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Liz Ryan Headshot

The Ten Worst Job-Search Lies

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When I teach people how to get jobs, I start with a lot of un-teaching. We have absorbed so much unfortunate job-search dogma over the years, so many ideas that hinder us and keep us focused on the wrong things, that half the task is clearing out the Dogma Banks and starting with a fresh perspective.

We've been taught to write resumes in a strange, stilted style of writing that we'd never use anywhere except in a resume. That's a biggie. We've been taught that the point of a job application is to show our grasp of and experience with the stated job requirements, a long list of picky bullet points that may have zip-all to do with the actual job. Worst of all, we've been taught to follow the rules, stay between the velvet ropes, and employ our most deferential (veering-on-ass-kissing) tone and demeanor throughout the job search journey

This is horrible advice that will squash our authentic power, and won't help us.

The crazy thing is that this stuff isn't just demeaning and soul-crushing to do. It also doesn't work nearly as well as its opposite. What happens to many smart and capable job-seekers is that they do what they've been told to do, over and over, and then scratch their heads and wonder why Charlie from the gym, who doesn't seem to have a deferential bone in his body, got a great job while they're still lobbing resumes into the Black Hole and waiting for the phone to ring.

Here are my ten favorite ("favorite" only in the sense that I'd give a minor organ to remove each of them from the collective mindset of job-seekers everywhere) job-search lies. These are the ones I'd love for job seekers to forget immediately:

The Best Resume is a Businesslike, Traditional Resume

Somewhere we acquired the curious notion that a boilerplate, corporate-sounding resume would show off your talents the best. Wrong! We need a conversational, human voice in your resume (and your Pain Letter - what we used to call a cover letter) to get your gifts across. Junk language like "Results-oriented professional" is out the window in 2010. Tell us why you do what you do, why you love it, and who's benefited from your passion for the work, already.

Your Cover Letter's Function is to Say "Here is My Resume"

The cover letter is not a brown paper wrapper for your resume. It has its own function. I call a cover letter a Pain Letter, because it speaks to the hiring manager's pain (not to the posted job requirements). The Pain Letter is specific to the employer, from beginning to end. It says "You guys are doing a great job over there at Angry Chocolates -- looks like the industry is taking notice. Given that you're experiencing X, Y and Z (we know these elements because we've done our research) I'd have to imagine that you're also dealing with problems A, B and C. When I was at Acme Dynamite, we faced a similar dragon and here's how we slew it." Hiring managers race to the phone to call job applicants who already know the size and shape and odor of the dragons they (and their departments) are facing.

Qualifications Are the Key

We've been taught that the best-qualified person will get the job. In a sense, that is true. The person whose presentation, background, stories, personality and overall presence hits the hiring manager as the solution to the hiring manager's problem -- that person will get the job. How large a part do the bulleted job requirements play, in this equation? That depends on the job, of course, and on the hiring manager. The requirements could be monumentally significant, or could play almost no part in the deal at all.

What's the takeaway? Don't tailor your job applications, resumes and cover letters to the posted job requirements; tailor them to the real business pain behind the job ad.

Your Career is Your Career: It's Happened Already, So You Can't Change It

Job-seekers forget that they can and must tailor their resumes every time they send a new one out the door. We can't change our employment dates or our past titles, of course. What we'll change is the bullets we choose to describe what we got one at each past job -- what's in our wake, you might say. We'll choose bullets that bring across the most relevant accomplishments (not tasks!) from each past assignment. That'll take you half an hour to do, and it'll be well worth that time and effort.

Rule-Followers Will Prevail

Oh spare me! The Black Hole got its name for a reason. Resumes go there to languish. Rule-followers who do what we've been told to do may be the last job-hunters to find good jobs. Don't make phone calls into employers that advertise "No Calls," because they'll blackball you if you do that. Use every other means at your disposal (LinkedIn, snail mail, third-party contacts and email overtures) to reach your hiring manager with your Pain message and your relevant stories.

Someone Will Read Your Resume

Someone will almost certainly not read your resume. Employers receive way too many resumes to read them all, even if you have all the qualifications a job ad specifies. Don't trust the Black Hole. Get your resume to 'your' hiring manager, instead. (Use LinkedIn to find that person, by searching on the company name and the title that the hiring manager is most likely to have.)

When a Job Ad Says "Salary History is Mandatory," It is Mandatory

No one cares about your salary history. They want to know that your salary target is in the ballpark. Give them your salary requirement, instead of your salary history. (Leave your questions about that in the Comment section below this story.)

HR is Your Conduit to the Hiring Manager

HR is much more likely to be a stone wall between you and the hiring manager. HR is focused on the specific job requirements, and we can't blame them for that. They've been told to screen for the random twelve or fifteen bullets that the hiring manager jotted down on the job requisition. The hiring manager has the pain - he or she will respond to your impassioned, relevant pitch in a way few to no HR people ever will. Given the chance, avoid the HR department like crazy. (Note: I am an HR person.)

Your Best Bet is to Apply for Posted Jobs

Why would you spend the bulk of your job-search energy applying to the same posted jobs that everyone else is fighting over? We want to spend most of our time applying for non-posted jobs. Every employer has pain. The only question is, do they also have money (which is the business expression of will) to make the pain go away? Smart job-seekers split their time between applying for posted jobs, networking, and making overtures to organizations who could use them (this they know via their online and three-D research) to determine whether their pain hypotheses are correct and whether the pain is severe enough that a consulting gig or full-time assignment might result. The bonus: they're in those conversations with no competition whatsoever.

A Job Interview is A Time Where You Answer Questions

You will never get a job by answering the interviewer's questions better than the other applicants do. When you're in front of the true hiring manager, use your air time to ask questions of your own. Example:

THEM: So Samantha, have you organized a trade show booth before?
YOU: In a sense -- I ran our conference marketing at Acme Dynamite, although our focus was more on sponsorship of the conference content than our booth. May I ask you a quick question about that?
THEM: Shoot.
YOU: My take from your ad, your site and conversations with friends is that here at XYZ Software, your trade show program is geared as much to reseller support as to attracting new buyers. Is that your view?
THEM: I'd say yes, definitely; we use our shows to check in with our resellers, meet their clients, and keep on top of industry trends.
YOU: In that case, I'm thinking that using those shows as reseller-education opportunities might be as important as showcasing your current products, the ones your reseller partners are already familiar with. Would you agree?

We call this Spinning the Table -- you're going to use your air time at the interview to get inside the hiring manager's head and talk about what is really going on in his or her department, rather than to stay outside that action (the only thing that matters!) and prattle on about your possibly-unrelated experiences.

The world is changing fast. The job-search approaches of old (old like in 2002) don't work anymore. Luckily, there's a ton of new stuff that does work. You don't need to squash your power and your brand into a tiny, ill-fitting box in 2010....thank goodness.