The Biggest Mistake Job Seekers Make

I once had a boss who called me into his office. He wasn’t upset; he was jealous. One of our competitors had a full page article in the local paper. He asked, “Why aren’t we getting that type of coverage?”

I smiled. I picked up the paper. I walked around his desk. I opened it and said, “Because we are getting this type of coverage…here…and here…and here…and here!”

While our competitor got one page, we had four photos, with stories (captions), on four different pages. In fact, we were averaging 12 media citations a month in the local press, not including television coverage.

The next day, the chairman of the Board was visiting. He called me into the president’s office. The president had just showed him the previous day’s paper. He asked me, “How do you do this?”

Well, the chairman and I got along very well. I said, “In addition to my many positive qualities…” (He interrupted to invoke the Deity.) “…charm, chiseled features, rugged good looks, superior intellect, superlative education, modesty and humility…” (I paused while they discussed the termination of my services…) “I know my audience.”

I then continued in a more serious vein…

“Our competitor wants to please his Board members and wants to attract clients. So he no doubt badgers his contacts at the paper and finally gets them to send a reporter to write a story and take a photo. Who knows if the story is accurate? On the other hand, while I also want to please our Board members and attract clients, my primary audience, the person I care most about, are the editors of the various papers. If I give them what they need, “fillers,” they’ll publish my photos with the captions. I know the stories (captions) are accurate and that people are actually more likely to read captions than long articles. So I focus on the editors. I give them what they want. And we get what we want.”

And, no, I was not fired!

So what is the mistake that job seekers make? They focus on the wrong person. It’s human nature but it’s still a mistake. In other words, instead of focusing on the editors, they focus on the chairman of the Board and clients. They should be focused on the employer not themselves.

First, candidates apply for jobs they want, not jobs for which they are wanted. There’s a huge difference. You see your dream job. You know you can do it. You really, really, really want it! And you apply. And you don’t even get an automated response for their computer system rejecting you. Why? Because they don’t want you. And if you had read the qualifications listed on the job description, through the employer’s eyes and not yours, you would have known you were not going to be considered because they don’t want you. And if they don’t want you, you are wasting your time.

Now, that said, there is nothing wrong with introducing yourself to an employer. Maybe that are thinking about hiring someone for a position that is not yet advertised. And maybe you get lucky. So by all means, send your resume to employers who are hiring, just don’t apply for jobs for which you are unqualified. HR people don’t like that. Some even ask the questions, “Can’t this person read?” “Don’t they know what ‘Required’ means?”

So Rule Number One is, Only apply for jobs for which you are qualified. You will save a lot of frustration.

Now, to continue with our all too real hypothetical scenario, a candidate finds a job for which they are qualified. Now that have to open their tool box. Just as a carpenter, plumber, or electrician needs the right tool for the right job, so does the job seeker.

The first tool in the job seeker’s tool box is the cover letter. The beauty of the cover letter is that, sadly, today, no one knows how to write. So if you write a well-written cover letter, that is short, sweet and to the point, you have already differentiated yourself from your competition in the best possible way.

Now your cover letter needs to answer two questions: What do you want and why should they (the employer) want you? So you clearly state the job for which you are applying and then, in the second paragraph, in one or two sentences, you tell the employer what you have done for your current or previous employer that shows that you can not only fulfill the responsibilities of the job but exceed them. In other words, you don’t tell them why you want the job, you tell them why they should want you. That’s Rule Number Two.

Then you go back to your tool box and remove the other tool you have: Your resume. Rule Number Three is that the resume has to be focused on the employer and not on the candidate. No employer cares what you think about yourself. So a “Personal Statement” or “Personal Philosophy” is simply silly and a waste of valuable real estate. And having an “Objective” is just plain stupid. Your objective should be to get the job for which you are applying. If it is something else, you should not be applying for the job.

So how do you focus your resume on the employer and not on yourself. It’s really quite simple:

Begin with a section titled “Selected Accomplishments.” These are bullet points that, like the second paragraph of the cover letter, tell the employer why they should hire you. It makes you a “safe” hire because they know, or at least they figure, if you did this for others you can do it for them. But it also makes them think: Do we want him/her working for the competition or us?

Also, a good interviewer asks, “Tell me about a failure you had?” It’s a great question. So answer it on the resume. Following “Selected Accomplishments” have a second titled, “Selected Failure.” That’s “failure” singular not plural. Again, as a bullet point, briefly state what the failure was. Then write, in bold What I learned: And then, no surprise, tell them what you learned. This shows that you are self-aware and learn from your failures. Everyone has failed at something. The only time you should be ashamed is if you repeat your failures.

And then there is a third section, “What I want to learn.” This will tell the employer something about you as a professional. It reinforces the fact that you are self-aware and indicates where you want to go with your career. So, for example, if you are in IT, you might include getting certifications. If you are a fundraiser you might want to mention learning planned giving. If you are a teacher, you could mention educational administration. Now with COVID the question will come up, if you have been unemployed for the past three-four months, how have you been spending your time? What have you been doing to achieve these educational goals? If you have not been doing anything to improve professionally, well you have made a very big mistake. I strongly advice that you start correcting it NOW.

So when looking for a job, and applying for a job, keep focused on the employer. Before they will meet your needs, you have to meet theirs. That’s life. That is how the game is played.

Oh, and it’s the same for the interviews. As far as I am concerned, the questions you ask are far more important than the answers you give. But this article is long enough and that’s a topic for another day.