Tag Archives: professionalism

Interview Tips: Hot off the Press

At work, I am being given the opportunity to oversee my first full-time hire. Because the position requires a niche technical skill-set, we have been working with several recruiting firms to source resumes. I have been conducting phone screens for the past two weeks and have found several reoccurring gaps in interview etiquette among candidates. Check this out and don’t allow these to happen to you!

1. Have a story for why you want to leave your current position and more importantly, why now. If I ask you why you are looking for a full time position at my company now (and are thereby leaving your current one), especially if you have been a free-lance consultant for the past five years, please don’t tell me that you just want to make an impact. Furthermore, don’t tell me that you like everything about your current job but that it doesn’t pay you enough money and you have a son and a mortgage. The reality is that finances may be a major consideration in wanting a new role. But the interviewer just doesn’t want to know. I would argue that there are several better things to express about wanting a change of scenery. You can say that you would like room for further growth but due to management or the structure of your currently company, you are not getting that opportunity. You can also suggest that the position was described to you one way when you were joining the company but turned out to be a different ball game and you’ve been misled. Whatever you do, don’t tell the interviewer that you’re in it for money. They are simply going to conclude that money won’t keep you happy on a bad day…and probably be right.

2. Prepare for introspective behavioral questions. Or at least be honest when asked. It is very common for interviewers who are looking to ascertain cultural fit to ask a couple of questions about things that have likely happened to you at work. A common example is “tell me about a time when you had to work with a team to accomplish something” or slightly less common is something like “tell me about how you handled an instance in which you’ve disagreed with a colleague.” It is generally easier if you’ve rehearsed the main points of the answers to such questions in advance. On-the-spot nervousness can make it harder to recall simple things. Google ‘common behavioral questions’ and practice answering them. If you don’t prep in advance, however, if you have so much as 1-2 years of work experience under your belt, you should absolutely have instances in which you’ve disagreed with colleagues. If you don’t, then I really have to question the authenticity of your work experience. If you’re caught off guard by the question and don’t have the answer easily mentally available, I suggest that you stop yourself and think about an actual instance that answers the question. I had a candidate who was clearly caught off guard by the question but paused and came up with a genuine answer. The absolute wrong thing to do is talk just to fill the space and answer in hypotheticals. For example, if you say “in a time of disagreement you have to sit everyone down…”, instead of explaining your particular situation and how YOU handled it, I, as the interviewer, begin to feel like you’re not listening. Then I naturally start to wonder whether you would do the same at work. 

3. Do research on the company you’re interviewing for. I may be sounding like Captain Obvious but you’d be surprised how many folks don’t do basic research. And if you haven’t done the basic research, how can you hope to effectively make the argument that you’re the best candidate for the position at a company? Believe me, someone who works at a company will immediately know if you haven’t put in the time to figure out what the company does or, at least, come up with educated questions on the topic. Oh, and last thing. Dress up please! Wear a tie if you’re a dude, or a well-pressed suit if you’re a female…and don’t stroll in drinking a coffee, while continuing to sip on it during the interview. Distracting and unprofessional – both things you don’t want your interviewer thinking about you.  

 

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Work is not fun every day. At least for me it is not. Not even after I left the world of financial services for a cooler tech-company, with a better mission. The other day, however, these feelings were exacerbated as I experienced some serious professional fatigue.

What is professional fatigue?

Professional fatigue is that name I attribute to a feeling that you have hit your peak of your accomplishments at work. I require a lot to feel professionally (and personally) stimulated. I need to feel busy. I need to be solving problems. I need to be revolutionizing the way that things work. When those things are not happening, I feel professionally fatigued. When this last happened, I immediately began to plot a way out. I acted like a quintessential Gen Y’er, wanting immediate gratification…and wanting it now.

I called up someone close and basically said that I needed help, serious help, thinking through my exit strategy from the job.

