Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Avoid Career-Damaging Job Transitions - Part 1: Seeing with 20-20 Vision

A High-Risk Career Move
Colin was 2nd in command on the high-powered marketing team of a hot, market-disrupting high-tech software company that was about to eclipse the $1B revenue mark. He had started as a Director and over the course of 4 years, established a solid track record and gained the trust of the CEO. His personal “stock” was at a career high, but he wanted more. He wanted to be the CMO, but knew that would not happen in the near term so he decided to pack up his talents and take them elsewhere. 

He joined an up-and-coming startup and got the CMO title and “executive staff” prestige he was looking for. However, within 5 months, he unceremoniously left the company after never really getting traction or having an impact at the new company.

How can a smart, experienced, successful executive put his career at risk by making such a bad decision? Interestingly enough, this is an all-too-common occurrence in Silicon Valley.

In Search of “Fame and Glory”
Let’s take a close look at some of the factors that cloud the vision of high-tech rock stars. Being heavily recruited can certainly boost your ego and fuel emotional-based decision making. Here are the “blind spots” to look out for so you are sure you make the best and most informed decision for your career based on a thorough assessment.
  • The “Big Pay Day”– It’s easy to get caught up in all the hype about your own success and role you played in your current company’s success – anxious to “monetize” your growing skill-set and contribution quickly. More money, more options, more responsibility and a bigger title at a new employer are hard to turn away from.
  • Just give me the ball! – The thrill of making game-changing decisions that dramatically impact the business gets your endorphins surging. However, the intense desire to finally be the “big cheese” and to “do it your way” can be a seed of impatience and even impulsiveness.
  •  The grass is greener on the other side – Working at your current company for any period of time provides you with first-hand knowledge of all the warts and wrinkles. There are likely varying degrees of frustration on things you feel should be done faster or in a different way.  As frustrations reach intolerable levels, you’re ready to make a move - perhaps prematurely.
  • Follow the Leader – Having a great manager is one of the most important factors in your success and job satisfaction. So it’s natural to want to follow that manager to her next role. The danger here is that you are easily swayed to join the company based on your manager’s reasons, not yours.

Look Before You Leap
In the fast paced high-tech industry, you are usually reacting to new opportunities that come onto your radar. This reactive, reflexive approach makes you a slave to the process that is being dictated by recruiters or the companies that are courting you.  Here are some keys to help you take a proactive approach to your career management.

  • Money Doesn’t Buy Success – Financial success is a big motivator in high-tech. But don’t just compare your last paystub with what’s in your new offer letter. Think about your finances over a 3-4 year horizon. Guaranteed cash comp, incentive comp, and options create complex earning potential scenarios. What’s your compensation growth potential in each role? What about things like employee stock purchase plan? Matching 401(k) programs? What are the growth prospects for each company and how will that affect each company's valuation? However, while figuring out which role and company puts you in the best position to make more money is an important task,  it doesn’t really matter if you don’t survive through your vesting schedule i.e. like Colin.
  • Don’t believe your own press  – It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and ego gratification of being pursued by a new potential employer, but their enthusiasm to recruit you doesn’t mean that it’s the right move. Get objective counsel. Use a trusted resource who doesn’t have any strong connections to your current or prospective employer. Everyone could benefit from getting a unique perspective to evaluate high-tech companies in the Valley and relate that to your goals and skill-set. Let them ask you tough questions to help clarify your thinking and get you away from the emotion and excitement frenzy.
  • Patience is a virtue – Recruiters and potential employers will push you hard to make a decision quickly, maybe even with an “exploding” (expiring) offer letter. Those timelines are usually artificial so you should negotiate the decision timeframe that works for you and set expectations up front when you know the offer is coming. Switching companies is a huge decision and you should take the appropriate time you need to consider your options. You will have a different perspective when you have enough time to think it through “away from work.” You should assess whether a few changes in your current workplace would make you want to stay. In other words, if you could outlive the situation that is frustrating you (e.g. a bad manager, difficult co-workers, less than exciting work, etc.), being patient would pay off.
  • Know what you “don’t know” – You know all of the unattractive things about your current workplace. Challenging personalities, bad decisions that have been made, frustrating processes and norms. You don’t know any of those things about the prospective employer, but you should know that they exist. Their special warts and wrinkles will inevitably surface as soon as your “honeymoon period” in the new role is over. Even if you’re the one calling the shots, “wiping the slate clean” in a new company doesn’t guarantee that everything will go your way, so be careful that you remain objective about the new opportunity in front of you. Moreover, investigate. Reach out to your LinkedIn network to see who’s worked there, can give you direct feedback, political insights, and if you are replacing someone, why did that person fail?
Throughout the interview process, both sides are “showing their best.” In fact, you’re likely “playing the part” so well that you’ve convinced yourself that it’s the perfect match. Force yourself to challenge everything at face value and to probe deeper to see if it still holds true. Unbalanced optimism tilts the scale toward unrealistic expectations that could lead to an abrupt, premature exit similar to Colin’s.  There is no perfect job so having more of a “critical eye” will give you the 20-20 vision to clearly assess the pros and cons of each scenario.

