Recently I’ve had people from someone with years of Fortune 50 sales experience to an Ivy League medical resident to a grad student in architecture to an undergrad in education to a cake decorator all ask me the same question. As an employer, how do I decide who I want to hire: what am I looking for? I’ve given them all the same answer, and it is the same answer to a rising graduate as it is to someone seeking their last job before retirement as it is to someone striking out on their own venture and offering me their services or products.
Every entrepreneur is being interviewed all the time by prospective clients, employees, the media, and even friends and family. Moreover, a typical entrepreneur will spend 40% or more of each week on interviewing candidate employees, business partners, and, in a sense, clients and vendors. An entrepreneur’s biggest responsibility is to choose exceptionally driven people that have the capacity to help bring change to the world. That’s the kind of person an entrepreneur is. So the question is, how can you be the one they want?
- Do something different
Yes, put that way, it sounds obvious, but there’s a gem I’m seeking. Greatly talented people really get into something, maybe different things at different times, but at least one thing once in a while. Almost always, this leads to them having stories of how they successfully challenged the status quo. I want to hear about this because I want to know that the people that work for me 1) can find creative solutions, 2) can make good decisions, and 3) most importantly, are reliable. Think about your resume: does it list places of employment and years of experience, or does it give me examples of how you embody these three criteria? Almost every resume I see shows the former, not the latter. The latter is what I’m here to cultivate; the former won’t help set our company apart.
Grades and Resumes Don’t Matter
All your life you’ve probably heard teachers say that you need good grades to get a good job, right? A lot of my friends are under this impression, and yes it is icing on the cake. But as an employer at more than one highly creative, smart, cool company, I see resumes every week of the year from people who have taken the conventional wisdom to heart. Everyone has a 3.X GPA, relevant classes, some summer internships, and a handful of extracurricular “resume builders” in the form of sports, clubs, or any number of things that can be joined as easily as butter spreads on toast. Everyone worked hard, but sadly after years of education, they all look kind of the same. When I tell my friends about this, their response is frustratingly consistent. I commonly hear frustration about running the rat race and being too busy to work on ways to set themselves apart.
Having been trained to run this race for 20-odd years of ‘school life’ prior to ‘real life’, a lot people continue on the same way in their first job(s). The put in overtime and good behavior, hoping someone will give them an opportunity to shine and a credit that cannot be forgotten, but ultimately doing basically the same stuff as anyone at any such company. If you care enough, you’ll find a way to do something differently and overcome the status-quo. You won’t create a psychological defense mechanism in the form of a strong separation of “work” and “life”, where your job is the tax on your time you pay in order to do what you really want to do later. Doing that means you’re doing the wrong thing with your life, so start putting the pieces in place to make your change in whatever way you can.
Take the example of a Masters student, about to graduate, who applied for a programming job with me once. I asked one of my favorite interview questions, which has two parts. First, what’s the thing you like to do more than anything else? He said he likes to play cricket. I said, OK, assume that’s a 10/10. On the same scale, how would you rate programming? He said, maybe a 6. I asked why he wanted this career. He said that a lot of people had told him it was a good way to earn a living, and he felt he was far enough along the path that he could do it. I appreciated the honesty, and I firmly believe he is heading straight for an early midlife crisis. I didn’t hire this.
I spend a lot of time, money, and gray hair on training everyone I hire to think creatively and make good decisions: for that kind of investment, I need kindred spirits. I need to hear about things they’ve done in a way that no one could make up because there’s stuff involved they couldn’t know except for any other way besides having thrown themselves into it and having overcome something, demonstrating true interest, follow-through, and reliability.
Care About Something
And let it show. It’ll resonate because a company founder is there because they cared about something. I won’t hire a programmer that doesn’t code for fun. I won’t hire a marketer that doesn’t write for fun. I won’t hire a salesperson that can’t get their friends to do crazy stuff just for the heck of it. That high school counselor that said you should follow your passion wasn’t just feeding you cheese… but they might not have conveyed the immediacy with which you should apply the “do something different” advice, in the form of accepting a tradeoff in order to build something that will persist.
Suppose you are a student and can get a 3.8 instead of a 3.4 GPA by working 15 extra hours a week on homework and studying. Surprise! It doesn’t matter. In a stack of resumes, all of these grades seem about the same, no much how much extra work it took you to do better. And you’ll shoot yourself in the foot if you try to explain during the interview how hard it was for you to get those grades. It just isn’t “different”. Moreover, your second employer really only cares about what you did in your previous job and not what came before it. Take that in for a moment: it means 16-20 years of school doesn’t make much difference after you’ve had a few years at your first job. All that stress and those all-nighters… gone, in many ways. Ditto for whatever you did two jobs ago.
Work hard, but accept the hit to the GPA or productivity you need to take in order to make time for something that sets you apart. If your professors want you to follow their vision/ego, challenge them. Be bold, and tell them you need to follow your drive, even if that means less time on class work and more on an independent project. Or work on the weekend, early morning, get friends involved, whatever it takes. A good boss or professor has seen lots of “the same” and can tell you whether your idea would set you apart. Just make sure you can prove that you did all of this well in advance of applying for the job, so that the boss can rest assured it is a real interest, not a ploy.
Request for Feedback
I’d love to see some things you’ve done or seen that were really effective at helping you or someone you interviewed stand out. Would you add them to the comments section, below?