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Dig Beneath The Surface

From Career Tips, 2016 Volume 7, July 2016

This week I conducted a workshop on how candidates can (and should) approach job interviews as needs assessments. A key is to never leave the conversation at a superficial level, but rather to dig as deeply below the surface as you possibly can. Whether you are talking about goals or challenges, work at peeling back the onion to get to a deeper level.

The same applies to 1-on-1 networking, career discussions, meetings with consulting or business prospects, and any other situation where you want to have a truly influential conversation.

This is one of the areas where the average job seeker routinely falls down. How can you avoid this trap?

Suppose you are talking to the hiring manager about critical aspects of the job, and he says, "the most important duty will be to develop Standard Operating Procedures."

You panic. While you've had some exposure to SOP's, you aren't an expert in that area. You start to sweat, worrying that you have no chance to land the job. You start blurting out some examples of the little work you have done in that area, explaining what a fast learner you are.

Hold it. Do you really have enough information to even know exactly what you are trying to sell yourself for?

What if instead you asked a question like this?

"My experience is that most companies have their own unique approach to SOP's and what they should cover. Can I ask what you expect?"


The hiring manager starts talking about flow charting processes, assessing the common elements across functions, the critical importance of careful documentation that could serve as a training vehicle, and designing meaningful metrics.

Suddenly you realize that even though you never actually wrote something that was referred to as an SOP, you have mastered all of the key elements that were described:
  • At one employer you were asked to perform detailed analyses of varied processes in different functional areas.
  • You were commended for creating detailed flow charts and explicit documentation that became a template for how your company approached similar projects.
  • You were tasked with developing the metrics and tracking mechanisms for a new department, still in regular use 5 years later.

    Now you are able to deliver a confident answer to the original question addressing all of the key elements that make up that hiring manager's definition of an SOP.

    Do you see how digging into an issue can create a much deeper understanding, and show you the right elements you can use to sell yourself?

    The same is true even if you already think you understand the issue. By resisting the impulse to sell yourself too soon, you gather much more intelligence, and find out the REAL problem.

    In the above example, suppose you were an expert at developing SOP's. In that case, when that first question came up, the temptation would be to immediately launch into a case study of how you develop outstanding SOP's. But what if instead you asked something like this?

    "That is a core expertise of mine. But let ask you this...what makes development of SOP's such a concern for you?"


    Might that not solicit a lot of useful information that would show you exactly what you really should be emphasizing? After all, won't your answer be different depending on whether their issue is:
  • They have plenty of resources available, but no expertise in actually developing SOP's, and are desperate for someone who can just show them where to start, or
  • They have a robust set of SOP's, but reorganizations and target market shifts have rendered most of them obsolete, and they see opportunities to leverage them into productivity improvements, or
  • They've just undergone an audit, were found to be missing an SOP for their most critical function, and the CEO has told the HM his butt is on the line if he doesn't fix that in the next 30 days, or
  • The HM is under a lot of pressure to show that he has a complete set of SOP's, but he really doesn't care about them. He just wants to get that box checked off of his goals so he can concentrate on a new project he is really excited about.

    So your homework assignment is to firmly resist selling yourself too soon. Ask questions, peel back the onion, and do your best to dig as far below the surface as you possibly can. And then let me know what happens!

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