your combination of relevant knowledge, skills and abilities that will get you the interview.
Sheila: Right, but getting the job is going to require that you ALSO possess three other critical attributes: A great attitude, clear focus, and a well-thought-through job search strategy
It’s interesting. If you ask most people what it takes to get a job, few will tell you about attitude, focus and strategy. But that’s what we’re going to concentrate on today. Because there are thousands of new grads out there with a great education, and even good experience. It’s the addition of attitude, focus and strategy that will help you beat the competition.
Let’s start by talking about attitude.
Sara: Attitude is one of those nebulous characteristics. What exactly do you mean?
Sheila: I’m using attitude in the employment context to mean four things: if you want to succeed in this market, you have to be positive, pragmatic, prepared and persistent. The fact is, most candidates don’t have the perfect blend of knowledge, skills and abilities. And if an employer has a choice between one slightly imperfect candidate and another, she’ll pick the one with the good attitude every time. An employer recently gave me an example of this. On paper the candidate for a technology sales position didn’t look as qualified as some of the others. But in the interview, her knowledge of the product line and genuine enthusiasm shone through.
Sara: The woman in your example showed her positive attitude through her enthusiasm. Is there anything more you want to say about being positive? For example, what strategies do you have for staying positive when there’s so much bad news around?
Sheila: Funnily enough, the first strategy I’d employ is not putting yourself in a position where the chances of rejection are almost 100%. Let me give an example: A student came to work in my careers office, with the clear purpose of getting first access to any available business-related job openings. Sounds like a good idea. Unfortunately, he shot himself in the foot by applying indiscriminately online for any opening. He didn’t get a job that way, and when he did hear back from an employer—pretty rare in itself—it was always a rejection. That can make anyone depressed.
Sara: Are you suggesting that college women not apply for jobs where all it takes is to apply on line?
Sheila: I know of instances where students have gotten jobs through sites like Monster or Craig’s List, but they tend to be lower level, commission sales, or technology jobs. Look at it this way, if you can easily find a job listing through an online site, so can thousands of others. So your chances will only be good if you can find some additional ways to get the employer’s attention.
Sara: So far, I’m even more depressed. What are the reasons to be positive?
Sheila: The number one reason is that it can get you a job. Let’s assume you have the basic skills and qualifications, and you’re invited for an interview. Genuine enthusiasm for the opportunity, and for the value you can provide, is infectious. People like to be around upbeat people, and employers are no different. So if you’re down about the job search, don’t let it show.
Sara: OK, let’s move on to your second point.
Sheila: OK, point #2, you need to have a pragmatic attitude. Easy example: Last year, you wanted to work in the investment banking industry. This year, unless you’re one of the few people who got hired from an internship—in which case you’re not on this call—you’ll need to expand your horizons to look for work.
Sara: What do you mean by “expand your horizons”?
Sheila: It might mean thinking “finance” not “i-banking”, and considering smaller companies, different geographic locations, or different ways of employing your interests and skill sets
Sara: Your third point is being prepared. But isn’t everyone well prepared for the job search in this economy?
Sheila: It’s certainly true that successful job hunters will spend an enormous amount of time preparing for the job search. So let’s test the notion of being prepared. I’d like our audience to think about the degree to which they would be prepared to do an on the spot telephone interview for a position in which they’re really interested, but for which they applied three months ago online. Being prepared means either having an extraordinary memory, or having records of your applications and interactions in an easily retrievable database. Of course, if the employer calls at 10am, and your computer is invisible under a pile of clothes and you still haven’t had that essential cup of coffee, it’s worth asking if you can call them back in a few minutes.
Sara: Do you have any success stories of students or recent grads who were particularly well prepared?
Sheila: Yes I do. Sharon comes to mind. She’s one of the women profiled in my book, Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads. Sharon was a buyer for a major retail chain, but she really wanted a job writing about the fashion industry. Here’s where taking graduate classes really was the right decision. Because Sharon knew that she couldn’t just move from retail to writing, even if she knew the field about which she wanted to write. So she signed up for an NYU evening journalism class. That was the first smart move. The second was to have her wits about her when she approached a woman on the subway as she was heading to class. She noticed the logo on the woman’s jacket was for Newsday, one of New York’s biggest papers. Sharon started a conversation about the woman’s work, and then told the woman about her interest in getting into the business of writing about fashion. Fast forward, and Sharon got a gig writing online articles about fashion. Of course, she couldn’t immediately give up her day job, but this chance meeting gave her the inside track to a new career. Sharon knew what she wanted to do, and she was prepared when luck appeared. That preparation gives you the confidence to take advantage of serendipity. It’s also a powerful reminder to develop your elevator speech.
Sara: What’s an elevator speech?
