Find Your Dream Job, Episode 268:
Stop Trying To Be All Things to All Employers, with Mandy Allen
Airdate: November 4, 2020
This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.
I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps you find a fulfilling career.
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You see a job you know you could do. It’s not what you want to do, but you apply anyway.
And in your application and your interview, you say what you think the employer wants to hear.
You’re making a big mistake, says this week’s guest.
Mandy Allen joins us to talk about why you need to stop trying to be all things to all employers.
Well, Mandy, welcome to the show. Here’s where I want to start, why shouldn’t you try to be all things to all employers?
Thanks. Well, if you try to be all things to all employers, and you have an astute hiring manager, they will know that you’re not being authentic in your materials or in your interview. And they will either pass you by because they will know that your answers are vague and that you don’t have the experience or the skills that they need, or if you have a hiring manager that is not as astute, they won’t know, they’ll hire you, and you’ll be on the job search again in the near future because you’ll be in a job that’s not a good match for you.
Why do candidates do this? Is it because they’re testing the waters or because they need a job? What’s going on here?
That’s a great question, and I think that for some job seekers, there is that understandable panic of being unemployed. You need a job, you need to provide for your family or pay your bills, and so, there is a certain amount of desperation to just be whatever they want you to be, so that you get the job. But as I said, that’s really not a very good long-term strategy. But I think for other job seekers, they just don’t really know what they should be doing. They have a lot of, “I could be this. I could be that.” And so they try to mold themselves into those roles, but ultimately it’s not the role they should be in. It’s not what they should be doing.
My biggest piece of advice for job seekers who are just starting out in their job search is to take a minute. Pause and look at your past roles, whether they be volunteer or whether they be paid positions, and really look for that common thread that runs through them. That is the focus, or should be the focus for your job search. That will help you find the job you’re meant to do because that common thread is what you do whether you mean to or not. It’s the gift that you were born with, perhaps, that you do because you can’t help it. It’s your natural aptitude.
How is that common thread that you just described different from someone who thinks, “Well, employers tell me they hire for culture fit.”? Skills are important but they train people to do these things.” How is what you just described different from someone who is saying, “Okay, I’m interested in this job. I think I could do it. Why not give it a try?”
I think that’s a great question and I think a lot of companies fall into the trap of culture fit. I would argue that they should focus instead on culture add and that a truly authentic job applicant who has taken a minute to consider their natural strengths and their natural aptitudes and the things that they bring to the table that are uniquely themselves, if they are representing those things authentically to an employer, they will be presenting that employer with the add to their culture.
What can they bring that maybe isn’t already at that organization but will make that organization stronger, better able to serve their clients, more diverse in thought? And if they don’t know what they can add and what values they bring, the employer won’t know either. Understanding them and recognizing them and representing them authentically is only going to serve you and the organization better in the long run.
Besides knowing yourself, your skills, and what you want, are there other steps you recommend candidates take to get clear about their authenticity and to know that this is, indeed, a job that would be a good fit for their authentic self?
Well, I really think that having a really clear understanding of what your strengths and abilities are so that you can look for those in your jobs is really important. I meet with job seekers who fall into that, “I could do,” trap, and oftentimes, they’re earlier in their careers but also sometimes, they are really eager for a change and they are looking to transfer their skills to a new role and so they fall into the “I could.” “I could be in marketing.” “I could be in sales.” “I could be this, that, and the other.”
I think by taking that minute to pause and assess where you have been successful in your past, the things you have done for groups and organizations and roles, whether you were asked to or not, because you couldn’t help but do it, because it is so essential to who you are, that by taking that minute and thinking about that, you will also recognize, I would argue, where you have been extremely successful. Because we do those things we are good at because they are our strengths and it’s not always easy for us to recognize those strengths and represent them because it’s so easy for us. We just assume that that skill must be easy for everyone else but that’s usually not the case.
