Stop Underselling Yourself in Your Job Search, with Elizabeth Gross

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Find Your Dream Job, Episode 227:

Stop Underselling Yourself in Your Job Search, with Elizabeth Gross

Airdate: January 22, 2020

Mac Prichard:

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.

Every Wednesday, I talk to a different expert about the tools you need to find the work you want.

Are you uncomfortable talking about yourself when you look for work? You’re not alone.

But when you don’t toot your own horn, you get fewer interviews and offers. Here to talk about how to stop underselling yourself in a job search is Elizabeth Gross.

Elizabeth is the owner of Job Search Divas. Her company offers resume writing and career coaching services.

She joins us today from Boston, Massachusetts.

Elizabeth, let’s get started. How do you see people undersell themselves in a job search?

Elizabeth Gross:

It really starts, I think, at the resume level. A lot of folks are very uncomfortable talking about their accomplishments and their strengths. I think, naturally, many of us don’t go around wanting to toot our own horns but your resume these days must convey your skills, it must convey the strengths and the value you offer, and the expertise that you have. And a lot of folks have trouble doing that but you have to get past that and really make sure that you are creating a resume that helps you stand out in this highly competitive and very cluttered job market.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, well, let’s talk about that, Elizabeth, because it sounds simple, you know, start with the resume but what do you…first of all, what do you see people do instead with their resumes? What aren’t they doing effectively in selling themselves?

Elizabeth Gross:

They’re using language that I would call passive. So, they might say things like, “I am responsible for these things.” Or, “I am a really reliable or dependable employee.”

And while those are good qualities, they’re not game-changers. So, I really advise using active language to describe accomplishments. Words like “leading” or “directing,” “overseeing” or “implementing”, or even “improving,” and you don’t have to be a senior-level executive to do any of those things. Many of us do that in our everyday work, so it’s just a matter of sort of framing out the accomplishments using different language.                             

Mac Prichard:

Well, why is that language better? Because aren’t employers looking for reliable, dependable people? Why is it better to talk about things like overseeing?

Elizabeth Gross:

I think reliable and dependable are things that many, many people are and they’re not necessarily the reasons that you get hired. You get hired because you’ve made an impact somewhere and you’ve made an impact because you have improved something, or you have changed something, or you have led something, or implemented something and you didn’t have to…it didn’t mean you didn’t show up every day, because you did and you’re reliable, but that’s sort of a given these days. And so, the active language really helps illustrate the impact that you’ve had in the different roles that you’ve held for different organizations that you’ve worked for.

Mac Prichard:

What would you say to a listener, Elizabeth, who might not want to appear to be boastful or take credit for the work of others? What is an effective way for someone to talk about accomplishments without seeming prideful?

Elizabeth Gross:

You know, accomplishments can be described in a number of different ways, and it doesn’t have to be a metrics-driven accomplishment either. Obviously, if you’re someone who’s in sales, the metrics and the goals and quota and things of that nature are very, very important and you want to have all of that buttoned up. But if you’re someone who’s naturally a helper within the organization, you could talk about how even though it’s not in your title, you help new employees onboard with the company. Or if you’re someone who mentors junior employees because they need direction and help as they start their career with the company, you could talk about that.

They don’t necessarily have to be specific, metric-driven accomplishments, but they could be anything that you do to make the workplace a better place.

Mac Prichard:

You’re emphasizing accomplishments, how do you recommend people talk about their responsibilities? You definitely need to address that a little bit in a resume, don’t you?

Elizabeth Gross:

Definitely, and today’s best practices for resumes are to not spend a ton of time talking about the day to day tasks that are part of every job, but instead, describe your role in big picture language, really giving an overarching view of what you do at the organization and how your position fits in. But then separate the accomplishments from that paragraph or from that overarching description by bulleting them.

And the reason we do this is so that the overarching description tells, “This is what I did, this is the kind of work I do.” But not getting into the day to day details. Really, describing it in a big picture sense and then saving those bullet points for the key impact that you have had in your role within the organization.

I call them “success and achievement bullets” when I create resumes for people, and I ask them to really think hard, go back into their annual performance reviews and things that they might have saved about different things they’ve done because we tend to move so fast in our jobs today that it’s sometimes hard to remember what you did that made a difference because you’re so fast moving on to the next thing.