Thankfully, that someone helped me internalize the few things that I want to share with you:

  1. Revert to my opening line. It is completely unrealistic that you will be as excited every day as in the first month – first year of a job in an industry that you have no background in. Having such expectations are pretty much guaranteed to make you miserable. I’ll even take it a step further. Staying challenged at work is YOUR responsibility. It is not something that will passively come to you, especially as time goes on. However, you can let your manager know that you are hungry. Bring ideas to the table. Show some initiative. And when you do come to him/her, show up with concrete ways to improve operations, cash flow, net revenue, or whatever other metrics you know are important to the organization.
  2. Start/Keep a Brag Book. You might be asking, “What is a Brag Book?” Exactly what it sounds like. A Brag Book is a self-created portfolio of your work product and positive feedback that you receive on this work. This should include any emails where folks have complimented your work, any positive feedback from outside clients or stakeholders, and any nice thoughts that your manager(s) have shared with you. If the thoughts were shared verbally, don’t be shy about drafting an email with those thoughts to yourself, or to the individual who complimented you, thanking him/her, so that the spoken words become written. A Brag Book serves a dual purpose – use in good times and use in bad times. By good times, I mean this: occasionally looking through my work accomplishments helps me feel reinvigorated about the bigger picture and my purpose in it. Knowing that something I worked on has made someone’s day to day life easier at work keeps me going. A Brag Book is a powerful remedy for professional fatigue. As for use in bad times – should someone question whether you are deserving of the next step or a big opportunity at work, you can always refer to accomplishments in the Brag Book. This brings me to my last point: where should the Brag Book live? Copying and pasting emails from work to a Google Drive, or another system outside of work, makes sense. Should something ever happen at work and you were to lose access to your work systems, you do not want to find yourself in a helpless position. Printing a physical copy of the correspondence and storing in a manila folder at home also works well.
  3. Sit still. I can’t say it any better so I will say it exactly how someone close said it to me: “Sometimes there is a lot of value in JUST SITTING STILL.” This notion is useful in both your personal and professional sphere. Instead of looking for a way out at the first sight of professional fatigue, it makes sense to slow down, assess the direction of the company, and see where the cards appear to be falling. I will give you an example from my own life. I had the aforementioned conversation about trying to leave literally one month before my company was sold for $215M. Though it is impossible to rewrite history, I may have acted on impulse and left the upside of the buyout on the table without proper guidance. It is important to know when restlessness, youth, and a thirst for something better should be acted on and when it should not. Having the self-awareness to know the difference can, at times, be challenging. As such, it is important to put forth the energy to find quality mentors that can help you discern the difference (see my post on networking). Oh and by the way, I am not implying that you NEVER leave a situation if you don’t like it. I would, however, argue that in most industries, staying for 2-3 years shows commitment, continuity, and gives you enough information to make a solid decision rather than hastily jumping ship after a year and a half. Image

Dealing with Professional Fatigue

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What you may not have learned in College, Part 2: Composing a solid cover letter & acing your interview

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Part 1 of my 2-part post focused on how to give your resume a much-needed face lift. I hope that Part 2 will provide you with some prescriptive tips on turning around your cover letter and acing that interview. Mastery of these three, crucial components will help you differentiate yourself from your competition in the quest for employment. As y’all know, a job search is no easy feat these days so you want to prepare thoroughly and position yourself well.

Cover letter

1. Flow & format: When I look at most folks’ cover letter drafts, I find that the flow of the letter is often misunderstood. This is important because if you don’t have the proper flow, you’re going to be all over the map. While no format is a silver bullet, I believe that the following  is a solid framework for laying out your next cover letter:

  • Paragraph 1 (this paragraph can be as short as two sentences): What position are you applying for?
  • Paragraph 2:  Why are you drawn to this particular position at this particular company? A personal vignette resonates well here. Feel free to draw a connection to the position on multiple levels – in fact, the more levels, the better. Let’s say you were a developer at your old job so you’re applying for a new development role – the connection works.  Additionally, consider that the development role you’re applying for is at a company that plays in the healthcare field. Explain why are drawn to healthcare. A personal example of the affinity may include a story of negative impact on your family when a family member who didn’t have access to healthcare was diagnosed with a chronic illness. This experience, in turn, made you want to work for a company that seeks to expand access to healthcare. Theodore Roosevelt said that “…the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” Reference points that tell your story go a long way in convincing the hiring manager that the work you’re applying for is work worth doing from your perspective.
  • Paragraph 3: Why are you qualified for this position? More importantly, what unique attributes do you bring to the table?

