How to Succeed at Business Without (kind of) Even Trying
Note: I’m going to do that thing I always say I’ll never do (but sometimes do anyway), and mix my consulting life with my OT life with this:
Over the past month or so there have been a lot of folks here who have been lamenting that their careers are over before they’ve even begun. A lot has stemmed from posts like this one by Saul on job market gluts, but really it’s been a recurring theme in a lot of different threads these days. In addition, I’ve been getting a few emails of late from folks asking me for help finding better employment. So I thought I’d give the milk away for free, so to speak, and offer the best way I know of how to land a job that you actually want. It’s a wee bit spartan, being a blog post, but I think it should give you the basic gist.
If you have no need of this advice, feel free to turn back now. If not, read on…
One of the things that surprisingly few people know how to do is find meaningful work that pays well. Indeed, the vast preponderance of those I talk to professionally who are actively seeking meaningful work tend to unwittingly go out of their way to put themselves at a disadvantage.
If you’re like most people, most of what I’m about to tell you will sound weird, scary, or counter-intuitive. But if you’ve been trying to find better (and better paying) work, I’d urge you to mix it up and try this approach for the next 30 or 60 days. If you’ve been feeling frustrated using the traditional job-seeking methods, I guarantee you’ll have better long-term success adopting this method.
First off, though, allow me the caveat of a few givens: When dispensing this advise I am assuming that you are educated — be that by a high school, a college or graduate school, a previous employment gig, or the armed services. I am also assuming that you have skill sets that some group of employers need, be those skill sets highly specific or quite general. Further, I am assuming that your idea of meaningful work is not being hired as a customer service agent in a vast call center, working as a line employee in a fast food chain, or performing some other type of job one might describe as “drone-like.” Lastly, I am assuming you’re pretty motivated to make a change. If these things do not apply to you, it is highly unlikely that any this advice will be applicable. There’s nothing wrong with being someone who falls outside of my set of assumptions, of course; it’s just that I do’t think any of what I’m about to tell you will be at all helpful.
And with those caveats out of the way, let’s begin:
Step #1: Decide Right Now: Do You Want to Be A Professional Musician, or a Rock Star?
When I was a freshman in college, my roommate decided that he wanted to be a professional musician. At the time, it seemed kind of a weird decision for him to have made. While he owned an acoustic guitar, he didn’t know how to play more than a few chords and had never really studied music. Still, it was what he wanted to do. Three decades later, he is the most steadily working (and likely the best) singer-songwriter I know. And all of the other guys I knew back then that had been playing longer, seemed more talented, were in bands, and swore that they were going to be professional musicians? They’re all pretty much doing other stuff now, and have been for decades.
The reason for my roommate’s success (and almost everyone else’s failure) is important.
A lot of people assume that it’s near-impossible to spend your life being a professional musician, but it’s actually not. In fact, almost anyone who has studied music and wants to be one can. Mind you, you should walk in knowing what it means to be a professional musician: You’ll probably have to do it part time and supplement your income with a boring “real” job of some sort. You won’t have much time for socializing, because practice and/or working on song craft will take a surprisingly large chunk of your free time. If you get married, there’s a good chance your time with your spouse will be extremely limited. Depending upon where you are right now with your abilities, you may need to resign yourself to investing years of your disposable hours to to get to the point where you can get regular gigs; even then, though, you’ll likely not make much money. (And the cheering crowds may or may not ever transpire.) But if you are willing to live the lifestyle of a professional musician, your odds of being able to do so are actually staggeringly good.
The problem with most of the other people I knew in my twenties who said they wanted to play music professionally is that what they really meant was that the wanted to be rock stars. They wanted the fame, the accolades, the groupies, the crowds, and the jet-setting lifestyles (or at least upper-middle or even middle class lifestyles) that they associated with the people they read about in Rolling Stone. And if what you really want from your career is to be famous, fly first class, or live in an 8,000 square house, then being a professional musician is about the worst possible career choice you can make.
This dynamic is not limited to musicians — in fact, it’s pretty universal. Pick any profession that people say are busting their butt trying to break into, and chances are it’s actually the things associated with that profession that they are committed to winning. In all my years of working with people, for example, I’ve don’t believe I’ve ever met anyone who wanted to be a lawyer or an investment banker. Not really. I’ve met a ton of people who wanted the money, social status, cultural/political signaling, lifestyle, and parental approval that they associated with being an lawyer or an investment banker, of course. But people were willing to be one or the other no matter what it paid, because the job itself was the reward? Not so much.
If you have a dream job, chances are that when you dig down you’ll see that the actual dream is totally disconnected from the actual job. And that’s good news, because it means that there are a ton of options for meaningful work out there for you, not just the one you happen to be focused on right now.
Before you begin looking for a better place to hang your work hat, sit down with a pen and paper and do some honest self-reflection in regards to what it is you really want out of a job — and by that, I mean what you want your entire life to be like. Because unless you’re one person out of a million, what you are going to write down isn’t going to be a job title.
Step #2: Figure Out What Your Marketable Skills Are (because they aren’t what you think they are)
When I do career coaching with people, the first obstacle they usually throw up for themselves is that their skill set is limited to a part of the marketplace that has a glut of potential workers. They will say things like, “My skill set is that I’m a family-law attorney who specializes in divorce.” They point out, correctly, that unless someone is looking to hire a family law attorney who specializes in divorce then they will have little interest in hiring someone who identifies this as their skill set.