In next week’s blog post we will explore the potholes and stumbling blocks associated with on-boarding into a new company and role and how to avoid them so that you get traction quickly. Download our High-Tech Job Search Advantage Program brochure to see more client service benefits.

What other insights can you share on career-damaging job transitions? All comments are welcomed.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Interviewing: Fill in Your “Gaps” with Indirect Experience - Part 2

In last week’s blog post, I featured a successful enterprise Account Manager, William, trying to move into Marketing by leveraging his indirect experience. 

I focused on becoming fluent in the “head knowledge” of the role you’re targeting. This post picks up from there to review specific techniques to use to secure the opportunity.

Making it Happen
One of the great things about high-tech is that the door is wide open with plenty of opportunities to successfully make these kinds of moves - if you understand how to sell yourself throughout the interview process. Here are some strategies to complement the “head knowledge” so you can make your move:

  • Be a good storyteller – Story-telling is one of the most powerful communication tools that you can use. One of our partners, The Henderson Group, helps people master story-telling as part of their Complete Communicator class, which I attended recently and strongly recommend to anyone who wants to go from being a good communicator to being a great communicator. People relate to stories and remember them, and if you’ve been paying attention to people in the kind of role that you’re targeting, you should have some powerful stories to tell your interviewer. Focus on the positive, show empathy for the challenges of the position, and “name names,” especially if there are rock stars or role models in your company performing in your target role. In the example of William, he could mention his conversation with Nancy (a rock-star product marketer) about the highlights from the analyst tour as part of the last product launch. This would show that he’s already learning from people in the department i.e.that he’s “paying attention,” and getting exposure to aspects of Marketing that typical Sales people don’t often care to understand.
  • Market Your Uniqueness – If you focus on positioning your uniqueness, you can turn a perceived weakness (no experience in Marketing) into a strength (with great experience in Marketing’s biggest “internal customer,” which is Sales). William did a great job in his process talking about how as a salesperson, he used Marketing’s materials, training, product roadmaps and more.  He showed how his “internal customer” perspective would make him a better marketer because he had a unique understanding of the needs and challenges of a front-line salesperson. Now instead of his interviewer telling her colleagues “William has no Marketing experience,” she told people “William will bring much-needed front line Sales perspective to our content and processes.” Huge home-run for William!
  • Use the Team, and Use Your Manager – In the absence of direct experience, there will still be some doubts about your ability to perform in the target role, so be proactive and talk about what you’ll need from the team and from your boss to get off to a fast start and be successful. Be careful here. Do not send the wrong message that “I’ll need a lot of help to pull this off,” but instead, show that you can own the game plan for your own success. In William’s example, he said “I know Mark has a lot of experience creating sales tools, so when I have to create one, I’ll draft an outline and get Mark’s feedback before I start writing.” This also tells your potential boss that he won’t have to “spoon feed” you in order to quickly ramp up. You can do this even if you’re moving into a new company and don’t know the new team members well. Talk about the different experiences and expertise that you’ll want to draw on from the team, and give examples of when and how you would efficiently leverage them for your ramp up.
  • Find a friend on the “inside” – Do you know people in the team or department that you’re targeting? Get their feedback before starting any formal processes. Find out what concerns they or the hiring manager might have in considering you for the position. Let them know that you want to make a change, and why you’re excited about the role (and don’t complain about your current role). Find out what the big upcoming projects are, and what adjustments the organization has been making so that you’ll be well-prepared for your interview. If you can build a good relationship and get a supporter “on the inside,” they will advocate for you whenever anyone on the team asks whether you’d be a good fit for the job.
William executed all of these strategies with great effectiveness. He made the transition into Product Marketing, and only 18 months later he was promoted and was running the largest product launch in the company’s history. He’s had a very successful and rewarding career in Marketing since then, and it all started with his ability to make a major career move based on leveraging his indirect experience.

This is all part of what we teach in our High-Tech Job Search Advantage Program for our clients.