Mac Prichard:

Now, a second place that I know you see your clients and others undersell themselves is on LinkedIn. Why is it important, Elizabeth, for listeners to sell themselves on LinkedIn?

Elizabeth Gross:

LinkedIn and the resume are the two most important tools you can have for an effective job search today. And while your resume is, you know, still a very important professional calling card and is a narrative of who you are today as an employee and as a professional, LinkedIn needs to hang together with that. Because as many people as might receive your resume, there’s also an opportunity for folks to find you on LinkedIn. And so you want to make sure that your LinkedIn profile is as strong as your resume. Now, you might use a little bit of different language.

The resume, we talk about ourselves in third person but on LinkedIn, you have a little more flexibility because it’s a social media platform. You can have a little bit more of a conversational tone to what you say about yourself. It should be kind of like you are sitting across from somebody and having a conversation in person and telling them about who you are and what you do.

Mac Prichard:

What’s your number one tip, Elizabeth, for selling yourself on LinkedIn?

Elizabeth Gross:

Make sure that you are using a headline to describe yourself. There’s a section on LinkedIn, right under your profile photo, that is a headline and if you don’t put any text in there or any copy in there, it will default to whatever your most recent job title is or whatever your current job title is.

But that headline is the highest-ranked piece of information on your profile in terms of search, and it’s also the thing that comes up when people look for different qualities. So, if you’re someone who currently is a vice-president at a company, that’s not going to tell anyone what you do. So, talk more about what it is that you are the vice president of and if it’s an industry and if it’s a type of discipline that you are an expert at. That’s what should be in that title, in that headline, again, separate from what your actual job title is.

Mac Prichard:

There are other parts of LinkedIn that matter a lot, too. I know for you, you recommend people take a look at the skills section when they’re trying to emphasize what they can do for others. Can you talk more about that?

Elizabeth Gross:

Definitely. A lot of us started our LinkedIn profiles a while ago and the skills section was built a little bit differently back then. I always recommend that folks take a hard look at everything on their profile, but especially the skills section, because many of us have things in there that might have been selected a long time ago and they might not necessarily be things that we want to promote about ourselves anymore or they might be repetitive, there might be similar words like, “Creative strategy” and, “Strategy” and, “Marketing strategy,” and you have to wonder “Are all those things as important as they used to be?” So, it’s a great idea to take a look at that list.

It’s down a little far in your profile, so sometimes we tend to ignore things that aren’t right up at the top, but it’s down a little bit on the profile. Take a look, you can edit, you can add things, you can re-highlight things that you want to be most important out of those skills.

Mac Prichard:

Any tips? Because there are, I think, you can list up to 50 skills, Elizabeth. Any tips for a listener who might want to figure…who’s trying to come up with a strategy for choosing the right skills to emphasize?

Elizabeth Gross:

Look at some job postings that you’re interested in, and that match your experience and things that you might want to be doing, and look at the language that they’re using there. Make sure that not only your resume but your LinkedIn Skills reflect some of that same language. Consider them keywords, a little bit like keywords, so you might want to look around at different language and understand what the right words are to put in your skills.

But understand, also, that it’s not only about the automated search, it’s also about someone actually looking at your profiles. So, 50 feels like a lot to me, and I would think that you might want to focus on maybe a fewer number of key skills that are really strong strengths that you have.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, LinkedIn also offers the opportunity to share social proof in the form of testimonials, or I think on LinkedIn they’re called recommendations, these can come from former coworkers or supervisors or students you went to school with. Talk about the value of that in selling yourself on LinkedIn.

Elizabeth Gross:

These recommendations are important. This is a way that a potential employer or someone who is looking at your profile, because they’re interested in you and potentially wanting to contact you for a job interview, this is how they’re going to understand what you’re like to work with, and if you’ve got a few recommendations in your profile that are from people that you’ve worked with, either worked for or who have worked for you, or a vendor or a client or a partner, that helps broaden the perception of who you are, it helps, also, provide a third party understanding of the type of work that you do, and the quality that you provide and again, the value that you offer.

They’re important and people do pay attention to them.

Mac Prichard:

What’s your best tip for getting those recommendations and who should you ask?

