Wednesday, December 22, 2010

When Is It Time For A "Plan B" In Your Career?

Last week I was approached by a lovely man.  He has essentially been out of work for two years.  He is in his early fifties.  I have watched his career since the early 1990’s, when he was in his thirties.  He is smart, strategic, entrepreneurial and he is a good advertising person.  At one point he was making almost $300,000 a year.  What happened to him?  Why can’t he get work?

In his case, he never had a mainstream career.  He didn’t work for one of the big name agencies.  While he worked on a few well known accounts, those jobs were primarily at smaller, relatively unknown agencies.  He even had his own shop for a while, but, while it produced significant revenue for him, it never cut through to achieve notoriety within the business.  It has become his biggest impediment as he looked for a job.  The big agencies rejected him because they did not understand what he had to offer.  Smaller agencies felt he did not offer enough.

When I suggested to him that he consider a career plan “B”, he stopped returning my emails.  He just didn't want to hear it.

For the most part, the large agencies look for other big agency experience. That is because they all understand each other.  And when they are interested in someone from a small agency, then it has to be a known entity or, at the very least, where its accounts are is immediately recognized and the advertising well known.  It goes back to my constant rant about companies hiring résumés rather than people.  Unfortunately, ad agencies, mostly, don’t hire out of the box, especially senior executives. 

By the very definition of a career and the nature of all business, most people will reach a point where they become aware that they have reached a dead end.  You can, like my friend who I wrote about below, forestall the inevitable and move to another similar job.  But eventually the reality will hit home.  The truth is, your career has to both make sense and be identifiable in terms of what you have done and achieved.  In that way, a new company knows exactly what you have done and what can be expected of you if they hire you. Someone who is an expert in one field, say pharma or high tech, will probably be able to find work, even if they have to take a salary cut.  But for the average generalist, finding work after twenty or thirty years in the business is hard.

I am constantly hearing from candidates that they will take a cut in title or salary in order to get work.  Unfortunately, that rarely works.  Generally, a person cannot work for someone who should really be working for them.  Just last week I had an assignment which required a specific number of years in the business.  The HR director articulated that it couldn’t be more or it would threaten the hiring manager and it couldn’t be less because it would threaten the more junior people.

So I always advise people that when they are in their forties, no matter how successful they are, it is time to start thinking about a career “Plan B”.  You don’t have to leave the business – in fact you may never leave the business, but it doesn’t hurt to think about the future.

A really wonderful friend of mine worked at one of the big agencies.  He was making close to $200,000.  His title was account director.  About every three years he was cut from his job.  Not because he lacked anything or wasn’t good, but because he was simply vulnerable to staff cutbacks.  Finally, after about the fifth time, he followed his dream.  He sold his house in Fairfield County and moved to one of the Carolinas where he bought a house on a golf course.  He opened up a book store and used all the marketing knowledge he had learned over the years to build his business.  Ironically, within about three years he was doing better than he ever did in the agency business.  And he was having more fun, working fewer hours and playing golf multiple times a week.  He had a “Plan B”.

Another friend of mine was a successful EVP at a major agency.  When he was cut back for the third time he didn’t hesitate to follow his dream – he opened up a cooking store in Westchester and his been doing it successfully for many years. The point is, you have to have an idea of what comes next.  I believe that is true of all businesses, not just advertising.

It is never too early to think about a second career.  That doesn’t mean you lack commitment to what you are doing now.  It simply means that you are realistic and have a direction in your life.  I know tons of college professors, high school teachers and even a couple of doctors and lawyers whose second careers have far exceeded their first careers.

That includes me.  But you got to have a dream and then a plan.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Hints for interviewers: Be Sure You Actually Interview

My last post addressed the issue of telegraphing answers.  Essentially, this means feeding the response you are looking for to the interviewee as the question is asked.  This often happens when a candidate is very senior, very well known or has a résumé which suits the job perfectly.  Another thing that happens under these circumstances is that the interviewer is so impressed by the résumé that they chat rather than interview.

An agency president told me a story recently about a well known recruiter who, many years ago when this president was an EVP, asked her for breakfast.  The then EVP brought her résumé, had a lovely conversation but was never interviewed.  The recruiter never asked key questions which had been expected – why she was looking, her career objectives, her current compensation.  The recruiter was so overwhelmed by the candidate’s title and position, that she forgot to conduct a proper interview. 