We appreciate your thoughts, so please weigh in with your comments.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Interviewing: Fill in Your “Gaps” with Indirect Experience – Part 1

A Gutsy Lateral Move
William had been a successful Enterprise Account Manager for 4 years. He was one of the young rising stars on the Sales team at the enterprise software company where we worked at the time. He had consistently made his quota in the challenging Central region, heavily concentrated with manufacturers whose businesses were in turmoil due to the growth of overseas manufacturing. I wasn’t the only person who thought that William was crazy to move from Sales into Product Marketing. He was making great money, had very strong account relationships, and had all of the skills for a very successful long-term run in Sales.

However, William was thinking about his career. He liked selling and was good at it, but had a strong desire to be in a very strategic executive role. He believed that Marketing was a better path to that goal than Sales management. Nevertheless, he couldn’t afford to come in at an entry-level Marketing position because he would lose too much income at a time when his family was growing (note that estimates an approximate $30K reduction in salary moving from a Sr. Technology Sales role at $100K to a Product Marketing Analyst role at $69K in the Bay Area). William had to figure out how to make a lateral move, preserving as much of his compensation and seniority as possible. Given that he didn’t have any hands-on, direct experience in Marketing, what would he say in the interview when asked “What qualifications do you have to be a Senior Product Marketing Manager?”

Many high-tech professionals who are a few years along in their career path face this same challenge: How do you get the job that you’ve never done before? They get enough exposure to another job function or role know that they want it, but they have to try to make a lateral move with little or no direct experience to lean on. If you prepare properly and understand how your interviewer will make the decision, you can take yourself from dreading the “experience” question to anticipating and even embracing it.

Positioning Indirect Experience
The answer for William was that he had to effectively position his indirect experience. Yes, he had never held a Marketing role, but he had worked closely with Marketing for years as part of the Sales team – through product launches, development of customer references in his accounts, sharing sales tools with his prospects, and even using competitive intelligence from Marketing to win deals. One key to success in any role is having the “head knowledge” to successfully execute that role. To convince your interviewer that you intellectually understand the role, do your homework on the target role in these key areas: 
  • Understand the Key  Metrics – How is the position measured, and how do those metrics fit into the way that the overall organization is measured? For example, if you are interviewing for a field marketing role, talk about “Cost per lead,” “Campaign response rates” or “Percentage of leads accepted by Sales.” This will leave a much stronger impression than talking about how you think field marketing looks fun and challenging. You don’t need to know every single possible metric but knowing the top 3-5 will go a long way in building your credibility and giving your interviewer a strong impression that you could “hit the ground running.” Essentially, you are painting a picture of what success looks like.
  • Be "Process-Literate" What are the most important processes that your target role manages or participates in? For example, if you want to become a product manager, be prepared to talk about how a Product Requirements Document gets created. Where does the input come from, who reviews the document, who signs off, and what role does it play in the development of the product? Showing process knowledge will demonstrate to your interviewer that you understand how things get done and can positively impact the business.
  • Show Political Savvy – This is closely related to process. Who are your “internal customers,” and what will they expect from you? What other functions or roles will you depend on, and for what? Sticking with the Product Marketing example, your primary “customer” in most organizations will be Sales who may look to you for tools, pricing and packaging, or support for specific sales cycles. Corporate Communications will depend on you for messaging and support as a spokesperson with press and analysts. Engineering and Product Management will likely want market analysis and product requirements input from you. Knowing how the role interconnects to other roles and teams will give your interviewer confidence that you understand more of “the big picture."
We used the Marketing example for continuity, but this approach can be adapted to any lateral move. This is all part of what we review in our High-Tech Job Search Advantage Program for our clients (click here to learn more about it).

Next week, we’ll build on this “head knowledge” and review some specific activities and techniques to position your indirect experience and make your desired role-change a reality.

As always, we welcome your thoughts and perspectives so please share your experience and feedback.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Get "Offensive" In Your Interview

I Thought I Had the Job “In the Bag”
Justin was heading into final round of interviews for a VP of Services role at a hot Silicon Valley startup. He was very confident since his future boss-to-be, the General Manager, had indicated to Justin that he was her first choice. You see, Justin had worked with both the GM and CEO of this new company at Hyperion Solutions before it was acquired by Oracle. He approached the interview thinking that it was his to lose. It sure was.

The CEO greeted him. “Hey Justin, it’s great to see you again!” After they finished getting reacquainted, the CEO proceeded with “I knew you at Hyperion as a Marketing guy, and never thought of you as a ‘VP of Services,’ so what do you do you really want to do?” Without a hitch, Justin responded “Yes, my early career was well grounded in technical services and the latter part of my career in marketing.” Delivering what he thought was his power position, Justin completed his response with “so as you can see I have a wealth of experience across different business functions and therefore can do anything you or the business needs me to do!” Justin didn’t get the job.