Elizabeth Gross:

I think you should ask a variety of people because, like I mentioned, it’s nice to have some that are from people you worked for or people that worked for you or people that you worked with. And so, I would recommend having two or three recent recommendations, meaning from this year, in your profile, and in order to get two or three, you probably are going to want to reach out to five or six people. Because not everybody will respond, and people are busy, and for various reasons, you might not get the response from all six. So, reach out to a few more with the intent of having two to three. And you have to do this through LinkedIn, so what you might want to do first is contact them off LinkedIn and say, “Hey, I’m updating my profile, would really love to have a recommendation from you.” And then you go through the LinkedIn process to actually ask for that recommendation, which you then get to approve before it goes live.

Mac Prichard:

It sounds like a lot of work, but do you find that it makes a difference in a search?

Elizabeth Gross:

It makes a difference because if candidate A has wonderful experience and all the right things for a job but has no recommendations, and candidate B has wonderful experience and all the right things that match a job’s requirements but has three or four recommendations that tell what it’s like to work with them, I bet candidate B gets the interview.

Mac Prichard:

I want to take a quick break, Elizabeth, and when we come back, I want to talk about the job search itself, and one of the common strategic mistakes that you see your clients make when they’re considering where to apply for work.

Stay with us. When we come back, Elizabeth Gross of Job Search Divas will continue to share her advice about how to stop underselling yourself in your job search.

As Elizabeth reminds us, it’s important to share stories with hiring managers about your accomplishments. This lets you sell yourself in a professional, effective way.

Here’s another way to use your career stories in a job search: to answer behavioral interview questions.

And we’ve got a new free guide that can show you how to do this. It’s called 100 Behavioral Interview Questions You Need to Know.

Get your copy today. Go to macslist.org/questions. It’s free.

Behavioral interview questions start with phrases like “Tell me about a time . . . “ Or “Give me an example . . . “

Our free guide lists these and similar phrases so that you can recognize a behavioral interview question right away.

And we share examples of the kinds of answers that will help you outshine your competitors.

Get your free copy today. Go to macslist.org/questions.

The best answers to a behavioral interview question offer examples of how you’ve solved problems for your past employers. And that also lets you sell yourself and what you have to offer.

Get your copy today of 100 Behavioral Interview Questions You Need to Know. Go to macslist.org/questions.

Now, let’s get back to the show.

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Elizabeth Gross in Boston, Massachusetts.

Elizabeth, we were talking about how to stop underselling yourself in your job search and I know one of the things that you see with your clients is a common strategic mistake, people applying for lower-level jobs. Why is that a bad idea, to do that?

Elizabeth Gross:

Well, while it seems like a comfortable area to shoot for a job that’s either at or below your current skill set because you clearly can check off all the boxes on the job posting, oftentimes, that is a strategy that isn’t going to work out, because a hiring manager is going to know that you are overqualified for that position. And if a hiring manager feels that you’re overqualified, they might also feel that if they did hire you, while you’d be able to do the job well enough, probably the best ever, you’re going to also get bored very quickly, because there won’t be a challenge for you there and there won’t be something that allows you to go further.

One of the things I really advise my clients is to shoot high. If you’re a manager right now and you’re thinking about what your next move is, you should be looking at positions that are one step above where you are today, and if that means a director-level, then that’s what you should be applying for. It doesn’t mean you can’t apply for other manager roles that might have additional features that would allow you to grow, but also shoot higher. Shoot high for those director-level positions.

Mac Prichard:

Don’t you have to have 100 or 90% of the qualifications to get an interview, Elizabeth?

Elizabeth Gross:

Well, here’s the thing; we don’t always know…when a job posting or a job description is put together, we don’t always know how much value each of those items in the job posting hold for the employer, what weight all of those hold.

Some of them might be very important, they might be the must-haves; some of them might be the nice-to-haves, and some of them might be the, “Well, if we can get this that’d be great.” But we don’t know that, so what I encourage folks to do is to not get put off by looking at that job description, saying, “Oh geez, I don’t have this skill or that skill but I’ve got all these other skills.”

Because oftentimes, an employer will be very happy with the skills that you have, and if there are some other things that they wish you had, maybe there’s a training program that they’ll put you through or maybe there’s another opportunity for you to learn those skills on the job.

We shouldn’t assume that you have to have all the requirements on a job posting or for a job description, but just know that there’s a lot of flexibility and variability around those particular requirements.

Mac Prichard:

There’s a gender difference here, isn’t there? Aren’t men more likely to apply for jobs even if they don’t have most of the qualifications?

