Differentiate Your Way to the Interview

Cans of bubbly, brown sugar water. Big stores where they sell hammers, plywood and toilet seats. Men’s black dress socks.

What is the difference? Coke or Pepsi? Home Depot or Lowes? Gold Toe or, uh…

The difference is all about the message the marketing teams of these companies create and blast out to the world. They tell us, through their marketing channels, ads, promotions and sponsorships, what they want us to know so we can make a distinction and a purchase decision. This is exactly what everyone searching for a new job must accomplish, too.

As I write this, we are in the final week of June. All those fresh, young college graduates have hit the market, ready to share their stories of internships, advanced PowerPoint skills, and, you can bet, excellent written and verbal communication skills. They all present themselves so similarly that a random selection from the electronic resume pile is probably as effective a way to select candidates as any other. The dart throw might beat the stock (uh, employee) picking.

So how do you differentiate yourself so you don’t seem like everyone else? Use current, marketable, valued skills and examples of times you have used them. This has not changed, but many people do not understand this vital, core deliverable of the effective resume.

Let me put it simply. You must tell recruiters what makes you special and different, not the same as everyone else. Answer this question: Why you? If you can make the case, you have successfully differentiated your way in the recruiter’s (read: buyer’s) mind. That can lead to the interview, a series of successful conversation, and a job offer.

If you want to be the human equivalent of a black-and-white generic can of “Cola,” just list your responsibilities and call it a day. If you want to stand out with a distinctive message and value proposition, if you want to be something an employer wants to buy, sell yourself with accomplishments and results. If you can do it, the interviews will come.

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Bill Florin is president of Resu-mazing Services Company. He has written more than 500 resume packages for clients since 2009.

10 Year End Tweaks & Tips

Reindeer GuyWhat would the end of the year be without lists? Best books, worst movies, most dramatic failures, the most influential people; the list of lists goes on. In that spirit, but hopefully much more useful, are some quick tips and tweaks that you can complete in a few minutes each.

  1. How is your profile photo? If you aren’t happy with your headshot that you use for LinkedIn, Twitter and other sites, take a moment during the holidays to take a new one. You will probably be dressed nicely and with other people, and everyone has a camera, so do it. Don’t wear the reindeer sweater!
  2. Scroll through your LI contacts with this question in mind: “What good work do I remember about this person doing on which I can base a LinkedIn recommendation?” Start at Z in your contacts for a change, and work your way from the bottom. Write the recommendation. It will be a wonderful holiday gift that will be appreciated much more than the Scooby Doo Chia Pet from Walgreen’s.
  3. Review just your current job’s block in your LinkedIn profile. What have you done this year that isn’t included. Update this and your résumé with your 2012 accomplishments.
  4. Again, review your contacts. Whom have you not spoken with in a long time? Send a note or make a call. Check in. Keep your network alive. A “Happy Holidays!” wish is always a great reason call.
  5. Invest some of your downtime (New Year’s Day, perhaps) taking inventory of your volunteer work. You haven’t done any? Check Catchafire or VolunteerMatch for ideas, or look close to home. The Rotary, Lions, faith communities, and the Boys & Girls Clubs are great places to start.
  6. Start that blog you have been thinking about. WordPress and other sites couldn’t be easier to use. You have great ideas to share. What are you waiting for?
  7. Check your privacy settings in your social media accounts. Are they still appropriately set for your needs? While you’re at it, change your passwords to something more secure than 123456.
  8. Update your signature block in your email account. Be sure that it reflects your professional brand as it should and that all information is current.
  9. Actively participate in a different LinkedIn or Quora conversation once a day for a week. See what it does for your thinking, creativity and networking.
  10. Drop the cash for a box of personal business cards. 123Print and Vista Print are good, cheap sources to get your personal networking cards printed.

What are you working on? Do you have other ideas for quick-hit tweaks for the final days of the year? Please share them.