Sheila: It’s a short (up to thirty seconds) pitch for what you want to do. The idea is that if you found yourself in an elevator with a business leader who asked what you were doing in the building, you could tell such a compelling story that when you reached your stop that leader would want to continue the conversation with you.
Sara: So Sharon probably had the components of her elevator pitch in mind when she approached the woman from Newsday, and she was able to weave her pitch into the conversation. Sharon certainly has a good story, but how often does that kind of luck happen?
Sheila: Probably more frequently than you might think. When I was researching the book I coauthored on careers, I consistently heard people crediting their success to the fact that they were in the right place at the right time. You have to be prepared if you want to take advantage of serendipity. But realistically, most people have to be more persistent than Sharon, particularly when it comes to the job search.
Sara: Isn’t there a danger that employers will get annoyed with the persistent applicant?
Sheila: You’re right. So here’s the strategy. (This is assuming that the job you’re applying for isn’t going through the on-campus recruiting process, and that you have the opportunity to send a cover letter)
1) The last sentence on your cover letter should say how much you look forward to talking with the company about your background and experience and how you can add value to xyz company. Then indicate that you’ll follow up in 2 weeks to make sure that they have all the information they need, and to see if you might arrange a personal appointment.
2) Follow up at the appropriate time. The company will probably tell you they have your resume and that they’re not ready to make any decisions about whom to interview
3) Say that you’re still very interested in the position, and ask when would be an appropriate time to follow up again
4) If they give you a date, follow up at the specified time, starting with the statement that you’re following up as suggested by xyz person
If you follow these steps you’ll be combining persistence with respect. Of course, if you also find someone in the company to speak on your behalf, you’re golden.
So, we’ve talked about attitude and the need to be positive, pragmatic, prepared and persistent. Now let’s talk about why you need to be focused.
Sara: How important is it to know exactly what you want to do?
Sheila: It may be the difference between getting the job and not getting the job. There’s a real temptation when you’re desperate to get a job to say you’ll do anything. But that’s exactly the wrong thing to say. Employers don’t want to have to think about where they can use your skills. In this market, you have to be totally focused on what you want to do and how you can add value to the employer. Essentially, however much of a square peg you might be, if the employer has a round hole, you have to make yourself fit into that round hole. It’s all about making it easy for the employer to hire you.
Sara: So it’s good that students and graduates on this call probably already know they want to go into business?
Sheila: Yes, but let’s remember how many different areas of business there are. Having a general direction is great, but knowing specifically where you’d be a good fit is much better.
Sara: Are there any areas of business that are growing and where it might be easier to find work?
Sheila: You can find business jobs in just about any career field, so it’s worth following the news and anticipating which areas are growing and where federal stimulus money may be spent over the next year. Areas where there may be opportunities are sustainability and energy conservation; risk management; areas of the federal government; health care, and education. But don’t wait until everyone else finds those opportunities. Take the initiative to go down to your local Chamber of Commerce or Economic Development office and find out who’s starting businesses in the area where you want to work. Sometimes working for a start up can give you an education you’d never get in a larger company—even if you do have to do your share of filing.
Sara: Any other suggestions for someone who’s totally clueless about career direction?
Sheila: Yes. I’d hightail it over to your careers office and ask to take some assessment instruments to see where your talents and interests might best be employed. Don’t forget to debrief the results with a counselor to make the most of the assessment. And then investigate potential fields of interest, for example by reading the Vault guides. Many careers offices provide access to Vault guides online.
Sara: We’ve covered attitude and focus. Your next point, Sheila, is that college women need to have a strategy. Why is the job search strategy you use so important these days?
Sheila: Strategy is what’s going to help you beat the competition. You should have both a micro strategy, which you employ when you’re applying for a specific job and a macro strategy for how you run your whole job search. And by the way, the strategies you use for your first real job can be employed at any time in the future, too. Let’s start with micro strategy, as in how you approach a specific job opening.
Sara: Can you back up for a minute and talk about how our audience can decide what to apply for?
Sheila: Yes. Here are some basic rules. Only apply if
1) You have at least 75% of the qualifications, and 100% of the really important ones, like being a college graduate with experience
2) You know you can psyche yourself up to convey interest in the employment opportunity in both your documents and in an in-person interview
3) You’re willing to spend time researching the job and the company, and figuring out how you can add value to the company
Remember, the job search is not about you. Until you get the offer, it’s all about the employer.
Sara: So where does the strategy come in?
Sheila: You have to be more prepared than the competition. That means going way beyond the job description and the website to find out more about the opportunity, and identifying actual examples of what you’ve accomplished that relate specifically to the job at hand.