This happens at companies all the time.  The late, wonderful character, Jim Michaelson, (one of the ad business great new business gurus during the sixties, seventies and 1980’s) had an expression about some people who are less than fabulous but who keep getting more and better jobs.  He called it, “falling up.”  I think this is a wonderful term which describes all too many executives.  They seem to go from job to job, always getting better titles and more visibility, but they have little to show for it.  This happens because we have all seen reasonably incompetent people who keep falling up.  It is because someone is hiring their résumé and credentials.  They are so impressed with the background that they don’t  interview to find out what makes the candidate tick or whether they will be a good fit for the company or its culture.

This also happens during courtesy interviews which tend to be a chat rather than a real interview.  The result of this kind of talk is often a missed opportunity – on both sides.

When a candidate shows up for an interview, they love to talk, but they expect to be interviewed.  Simple as that.  Over the years, I have had many a chairman or president tell me that they couldn’t understand how they hired an incompetent senior executive.  They tell me things like, “ he was so successful at his last company.”  And after they are hired, it is discovered that the person cannot do the job.  My answer is that they didn’t interview him or her.  If they had, they would have discovered their shortfalls. 

I can think of one agency president who hired someone to run a subsidiary company.  It was a disaster and the subsidiary agency actually closed about a year after the bad hire which was the result of an entire board of directors merely chatting rather than interview.  The point is that no matter how good the résumé, it is essential that the candidate be thoroughly interviewed and nothing should be taken for granted.

This isn't just true of senior executives.  It happens with writers and art directors with good portfolios and with account managers who have seemingly great credentials.

Got any good falling up stories to share with my readers?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Hints for Interviewers: Don't Telegraph Answers

Sooner or later, all of us hire someone.  I thought I would create a series of posts on how to interview. 

All too often, companies do what I call, hiring résumés.  What this means is that when a job is open and a résumé is received, if the résumé matches the job, the candidate is practically hired before the applicant walks through the door for the first interview.  It is what happens when you see a résumé you love.

I have seen this happen many, many times.  Mostly, it leads to disaster, especially when the candidate is the CEO, COO or Executive Creative Director or other executive who can truly influence the direction of the company or account.

I can remember an agency with a large cereal account looking for a senior manager to run their business.  A person I know told me that a recruiter had sent his résumé.  He was working on a directly competitive brand at another agency.  He had his first interview on Monday, came back Tuesday and Wednesday and received a job offer on Thursday.  He was "snowed" and immediately took the job.  No one really interviewed him and he was so anxious to leave his old job that he never interviewed them.  The problem was that he had never worked for an agency with a culture like the one he went to.  In none of his interviews was this ever explored.  Consequently, he never fit with the new agency and was dismissed within six months.

How could this have happened?  Simple.  They hired a résumé, not a person.  They were so impressed with his background that he was, indeed, hired before his first interview.  It is really important to remember that perfect résumés do not make perfect candidates.

When a great résumé shows up, and the candidate comes in for an interview, it is critical to remember to conduct an interview.  It is human nature to let one’s guard down and ask questions which lead to the answers that you want to hear.  But this doesn’t get to the facts or to the essence of the candidate.  Questions are asked in such a way as to telegraph the responses the interviewer is looking for.  For instance:  “I presume you have done lots of television production supervision, haven’t you?”  Or, “I know you know the category; I presume you were very involved with the development of the strategy for the new campaign?”  Or, “XYZ is such a great company; you must have really liked working there.”  It isn’t even a question.

Questions like these beg the interviewee to give the answers that the interviewer wants to hear, but really do not lead to the discovery of the essential nature of the candidate.  Much better questions might have been,  “Tell me about your involvement with the production of your current advertising.” Or, “What was the market situation that lead to the development of your new commercial?”  “What was your role in development of the strategy?” “Tell me about your experience at XYZ” with a follow up on why he/she left that agency.

