This feature first appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Landing your dream job isn't as hard as you might think. Or rather ... it may require more legwork than you expected, but your chances of success are much higher than you might have realized.
Over the last 20 years, I've read over thousands of résumés. I've sometimes been the first to filter through the piles of applicants and, at other times, I've been more of a final decision maker in extending an offer to the candidate. That experience has led me to a conclusion that you need to know: Candidates are hardly ever interesting! And they don't even know it.
Why do people end up out of work for months at a time, or settling for boring, low-paying, dead-end jobs? It's because they don't understand what hiring managers care about. They don't know how to make themselves "interesting."
One of the worst candidates I ever interviewed had some decent job skills but was uninteresting in every other way. This candidate was quiet, laidback, and gave only plain vanilla answers that didn't require much thought. The interview was slow and dull. I needed to shake things up if he had any chance of going anywhere. He needed to wake up and be more assertive. I challenged him — I begged him to fight for this opportunity.
I said, "We aim to hire top-notch people. You appear to have average educational experience and average work experience. It appears that if you were hired here, you would do aver - age-level work at an average pace with average results. Tell me I'm wrong."
To which he replied, "That's a good summary. You are right, I'm average in every way." Obviously, there was nothing I could do save him at that point.
Don't be like that guy
Sadly, most job candidates have no idea how to show that they are better than average. Many do come in with a nice air of confidence, but they also come with a high level of ignorance and indifference toward the company they believe should be pursuing them.
The number one factor that makes a candidate interesting to me is a feeling that the candidate is motivated to make a positive impact for the company in a role the company needs filled. Many candidates have the skills to complete the tasks given them — but that doesn't automatically make them an interesting or worthwhile hire.
Without motivation, their abilities may never be utilized. The most "qualified" candidate may actually have the most negative impact on the team as a whole. Some candidates "play the field," seeking to fulfill their own needs without giving any thought to the needs of the company.
Such candidates place all the burden of discovery on the shoulders of the company doing the hiring. If you want a dream job, you need to flip the process on its head. You need to do the discovery and leave the hiring manager without any doubts.
Don't write one résumé and send it out to 100 companies to see which fish bite the hook and call you for an interview. There is no point interviewing at companies that you don't want to work for. And you can't do a good job of interviewing with 100 companies simultaneously anyway.
Your first step should be to decide for yourself what the key elements of your dream job are. This includes not just what tasks you like doing, but what events and interactions should be happening for you to feel successful.
Where do you want to work?
Here are some of the attributes that are common in specific kinds of companies:
Large companies are "safe." They offer stock options and good benefits packages. They have more opportunities for promotions and ladder climbing. But they also have lots of competition for every available role. There are larger teams and deeper management.
It's hard to get noticed and it can be even harder to feel like you are making a difference to the customer or to the company's bottom line. Are you okay with being just another cog in the machine, as long as you draw a large and reliable salary and have a growing retirement package that will pay out somewhere in the far-distant future?
Small companies tend to have tighter relationships between employees. Employees can walk right into the CEO's office and make suggestions or get advice. You tend to work directly with customers and you may have the opportunity to make small changes that save the company big money.
But it's hard to get promotions because small companies tend to stay small. You may have difficulty getting vacation time approved when there is no one to fill in for you if you are gone. Are you willing to trade the prestige of working for a company everyone knows for a more personal experience?
Startup companies are extremely risky, but they also have the biggest potential to provide huge payoffs when "the ship comes in." Startups have the potential to leave you with nothing or to make you fabulously wealthy.
Are you at a stage in your life where you can afford to miss a month or two of paychecks in exchange for the promise of a fat salary in the future? Are you willing to work with little-to-no structure as you lay the groundwork with the promise of being a leader when growth comes?
Do you thrive on challenges, or on stability? Do you prefer working from home, or spending extra time socializing with peers? Do you want to lead, or do you want someone else to take responsibility for big decisions?
You should pick no more than three companies that fit the profile of your ideal workplace, and only apply to those one-to-three companies. You want to make each application count, and you want to be equally excited no matter which of these companies hires you.
You interview them
Before applying to your "most preferred" companies, you have some research to do to become the most "interesting" candidate. For starters, pull up the company website and read all the "About Us" pages. Read everything you can find online about the company's products.
Call the front desk of the company and ask to speak with someone in human resources about the company. Tell them what position you are interested in and try not to get transferred to a hiring manager or anyone directly connected to the open position. This is your opportunity to interview the company — and arm yourself with knowledge that will be helpful when the company reciprocates and interviews you.
Here are some questions you might ask:
Can you describe the company culture for me?
Can you describe the company CEO for me?
How did the company get started?
Describe the customer base of the company. What do your customers value?
What does the company hope to accomplish in the next year? Next five years?
What does the company value most?
What makes an ideal employee for any position in the company?
Why is the company hiring for this position? (Backfill, growth, etc.)
What is the name of the person who will be doing the interviewing and hiring for this position? What is that person's preferred means of communication with other employees? (E-mail, phone, chat, text, etc.) Would that person become the manager over the candidate once hired?
If the answers you receive match your ideal company, ask to have the HR manager forward a message to the hiring manager on your behalf. Tell them you have a few questions you'd like to ask the manager and would like them to help you arrange to get those questions answered. This is your chance to give the company their second interview with you.