Once you’ve done your due diligence about the job, and found out more about the position and the company, it’s time to see if you can identify a connection or alumna who works at the company and who can give you the inside scoop. In your conversation with the contact, tell her which job you’ve applied for, and that you are very interested in their company. Your reason for talking to her is to find out how you can best position yourself to get hired. The key here is to build rapport—so much so that you gain a supporter within the company.
Sara: I think this is probably an area we’ll want to explore later in more detail.
Sheila: Yes, we don’t have time to go into too much detail on the micro side. So, let’s move on to big picture strategies. My first macro strategy point is that you need to choose your board of directors.
Sara: Are board member positions paid positions?
Sheila: Unfortunately no. These are knowledgeable people, who have your best career interests at heart and who will tell you the truth. That means, by definition, they are not your parents or your best friends who are way too biased.
Sara: So who should be your board members, and what do they do?
Sheila: They could include a faculty member, a career advisor, an alumna or sorority sister in your field of interest. They’re people who—based on your request– have agreed to give you feedback on your resume and cover letter, hear your elevator pitch, potentially even practice interview with you. Your board should be up to date on your thinking about career direction and be available to help you make good decisions. Keep them in the loop on what’s happening in your career search and listen to their advice carefully, even if you don’t take it. They may think of additional avenues you could explore, and they’re particularly helpful if you’re dealing with either multiple job offers or multiple rejections.
Sara: What else is on the list of macro strategies?
Sheila: There’s not a person I know who’d disagree with the idea that, however qualified you are, you have to network like crazy.
Sara: Networking seems like asking for help to many women, and makes them very uncomfortable.
Sheila: You’re right that it’s a new skill for many women, but before you say “I don’t want to do that”, it’s worth looking at the benefits. The more people who know you’re looking for work, and are impressed with your knowledge, skills and abilities, the more opportunities will open up for you. You may be more comfortable if you realize that all you’re supposed to be doing is having a conversation with another person. Most of the time you won’t be talking about the help you need unless the person you’re talking to offers the help first.
Here’s a tip for those of you who hate the idea of initiating a conversation about your career aspirations. Start with people you know, like relatives, who naturally open the door for you to talk about how school is going. Learn how to weave your future plans into the conversation. And don’t discount school advisors with whom you have a good relationship. One student I know asked the professor teaching an undergrad law class whether he thought she should go to law school. At first she was really upset, because he said “absolutely not”, but he followed it up with the comment that he saw her as being very successful in the entertainment business. And then he did something that really surprised her: he introduced her by email to his old college roommate, who was a film director in Hollywood. This student now works in the entertainment field.
Sara: I can see why you highly recommend networking. What’s next on your list of macro strategies?
Sheila: Here’s a very uncommon, but extremely useful strategy: identify and address your competence gaps. That means, in simple terms, consider the types of jobs you want to apply for, and identify where you don’t meet the qualifications. If you do this now, you may have time to fix the problem before you apply for the jobs.
Sara: Do all candidates typically meet all qualifications?
Sheila: No, but if you consistently see jobs of interest requiring a facility with Excel or Powerpoint, and you don’t know those programs, it’s really a good idea to learn them. Harpreet, another recent grad profiled in my book had excellent non-profit management skills but no formal grounding in business. So she deliberately applied to work at a consulting firm where she could learn good business skills. The key in this economy is “don’t give them any excuse to reject you”.
Sara: Just as a matter of interest, how long does it usually take for an employer to evaluate your application?
Sheila: You’re doing well if they even spend 30 seconds on your documents, so make sure one of your competence gaps isn’t the inability to proofread!
Sara: There’s a theme here, and it seems to be “employers have the upper hand, so give them what they want”.
Sheila: You’re right. The piece of advice I give most frequently to students and recent grads is to think like an employer. I’ve already alluded to the fact that you need to make it easy for an employer to hire you.
Sara: Can you make that practical? Take a resume, for example. How can you demonstrate “thinking like an employer” in a resume?
Sheila: Most of us have a lot of different attributes, and we’re very proud of all of them – or at least our parents are. There’s a temptation to a) put all of them down on the resume, including winning the jeopardy quiz in high school and b) send the same resume and cover letter to every employer.
Sara: Wait a minute. Are you saying that you need to customize every cover letter and resume?
Sheila: Cover letters definitely need to be customized for the employer, because you want to highlight how your accomplishments will help you be an excellent fit with the open positions. But it’s often helpful to rearrange your accomplishments on your resume, too, so that the most important items stand out more effectively. Here’s a tip. Give your resume to an acquaintance, and ask them to tell you what parts of your background, experience or characteristics stand out. It’s a great check on whether you’re actually conveying what you want to convey.
Sara: Isn’t it enough to just change the name of the company throughout the cover letter?
Sheila: I can assure you that companies sniff out the quasi form letter virtually every time. If you don’t write something really specific about why you truly want to work for the employer, they’ll probably ditch your application pretty quickly—that’s unless they’re doing what I call “hiring by the numbers”.
