What Have You Done?

September 22, 2009

—Telling your story during a job search

When I’m interviewing someone for a job, I’m always impressed when he or she confidently talks about career achievements. Those who interview well are those who describe their accomplishments in a story format, and the ones who rise to the top are those who tell their stories in three parts—a beginning, a middle and an end.

You can effectively describe your achievements if you tell stories that cover these three things:

  1. The situation. Describe the circumstances you found yourself in. Perhaps you were given a problem that needed to be fixed. Or maybe you were assigned to lead a project with declining revenues or eroding market share. Maybe you inherited a team with low morale or poor productivity. Describe the problem (but no whining, please).
  2. Your action. Then, talk about what you did to address the situation. Maybe you developed a plan and implemented new procedures or systems. Perhaps you hired and trained new employees, coaching them to work together cohesively as a team. Maybe you identified an untapped market for your product or services.
  3. The results. As a result of your actions, what measurable impact did you have? What positive results did you produce? How was your department, your organization or the community a better place because of what you did?

When describing what you’ve accomplished, talk in the first person, using “I” rather than “we“—even if you were part of a team effort. I’ve sometimes interrupted interviewees who were proudly describing what their team had accomplished. I asked them to tell me specifically what their individual contribution was to the team’s success.

I recommend that you develop nine success stories using this formula (situation, action and results). Why nine? Because I love the rule of threes. You can always remember three things when you don’t have access to your notes and the pressure is on. So here’s how I came up with nine stories for your portfolio:

Three Positioning Themes. Select three broad categories that represent your professional accomplishments. These should be three differentiating attributes you want someone to know about you. Your interview answers should be anchored on these themes so that at the conclusion of the interview the other person will remember at least these three things about you.

Three Success Stories. For each theme, develop three stories describing your success in that area. Stories are memorable and will bring to life the three themes. Each story should be written, edited, honed and practiced. Then, during an interview, you’ll be able to tell the stories in an engaging, conversational tone.

It works best to have various versions of each story so you can adapt it to the specific situation. Sometimes you might need to be very succinct, telling your story in just one sentence. (“Faced with declining sales, I identified an untapped market and increased our revenue by 12% the first year.) By the way, the one-sentence version of your story should also be a bullet point in your resume. Other times the listener will want more information and you’ll be able to flesh out the details and tell a more complete story.

With the right preparation, you can approach your next interview with a relaxed confidence, knowing you’re just having a conversation with someone who wants to hear an interesting story.

…and they all lived happily ever after!

How Are You Different?

September 17, 2009

—Standing out during a job search

Not long ago I was hiring for an open position on my marketing team. I was bombarded with 200 applications—and that was before the economy went sour.

I personally looked at every single application. Very quickly, though, my eyes glazed over. Everyone looked alike. They all seemed to be saying the same thing. They even used the same words to describe themselves. Every cover letter, it seemed, had at least one of these sentences embedded in it:

I am an excellent communicator.

I’m very organized.

I’m a problem solver.

I am very results oriented.

I want to make a difference.

I am an experienced project manager.

I’m a great team player.

(Insert your own cliche here)

Sorry. I don’t mean to be jaded. I assume each applicant was sincerely speaking from the heart, but here’s my point:  When everyone said the same thing, I felt like I’d walked into a Baskin-Robbins store where the only flavor was vanilla. Everyone, it seemed, had bought the same book on writing cover letters and they even selected the same buzz phrases to use.

From the pool of applicants, some names drifted towards the top. I finally selected eight qualified candidates who looked different and intriguing. These were individuals who sounded as though they could engage with me in a worthwhile conversation. They also shared the following traits:

  1. They were unique. They did something to stand out from the rest of the pack. FYI, their ability to stand out was not by submitting a resume printed on neon orange paper. They differentiated themselves by a) what they said and b) how they said it.
  2. They were interesting. Several told me a story in their cover letter. (And yes, they were able to tell a story in a paragraph or less.) Their ability to tell interesting stories continued into the interview. That turned the interview into an interesting, interactive conversation rather than a one-way interrogation.
  3. They were themselves. That trait alone—being oneself—is often differentiating. As I looked for the right person, I was not looking for someone trying to fit a particular cookie-cutter mold. I wanted someone who was authentic, genuine and “comfortable in his/her own skin.”

My advice to any job seeker is:  Be different. Be unique. Or, as Simon Cowell used to tell American Idol contestants—”Be memorable!”

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