Check out this blank cover letter. It looks professional, includes the paragraph topics I discussed, AND you did not even have to wait in line at the career center to get it.

2. It’s not the kitchen sink. A cover letter is devised to catch someone’s attention, to compel them to stop, say, “this person is interesting” and grab your resume out of the pile. It is NOT a reiteration of every experience on that resume. Think of your candidacy for a job as a thesis paper in which you’re making a case for something. A cover letter should include a succinct synopsis of the most salient arguments that advance your candidacy. Pretend that you’re applying for a client service manager position. Your resume houses three customer service-related experiences: a coffee shop, an account manager position at an advertising agency, and a job that you held at the front desk of the Student Union at school. Think through which experience has prepared you best for the job you want and don’t be quick to dismiss the student jobs just because they were “less professional” than an office experience. Once you choose the appropriate experience, push the skill-set it taught you. Consider including something like, “I believe that the associate position I held at Espresso Royale coffee shop thoroughly prepared me for dealing with disgruntled customers and being able to deliver superior client service, both of which are integral to the role I am seeking.”

3. Levels of formality: Context should drive the level of formality in your cover letter. What do I mean by that? Think about how you came across the opportunity. Were you introduced to the CEO of a start-up company through a friend via email or are you applying for a job online? Always keep it professional, but in the case of the former, feel free to use slightly more colloquial language as start-ups tend to have more relaxed cultures. Next, think about what the opportunity is. Are you applying for a job at a large investment bank or at a startup? It is possible that a start-up may not have the same appreciation for language like “return on investment” or “creating value” as would an investment bank. Keeping your audience in mind is key.

4. Tying it together. In the spirit of shelling out prescriptive advice, I have chosen to provide an actual cover letter that someone sent me (the before version) and a draft of it after my corrections (the after version). While I will leave you to do a detailed comparison on your own, I want to point out a few things: 1. The ‘after’ document closely follows the flow I spelled out in my first point. 2. The new cover letters contains a salient personal experience (South Africa) that connects the reader to why the candidate is interested in the work. 3. The edited version is terse, simpler to follow, and easier on the eyes.

Interview prep

1. Find others who have done it. Search your contacts. Who functions in a similar capacity on your LinkedIn page? Consulting those who have been through the experience is an effective way to prepare. Firsthand advice is super helpful. Ask your contacts what the interview was like AND for those that got the job and took it, what it is like day-to-day. Understand what surprised someone about the job/company you’re applying for and what they would have done differently in preparing for the interview. What are challenges on the job and what is enjoyable? It goes without saying that you should read the company’s website and understand the business model to the best of your ability. Hell, in today’s world, you can find out what your interviewer looks like and where they live; don’t be afraid to capitalize on this! The more insight you have, the more informed your answers will be. Informed answers will allow you to interview from a position of strength, which will, among other things, calm your anxiety.

2. Think of a theme. Someone once gave me this advice. She suggested that when you go into an interview, you should have a personal theme – four things (visualize the four corners of a square) that you would want your interviewer to retain about you if they remembered nothing else. Study these four items. Should you feel stuck in an interview, tie the answer back to one of the four items, walk back to one of the corners of the square. Consider that someone asked you how you would deal with a certain situation and you either have no idea or are too nervous to think about it on the spot. Responding with something like “I am not sure what I would do in that situation but I did have [insert situation explanation] this situation with a former client and I did this [insert your actions]. Through my actions, I believe that I demonstrated my ability to be a reliable, team player (provided that team player was one of your four items).