Sara: What’s “hiring by the numbers”?
Sheila: That’s when an employer doesn’t even want a cover letter; they just want to see that you have a certain GPA from a certain school, a particular major, and specific experience. If that’s the case, you truly have to be a round peg for the round hole, or you won’t even get a chance to shine in an interview.
Sara: Do you have any advice on resumes?
Sheila: There are plenty of good sources of advice on resumes, including professionals in most careers offices, but two things are very important. First, unless you worked full time before coming to college, make it a maximum of one page. And second, make sure you list accomplishments, not just job duties, and quantify what you did where if at all possible. Give your resume to a couple of detail-oriented friends to look over and make sure it’s word perfect. Spell check doesn’t catch everything! And don’t forget, the employer is going to be reading your documents with their requirements in mind. The easier you make it for the hiring manager to find your matching skill set, the better.
Sara: I’m sure there will be questions from the audience about how to best present yourself to an employer. But one of the things we said we’d do today was to highlight how to beat the competition.
Sheila: Yes. And that brings me to my last key point of strategic advice: Find your hook.
Sara: I think you’ll have to explain more. What’s a hook?
Sheila: A hook is some characteristic you possess, or an action you take, that separates you from your competition. Probably everyone in the audience employed some kind of hook to get into college. It could have been a particularly high SAT score, or athletic prowess, or starting a non-profit company. It’s the same idea when working with employers. Do you have something they can remember you by? It could be something personal like the fact that you climbed Mount Killimanjaro, or you could be like Theresa, who always writes personalized handwritten thank you letters to those who’ve helped, or interviewed her.
But even more powerful is the work hook. If you’re applying to work in a corporate area at Honda, being fluent in Japanese might be your hook. Or, you might have consistently demonstrated a willingness to go above and beyond what was expected in each of your internships—and have the references to prove it. And don’t underestimate the opportunity for non-profit work to provide you with business experience hook. After graduation, Sara joined the Peace Corps in Morocco to learn a language, but in working for a small NGO there, Sara learned a huge amount about women’s small business development and developed an interest in micro finance. A skill set or knowledge that most people don’t have can be your hook.
Sara: So our listeners should think about their own hook, in the context of the work they want to do?
Sheila: You got it!
Sara: These examples are very helpful. Do you have any suggestions as to how students and recent graduates can find more helpful stories.
Sheila: Well, coming to webinars like this, and Forte Foundation presentations on campus, is a great start.
Sara: Yes, and many listeners may be unaware that Forte also has a section on its website called “Girl Talk”. That’s a place to continue the kinds of discussions we’re having in this webinar. What else, Sheila?
Sheila: I can’t say enough about the value of informational interviewing to get career advice from those more experienced, who’ve already made their mistakes. Many women are shy about reaching out for this kind of advice, but you just have to. Sometimes if you concentrate on asking questions about someone else’s career, you’ll be less self-conscious.
Sara: Who can you go to for informational interviews?
Sheila: A good place to start is with your existing connections: aunts, uncles, business colleagues of your parents. But you also have to mine your alumni network, and events where alumni come back and share their career histories. Those are particularly helpful if you can wangle a way to be a host. You may also find your career center a great source of referrals and information.
Sara: Can you talk about what students and young alums might get from your book.
Sheila. Absolutely. Thousands of people have found my book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career to be really inspirational. That’s because it talks about careers in context. Smart Moves contains the stories of 23 fairly recent grads who found work they loved, and tells of the smart moves they took to become successful. (It also talks about some dumb moves, that you would hopefully avoid!)
Sara: How does your book relate to business?
Sheila: Actually the advice in the book is applicable to a career search in any career field, and quite a few of the people we profiled went on to get an MBA. When the book was used in the Engineering department at Duke, they changed the name to Smart Moves for Engineering Grads! It could easily be called Smart Moves for Business.
Sara: We’re getting close to the end of the formal portion of this webinar, so Sheila, do you want to recap the smart career moves our audience should be thinking about?
Sheila: Yes, there are essentially three things to always keep in mind while you’re going through the job search:
First: Keep a positive attitude—no matter what happens
Second: Be focused on what you want to do and where you can add value and
Third: Design a custom strategy for your career search and for any position in which you’re interested.
Sara: So any final words of wisdom?
Sheila: If there’s anything I want students and recent graduates to know, it’s this: The unemployment rate may be creeping up, but the unemployment rate for college grads is typically about half the national average. There are jobs out there, and there are smart moves you can make to get them.
So don’t hyperventilate; don’t feel you have to go to graduate school to wait out the recession. Know yourself and your skills so well that you can go out there and wow your future employer.