Reaching New Heights by Challenging Yourself, with Heather Back

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Find Your Dream Job, Bonus Episode 31: Heather Back

Reaching New Heights by Challenging Yourself: Heather Back’s Job Search Story

Airdate: July 13, 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.

One of the best ways to get good at job hunting is to talk to people who do it well.

That’s why once a month, I interview a Mac’s List reader who found a job they love.

Our guest today is Heather Back. She’s a communications and policy manager at Metro. It’s the regional government for the Oregon portion of the Portland metropolitan area.

Heather Back knows the discouragement and disappointment that can come from a long job search. She spent two years looking for the right job.

In a story you can find on the Mac’s List website, Heather credits her success to a change in strategy. She began sharing her goals with others, networking often, and not settling for the work she’d done in the past.

Heather, why do you love your job?

Heather Back:

I have the perfect job for me. I love travel and tourism, and to be able to provide great community benefits, which our four visitor venues certainly do.

Mac Prichard:

Let’s talk about your job search that brought you to Metro. You looked for 2 years, Heather, and that’s a long time. What was the biggest challenge as you were going through that search?

Heather Back:

You know, the first thing is, I had moved from another market and moved for a position that was not the right fit for me. And so, in the time that I was searching, I was working and I was consulting, but I was really looking for the thing that would just light my soul on fire, so to speak. And I would say, the biggest thing, it’s hard to network when you’re brand new to a new community.

I thank you and your team for some great networking events that you held, in-person sessions, and also your HR professionals that give people key tips. What I faced in this particular job search that was the greatest challenge for me were the resume scanning softwares. It’s now so common and in the earlier part of my career, it was much more about meeting someone individually, making connections with them, an organization, and opening the doors.

Institutions like Metro and government agencies and others, that is actually not a pathway to success for entry. Part of the interview process is very formalized and you start by those search engines looking at your resume. Treating yourself and your resume almost like an engine optimization project is probably a great way of looking at it and making sure that the terms that you’re using for every job posting are in your resume and it sounds simple when you say it that way but if you’re not meeting those benchmarks, it can really be quite a challenge.

Mac Prichard:

How did you figure that out, Heather? Did you teach yourself? Did somebody coach you? Who solved the puzzle for you?

Heather Back:

Oh, 100 percent it was a trick that I learned through Mac’s List, through your podcast, and your sessions, and your one on one sessions with folks who were looking for positions. To some degree, I was doing it but I wasn’t doing it with tremendous honed success. I would say, in general, I am accustomed to being behind the scenes, and marketing and promoting organizations and leaders, that’s been my career path.

Doing that for myself has always been a challenge, and so, getting some key tips from yourself from others on how to unabashedly do that in a way that is successful. First, getting clear about your intentions and what you’re looking for, and some of the traditional things that they have done as far as hone in on the exact organization that you want to work for or work with and why, and starting in that. And then this became just one of the steps of the process versus a roadblock. Which is what it was feeling like for a while.

Mac Prichard:

You mentioned that in the organization that you work at now, in addition to using the applicant tracking system, there’s a structured hiring process with formal interviews. How did you learn how to navigate that world? Because that’s common among larger employers and it can seem impenetrable from the outside.

Heather Back:

Yeah, so I think, don’t be afraid to ask the HR person who’s scheduling the interview as many questions as they are willing to share. So, finding out who’s going to be on the interview panel so that you can research and find out who those individuals are and maybe what perspectives and what values and priorities they have. Building rapport instantly with a big group is more challenging and you’re trying to make eye contact with everyone in the room, some of the basic things. But I think that really trying to figure out…if I could do it all over again, I would have asked the HR manager setting up this interview, “How many questions approximately will I be asked in the time frame that I have?” Because you as the applicant are trying to gauge how long you should talk and how deep you should go into certain examples and real-world experiences that you have.

In interviews like this, they are really precluded and they aren’t able to give you a follow-up or any clues that in a more informal setting you might be able to get, so if you know exactly how many questions are going to be in that time frame, you can kind of garner, how long should you answer each individual question so that you’re not being so succinct that you’re not giving the breadth of your knowledge and experience, and you’re not being so long-winded that they’re not able to get all of their key questions answered.

Mac Prichard:

In addition to asking those questions of the hiring manager about who’s going to be in the room, their names, how many questions you might have to respond to, were there other steps that you took to prepare for this very formal interview process and structured hiring process?

Heather Back:

Yeah, certainly I did as much research on all four venues as I possibly could. So, that would be the Oregon Convention Center, Oregon Zoo, Portland’5 Center for the Arts, and also Portland Expo Center. What my traditional experience had been, and it was really more marketing and public relations, and this particular position involved a lot of public affairs and policy work as well, so doing some homework on, what does that really mean and what is the governance of a venue?

It’s actually a very unique model. Metro’s the only directly elected regional government in the entire country, so that, in and of itself, is quite unique and so to take these venues and outlets that are usually a for-profit or nonprofit perhaps, and then put it under a government umbrella. I knew there was a lot I didn’t know, so I did as much research as I could and I looked for directly transferable experience to these particular worlds and responsibilities.

Mac Prichard:

You mentioned at the start of the conversation that some of the job search methods like trying to network inside the organization, weren’t as effective in an organization like Metro because it has a very formal hiring process. What were the methods that weren’t effective and what did you do to replace them or do instead?

Heather Back:

Yeah, once the jobs are posted, you literally cannot talk to applicants, and so sometimes that’s even interesting now that I’m in the organization, because by nature, you want to help others who are a really good fit but it’s not something that you can do in these types of settings. I think the key thing is to go through every public document, record, annual report, all websites, and social channels, of course, and really do all the due diligence and get all the information that you can. Because if you know you have your eye set on an organization like this, you can have an informal coffees and conversation with folks when there aren’t positions open, but it is very unique and it means that you have to have the confidence that you are the right person for the position and to tell your story as to why and why this position you’re seeking, I think, are just standard things to go back to.

Mac Prichard:

You mentioned that you were new to the Portland market when you started looking for this job. How did you build your network in a town where you were a newcomer? What worked for you, Heather?

Heather Back:

Yeah, it’s the funniest thing, when I was leaving San Diego to come to Portland, of course, everyone told me how much the weather was going to be such a shock and so different, so that was not a surprise. What was surprising was that, after 19 years in a market where I had so many relationships, there was almost no place where I needed to network or connect with that I didn’t have someone that I knew in that organization. Starting anew in a new place is like throwing away your Rolodex and every contact in your phone, and so, slowly but surely, I reached out to individuals in various companies and organizations.

I went to any place that had “Lunch and Learns.” Nike has a great one for its corporate and social responsibility, a monthly luncheon that anyone can come to. So, I just continued to put myself out there and go to as many types of events like that. I tried to stay away from events that were solely or predominantly folks looking for positions because that is not a way to stand out. I tried to find places to network with like-minded individuals and companies that were really connected to communities. I think that’s the thing that goes through all my experience and career, are directly supporting the community and really tethered how travel and tourism drive the economy in a region.

Those were my targeted areas. I did connect with philanthropic organizations and I also really tried to connect more with Travel Portland, Travel Oregon, and some hotel/motel associations.

Mac Prichard:

These were all organizations and events that were connected to your career goal, weren’t they?

Heather Back:

That’s right.

Mac Prichard:

You talked in your article for our website about that change in strategy because your job search wasn’t moving along at the rate that you hoped. What inspired you to change your strategy and do something different?

Heather Back:

Yeah, it’s easy to say now that I’m glad it happened the way that it did, and in the heart of it I probably didn’t feel that way. But I have been someone who’s been laser-focused in my life and my career, and so in many ways when I moved to Portland, I wanted to open up my perspective and have opportunities to experience other projects that might not have been right in my laser-focus.

During my consulting time, I picked passion projects that weren’t necessarily as lucrative as they were just self-fulfilling, and when I started to look for the career that…what I was really looking for was, where’s a place that I would be happy retiring at? And I have to say, I never had that particular key focus in my job search until this particular one, so that meant a lot of things.

It meant that an organization had a great benefits package and a lot of components. So, I really was pretty specific in what I was looking for but going from the camera lens being really focused in and dialed in on things to intentionally broadening it and doing various projects and then honing back to what I saw as a common thread was probably…it took me a little while to get clear on that and what I started to see were the commonalities in each position.

I find that working for many organizations in your career can be really valuable, it gives you a broader toolset in your toolkit. Years ago, you may have spent a whole career in one or two places and I have had the opportunity to work with great organizations. Some of them have commonalities, some of them have intersectionality, but when I was first starting my job search, they felt a little disparate and I needed to rebrand myself and also have the common story of what connected the various positions.