Do you want to know more about Catchafire? Read about my experience here.

Bill Florin, CPRW is the President of Resu-mazing Services Company in Monroe, CT.

LI: Recommend or Endorse?

The LinkedIn universe has been buzzing lately about the endorsement feature. Is this a good thing? How is it different than recommendations? Should I do it? Here are some quick answers to clear up the confusion.

Endorsements allow a first-level connection to acknowledge that a person has the skills that s/he says she does. For example, Amee adds “customer service” and “project management” to the skills section of her profile. Jim, who worked with Amee, knows that she has these skills and clicks the endorse button next to the corresponding skills on Amee’s profile. Jim can’t endorse skills that Amee hasn’t indicated that she has.

Endorsements are a quick and easy way to add more credibility to a colleague’s profile. The endorser just taps the button and moves along.

Recommendations require more work and can be more valuable. Amee could either ask Jim for a recommendation, or Jim could write one without being asked. Either way, Amee can review the recommendation and choose to show it on her profile or not. Recommendations have the added value of being free form; their effectiveness is limited only be the recommender’s writing ability.

If you ask for a recommendation, be specific as to what it should say. If Amee thinks that Jim can say great things about her project management skills, she should ask for a recommendation focusing on that quality, maybe even offering an example to help jog Jim’s memory. Example: “Jim – Remember when we worked on the Alpha Project. Would you please write a recommendation for me about how I brought the project in 10 days early and $50,000 under budget?”

Both options, of course, allow LinkedIn users to validate what a person is already saying about him or herself. Plus, they help you build your network’s strength by helping others, a foundational concept of LinkedIn. Have some fun, brighten some else’s day and get going with your recommendations and endorsement.

Bill Florin, CPRW is the President of Resu-mazing Services Company.

Thank Your Way to Happiness

Thankfulness will make you happy. Some may think it works the other way, if I am happy I will be thankful, but the first sentence is correct. The simple act of finding things to be thankful for and dwelling on them for a moment tends to wire our brains for happiness. We can literally build ourselves into happier beings by taking the time to be gracious.

Robert Emmons of University of California, Davis completed a ten-year study on the positive psychology topic of gratitude. The product was a book called Thanks! [You can link to an online version here] Early in the book he shares a compelling finding. Emmons and a colleague conducted an experiment in which they divided their subjects into three groups. The first was to keep a journal of things for which they were grateful, the second recorded things that made them mad, and the third control group did neither.

After a few weeks, the journals came back. The gracious group recorded thoughts about beautiful weather, favors received and the like. The negative group had notes about rude drivers, hard days at the job and other indignities. Then the subjects were given a happiness test. The gracious group was 25% happier than the control group. It’s no surprise that the negatively-focused people were the unhappiest.

The study goes on, and you can read it yourself, but the point is clear. Being grateful leads to being a happier person. This idea may be taught and reinforced by your faith tradition (and may lead to a richer experience), or you may have no faith at all. You may come from a long line of pessimists or a home where positivity prevailed. It doesn’t matter. This is one of those cases when your action affects your attitude and you get to choose.

Choose gratitude and happiness will not be far behind. And as you navigate your life, career and job search, that positive energy will come through, helping you become someone with whom others want to work and spend time. It’s your choice and you can start right now.

Encouragement: More ideas on the psychology or work and leadership.

Thank You Notes: The what and how to go along with this idea of why to be thankful.

Bill Florin, CPRW, is President of Resu-mazing Services Company. Your comments and ideas are welcome.

Stationary + Stamp = Standout

thank you noteEvery time one of my children goes to a birthday party, we get a thank you card in the mail. Over the last weeks, as teachers have finished the past year and gotten ready for the next, we have received notes and cards thanking us for the end-of-year teacher gifts. Each time we get one, it brings a smile, a comment about the sender’s thoughtfulness, and some excitement for our kids. What child doesn’t like to receive mail?