Elizabeth Gross:

Yes. I think women oftentimes, and I would call…I would say I’m guilty of it too, of thinking, “Oh, I’m not quite good enough to apply for this job because I don’t have all of these skills.”

And it’s maybe just part of our nature that we want to make sure we’re checking off all of the boxes and making sure that we have every single thing. You know, i’s dotted and t’s crossed, but I encourage everyone to shoot a little bit higher, no matter if you’re a man or a woman.

Mac Prichard:

There’s another way I know that you see job seekers undersell themselves during a search: you say they don’t network effectively. What kind of networking do you recommend?

Elizabeth Gross:

Well, the good, old-fashioned, in-person kind is critical. Many of us, and because of, I think, the way that our worlds have changed so much, that we’re connected through computer and mobile devices and everything is virtual, we need to step away from that sometimes, and what that means is pick up the phone and call somebody or make an email appointment to have a phone conversation or a coffee meeting. Or go to a meetup where there are other people in your same industry, or go to a job seeker group and talk with others who are going through the same type of thing that you are in your search, even if they might be in different industries.

In-person creates a much more robust picture of who you are versus an email or a text message. So, I think, keeping all of those things in mind.

Mac Prichard:

What stops people from networking or the clients you work with?

Elizabeth Gross:

It’s that good, old-fashioned meeting/introducing yourself to people you don’t know. And even I find that difficult in meetup or networking situations. But realize that everyone is there for the same reason, everyone wants to meet someone else. Make sure you come armed with your business card or information about yourself, your LinkedIn, ready to connect with other people, and make it a goal, just maybe say, “Listen, I’m going to meet one person here and see how that goes.” Introduce yourself, ask them about themselves. That makes it a lot easier. People are always a little less reluctant to start talking if they’re talking about something they know about, which is themselves.

Mac Prichard:

I like your suggestion about a goal because, I think, sometimes people don’t know what expectations to have whether that’s for a coffee meeting or attending an event, and having just a clear achievable step in mind, I think, helps a lot of folks make the most of those opportunities.

Let’s move onto another area, that’s job interviews. When you’re in a job interview, how do you recommend people sell themselves? Obviously, again, you don’t want to be boastful but what do you see that’s effective?

Elizabeth Gross:

Well, the first thing that is so important for job interviews and this, by the way, covers phone screen job interviews, in-person job interviews, Skype interviews…the advice I give my clients is prepare, prepare, prepare. You cannot be too prepared for these types of meetings. So, making sure that you have all of your research done on the company, the people you’re meeting with, whether it’s over the phone or in person. Google folks, Google the company, go on LinkedIn, check everybody’s profile, understand who it is you’re meeting with and what their backgrounds are.

Then, really come in prepared to talk about yourself and your skills as they relate to the job. And one of the things you can start off by saying is, “You know, I’m really interested in knowing, what are the important things that you want from this position and from this person who’s going to fill this position?” And then you can really focus your discussion around the abilities that you have that match what they need.

Mac Prichard:

Do you find that many candidates don’t prepare at all, Elizabeth?

Elizabeth Gross:

Yes. I do.

Mac Prichard:

You say that with a sigh.

Elizabeth Gross:

Yes, because it’s time-consuming but it is essential. Again, we are in a very, very competitive market with jobs, and you want to make sure you’re the one that stands out. So, the better prepared you are, not only with information about the company and the people you’re meeting with, but your skills. You know, I even say, and don’t feel like you have to rehearse yourself to death, but go through some sample questions.

These are available online, sample interview questions, and rehearse them out loud so that you sound comfortable with what you’re saying, and you could even bring a cheat sheet to the interview. And when I say cheat sheet, I just mean a little list of points that you want to make sure you get across about yourself.

Mac Prichard:

How much time do you recommend a listener spend preparing for a typical interview?

Elizabeth Gross:

I think it really depends on what your interview is going to entail. So, if it’s a 30-minute meeting with one person, you know, obviously, that requires less preparation because you don’t have quite as many people to review or research. But if it’s a half-day with multiple stakeholders across different areas of an organization, I would spend as much time as you possibly can preparing for that meeting.

Understanding what the questions are that you might be asked, thinking of questions that you’re going to ask each person in each meeting, and getting help from others, doing research, finding out what other people know about the company or the people that you’re going to meet with.