3. Role play. This may be a throwback to my first blog entry. Choose a friend who will be honest and constructively critical. Do a dry-run. The dry-run should entail a healthy mix of question types. Some should be behavioral (e.g. How do you deal with stress?; Talk me through a challenging situation in your last job?; Give me 3 weaknesses/3 strengths, etc.) and some should be technical, if such questions are applicable to the job. For example, if you’re gunning for a consulting position, it would help for a friend to give you a case to practice. If you simulate a real interview environment well enough, I promise that you will quickly realize which of your answers are half-baked. Write the challenging questions down and write answers to those questions out. With repetition, you will likely begin to remember those answers. This helps to battle nervousness and tighten up your answers. Before I move on to my next point, I’d like to offer a word of advice on answering questions that require you to reveal your professional weaknesses. Be honest. Everyone has weaknesses. Don’t try to spin a strength into a weakness because you will look like a tool. However, do your best to couch the weakness. Here’s an example: “I can stand to get better at time management. One thing that I have done to improve this is make a habit of creating a “to-do” list at the start of each work day but I am open to more techniques that will help me more work on this.”

4. Looking sharp makes you sharp. Looking the part is an integral piece to getting the part. Please invest time and energy into your physical appearance. While caring about how you are dressed should be an ongoing habit, it is never as important as it is on interview day. You could have prepared stellar answers that someone will dismiss at the onset as he/she struggles to avoid looking at your blouse, bursting at the chest (ladies, I know you know what I am talking about) because it is a size too small. On the topic of interview fashion, I will say this:

  • Being overdressed is better than being under-dressed.  You may not be sure about an establishment’s dress code. Especially at start-ups, folks air on the more casual side. It does not matter! You should still walk in wearing a freshly ironed suit (preferably black or dark blue) and a shirt underneath that suits your body. Be conservative with your jewelry and your hair-do. I have curly hair that I usually wear up in interviews because I feel that wearing it down makes me appear younger and more playful, when I want to look like I am serious and up for the challenge. I find that looking more professional is empowering.
  • Wear body appropriate clothing. I feel strongly about this, even in non-interview environments. Fashion comes and goes and keeping up with the latest trends is important. However, this should NEVER come at the expense of wearing what looks nice on YOUR body. For example, if you’re a female who is well endowed in the breast area, you should either stay away from a button down blouse that will be bursting open OR you should buy one of a size and fit that does not appear that way. If you’re someone with a curvier bottom, you likely want to stay away from skinny, boot-cut dress pants that accentuate every curve you have. Instead, purchase pants on the looser side around the thighs. I am not suggesting that you should not look feminine but in the words of Andrea Pomerantz, a beauty blogger, “think Paris, France, not Paris Hilton.”   

Check out this cool link my friend sent me. It is a good visual of some topics I discussed and others I did not touch on. Internalize it. Now get after that job you want!

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What you may not have learned in college, Part 1: Doctoring up your resume

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The challenge

Through numerous conversations with mentees who hail from my alma mater, U of M, it has become abundantly clear that many college-taught skills, albeit important, do not seamlessly transfer to the real world. You might be asking why. Let’s face it. Colleges rarely teach “professionalism.” You can cruise through 4 years of undergrad at a highly reputable school and still not know how to approach the job application process. At most schools, unless you intentionally seek out the career center or older classmates that have applied for jobs, the relevant information does not reach you as easily as it should. Most of us have spent countless hours writing 20-page research papers with citations, but very little, if any, time producing a succinct cover letter.

The job application process

In most cases, the job application process boils down to mastering three fundamental things: putting together a quality resume, drafting a catchy, easy-to-read cover letter, and prepping for an interview.

Because there is a lot to be said for all three, I chose to focus the post below solely on the resume. The next two posts will feature my thoughts on cover letters and interview prep respectively. Stay tuned!

Before I get to the meat of the post, I want to remind you guys that the same water that softens a carrot hardens an egg. No one resume format or technique is a silver bullet. I recognize that resume standards vary by industry – lawyers lean in the direction of verbose resumes with paragraphs, while the finance sector prefers brief result-oriented bullet points (hope you can tell which one I come from!). Despite your industry, however, I will argue that, at the margin, the below techniques, when incorporated correctly, will give your resume an interview-landing face lift.