Offense vs. Defense
Most people are familiar with the phrase “bring your A-game.” However, in the competitive job search game and interviewing, that A-game needs to be offense-minded. You’ve got to compete for the job with the perspective of the interviewer - what are her top pain points and what needs to get done? Instead, Justin made the common mistake of playing defense. He told them what he thought they wanted to hear and delivered a generic response to a pointed question and by doing so, closed the door of opportunity. The company was hiring for a very specific role, VP of Services. However, Justin presented himself as a “Jack of all trades.” He assumed that his broad “wealth of business experience” would be viewed as a valuable asset but instead he was viewed by the CEO as someone who was “confused” and uncertain about his career path, and not committed to the VP of Services role. Offense employs deliberate action of attack with the intent of scoring (i.e. competing for a job on your own terms). Defense, on the other hand, involves tactics that prevent scoring (i.e. reacting to the questions and going along with the interview process “not to lose the job”). The difference, while subtle, will make all the difference in whether you will impress the prospective employer and get the offer or not.

3 Keys to Execute Your Offensive Attack
The longer you go without having a job, the more emotional and financial stress can undermine your confidence. The pressure of landing a job together with one rejection after another can erode your poise and positive attitude. And before you know it, you’ve slipped into “desperation mode” without even realizing it. This is the root of becoming “defensive” in your job search and interviews. It’s crucial for you to turn this around because these signs are more obvious to the interviewer than they are to you! Remember, they’re not evaluating whether you can competently perform the job, they’re evaluating whether you’re the best among the many candidates they’re interviewing. So “not blowing it” in the interview is a losing strategy. Here are some points to consider that can make you much more effective in your interviews:

  1. “Need a job” vs. “Want that job” – When you act like you “need a job,” any job, it’s impossible not to project negative attributes like anxiety, fear, and self-doubt. Justin had been out of work for over 6 months. His previous job was VP of Marketing at a well-established SaaS leader. At this point, he was willing to take any job so he opened up his job search to Services roles, falling back on his experience and professional track record from 10 years earlier. Justin needed a job and he unintentionally projected that very clearly to the CEO. However, Justin didn’t really want to go back to Services, he wanted to pursue his career in Marketing. Once he changed his mind set to “want that job” (i.e. Marketing), he was able to focus on what made him an excellent marketer, what kinds of companies and environments he’d thrive in, and he pursued those marketing roles with new-found confidence (which he leveraged to effectively negotiate his next role). Put another way, interviewing for a job you don’t really want makes you far less likely to get it.
  2. Reactive vs. Proactive – Another symptom of being defensive is not wanting to “rock the boat.” When an interviewer takes you through an endless list of questions, it’s hard for you to do anything else but to fire back with your answers.  The best interviews are when 2 people are having a dialog, not a one-way “interrogation.” Interview dynamics are very tricky and the worst thing you can do is to be reactive and just respond to questions that are thrown at you. This is even more true when interviewing for senior roles. How can someone hire you to manage a team, a project, or a product line if you can’t “manage” an interview? So when you find yourself in this situation, take control. Be proactive by asking questions to disrupt the Q&A pattern. Find a way to up-level the discussion with an insightful question that will get the interviewer to share more about his pain or needs. Then you’ll have an opportunity to promote your experience and skills in context, directly mapped to the interviewer’s needs. Otherwise, you’re just guessing and hoping that something in one of your answers resonates and “sticks” with your interviewer. Speaking as an experienced hiring manager, I appreciate when candidates ask smart questions and turn the interaction into a dialog. I dislike interviews where I’m pulling reactive answers out of a candidate one-at-a-time.
  3. Eliminate the Guessing Game – All too often, people tell me that they think the interview went fine and are later surprised to find out that they were not selected to go further in the interview process. Before you end any interview, you should ask the interviewer “How do I fit with your expectations for the role?” or “Do you have any concerns about my ability to perform well in this role?” Not only will you find out exactly where you stand, but most importantly, in the event that there are any reservations about your qualifications then you’ll still have a chance to address those concerns and to convince them that you can do the job better than any other candidate.

Having the discipline to stop looking for the “wrong job” and start focusing all of your efforts on getting your “ideal job” will pay off by giving you self-assurance and poise that are contagious. You may surprise yourself in how direct and bold you can actually be, and better yet, those traits will be viewed as valuable leadership attributes. In fact, once Justin made the shift from defense to offense he got his swagger back landed his VP of Marketing role within one month.

We appreciate your thoughts, so please weigh in with comments.

For more information on leadership development and career management, please visit ExecCatalyst.