It really depends, first of all, how much time you have before the interview and also what the interview structure is going to be like.

Mac Prichard:

I want to move on to the job offer itself. How do you see job seekers typically undersell themselves here?

Elizabeth Gross:

The money.

Mac Prichard:

Tell me more about that.

Elizabeth Gross:

Worried about their number not matching the number that the employer has in mind. I think that is one of the most difficult areas of the job offer process but also feeling like if they ask for too much, somehow that would be considered a bad thing.

What you need to remember when you are receiving or negotiating a job offer is that it is negotiable and this is another sort of male/female thing. You will hear from men in the job search process that they will negotiate an offer no matter what. And oftentimes, women will say that they didn’t feel comfortable negotiating the job offer for various reasons. They didn’t want to lose the opportunity if they asked for too much money or if they didn’t have the right number in mind.

When in reality, this is a business discussion. This is not an emotional thing, it does not reflect poorly on you if you are negotiating a job offer.

Mac Prichard:

In your experience, Elizabeth, do you find in working with your clients that employers expect candidates to negotiate?

Elizabeth Gross:

Well, you know, it would be so much easier if everybody just put their figures right out on the table and then they could figure out what could match up. But oftentimes, companies are looking to maximize talent and minimize cost, and of course, employees or potential candidates are looking to maybe move up the ladder in terms of what they’re compensation is.

So, finding that middle ground can oftentimes be challenging, and one of the things I recommend my clients do, if you’re in a situation and you’re not sure what your salary requirements should be, is to talk openly with the employer about that. Say, “In my current career, I’ve been paid fairly for the roles that I’ve had and for the market that I’m in. And I would expect to be paid fairly here. Do you guys have a specific budget in mind for this role?”

And then you can kind of start that conversation around what that number is. And, you know, in many states, I’m from the state of Massachusetts, it’s actually illegal for employers to ask you what you currently make, so you have to kind of balance…I know the employer has to balance that requirement that they can’t come directly out and ask the candidate what they’re making now.

Mac Prichard:

Well, I know that’s a law now in maybe a dozen states around the United States.

Well, it’s been a great conversation, Elizabeth. Now, tell us, what’s next for you?

Elizabeth Gross:

Well, what’s next for me is I am continuing to help people with all of these things that we just talked about. Not underselling themselves in the job search but overselling themselves in the job search, or really promoting their strengths and their skills, so that they feel more confident in going out and getting that next job.

It is a daunting process and if anyone is interested in talking with me further about this, I’m always happy to connect on email or LinkedIn, and happy to help people learn more about how to not undersell themselves in the job search.

Mac Prichard:

I know people can learn more about you as well at your website, which is jobsearchdivas.com.

Now, there’s been a lot of terrific advice that you’ve shared with us. What’s the one thing you want a listener to remember about how to stop underselling yourself in a job search?

Elizabeth Gross:

People need to remember that they have wonderful skills and experience. That they are awesome and they just need to get that across to other people.

Mac Prichard:

Sharing examples of what you’ve done for other managers is one of the best ways to sell yourself to your next employer.

Those stories are also vital to answering a behavioral interview question. Learn how to make the most of your career stories in your next job interview.

Get a free copy today of 100 Behavioral Interview Questions You Need to Know.

Go to macslist.org/questions. It’s free.

On our next episode, our guest will be Katie Fogarty.  She’s the founder of The Reboot Group.

Katie and I will talk about why you need to explain job history gaps on your LinkedIn profile and how to do it.

Whether you’re a new graduate or a senior manager, you’re likely to have a career gap or two in your job history, so I think you’ll find Katie’s tips very useful.

I hope you’ll join us. Until then, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.

If you’re like most people, you don’t enjoy talking about your greatest accomplishments. It can feel uncomfortable to “toot your own horn,” even when a hiring manager asks you about your skills and expertise. If you want to stand out in today’s tough job market, Find Your Dream Job guest Elizabeth Gross says you must overcome this reluctance. Elizabeth shares how to emphasize your accomplishments on your resume, as well as the best way to sell yourself on LinkedIn. 

About Our Guest:

Elizabeth Gross is the owner of Job Search Divas where she offers a range of career-related services, including resume writing, career coaching, job search strategies, networking skills, and interview preparation.

Resources in This Episode: