In my coaching clients often come to me with the most important question of our age: “Ennis, I’m not working. I’m skilled, I have a degree. I have worked for twenty-years but I since I was unemployed I just have not been able to find a job!”
This question is not limited to my coaching clients. Go to meet-ups across the country, attend networking events, go to an upscale bar that hosts adults and conversation and you will find this tale a universal tale of challenge for modern America. I have asked and many people share this challenge. Briefly, let me describe the challenge.
You are a successful employee. Your parents helped you go to college, you landed your first job immediately out of school. A hard-worker you quickly rose through the ranks in corporate America. Initially as a doer, a technical leader, you soon found yourself with ever increasing responsibility. Some of you chose Project Management and oversaw large projects with millions of dollars on the line. Some of you managed teams from 5 to 100 people. You were doing great. Maybe, even, your kids just left for college and you have finally purchased a new home to match your status in life with a new car, that shiny new BMW [ed: Don’t feel conscientious, I loved my BMW but regret buying it every day. I am glad I am no longer under that payment]. Something changed at work, however. You didn’t notice at first. You have been comfortable and secure. But you have not been promoted in nearly 10 years now. Certainly, you have been getting cost-of-living increases and the occasional bonus but you have not been promoted. Furthermore, you felt an increasing distance between yourself and leadership. It started small, of course, the CEO no longer said hi in the hallway. Your director didn’t have time for you in meetings. The CFO keeps rejecting your budget. And then, it happens, you have been cast out. You tell yourself, they are firing you at their own peril. You are older and make more money for your valuable experience and they will see. They will hire a younger person, someone, perhaps, that was your age when you first took the role, and that younger person will fail. They will come crawling back and you will show them.
But they don’t return. Your once friends now even decline the occasional lunch as your lunches were mostly about the “good ole days” and the challenge of finding work. Your self-confidence is waning as the black-box-ats eats your soul every day with a 90% no response rate. The severance package stops. Your savings are not that high and now you are cutting expenses. With the potential loss of the house you start considering roles that are beneath you.
You know, a role you can do in your sleep for less money. The type of role where you can go in and prove your worth to a new organization. The type of role where you can regain your lost glory and demonstrate to a new company how great you are. The type of role where you can be promoted in 6 months to a place that matches your true value.
You are getting optimistic. Your are actually getting screening calls for these applications. Recruiters now return your calls that you are “under market” yet the final interview keeps ending in a we will call you instead of a can you start tomorrow. You don’t know what it is and you desperately need the job. What is wrong with these companies. Why can’t they see you for who you are! Why won’t they hire you so you can show them how to do things better?
The text above may hit hard. The true nature of why we can’t find work is ultimately ourselves. With that said there is a technique I have been working with a few clients that helps really well in this all too often and unfortunate situation. Creating a narrative to get the job!
What happens when we go in from a position of false modesty is we revel too many tells about our real nature. What we really want. And in all of the I talk we forget … just want the hiring manager wants. Let’s consider the hiring manager for a moment. This poor soul is understaffed. What does this mean in the knowledge worker world? This means that in addition to his or her normal duties the hiring manager is now working longer into the evening and some weekends to perform the duties of the absent role. This missing person is taking away from the time of the manager to spend with his or her family. If you have not been a hiring manager and just a project manager you may not believe this. PM’s rarely have to work late because there isn’t a report (not saying PM’s don’t work late just different reasons!). As a line manager your job is to get the job done and when the people don’t exist to delegate you can’t just say no to the business. Instead you have to roll-up the sleeves and get the work done. In fact, if you are a good manager often you take on the work that could be shared across the team so your team does not have to share in the pain. For these people, the need in hiring reflects the ability to go home and spend time with family. The ability to take a vacation. The ability to watch a kindergartener graduate. The ability to have some personal time at the gym. The ability to have a date night with the spouse. In short, this open and missing position represents the ability to be an entire person. And filling a role is hard! You think finding a job is hard try interviewing people to fill a high-tech knowledge worker role that requires specialized skills and lateral thinking AND an H.R. culture fit! It could take months.
For the hiring manager looking into an applicant for a
position that is going to be gone in six months offers zero value to the hiring
manager! Certainly, maybe, to the company but to the hiring manager? Even the
most astute of us require some onboarding, maybe four-weeks to be fully up and
running. That is one month. One month of the six you intend to use to find your
better position in the company. This means the hiring manager in spending
months finding you and a month training you will now only get four to five
months of the pleasure of your company as a direct. Worse, what if another role
opens up! The hiring manager now potentially faces two open roles!