In reality, though, that’s not where their real marketable skills lie.
They may be skillful negotiators, or they may be very good at working with people in tense situations. They may be aces at bettering competitors with strategic planning. They may simply be good at managing people with difficult personalities, or at successfully completing projects with others ahead of schedule. They may just be really, really good at getting people to say, “I like this person. I want to hire their company.” All of these skills are transferable to most other industries; all of these skills are done well by fewer people out there than you would imagine; all of them demand a good to great salary for those who can prove that they actually have them.
You need to figure out what your actual marketable skills are. And chances are, they won’t be exactly what you think they are. The best place to go to figure it out is your coworkers and friends. Listen to them. Allow them the chance to give you the feedback of what they believe are your skill sets, fight back the urge to get defensive or argumentative with whatever they have to say.
And once you have your list of marketable skill sets down, pay attention to them. Don’t pursue jobs that require marketable skills you don’t have, or you’ll find yourself in a dead-end and miserable situation.
(BTW and FWIW: Most people who make the mistake of tying college majors with the ability to be successful post-college are making a type of the Job-Title-as-Marketable-Skill fallacy.)
Step #3: Stay Off the Well-Worn Paths
Or as I also like to call it, try to avoid the Success by Lottery model.
One of the traps that most people in any career path fall into is the one that says: If everyone is doing X, then it stands to reason that I must do X as well — even when I see little or no success by those doing X. Most people work really hard at making sure they apply for new jobs in the exact same manner as everyone else out there, using the exact same tactics, relying on resumes and cover letters they’ve gone out of their way to make sure look exactly like every other resume and cover letter that an employer will pick up. Why? Because “that’s the way you’re supposed do it.” Except, of course, that even if that’s how everyone does it, it isn’t how employers choose employees for the jobs you most want.
If you want to be successful in any meaningful career that’s competitive (and they are all competitive), you need to start figuring out what things everyone isn’t doing and then ask yourself which of those things would be especially valuable and helpful to others. In other words: Don’t apply for jobs on line, don’t look for job postings, don’t spend time going through the Help Wanted classifieds, and don’t spend time working on your cover letters.
Here’s a better use of your time: Go online and start reading the trade journals of the industries you want to work (even if you already work there). Learn their language. (Every industry has their own language that they use to signal to one another who is “in.”) Find out what things are worrying the leaders, especially those things that seem so arcane as not to be covered by the regular business press. Figure out their necessary clientele and vendors, and then go read trade journals for them.
You’ll need all of that research for Step #4.
Step #4: Begin Meeting with People — for the Purpose of Networking Only
This step is commonly known as “doing informational interviews” — but that phrase has become so poisoned and is so misunderstood that it’s probably best not to use it here. So I’ll use Focus of Inquiry (FOI), a phrase coined by my friend Bruce Hazen. FOQ is networking with the intention of learning about industries and employers, creating on-going dialogues with people, and creating and strengthening relationships. It is not a way to pitch yourself as a possible employee.
In fact in any first meeting with someone you’ve been networked to, you should have only four meeting objectives:
- Find out more about the problems (real or perceived) that the industry or company is facing.
- Communicate your skill sets, and make inquiries as to how they think those skill sets might best dovetail with the issues facing the industry.
- Get recommendations from the person(s) you are meeting with of who might also be able to help you answer that question.
- Don’t bug them.
That last one is pretty important, because if you decide they might be someone you’d like working with and if you decide that you have something valuable to offer them, you want them to want to work with you. That means you should never, ever, ever ask about job openings or drop off a resume in a FOI meeting. In fact, if someone does ask you to drop off or forward a resume in a first meeting, it’s a pretty good sign that the meeting has not gone that well and you should politely decline. (Explain that you are really there to learn, and have yet to decide whether or not you can make enough of a meaningful difference to want to talk about partnerships.)
Step #5: Create a Partnership
What you’re trying to ultimately do is create a partnership between you and your employer before you officially work there.
And so your goal past any first FOI meeting is to see if there really is a value that you can offer an employer you would like to work for, doing something you would really enjoy doing. Much of the time, that won’t line up with a companies current job openings — and that’s fine. Sometimes you can solve that by modifying a job for which there is an opening. Other times, it might mean a brand new position. And if you’ve done a good job of having a dialogue and steering clear of sounding like you’re just asking for a job, then exactly how that person might fit you into their organization will be as much their idea as it is yours and thus the need to make a “pitch” is made somewhat moot. And if this sounds like a way to “trick” employers into hiring you, know that you’re going about it wrong. Remember, you are in this looking for meaningful work. If what you’re seeing looks like it’s going to fall short of that, resist the temptation to just “try and get hired.”
And really, that’s pretty much it.
This method takes more time than sending out your resume on Monster.com with a click of button, and obviously if you need money for rent tomorrow you’ll need to do something more immediate even as you begin this process.
But if you want to find meaningful work (and get paid well or at least decently for it), and your last name is neither Bush, Rockefeller, or Kennedy, it’s the best and fastest method I have ever encountered.
[Picture: Spice Girl Ad Crop, via Wiki Commons]
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