You aren't likely to get your answers, or any positive attention, unless you use the receptionist/HR manager as a middleman. I always answer e-mails and phone calls from other employees at the company, but cold phone calls and e-mails from outside my company almost always go straight to voicemail and junk folders. You'll get further using someone from the inside to connect you.
Here are some questions you might want to ask the hiring manager:
What specific tools, products, platforms, and languages are you using on the job? Are you happy with those things? Are you hoping to replace them? What do you like/dislike about them?
What are the biggest factors you have for deciding what projects to undertake and what tools to use for those projects?
What are your teams like? (Team size, self-direction or centralized control, static or dynamic, etc.)
Can you describe the best employee you have working for you? What makes them the best?
What would your ideal candidate be like?
Who are the other decision makers involved with filling this position? Would they have any different ideal attributes in mind from what you've already described?
Now that you have researched the company, you are ready to formally apply, with a résumé and a cover letter. You should create these specifically for the company you will apply at, rather than sending the same thing you would have sent any other company.
Here are some general rules for both.
Cover Letter — DON'T write the cover letter "To whom it may concern;" DO address it to the hiring manager you've interviewed on the phone.
Make sure you include the name of the company in several places on the cover letter and résumé. Add in statements about things you know are important to the company from your research.
Describe what makes you the ideal candidate. DON'T lie if you aren't already their ideal candidate; instead describe what you are willing to do to become that ideal candidate.
Describe why you are wanting to leave your current employer for this new opportunity. Be careful not to attack your current company or its management.
If this won't be a remote position and you are more than a one-hour drive away from the company you are applying for, DO mention that you understand the distance and are willing to relocate.
Résumé — On your résumé, don't just describe the places you worked and what you did. Describe how the work you've done was good preparation for the job you will be doing when you are hired.
DON'T give yourself titles you haven't earned. Don't call yourself CEO, CTO, or anything similar when describing your own self-employed business of one. Don't even call yourself "owner" with self-employment; instead, say self-employed.
Don't mention anything that a hiring manager is forbidden by law to ask you about in interviews (race, religion, marital status, age, sexual orientation or opinions on the subject, MEDICAL ISSUES).
Don't mention things are likely to cause the hiring manager extra paperwork (H1B Visa, disabilities, FMLA). They will find out about these things eventually, but you want to delay those discussions as long as possible.
Before you submit your application, you should create or update your profile on LinkedIn — if you haven't already. Make sure that your work history and education experience on LinkedIn matches the details in your résumé. You should add the URL of your LinkedIn profile to your résumé.
Submit your résumé through the proper channels identified in the job description, but also send a copy to the hiring manager you've already spoken to. You should have that person's e-mail address by now, and they should be expecting to hear from you.
At this point, it's almost certain you will receive a call back for an interview regardless of how many résumés they have received. That interview will be your next chance to stand out from the crowd.
They interview you
Never go to an employment interview empty-handed. Be prepared to impress. In many industries, it will be possible for you to create a small work sample. If you are a salesman, write a sample sales pitch. If you are a programmer, write a small website that performs the same tasks the company would be hiring you to do. If you are an accountant, write up a sample budget for the company.
Rather than showing how you served previous employers well, this work sample allows them to see that you know what this new job would entail and are willing and able to do this new role, too.
If there isn't a natural work sample, you should find something else to bring to the interview. I suggest reading through the company's website to find a news article or blog post from a senior manager. Print it out, highlight portions of it, and bring it in to explain what you like most about it.
Here are some tips for your interview: Whenever you are asked a question that you don't know the answer to, respond with, "I don't know. Can you please describe that for me? What source would you recommend to learn more about that subject?" Commit to go home that very night to research that topic and write down your commitment so you will remember to follow through with it.
Be brave and ask the most important question, "What concerns do you have about hiring me?" Follow up that question with the next-most important question, "What can I do to remove your concerns?"
Ask for a tour of the facilities, and an opportunity to meet potential coworkers. Generally, hiring managers are only willing to take this step with candidates who show a lot of promise. Asking to meet the team is essentially asking them to put you in that top tier of candidates.
The people you meet on such a tour may feel that you have already been chosen. The best thing that can happen for you is for everyone to start feeling like you've already got the job, and just need someone to print out the official offer.
If you are still with me at this point, then you will have done more than any other candidate I have ever interviewed or hired. You would be my dream candidate. I've often felt that a candidate with a shared goal and passion for the job would be more valuable to us than another candidate with twice the skills who is disengaged.
I suspect that as you've read through my list, you're probably thinking that doing these things would be seen as a major annoyance by a hiring manager. For me, at least, it would be the exact opposite.
Don't forget to follow up
One final tip: After the interview, send a thank you/follow-up letter to the hiring manager. Your letter should include some of the following:
What did you like most about your interview and company tour?
Name the people you met on the tour and describe the interactions you hope to have with them in the future. ("I'd love to work with Susan, she seemed to have great knowledge about the company's most important products. Working with her would give me a great start at becoming a company expert.")
Restate any commitments that you made in the interview and tell them when you expect to complete those tasks.State that you will contact them again after your commitments are completed. Invite them to contact you sooner if they have anything to discuss.
There's no reason to settle for a job that doesn't match your dreams. Getting noticed isn't hard, it just takes a bit of work. You can do this!