With this in mind, with our mindset in mind, what is it we can do? Create a narrative to get the job! What is a narrative? A narrative is more than just a truth. A narrative is a form of cognitive bias that helps us understand our value in a role and sell that value in a completely, 100% true form to a hiring manager to get that job! Instead of using wordification which I admit I am not very good I will give an example for myself based on my historical background and experience.
As many of you know my profession is a professional coach and my coaching practice is primarily software engineering leadership. I coach Engineering Managers, Directors of Engineering, VP of Engineering, CTO’s and aspiring technical leads looking to step into engineering leadership. How did I get to that level of coaching? Well I was in the trenches as a Software Developer for over a decade. I wrote code well into the night often until two or three AM and I spent my weekends on hobby projects writing code that was just plan fun. My background, then is that of a developer as a trade. With that background let’s imagine I lose my ability to work today as a professional coach and I am now looking to go back into the work-force. Clearly, I would love to be a VP of Engineering again. VPoE is an exciting role full of trials and tribulations. The fun of writing code with the pressure of the lives of 100’s of employees. It is an adventure of a lifetime that is amazing and worthwhile. Of course, it is a hard role to get! A very hard role! And even when you think you have the interview nailed it may come down to an esoteric missing need more than anything else. As such I need to look inward. What kind of technical role can I do today, eyes closed and add day-one value? I could be a quality engineering. A Software Developer in Test. These souls spend their days digging into bug tickets. Mind numbingly closing hundreds of tickets helping keep the systems humming so the “real” engineers can do the fun work. How in the world can I get a job like that? How could I convince a hiring manager that with a background in professional coaching, a strong technical background in leadership at the highest engineering levels, that I could not only be happy and productive in a junior role but stay for a long-time? I would create a narrative. Not only will the narrative ring true and get me the job but the narrative will help me enjoy the job more and likely help me to stay in role for long enough for every party to be happy.
What is the narrative? What would I use? Let’s see… I kind of love bug fixing. Every day is a new day. Each and every time I open a bug ticket it is a new project in a new language. Often I get to learn systems and techniques that I have never seen before. Even more, as a bug fixer, my job is to make the minimum necessary change to a code-base to maximize value. Therefore, I get to put myself in the shoes of others and learn how they think making myself a better coder. In fact, I enjoy the work so much that when I do bug related work I like to set myself a deadline sometimes. Let’s say five in the afternoon and a long list, a nearly impossible list of work, place on the headphones, tune into the zone and see if it is possible for me to ride the productive wave into the zone and try and make it by the deadline. These productivity blitzes are really, really fun. I don’t do it every day or even every week but when the mood strikes it is very fun and very rewarding and looking back on the hyper productivity it is just a place I can look on and small. Bug fixing for many may be drudge work but for me bug fixing offers a sort of escapism I can’t get anywhere else. I don’t have to deal with the politics. I don’t have to spend my days in endless meetings. I am not responsible for the lives of 100’s of employees. In fact, when my shift is over as a bug fixer I can tune out, go home, and play some Mario Maker into the night or spend my extra capacity writing hobby code again. You know, and you may not believe this, as a VP of Engineering, coming home after a grueling day that is mentally exhausting hobby code is not something that even enters my mind. For me the position of Software Engineer in Test would offer a much needed respite from the stresses of more senior roles and I could use a three or four year break.
Nice narrative? Is it true? Now? Maybe not. If I were unemployed? Easily. I could stand behind and fundamentally believe every statement and every statement represents a true joy I would have in the role. I do not need to “fix my manager” I do not need to “fix the company” and I do not need a “more senior role”. If you are looking for a job and are currently unemployed falling out from a more senior position perhaps an exercise in finding your narrative for a less senior role will benefit you. The best part about the narrative is they do not have to be just for one role. As a senior professional you have the ability to ACE all sorts of roles. Remember, you are awesome that is how you got to where you were. USE THAT! Use your awesome to create your narrative! Find a position and a job description that you can knock out of the ball park and before you apply see if you can create a narrative where you can own the role. Create the narrative even before you write the cover letter. If the narrative you create is awesome and inspires you APPLY! Using a narrative when looking for your next role while being unemployed is a fantastic way to sell YOUR amazing value to hiring managers in such a way that maximizes value for the hiring manager. Remember, ultimately, it isn’t about what you can do for the company at the end of the day. As a leader it is about what you can do for the people you serve and in the case of taking a lower level job that means a true leader has to look out for the hiring manager he or she will be working for and be able to commit to the time necessary to relieve the stress of the role. And, let’s be honest, with your skills, background, and experience you will be able to eliminate your new role in six months anyway freeing up your mental energy for that promotion!
Go forth and be awesome.