It really took that focus, and part of what I did was ask key people who I trusted, my cabinet, if you’ll call it, individuals that I know, know me well, ask questions and get real honesty back about my strengths and where I could be better. So, my weaknesses and where they see me really light up and get excited about where I work. And so, an informal 360 kind of helped me to refocus back into what exactly I was looking for in my search, and as soon as I did that, the job search time frame was much quicker.

Mac Prichard:

What inspired you to ask for that 360? Was it frustration with the length of time your job search was taking? Was it uncertainty about your goals? What was the clarifying moment there?

Heather Back:

I think it was an awareness that I wanted to see how others saw me and not just how I saw myself. I mean, we can be, sometimes, our toughest critic, and perhaps not see our own blindspots. So, through just awareness of, I just wanted to really have feedback that I may not see in and of myself, and so, it really was the most enlightening part of my search.

Mac Prichard:

How did you organize that 360 feedback? Did you have a model in mind or did you have some…?

Heather Back:

Yeah, good question. I have always watched individuals in their careers that I sort of considered a mentor or I admired or perhaps they were further along in their career and had a trajectory that I thought I might be leading. And I’ve always done that, so individuals that I saw in positions that I might be interested in, I would always research how they got there. What was their career path, and I have a list of those folks from San Diego and here and continued to watch and monitor, and actually each year try to pick 3 to 5 individuals that you follow their career or what they’re doing, the philanthropic work that they’re doing. Just out of interest and inspiration, and so, that list of relationships that I’d built over a long period of time was the closest mirror back to my work and my connectivity, and some had actually worked with, and one, in fact, was a career coach of mine in the past.

Different perspectives but definitely people that I admired and trusted the feedback that they would give me.

Mac Prichard:

These were the people that you asked to provide the feedback; what model did you use? Did someone give you an example or did you create your own model?

Heather Back:

I kind of did my own, that’s what I meant by informal. I sat down and wrote questions of, what would I ask myself if I were going to be interviewing myself? And really trying to get a good assessment, almost like an annual review, and perhaps some of the questions that career coaches had asked me when they first met me. I’ve had 2 in my career. I’ve worked with two different career coaches.

I looked at the questions they had asked me to get a perspective of my goals, and I wrote those down and I kind of modified those a bit, and then I just reached out to a few people and asked, would you be willing to either give me these answers in writing or can we do a quick call to just talk through? And a few individuals were my former supervisors as well, so they were quite willing to give me that feedback. And it wasn’t all easy to hear!

Mac Prichard:

Why was that such a clarifying event for you? What did you get out of that that helped you shorten your search and get you to a job that, 2 years later, or several years later now, you continue to love and thrive in?

Heather Back:

Yeah, today I can be very vulnerable and honest about it. When you’re looking for that long and you’re not getting results, I mean, up until this job search, I truly had never been on a job interview where I didn’t get an offer. And in this job search, I made it to the final three candidates four times and didn’t get the final offer, and so with that sequence, you wonder if it’s going to happen again, and I really needed some wind in my sails. I needed a boost, and I was even questioning the things that I feel like are my core strengths. I was even questioning those because of this.

That’s specifically why I needed this. And I found that individuals who knew me at different parts of my career were actually the best inspiration for seeing my true self and my strengths in different parts of my career. Which I had almost forgotten about quite frankly.

Mac Prichard:

How did that information that you got from these people who knew you well put that wind back into your sails? Why did it make a difference?

Heather Back:

You know, it’s just easy to…I think it’s human nature, we just always look at how we could be better; what we wish we would have done better. And sometimes, the things that come really easy and that we’re really good at, we kind of take for granted and we don’t necessarily give them the chutzpah that they deserve. And so, I really think that that’s what it was. Having that reflection back of certain challenges or something that, to me, didn’t seem like it was challenging because I was enjoying it. What was really insightful was what other people saw as great successes, I saw as easy because it was work that I was really passionate about, and so, this process helped me see that.

I could see the work that was “a breeze” because it’s where I was passionate at. When you’re doing something that you love, time goes by, it doesn’t feel like work, it really feels like you’re inspired and uplifted by your doing it. The process allowed me to see, wow, that really is the type of work, these different areas when it was connected to community. There was a philanthropic or a community benefit at the end, it was really important in a lot of instances and truly, branding and communications and mar/com is where I really light up.