It’s easy for us because it’s our strength, so by taking a minute and recognizing them, I would argue that it will help you focus your job search, and instead of looking at open roles and saying, “I could do that,” you’ll look at an open role and say, “I do that. I am amazing at that. I am successful at that.” And that is where you will find a good match and you will go into that hiring process authentically and confidently because it represents your strengths and not just some skills that you’ve mastered or had some experience with.
It’s striking as you talk, Mandy, that…I’m struck by the idea that many candidates, when they see a position, they think, “I could do that,” as you say, and they use the application and interview process to do the work that you’re recommending, to figure out if this is indeed a good fit and what I’m hearing you say is, the better approach that will probably save you time in the long run, is to go out and have those conversations with people who are doing that work or do the self-reflection to get clear about what you want and not rely on hiring managers, like you, to answer those questions for you.
Does that sound right?
Absolutely. I encourage everybody to, not only self-reflect, but reach out to the people in your network, in your organization that you’re at now, or past organizations that you’ve worked with, colleagues, teachers, leaders, anyone who you have been in contact with and have experience working with, whether it be paid or volunteer with, and have conversations with and ask them what they think your strengths are. Ask them where you have added value to the work that you have done together, and they will help you recognize those skills in yourself, and the sooner that you do that and take that time to document that, write it down. Write down your thread, write down your strengths, write down the common values and things that you contribute to your working relationships and then build your materials off of that.
It’s a lot easier to polish your resume and your cover letter if you’re really clear on what you can bring to an organization to, as my mentor used to say, “Help them be better, faster, stronger.” Because at the end of the day, that’s what the organization is looking for. They’re looking for someone who can bring value and if you’re not clear on what that is, how can they be clear on what that is?
I want to talk more about those materials in the second half of the show.
Before we do that though, I’m curious, when you’re in that interview room and you meet a candidate who maybe isn’t saying it out loud, but is thinking, “I could do this job,” what kinds of things is the candidate saying or doing in that conversation that indicates to you that they’re not clear about what they want and perhaps aren’t being their own authentic self?
That’s a great question and I think it’s different for every role, but something that I hear often when I speak to candidates who are not interviewing for the role that’s a good fit for them, there’s a certain level of vague generality around their answers, and often, it’s because they haven’t done what we’re asking them for examples of but they feel like they could do it, and in some cases that’s fine. We will ask a situational question instead of a behavioral question to try to get at whether there’s potential and whether there’s an aptitude there. But in addition to wanting some specifics around what they’re capable of, I’m also looking for some passion there.
When I’m talking to an individual who is interviewing for a role that they have potential to do well or is a good fit for them and their past experiences, or, as I mentioned before, it sort of fits with their thread, their common thread, I hear them light up. I hear them get excited about it because it is a topic or a field or an area that speaks to them. And when I’m listening to a candidate that’s a good fit for what I need, I will hear that and see them get really lit up and excited about it. I want to see that in a candidate.
Well, let’s take a break, Mandy, and when we come back, I want to continue this conversation. I particularly want to dig into what a listener to reflect that authenticity in their application materials and then take that into the interview room.
So stay with us. When we come back, Mandy Allen will continue to share her advice on why you need to stop trying to be all things to all employers.
Authenticity matters when you talk to employers. You also need a resume that tells your career story.
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Now, let’s get back to the show.
We’re back in the Mac’s List studio.
I’m talking with Mandy Allen.
She’s the talent and culture manager at AHA Strategy and Creative Agency. It’s an independent, women-owned agency in Vancouver, Washington.
Now, Mandy, before the break, we were talking about why job applicants need to stop trying to be all things to all employers. I want to talk more about application materials and what a listener can do in a cover letter or a resume to show that authenticity that you were encouraging candidates to bring to an application.
What are some of your best tips there?
Well, the first thing I would say is, with your resume, I really appreciate resumes that are more than just facts on a page. If you include too many percentages or sales figures or KPIs in your resumes, I can guarantee I’m going to stop reading after about the second job that you listed. We’re human beings. Human beings relate to human beings. I hire human beings. I don’t hire statistics. And so, the most effective resume and cover letter, especially that you can produce for me, is one that is authentic and engaging from a human standpoint.
I want to know the jobs that you had, certainly, and I want to know your successes. But I also want to know, why do you do what you do? Your cover letter is a great example for you to differentiate yourself from every other candidate that I’m looking at. Every other candidate has, generally, the same background as you because they’ve applied for the job as well, so from a skills and background standpoint, you’re on par for the most part but your cover letter is going to tell me about you as a person, and why you do the job you do, and what lights you up about it, and more importantly, what you can bring to my organization.
Please reference the company that you’re applying to in your cover letter and tell them something about why you’re interested in joining, or what you can bring to make them better. Nothing turns me off more than a general generic cover letter that doesn’t even mention my company in it. It doesn’t tell me anything about you.
When you reflect back on the great cover letters that you’ve read that do the things that you describe, what made them stand out? Besides mentioning the company, what did those applicants do?
I think some of the best cover letters I’ve ever read open with something besides referencing the fact that they are writing a cover letter to apply for the open position listed on X job site. That is a pretty generic opening. I think they teach it to you in high school on how to write cover letters and it makes me think of a robot. The greatest cover letters are the ones that open with something interesting about them, or some fact about our company that they researched and discovered, or some connection to my team that I didn’t know they had but now I do know.
I want it to read like a human being. I don’t want it to be filled with industry jargon, I don’t want it to be overly formal. That being said, I don’t want it to be too overly friendly either. This is a business letter, but some happy medium between the two. It will really tell me about you as a person because I build teams at AHA. I am thinking about how you will fit with the rest of the team and what you can add to my team, and I can’t know that unless you are a person in your cover letter.
Do you have a recommended length for a cover letter that does this?
One page. It really shouldn’t be more than a page long. It should be about two to three paragraphs, it should focus on me and my company, not just you. We have a…some candidates have a tendency to expound on their accomplishments and the things they’ve done and how long they’ve been in the career field and all of their successes, and I can understand that, they’re trying to sell themselves to the hiring manager, and I can understand the inclination to do so. But if you tell me about my company and what you’ve learned and how your skillset can help us, that means you are immediately thinking about the value that you can bring to the role and not just your own accomplishments in your career.
It will get my attention immediately, and just keep it targeted to the point but try to be engaging. Try to be as engaging as you can be, in terms of the company and yourself, just differentiating yourself from all the other candidates and really helping me see you as a team member and not just an applicant.
What makes a letter engaging, Mandy?
Well, if you ask my English teacher from high school, she’ll talk about the various openings for essays that grab attention and I think that those can apply to cover letters, too. You can open with a quote, you can open with a fact, you can open with something particularly pertinent about yourself. Maybe if you’re a salesperson you could open with, “The hardest sale I ever made was closing a sale with a really hard client.” Or something along those lines.
Something specific that would help me engage with your skillset. Then, turn it around and talk about how you can bring that same tenacity or that same goal-orientation to AHA, to my company, to the company that you are applying for. But starting with a grabber is going to get my attention.
Do not start with, “I am sending you this letter in reference to your ad posted on your Craig’s List.” I will immediately go to the next candidate.
You mentioned that you like to see if an applicant has a connection to a team member at your company. Why does that matter to you?
I think that, for a hiring manager, finding out if there’s some referral connection is a really nice, warm entry into an application process. That being said, we don’t only hire referrals at AHA, that doesn’t help our diversity or our diversity of thought. We really like to have a nice mix of people in our team but knowing that you have a connection helps me learn a little bit about you. And I can find out if you worked together, what kind of work you did, what kind of projects you might already have experience with; it’s a nice warm entry but it’s not necessary.
If you don’t know somebody at a company, that’s okay too; find another way to connect with that company, learn a little bit about them. Just do something that helps you connect in some way with the person that you’re writing to.
You also talked a moment ago about an applicant addressing or raising a company’s challenges and talking about what the company’s needs are. In your experience, what percentage of job applicants do that in the cover letter?
