Written by Nauman Jaffar
I was asked for a job reference today by a consultant (volunteering) in my team who is also a new immigrant.
What he said, echoed my sentiments exactly when I was in his place; “After sending out hundreds of résumés to dozens of companies over the last year, I realized that I was getting nowhere because my approach seems wrong”.
He had traversed the usual path of job-seekers. Created a list of the top 5 industries and picked top 3 companies in each where he wanted to work for. Customized the résumé for each prospect and networked online and offline. He met some amazing people throughout the process, but nothing got him closer to a securing a role, except for some interviews.
Been there done that!
So what could I share with him that I learned from 38 job rejections in my first year? Hmmm…. During my early job-hunt days – what I had failed to do was ask myself some of the tough and honest questions early on.
My personal Canadian saga began in Aug 2002 when I decided to move to Toronto Canada. After a 10 year successful career spanning Europe, South Asia and Middle East, working with the likes of Royalty to Fortune 500 companies; I now wanted to learn, grow and to be part of something creative in the Technology world. I knew it would be a challenge to restart my career in a new market, especially one that is densely populated with talent, so I expected the process to take a few months. A few months turned into a year, and yet I could not pique the interest of hiring managers. Eventually I broke through that barrier and it has been an amazing ride since. My most recent adventure is taking me from a corporate world to test the entrepreneurial world.
But I don’t want to recount old stories!
Instead I want to tell you how I redefined this experiment.
Back in 2002, I reached a point of panic. Something felt wrong. Something was wrong. How was no one interested in learning more about my background? How could my outstanding career and credentials, not capture the interest of any one of the managers?
As a marketer, I decided to re-frame the challenge. Instead of thinking as a job applicant, I had to think of myself as a product and identify ways to create demand around hiring me. I applied everything I knew about marketing and storytelling to build a campaign that would show Tech companies in Toronto the kind of value I would bring to their teams.
The experiment was that we create a market research report on the particular segment that highlighted the promise and potential of expanding the market to a market that I am extremely familiar with and which until recently they had not focused on. I spent a couple of days gathering data about the industry and the company’s current footprint in the market, and identified strategic opportunities for them there.
I released the report on LINKEDIN. Behind the scenes, I also shared it by email with many personal and professional contacts and encouraged them to share it if they thought it was interesting; most did, as did some of the top VCs, entrepreneurs and many peers around the world.
Within hours of releasing the report, a recruiter from TELUS reached out to me to schedule an interview. Within a few days, I had interviews with a few top tech companies. And within a few weeks, I had identified an exciting role and have since joined TELUS Mobility and was working for industry stalwarts like Nauby Jacob, Paul Hansen, Robert Blumenthal and Wade Oosterman and many others.
I was fortunate that the novelty of my approach — along with a little bit of luck and a lot of social media strategy — got me on the radar. It opened all the doors that I had dreamed of.
I figured that if I created something that inspired people and got a wide audience talking about it, that would force talent scouts to take notice. That happened to the tune of millions of social media impressions and global media coverage, but the lessons I took away from it went beyond the power of a good marketing campaign.
What I realize in hindsight is probably one of the most important lessons of my career so far. The project highlighted the qualities I wanted to show to recruiters; more importantly, it also addressed one of the main weaknesses they saw in me.
In my case, having moved from Dubai to Toronto, I was at a disadvantage. I didn’t have a network of people that I had worked with in the past, people who knew my work and would want to bring me onto their teams. The company I had worked for (Shell) there also didn’t have the same recognition in Canada that it enjoyed throughout the Middle East. I had only looked at those shortcomings from my perspective until recently.
What I had failed to see was that from most recruiters’ perspectives, the market I was coming from was irrelevant.
What the report helped me do was show, not tell, my value beyond their doubts. It refocused my perceived weakness into a strength: an international perspective with the promise of understanding and entering new markets. And though none of the roles that I interviewed for in the last two months focused on expansion, by addressing and challenging the weakness, I was able to re-frame the conversation around my strengths.
In almost all interviews candidates go through, there is the cliched question that is asked: “What is your main weakness?” Most people are trained to answer that question by thinking of a strength and packaging it as a weakness. As job-seekers, we tend to think of what the person across the table wants to hear. If I’ve learned anything from this experience, it’s that asking yourself a different version of that question is going to make you better prepared for any conversation with a recruiter, a potential client, or even a potential investor.
The question I should have been asking myself wasn’t “What is my weakness?” but rather “What do they perceive as a weakness in my background?”
Had I asked myself that question and been honest with the answer earlier, I would have realized the reason I wasn’t making any progress was not necessarily because of errors in how I was applying, but in what I was communicating. Rather than focus on why I’d fit into a top organization, I should have been telling them how I’d stand out.
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