The policy work is not quite as fun but it’s so important for our communities and the governance that we have and so it gave me a better perspective of the portfolio of where marketing comes in, PR comes in, and the policies and public affairs.

Mac Prichard:

You got these insights and then what happened next? You got an offer in just a few months, is that right?

Heather Back:

I did. I actually…just very quickly after one of the semi-private sessions that you do with folks, I had four interviews in the matter of about a month and a half and had offers from two of those four, and ultimately chose this position. The other position was at the Oregon Community Foundation, so both exceptional opportunities and I felt that Metro probably had the greater opportunity to influence the community and have new opportunities in my career.

Mac Prichard:

Well, it’s been a great conversation, Heather. What’s your number one job hunting tip?

Heather Back:

Wow. I think number one is to really get clear about what you want and when I say that I mean, not just the industry and the sector but the type of culture. Do you want to have a team that you’re managing? Would you rather manage by influence and be a contributor and more autonomous? There’s a long list of things that I think are really important, and discerning if a core organization is communications and marketing focused, if they’re finance-focused.

Each institution has its own wiring and “social norms.” I think…I’ve now worked in for-profit, nonprofit, and government. I haven’t worked in education, but each has its own nuances, and really seeing what that culture is and if it’s the right fit for you is the most important thing to know if it’s going to be a long-term fit and a great position for you.

Mac Prichard:

Well, Heather, thank you for sharing your story. To learn more about Heather Back’s job search, visit macslist.org/stories.

And check out the Mac’s List website for dozens of other success stories.

On the second Friday of every month, we add a new interview with a Mac’s List reader who has found a dream job. Go to macslist.org/stories.

In the meantime, thank you for listening to today’s bonus episode of Find Your Dream Job.

If your job search has been going on for longer than you expected, you might find yourself discouraged. It can be demoralizing to go to interview after interview and never be offered the job. On this bonus episode of Find Your Dream Job, Heather Back and I talk about her two-year-long job search and how she finally landed a job. Heather shares the changes she made in her job search strategy, which included finding new networking opportunities after moving to a new city and narrowing down the exact type of position she wanted. Learn more about Heather’s career history below in this installment of our Success Stories series.

What do you do for a career? Who do you work for?

I bring nearly 25 years of experience in marketing, advertising and public relations to my communications and policy role at Metro, supporting the four visitor venues — the Oregon Zoo, Oregon Convention Center, Portland Expo Center and Portland’5 Centers for the Arts.

Previously, I worked with destination marketing organizations in both San Diego and Portland to increase travel, tourism and convention business. Also, my prior community foundation experience developing public-private partnerships is beneficial in working on the mission-driven efforts of the zoo which are made possible with funding from private donors and members. A community engagement campaign called Our Greater San Diego Vision really called me to the public sector which ultimately led me to Metro.

How long did it take you to find this job?

I would say too long, but it was certainly worth the wait.

I was exploring full-time opportunities for almost two years. During that time, I served as a consultant while looking for the right fit. Once I began attending Mac’s List events, my search became far more focused and shortened to three to four months, resulting in four offers from various organizations.

How did you find your job? What resources did you use? What tool or tactic helped the most?

I personally find the online job application process defeating as the auto-responses are increasingly demotivating.

The Mac’s List team recommended informational interviews and key tips in customizing your resume for every submission to make it through the scanning software process, which I utilized in my own search.

What was the most difficult part of your job search? How did you overcome this challenge?

No responses are defeating and being told that you are overqualified just might sting more than knowing your do not have the right credentials. It wasn’t until I networked with other job seekers that I was able to set a realistic expectation on the amount of outreach that results in personal responses therefore resulting in interviews.

Also, I learned from Mac Prichard that you should tell everyone you are seeking versus having any reservations in sharing you are in the midst of a search. Stating the desire to find a new opportunity in a positive way shifted my search immensely. Once I was broadly sharing my goals, it was a matter of weeks until I had more interview requests than I could keep up with.

What is the single best piece of advice you would offer other job-seekers?

Share your experience with other job seekers and create a support network. Provide referrals when it is a better fit and most importantly: NETWORK. Get to know the people you would work with to understand the company culture.

Also, stretch yourself. Seek new opportunities not solely jobs that you can proverbially do in your sleep because you have the experience.

Why do you love your job?

I am passionate about working at an organization that reflects the values of the community in which I live. Having the opportunity to shape and provide services and cultural amenities for residents and tourists is ideal for me. Metro is a great fit!