Getting the best jobs out there has never been easy, and this year is going to be no exception. While there’s a lot being said about the pandemic’s effect on today’s marketplace, there have also been additional underlying dynamics at play for some time now, all conspiring to stack the odds against even the most qualified candidates.
If you’re going to succeed, you’ll need to start by understanding what you’re up against so you can be prepared with a smart strategy for winning. That will require thinking like a marketer, and mastering the art of differentiation.
So, what is today’s job applicant up against? Let’s start with the pandemic. While we’re all eager to declare that the rampage is over, the disruptive effects of this unprecedented event are going to manifest themselves for years to come. Entire industries – and with them their job sectors – are being redefined right before our eyes. Disruption is being inflicted not just by changing consumer preferences but by fundamentals like redesigned workplaces, the rise of artificial intelligence and machines to replace germ-spreading humans and the changing state of business travel and how it is affecting the way business is done. While one study¹ has indicated that 30% of U.S. jobs lost to the pandemic are not coming back, the truth is no one has the real answer. The one thing that is clear is that today’s job applicants are facing a massive amount of uncertainty and ambiguity as they aim at targets that are constantly on the move.
And if that’s not enough, other dynamics – like the increased use of online job sites – are adding to the severity of the challenge. While these job aggregators simplify the task of searching and applying for work, the increased ease and access to opportunity has greatly inflated the number of applicants, creating greater competition for the same job. What’s more, these sites are managed by Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS), software that reviews, approves or rejects every resume before it has a chance to get to a human hiring manager.
And finally, consider how technology has been influencing interpersonal behavior. We’ve grown more comfortable with the ease of communicating electronically, and the share of time we spend meeting face-to-face with other people is in decline. Think about what that means for a job applicant who has to show up and shine in a live interview situation, something they don’t do often and something that’s fundamentally uncomfortable. The internet is changing the face of human interaction.
Now that you know what you’re going to be up against, hopefully you’re emboldened to start working on a job-winning game plan. Even if you’re not a marketer, here are some ways that you can think and act like one to achieve the success you seek.
Reframe the process for a different approach.
Marketers use the term “reframe” to describe the technique of making something seem very different despite very little real change e.g. an oil painting with a new frame looks like a different piece of art even though it’s the same oil on canvas. So let’s see how we can make a big difference by reframing the job process. While many call it an application process or a job search, the reality is that it’s a job competition. When you think about the process as a competition – and this year it’s going to be a fierce one – then it begins to sink in that there are winners and losers, with a lot more losers than winners.
So if you’re going after the best jobs out there, you’re going to need to think about the undertaking as your own personal Super Bowl. You’re not going to win by just showing up and hoping that you deliver a world class performance, especially when you can’t predict the interview questions. Instead, you’re going to need to start with a winning game plan, and endlessly practice it so when it’s time to step up, you stand out because you had a better approach executed more effectively.
How do you create a winning game plan? Start by answering three simple questions
1) what/who is the employer really looking for;
2) what will my top competitors being doing to try to win, and
3) how do I convince the employer that I’m far and away the best person for the job?
Focus on differentiation.
Winning in today’s challenging job market requires the application of marketing approaches because differentiation has become the new imperative. Most applicants have a tendency to think that the job is going to go to the person who is better than the other candidates i.e. they went to a better school, got better grades, had better summer internships and did a better job answering the interview questions. While there’s an appealing linearity to this mindset, “better” is only going to get you so far. At the final stage of the process, the hiring manager will be evaluating a short list of 3-5 highly capable candidates. At this point, every applicant’s objective assets are equal, so the final choice becomes a subjective one. The job is almost always going to go to the person who has demonstrated that they’re better than the others because they’ve shown that they’re different than the others in some interesting and appealing way.
Differentiating yourself begins with understanding yourself. It’s the pithy sense of self that lies at the intersection of the answers to the three questions posed earlier i.e. in the context of what the employer wants, and what your competitors will have to offer, what is it about you that is meaningfully and persuasively different? To use more marketing parlance, this is your “special sauce”, the special skill or asset that makes you uniquely you. To win, you will need to celebrate this point-of-difference at each and every step of the job competition process.
Don’t interview. Sell yourself.
Using our reframing technique again, let’s think differently about the interview step in what we’re now calling a job competition process. As the interview is currently defined, the interviewer is in control of the situation which makes you a subordinate doing your best to answer difficult questions that you can’t predict. Clearly this is not a favorable dynamic. But since your new goal is to win a job with a winning strategy, part of that strategy is to redefine the interview – not as a Q&A session – but as a session to sell yourself. Your live time with the hiring manager is your best time to shine. Be on the look-out for opportunities to change the Q&A to a discussion which will make it easier to sell yourself by passionately speaking to your strengths and accomplishments in a differentiating way.
Sell by storytelling.
The best way to sell yourself in this situation is to be prepared with an interesting personal story that speaks to the skills and strengths that the employer is looking for (see question #1 above). Most hiring managers break the ice by asking questions like “tell me a little bit about yourself”, and most applicants answer by saying something about themselves that the employer already knew from their resumes. Soft questions like this are perfect opportunities to respond with a story, perhaps about a time in your life when you rose to a challenge by demonstrating some exceptional qualities etc.. Not only are stories more interesting than typical answers to typical interview questions, they’re also more memorable. Unlike information, stories are laden with meaning which means they appeal to the emotional side of the brain. Hiring managers who ask the same questions day after day probably don’t remember what most people said, but they will remember that special person who made them feel something meaningful. That’s the edge you’ll need to be the person who’s better than the others because they’re seen as being different than everyone else.
I’m often asked to describe the one thing that matters most in winning a job, but there’s no one easy answer. Sure, differentiation is important and so too is storytelling, but the response that surprises most people is my ardent belief in the importance of “taking a chance”. While the reasons differ, most people approach the job process with the same risk averse stance. Maybe it’s because getting an important job is a serious endeavor or because the process subordinates you to employers who can be intimidating. Whatever the reason, if you only do what everyone else does, you will fail to stand out. Standing out – being that person who’s remembered because they said or did something different – fundamentally requires “taking a chance”. In a job market like today’s where the odds are stacked against you, there’s never been a better time to try something different. If you need a little inspiration, remember what Matshona Dhliwayo once advised i.e. that “a star does not compete with others around it; it just shines”.
Note: Peter Hubbell is an advertising industry entrepreneur and founder of Apply:you, WORKshops℠ that apply Madison Avenue branding and differentiation techniques to help college graduates market their way to their first real job.
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