I don’t even know the percentage but not enough. I think that immediately addressing what you perceive as a company’s need in your cover letter and how you can help them with that gets me thinking about how you can connect to the team. Another tip I would say is that, when you are done with your interview with a company, and you go home and you are inclined to send a thank you email, use that as an opportunity to recap on the points that you learned about during your interview.
Don’t just send an email that says, “Thank you for your time. It was a pleasure meeting you and learning more about your company.” Use that email as an opportunity to acknowledge that you heard what I need for this role and that you can address those needs. I have personally sent follow-up emails for roles that I applied for and interviewed for and said, “During our interview, I noted the following challenges, and here’s how I would address them.”
That gets me thinking about you as an employee. Not just as an applicant.
Let’s talk more about the interview room. When you’re sitting in the hot seat there as an applicant, how can you demonstrate the kind of authenticity that we’ve been talking about?
Take a deep breath, remember it’s just a conversation. I know at some companies, they believe in high-pressure interviewing. At AHA, we do not believe in that. I really want and strive for candidates to feel comfortable, so that they can share their skills and experiences with us, and tell stories. Tell stories, tell stories. I can’t stress that enough. When you are asked a question, find an example of something you have done that addresses that question and tell it to me in a story.
We are humans and humans remember stories, and if you tell engaging ones that answer the questions and provide good examples, I guarantee when your interviewers leave the room, they will remember you and they will remember how you handled certain situations.
When you’re listening to a candidate and you’re thinking to yourself, “This isn’t a person who thinks they could be here. This is a person who wants to be here. And they’ve thought about it and they’re determined to come here.” What are they doing differently, Mandy?
I think they’re being really clear about what they can add to my company, to my team, to whatever I’m interviewing them for, and they are relating it back to examples of when they have done that in their own experience, and additionally, they know something about us. When they come into the room and they’re answering questions in a way that demonstrates that they’ve done their research, they’ve learned about our company, they’ve learned about the role, they’ve learned about the team even.
We have an entire page on our website that has biographies on our people, and I think that some of the best candidates are the ones that take the time to dig into that a little bit. It shows that they care about joining AHA and not just joining a team period.
Well, it’s been a terrific conversation. Now, tell us, what’s next for you?
Well, AHA has been extremely lucky during this time that we are experiencing a continued increase in our work and we are working really hard to keep our team connected and feeling fulfilled with that increase in work. So, I would say that if anything I talked about today about AHA sounds interesting to you and you want to do great work supporting great companies, we would love to hear from you.
You can visit our career page or you can reach out to me. We’re always looking to connect with great, creative talents who can help us achieve our goals and our clients’ goals.
I know people can learn more about you and your company by visiting the AHA website. That’s AHAinc.com. As well as your Instagram page, and the Instagram handle is ahapdx. And then, finally, Mandy, I know you encourage people to connect with you on LinkedIn, personally, and if they do, I certainly recommend that they mention that they heard you on the show.
Given all your great advice today, Mandy, what’s the one thing that you want a listener to remember about why you need to stop trying to be all things to all employers?
I think my number one piece of advice for everyone is to take that time to understand yourself, your strengths, what is authentically you. And I guarantee you will find your dream job because you will interview with companies that are a good fit for you and for your goals in life, and once you find that fit, you’ll be with them for a long time because you’ll be in the job that you’re meant to do, that you’re great at, and that you will succeed in. And so, finding that authenticity in who you are and your strengths will save you from having to constantly be on the search because you’ll find your dream job.
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Next week, our guest will be Justin Nguyen. He’s the founder of GetChoGrindUp, a movement to help students navigate college. Justin also hosts the podcast, Declassified College.
Many people treat a LinkedIn page like an online resume. That’s a big mistake, says Justin.
You’ll find your next job faster if your LinkedIn account has clear calls to action and a strategy for converting visitors into contacts.
Justin and I will talk about why you need to treat your LinkedIn account like a landing page, not a resume, and how to do it.
I hope you’ll join us. Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.