The thank you note should not just belong to teachers and kids. I received an email from a client over the weekend. He had been on an interview late in the week and was asking for some advice on follow up. His question: “Should I send an email or a letter?” Definitely go with the letter or a card. Here’s why.

Just as the cards we have received in our home tend to stick around for a while, the same thing will happen with your thank you card or letter. It is a tangible thing that will sit on the receiver’s desk. She might share it with others. If it is nice stationary, he may hesitate to discard it. Can any of us say the same about an email? It could be vaporized on a Blackberry or trashed on an iPad and forgotten, if it is even read at all. The extra effort will make you a standout among your candidate competition.

Your challenge: Visit a store that sells stationary (Staples, Target, CVS, etc.) and buy a package of professional-looking cards. Get some stamps. Over the coming weeks, use the entire package. Are you up to it? You get extra credit if you report back your results to this blog as a comment.

Here are some practical tips on using them.

  • Keep your message concise and clear.
  • Express why you are grateful. Example: “Thank you for the time you spent with me today. I enjoyed getting to know you and I hope that we will be working together soon.”
  • Challenge yourself to send them as soon as possible. We all get busy and the opportunity becomes forgotten and lost.
  • Get creative about to whom you will send them. The people who interview you are the easy ones. How about these people: The person who told you about the job opportunity. People who have helped by reading, reviewing and commenting on your résumé. The person who sold you your interview suit and did such a great job. That person who gave you some encouragement and a pep talk when you were feeling down.

Your gratitude, expressed in writing, will brighten the recipient’s day and make you more memorable. The very act of thinking about what and why you are grateful will lift your mood, too. Have some fun and tell us all how it goes.

Here are two other articles about less-common tactics that should be part of your career management strategy starting today.

Pocket-Size Resume: The essentials on a card.

3x5x30: Create your elevator speech now.

And a reminder of what can go wrong with a poorly written thank you letter.

Bill Florin, CPRW is President of Resu-mazing Services Company. Contact Bill for help with your job search, career management and personal brand questions.

Social Media Inventory: Unfriend a Few?

LinkedIn, Twitter and other social media can kill your career search. Or, they can be a profoundly helpful. The contributions to your search and the arch of your career are very much up to you. Understanding the importance of these platforms (see this CNN story for a reminder) should give the job hunter the motivation to do some repair work and to take a more proactive stance for future use before it’s too late.

First, understand that it is too late when you have already started an active job search. Should you be fortunate enough to have your résumé get past the applicant tracking system (ATS) and seen by a human, there is a good chance that your social media presence will be reviewed before you get a call for an interview. Your LinkedIn profile and Facebook page are just the beginning. Consider every social media tool that you use, including any comments or interactions that you use with your real name. All of this is very discoverable by drilling down past the first Google search screen.

The time to start is before you start a job search. At the least, review your pages on the big platforms (LI, FB, etc.) Use this criteria as you consider what your presence is saying about you: “If I did not know me, would I want to add me to this employer’s team based on what I am seeing?” If there are posts and pictures and links that leave you uncomfortable with the answer to that question, delete them now.

Next, consider how some of that material got there in the first place. Are your friends and family taking pictures of you and tagging you in ways that will not help your job hunt? If so, ask them to refrain. If they can’t or won’t or just do not understand the reason why, consider blocking or deleting those people during your search so that they can’t continue. If these people are true friends, they will understand. If not, well…

Set some rules for yourself on how and why you will use social media. Those rules may vary from platform to platform. I use LinkedIn and Twitter only for professional uses. Facebook is where I have fun and goof around with my friends and family. No matter what, think long and hard before posting anything that could be controversial or uncomfortable. You may have strong political views. Fine. Choose another outlet for your passions while job hunting. Facebook will be there after you get the new gig.