Preparing to write

  1. Think it sucks. I don’t know about you but whenever I read anything I’ve written, I tend to think it’s great. I am a victim of all kinds of self-bias; you can read more about it here. When it comes to your resume, you need to work hard NOT to think it’s fantastic. Remember, a resume is short – mine contains 661 words, to be exact. With such little room, questioning every sentence is not enough; you must get in the zone to question every word. Ask yourself if the word defends itself (does it advance your case as the best candidate for the job?). In the process of doing so, make sure you change your physical environment. Questioning every word AND sitting within the same four walls may give you a terrible case of writer’s block.
  2. Line your readers up strategically. I suggest that your close friends review your resume first. Doing so will ensure that most generic resume advice is covered. Not that your close friends are not brilliant, but you have more access to their time and they are likely to know what you know, provided that most are in your peer group. Line up 2-3 close friends. Your weaker relationships are probably more seasoned folks whose time is more “expensive.” When your resume gets in front of them, it should be a good product. The hope is that weaker relationships with more experience will lend you the incremental advice that drives your resume from good to great. Lastly, include what you’re working towards in the email with your resume. Someone may lend you a hand beyond the resume. Line up 2-3 weaker relationships. Feedback from more than 6-8 people may become difficult to incorporate and drive you insane.
  3. Time horizon. Putting together a quality resume is a time intensive process; it is not a one day process. In fact, I will argue that as a resume writer, you benefit by working on chunks of it, leaving it, and picking up where you left off. “Re-setting” mentally allows you to avoid the biases I mentioned above more efficiently. You also want to give your readers adequate time to review.

Writing

1. Don’t vomit on it! You resume is NOT a place to include a laundry list of job responsibilities. I can Google what a legislative correspondent (LC) on the Hill does, for example, and quickly find out. Your resume IS a place for you to highlight YOUR impact. When you draft your resume, you should constantly ask yourself what wouldn’t have taken place had you not been in your position. The answer(s) should land on your résumé. If you feel overly compelled to clarify your role, include a one liner that sums it up right underneath the listing. I work at a start-up in a project management capacity. To describe this, I used the following sentence: “Manage cross-departmental projects aimed at streamlining company’s internal operations.”

One nifty way to ensure that your value added to include quantifiable results where possible. You don’t want to leave the question of “you’ve done this but SO WHAT?” unanswered. Consider this: If you’ve improved the process for cataloguing incoming inquiries at your job, say something like this: “Streamlined the process for tracking incoming inquiries resulting in weekly time savings of five man hours.” Remember, you have very limited space to convey why you’re awesome. Choose how you use that space wisely.

2. Action verbs. Action verbs give your resume power and direction. They are also often discussed in workshops. Yet, I see resume after resume where folks sell themselves short because they choose a passive way to frame what they’ve done. I am not a proponent of falsifying information on your resume. But if you have to tactfully embellish to get the point across, do it! Studies show that women do not take credit for their achievements. Don’t let that be you. If you led a project that improved something at your company, say it! Use words such as “managed,” “spearheaded,” or “led.” If you were on some kind of task force that required your time and energy, don’t say “Served on a task force that…” Instead say “Key member of task force that…” The two sentences convey similar information but the second sounds significantly stronger.

Folks frequently advise that in life, it is not about what you say but how you say it. I believe that action verbs are the key to bringing this advice to bear on your resume.

Feel free to reference this for a comprehensive list of action verbs when you craft your next resume.

3. Looks matter! The world is competitive. A hiring manager has hundreds of resumes to sift through. The best looking ones usually catch the eye. I believe that resume “looks” entail three factors (you can tell I think in three’s, can’t you?): length, formatting, and space allocation.

