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The Competitive Edge

At the risk of sounding like a crusty old crank – and let’s face it, it’s a descriptor that isn’t all too far off some days- the generations younger than me are getting more and more entitled.  Perhaps it is that they are the output of helicopter parents who structured every minute of their time (unlike my upbringing, which was of the “free range” variety), but I worry about our future knowing this is who we are relying on to care of us as we age.  I’m terrified, actually.

I’ve been watching the workforce get younger and younger over the years, while impressively I seem to remain the same age.  Funny how that happens.  I’m forced to contend with the fact that I have to hire, train, lead, inspire and develop this younger crowd.  It’s no small task, and there are days I wonder how I will manage to pull it off.

I would estimate that in my 24 years in the adult workforce, I have probably interviewed no less than a few hundred people.  Interviewing and hiring is actually my favorite thing to do, and arguably it’s what I do best.  I’ve often said – and I have sincerely meant – that the only important thing I have to do is hire well.  The rest will follow, and I know this because it’s been proven time and time again.  And so when I am in the midst of a search, which is honestly almost always, I take it very seriously.

Part of my strategy in hiring is to simplify what I am looking for.  That is not to say that I will simply accept anyone – quite the contrary, actually.  Anyone who knows me knows that I am famous for quipping that “I only hire stars.”  But how do you find a star, a proverbial diamond in the rough?  You find them by knowing exactly what matters.  And for me, I really only care about two qualities for any key candidate:  a positive attitude and an ability to learn.  That’s right, kids.  Yes, you have to have the right qualifications to get in the door.  But more letters behind your names or rings in your tree trunk won’t get you far with me.  Because truthfully, once we get you in the door we can teach you anything.  Almost anything, that is.  We can’t teach you how to have a good attitude or a desire to learn.

What I’ve noticed over the years, however, is a complacency -an entitlement I want to call it – that is disconcerting.  It’s as if no one really cares.  If I bring you in for an interview, I want you to treat it like it’s a big deal.  It’s like going on a blind date.  You are checking me out, and I am doing the same to you.  We have to establish if we could have a good thing going, if we should take this to the next level.

So now’s the part where you should sit up straight and listen.  Because it’s everyone’s favorite part – the part where I dispense unsolicited advice.  If you want a competitive edge in your job search, you don’t even have to work that hard.  This because no one is working hard.  So to stand out, you just have to be a little better than the rest.  My advice is this:  Dress one step above what you would wear to the job.  Show up five to ten minutes early.  Be polite to the receptionist.  Silence your cell phone.  Bring a folder with clear, crisp, perfectly formatted and spell-checked copies of your resume and your reference list.  Read the company website ahead of time and interject questions about company initiatives in the interview.  Come with a list of your own questions and make sure they aren’t just about things that are self-serving.  Be bold, but not arrogant, in selling yourself.  And, here is the one thing that will set you apart from almost everyone:  Send a thank you note within one day of the interview to everyone who was part of your interview process. I swear, give me a hand written note that makes me feel like it is your goal to be part of my team, and I’m practically a puddle. Because it almost never happens.

Now I’m guessing you just read all of my unsolicited advice, and you thought to yourself, “Well, duh.”  Well guess what?  Hardly anybody does all those things.  Remember that every decision you make in the interview process – which really isn’t that big of an investment of your time – is an opportunity to impress, or not.  Don’t be the girl that showed up to an interview with me with half (and only half) of her nail polish picked off.  I took one look at her and knew she was not of the star quality I was looking for.  It would have taken her one minute to clean up those nails with some polish remover and make them uniform and neat.  But when I saw the mish-mash of a mess on her hands – which was the only thing I could see –  I thought she either doesn’t care if the gets the job, or she’s so lacking in attention to detail she might not know the difference between Zantac and Xanax.  Next!

And believe it or not, that’s really how it happens.  You get one chance to make a first impression, and a whole series of chances after that to get it all right.  It’s all up to you.

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I Would Buy Me a Coke

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “I Have Confidence in Me.”

I’ve been told that I have presence, a way of carrying myself, that exudes confidence.  I remember someone once commenting to me, “I wish I had just the amount of confidence you must have in your little pinky toe.” It’s funny to me, because I’m not sure where it came from.  I hear that, and I cringe, because the last thing I want to be is pompous or cocky, and I know it’s a fine line.  On the inside, I still feel like the seven year-old girl clinging to the back of my mom’s pant legs, frightened of my own shadow and afraid to try anything new. But  forty-some years later, I’m not that scared little girl, and it seems I’m someone very different. It’s hard to even begin to connect the dots of how I got here from there.

What I do know is that I didn’t get there on my own. If I look back across the years, I see people – the people who in time became my people.  One by one, they stepped forward and decided they were going to believe in me.  My first grade teacher who, upon hearing I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up, told me she thought I would make a wonderful teacher. The neighbor who took me under her wing, and let me hang around and admire her for reasons I don’t even know.  The uncle who decided to treat me like an adult and tell me the truth, when no one else would. The college residence life staff who thought I had what it took to lead and then showed me how.  The professional mentors – many of them – who gave me chances I hadn’t even earned, and then supported me in all kinds of ways that helped me succeed.

And so, what I know is this:  I am me – “more confidence than some people have in their pinky toe” me – because of them.  Because the difference between one who flounders and one who succeeds is a very simple difference:  the one who succeeds has someone – anyone – and maybe just one, who fiercely believes in them.

I got home a week ago after doing my very first consulting gig in Guelph, Ontario of all places.  I planned but didn’t over-plan, I took my bag of tricks, and I went in and I did my thing.  After months of questioning myself, wondering if I still had it, I got a gentle but exhilarating reminder:  As a matter of fact, I do still have it.  I’m even willing to bet that I had it all along.  I just forgot.

So there I was at 1:25 a.m., grime from the flights tarnishing my clothes, my hair, and my soul.  I felt two opposing emotions at the same time; strikingly content and still a little shaken from the adrenaline rush of the week that had just passed.  And I sat on my bed in this compromised but perfectly blissful state, eating a chicken shish kabob sandwich from the gas station/Greek diner drive through, and I thought this, for the first time in a long time:  “I like me.  I would buy me a Coke.”

And while I like myself enough to buy me  a Coke, I know who gave me the change to do it.  It was my people.