Finally, be strategic in the future – starting today – with your use of the social media. If you have rules set for yourself on what material goes to which channel, take it to the next step and plan the quality, quantity and timing of your interactions. If you are working to build your brand as an expert in a field, think about and develop content that helps achieve that goal (this blog is an example). If it doesn’t do that, don’t waste your time and that of others with low-value material.

Social media is our new reality. Be diligent and consistent in your interactions in this part of your professional ecosystem. The standard is simple: If your online presence is not helping you, it is hurting.

Bill Florin, CPRW is President of Resu-mazing Services Company. Contact Bill for help with your job search, career management and personal brand questions.

What If There’s Just One Question?

Many people make the effort to prepare for the job interview by considering potential questions, many of which have been covered in earlier pieces on this site (See the “Questions” series). But what if your interview consists of only one question? A friend conveyed a story of his experience about meeting with a top executive of a potential employer. The question: What are you good at?

My friend, being honest and humble, readily admitted that he did not handle this single question very well, but he took it as a learning experience. He is now ready to answer that one if he faces it again. How about you? We learn from our mistakes, but it is better to learn from the mistakes of others; it’s a lot less painful that way. What would you say if faced with this single question? Here are some ideas.

First, think about the things that are important to employers in your industry. It could be a special technology or trend for which you have developed a marketable skill. Be ready to weave that into your answer.

Second, consider the scope and sophistication of your reply. It should be appropriate to the level at which you are interviewing. If you are being considered for a top spot at the firm, your highlighted skills should be at a much higher level than the recent college graduate looking for her first job.

Third, build in examples, or at least short mentions to pique curiosity in the interviewer. For example, you could talk about your superb team building skills as demonstrated when you worked on your firm’s top XYZ account. This will give your interviewer the prompt to ask more about a topic that you want to discuss.

Finally, be sure that you have done you research to understand what is important to this potential employer. You have got to be able to demonstrate that you offer a solution to a problem. You offer skills and abilities that will meet the needs of the organization. You cannot know this if you don’t know anything about the company.

Important: This goes beyond the elevator pitch, which is a brief 30 second self-introduction. It must be concise but it the answer will be developed for a formal interview setting. Add more detail and context and develop it to encourage follow up dialogue.

Summarizing yourself and your career with a concise presentation will not be easy, but it will be worth the effort. You are good at something and likely many more than one thing. Ensure that telling your story about what makes you special one of your top skills.

If you found this helpful, see some other stories to help you deal with common interview questions.

Question 1: Tell Me About Yourself

Question 2: Why Do You Want to Work Here?

Question 3: Tell Me About Your Greatest Accomplishment

Question 4: When Have You Failed?

Newsstand Résumé

Visit any airport news store or a Barnes and Noble, and you find rack after rack of magazines and newspapers, all shouting headlines to get your attention and your dollars. The same is true online, where we are all teased with silly phrases designed to get us to click (I still have never clicked on a “five weird tricks” link). Nobody does it better than the tabloids, though, with huge fonts and the promise of entertainment – and possibly a little news – for a buck.

Imagine your résumé up against this competition. Does yours have what it takes to get the attention of an overwhelmed, overworked and overstimulated screener? Does it say “read me” or “READ ME!”? More simply, is your best stuff in the top half of the first page? If not, your competition may get more attention. Here are a few pointers.

Compelling Headline. Does your headline make it obvious what you do and what you are looking to do next? Do you have a headline? If you can’t describe your career focus in a few words and display it in a headline, start now.

Concise Professional Summary. Develop a two to three sentence summary of what you offer your next employer. DO NOT include clichés that everyone uses and every recruiter hates. Out of the box self- starters with strong work ethics need not apply. IT professionals with experience in data centers and cloud-based application management experience…come right in!

Unique and Valuable Skills. If you have certifications, training or other formal credentials that are in demand, get them into the top half of page one.

You have seconds to make an impression and score an interview. If you are not getting calls, it could be that your résumé is boring and weak. Tighten it up, make it bold and make it work.