Length: Your resume should be no longer than two pages. In fact, if you are, on average, three to six years out of school, and you haven’t found the cure to cancer, your resume should actually be one page long. If it is not, you’re probably not being choosy about what you include and you’re not doing yourself any favors! Just because I worked at a coffee shop in college doesn’t mean that this needs to be on a resume that I submit for a position at a tech start-up. When I am asking myself what to eliminate, I like to consider two things: what experiences convey skills that are least relevant to the job I am seeking; and what experiences highlight skills that I’ve already covered elsewhere in the resume. Working at a coffee shop may show that you can deliver great customer service but so does working at a call center for your university’s undergraduate admissions office. Pick one.

Formatting: Formatting is telling of your attention to detail. Before someone has had the opportunity to meet you, they are assessing whether you have taken the time to cross the T’s and dot the I’s on your resume. Are your fonts uniform? Are your bullet points indented evenly? Have you spelled correctly? Are your dates in the same place throughout the resume? Whatever aesthetic decision you make in your resume needs to be consistent throughout the document.

To make your lives easier, I have shared a resume format that I’ve sent to many friends here, so use away! In order to use it, you will have to download it to your computer (using the Download button on the upper right). Notice that the document has a grid in it; the grid is helpful in keeping your sections and margins clean. When you’re done, you can hide the grid lines by doing the following: Right click on the document ->Borders and Shading-> Borders->Select None->Hit Ok. This is a formatting trick that my brother learned in business school. I’ve just given it to you and you’re not $100K in the black. Make good use of it!

Space allocation:  Space allocation on your resume should be driven by the job you’re seeking and where you are in your career. I provided you a link to my first resume after college. As such, the resume has a long section dedicated to my extracurricular activities in college, my only examples of leadership and initiative at the time, outside of one serious summer internship. My current resume, however, starts with an employment section. Within that section, there are sections for different skills sets. For example, there is a section called “Operational Efficiency and Analysis” instead of “Extracurricular Leadership.” This makes sense because I last applied to work for a company’s Chief Operating Officer (COO). The number of bullet points under each section should also be determined by a combination of the job you’re seeking and how committed you were to the experience at hand. If you spent 5 years working at a company and you were promoted, you should probably allocate 3-4 bullet points for that experience. If, on the other hand, you volunteered with an organization outside of work and spent five hours a month doing so, one bullet point will suffice. At the end of the day, the past and current experiences on your resume help build a case to your potential employer that you are the best one for the job. The amount of resume space allocated should be directly proportional to how much a given endeavor advances that case.

Tying it all together

This is an excerpt from a friend’s resume that could use some work. Check out how I would incorporate the techniques I discussed to doctor it up.

“Constituent Services Intern

District office of NY Senator Adriano Espaillat, New York, NY: May 2012- present

  • Coordinated intergovernmental services pertaining to healthcare, housing, immigration, public safety and environmental health for community members of New York State District 31
  • Navigate through government bills and policies to assist constituents with urban bureaucracy
  • Design health awareness initiatives to maintain sufficient environmental and community health”

Don’t vomit on it!

To be frank, none of these bullet points properly convey impact. All refer to somewhat basic job responsibilities. I would condense the first bullet point into the following sentence: “Coordinated and implemented government services for community members of NY State Senate District 31”. I would make this the descriptive one liner under the job title. Next, I would change the second bullet point to say something like this: “Navigated policies for constituents, resulting in a 5% increase in usage of governmental services.” I would change the third bullet point to read “Designed health awareness initiatives that improved overall communal health by 3% in six months.”

Action verbs

The action verbs used in this example are not bad. One could consider replacing “navigated” with “educated constituents on policies” and “designed” with “constructed,” though both would work.

Looks matter!

I would lay this experience out in the following manner:

District Office of NY State Senator Adrian Espaillat                                 May 2012 – present

Constituent Services Intern                                                                                    New York, NY

Coordinated and implemented services for community members of NY State Senate District 31

  • Educated constituents on policies, resulting in a 5% increase in usage of governmental services
  • Designed health awareness initiatives that improved overall communal health by 3% in six months
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