From a small northwestern observatory…

Finance and economics generally focused on real estate

Job Search — from the CEO’s perspective

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Ahhhh…. it’s Spring again. The flowers blooming, bees buzzing, birds chirping, and a zillion freshly minted graduates out looking for about 0.1 zillion available jobs. We’ve been hiring at Greenfield — just added a few new entry-level-ers to the team, and plan to add a couple of more mid-level folks in the near future. This morning, I happened to read one of those little articles aimed at interviewees on how to improve their chances in the job market. It dawned on me that few of these articles are ever written from the perspective of the CEO who is actually hiring folks. In other words, why did we hire Jane as opposed to John? I don’t pretend to have ALL the answers to this question, or even a universally valid set of “almost” answers. However, maybe I can add my two cents worth, and it will help someone, somewhere. And, as always, if you have specific questions, don’t hesitate to e-mail me.

First, let’s divide the universe into two different categories — because we really do look at potential hirees this way: newbies and grey hairs. The most recent newbie we hired actually had a year and a half experience, and the most recent grey hair we hired is actually blond. However, this categorization seems to be pretty obvious.


There’s a lot of silliness out there that we don’t pay attention to your cover letter. Actually we do, but only the first couple of sentences. If you don’t grab us in the first paragraph, then the rest is useless. Indeed, there’s a lot of significance in that — in our business (and in most businesses that have desks, computers, and carpet on the floor) we’re expecting a certain level of communications skill coming in the door. If your cover letter reads like a 3rd graders, or if you don’t “get me” in the first sentence or two, you probably don’t evidence the sort of communications skill-set we need.

When I interview people (and note that by the time someone gets to ME, they’ve already been thru several rounds of interviews, tests, background checks, etc.), the first “formal” question out of my mouth is, “So, tell me about Greenfield.” Not, “tell me why you want to work here” or “tell me about how you were president of your sorority” but “tell me about ME AND MY COMPANY.” Please tell me that you’ve spent a LOT of time researching us and reading the stuff we write and finding SOMETHING that we do that intersects with the stuff you’re passionate about. PLEASE tell me you’re not wasting my time telling me how you’re a generic people-person and that you could work nicely for us or any other firm that has free soft drinks in the fridge and a great dental plan.

Which brings us back to the cover letter — it should ALWAYS start with a sentence like, “Greenfield does this thing and I have some very specific ideas about that…” or “In 2007, Greenfield published this article and I used it as a basis for my senior thesis on…” or “Greenfield’s work in this particular project caused me to focus my entire academic career on being hired by a firm like yours.” Seriously. It’s gotta be THAT dramatic. Think about the opening 5 minutes of any James Bond movie. The opening sentence of your cover letter has to be THAT.

A few other random thoughts, then I’ll move on:

  • Make eye contact in the interview. Maintain eye contact. Don’t look off in the distance.
  • This is not about you. It’s all about the interviewer.
  • Whatever question you’re asked, turn the answer into an example of something the company did and how you could fit into that.
  • It’s SURPRISING how few people actually try to WORK their network of friends to get introductions, yet a very large plurality of jobs go to people who have networked There is a valid reason for this — successful networkers tend to be good at team building, sales and promotion, and client communications, and as such are very desirable employees. Older, successful friends will WANT to help you out even more than your peers.

  • Grey Hairs

    I think the “hire” process probably begins a few years before the job opening actually occurs. Mid-level and senior-career people who think that a job change may be in their future are well advised to begin the networking process many years before the actual job change occurs. Conversations at professional meetings or even over cocktails may include a sentence, “you know, we have this gap in our org chart” or “hey, how would YOU tackle this problem we’ve got?” Those really begin an interview process that can go on for months or even years.

    Really excellent firms are constantly looking for mid-to-upper level talent, and tend to hire “targets of opportunity” rather than hire for actual slots. A great case in point is how Google hired Dr. Kai-Fu Lee from Microsoft who ended up heading up Google’s China initiative (discussed in a recent issue of Fortune). Google was publicly thinking about a China initiative, and the Dr. Lee — who was well known to them but NOT on their radar screen as a potential hire — simply dropped them a letter about that initiative. A week later, he was hired with a bonus big enough to buy a big chunk of China.

    But, how does this help the newly-out-of-work mid-grade grey hair? Searching for actual jobs is the NORMAL route, but if you really bring something to the table, then you PROBABLY know who else is in the same “space” as your skill-set. Who else does the sort of stuff you’ve been doing for the past 10 – 20 years? How would you do what they do better? Find a key person at that firm, and make an appointment. Don’t tell them you’re looking for a job. Simply approach them with, “I’ve been watching how you guys do this thing for the past 5 years, and now that I’m not bound to my old firm I’d really like to share a couple of ideas with you. Then, in a few succinct bullet points, let them know you have a strategy for doing that thing better, either increasing market share or doing it more efficiently or improving quality or such and so forth. Also, let them know that you’re looking for a new place to settle down and put some of these ideas in place. “So, why didn’t you do that over at your old firm?” Answer — “I think if they’d been open to doing this, they’d still be in business.”

    Anyway, these ideas won’t work for everyone, or in every situation. But, in firms both large and small, there seems to be a consistency across the hiring process. Best of luck.

    Written by johnkilpatrick

    May 4, 2011 at 7:47 am

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