Sales Basics and the Job Search

Everyone is in sales. Whether you sell for a living or have to influence others in some way, you are selling ideas, products and yourself all the time. Having your eyes open to that fact will work to your advantage as you conduct a job search, and understanding some basic sales tactics can accelerate the process and get you doing what you love, your career of choice. Having worked in sales and sales management, I hope that these concepts that I have learned – some the hard way – can help you.

Use Your Network. People buy from those that they trust. The best way to become trusted is with the recommendation of a valued and respected insider. Continue to build and energize your network, helping others as you can. The day may come when you need a favor (maybe you need one now) and the investment you made in time and energy will pay dividends.

Sell What the Buyer Wants. You must understand the needs of the buyer. You are the seller, and the employer is considering buying your services. What is important to the company and what are the qualifications of the role? What is the organization’s culture and how would you fit in? Study the job posting, read the company’s website, research the organization through other sources (including insiders), and be ready to explain how you can help solve their problems. Focus on the needs of the organization and how you will be a great asset with the track record to prove it.

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare. If you have ever been on a sales call, as the seller, the buyer or just an interested bystander, you know that a professional sales presentation can lead to success. The presentation includes the person (dress, grooming, professionalism), sales and marketing materials (leave-behinds, brochures), the content of the presentation and asking for the sale. As you sell yourself, you need to consider and plan for your interviews and other interactions. What will you say? What material will you present? How will you follow up?

Multiple Contacts Increase Your Chances. This comes back to the point of trust. We don’t trust everyone we see from the first contact. That’s why you need to work to get your name, face, and work in front of the buyer as many times as you can and through as many channels as possible. At a minimum, this will include your initial contact, a phone interview, a face-to-face interview and follow up (thank you letter). You enhance your chances with a recommendation from an existing employee (back to your network). If you are in a less aggressive job search, consider a drip marketing campaign with potential employers, contact them once every 30 to 45 days with something of value.

Ask for the Sale. When you have gone through the process, ask for the job. Your request could be as simple as this: “I really would like to get to work helping your company capture market share. What are our next steps to me joining your team?”

Consider these sales basics when marketing yourself, and put them into practice. Understand that as you enter the labor market you are a sales person, so be great at it.

Question 4: When Have You Failed?

Here is the question that everyone loves to hate. It has many variations. Tell me about a time a project did not work out? What are you not good at? They are all getting to the same thing: some point in your career when everything – including maybe you – was not perfect. What should you do?

Let’s start with what not to do. Do not talk about a failure with no “but”. “I screwed up the Johnson account” is not enough, unless you want the interview to end quickly. Every story that you tell in this scenario has to have a “but”. This horrible thing happen, but I learned this from the experience. This plan did not turn out the way we had thought, but I and the rest of my team learned…

The point is that your interviewer wants to understand how you think. Can you admit the need for improvement and development, a trait that we all share? Do you learn from mistakes? This is your opportunity to show some humility and to demonstrate the wisdom that comes with experience.

Here is the formula. First, pick a story that describes a challenging scenario that shows that you were stretched. Second, give some detail to illustrate the complexity of the situation. Finally, explain the outcome and the learning.

Now, here’s an example. “I was asked to lead the Alpha project, something that had been in the planning stages for over a year but had not progressed. We knew that it would be challenging because the company had never worked on something like this before. We delivered 30 days late, but as a result I was able to identify some organizational limitations that had previously not been recognized. We took that failure and converted it into a success with the Delta project three months later.”

Keep it simple. Think about something that could have gone better, what you learned from the experience, and finally how you applied what you learned in that experience to a future project. If you have two or three of these stories ready to go, you will nail this tough question. Let your competition forget about but.

If you found this helpful, see some other stories to help you deal with common interview questions.

Question 1: Tell Me About Yourself

Question 2: Why Do You Want to Work Here?

Question 3: Tell Me About Your Greatest Accomplishment

What If There’s Just One Question?