Just because someone worked on Cialis does not mean that they are right for Viagra. It is critical to get to the core of the candidate so that a determination can be made as to how they work and what they really can contribute.  Every interview should be approached in the same way, no matter what the candidate's background.  All the issues in the job specs should be covered with every candidate who is interviewed.  It may be a far better move to hire someone without specific category or brand knowledge than to hire someone who may know it but lacks other more essential qualifications for the job. Companies tend to overlook
really important issues when they are interviewing a résumé and not a person. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Interviewing Is A Flawed Process

How many of us have come back from an interview and said to ourselves, “I could have done better.  I wonder if I blew it.”  I tell my candidates not to over-think or to rehash their interviews.  What is done is done.  However, I have always believed that interviewing is a flawed process:  It doesn’t matter who you are, but you only get a few minutes – half an hour or, if you are lucky, an hour to strut your stuff and tell who you are and what you can do.  All too often the words just don’t come out right.  Or, even if the words are right, they sometimes get misinterpreted.

It isn't just the candidates who blow interviews, sometimes it is the interviewer.

So much on an interview depends not just on the interviewee (candidate) but on the interviewer.  I often hear feedback that during the half an hour or so, the interviewer talked almost all the time, asking very few questions.  My candidates tell me they barely had time to talk. Then, often, I get feedback that my candidate was, “too quiet”.

When I know an interviewer does that, I counsel my candidates to be sure to interrupt so that they can talk and let the interviewer know who they are.  But interviews go bad for other reasons. All too often, an interviewer asks an ambiguous question and the candidate chooses an answer, but it is not the response the interviewer wanted to hear.  Or, a candidate answers the question and the interviewer picks up on only a small detail of the response and blows that detail all out of proportion, making the candidate wrong for the job.  Recently, I had a candidate mention something in his background which had little to do with the job he was interviewing for, but which he thought might ultimately be relevant.  The agency president who was interviewing him concluded that he did not have the right perspective for the job.  His background, personality and outlook made him perfect for the agency, but he was rejected because of a simple miscommunication. 

Of course, interviews get blown for reasons which could have been controlled.  I have heard about interviews blown because a candidate brought coffee without bringing it for the interviewer.  Interviews have been blown because someone answered a cell phone call.  Candidates often screw up an interview because they were unprepared.  All too often, people go on interviews without checking out the agency's website or otherwise doing their homework.  (A candidate at BBDO once talked about loving their MasterCard campaign.  Or the creative candidate who interviewed at JWT and told the interviewer that she wanted to work at a creative agency like Chiat, Mother or BBH, never mentioning JWT.)  These are valid reasons to reject a candidate.  But interviews get blown for reasons which make the process unfair. 

Many interviewers, particularly non-professional interviewers, often make the mistake of  what I call confusing adjectives.  They assume that because someone is quiet that they lack energy.  They assume that because someone is thoughtful in their responses that they are not quick on their feet.  Or because they are soft spoken they are not strong.  I recently had a southern candidate get rejected because of her southern drawl. The interviewer assumed that she was neither forceful nor aggressive because of her southern laid backness.  Ironically, she is one of the most aggressive and persuasive people I know.  Unfortunately, I could not get her another interview.  A very successful creative person was once rejected by a creative director because she did not go to the School of Visual Arts, despite an award winning portfolio.  And because creative people are often hired only because of their “book”, the interview counted for very little.

In the fifties and sixties, many corporations resolved these subjective issues by administering employment tests.  While these are mostly out of favor today, there are actually a few advertising agencies which still use them to determine personality “fit”.  I won’t even bother to comment on the absurdity of this.
Perhaps the worst part of failing an interview for reasons which have nothing to do with the job itself is that, especially these days with computerized records, a candidate can be scarred for life depending on the notations made in the company’s computer.  The laid back southern person might be labeled as “meek” by an unthinking interviewer.  Then, next time she is submitted, even if years from now, she might be prevented from interviewing because of the mislabel in her file.

I would like to suggest that this is one time when I actually believe in the committee approach to interviewing.  I am not talking about the nine interviews that the old Chiat/Day used to do. And I am not talking about having any single person on the interviewing committee able to reject a candidate outright.  Rather, there should always be two or three senior people who do the screening of senior people and two or three less senior who might see and evaluate more junior potential employees. After the interviews, the committee should meet, discuss candidates, the available jobs and reach a consensus on appropriateness.  Every manager’s fear is that either the person below him or her or human resources will screen out a very good candidate.  The approach I am suggesting would help insure that good people are not passed over for bad reasons. 

I would love to hear your ideas of how to evaluate potential employees people fairly.
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