A job search strategy that yielded five job offers

This the third part of the story of my friend Chad Blakeman and how he successfully got himself rehired after facing redundancy AND the evaporation of jobs in the field he had worked in for the whole of his career.

In case you wish to read the previous two episodes, Part One is here and Part Two is here.

Chad's situation is not unusual. Whilst he is in the financial sector, most career specialisms are advancing and changing faster than people can keep up. This necessitates what I call a 'career reboot' several times over the course of our career. And as change accelerates, so too must the frequency of these adjustments. We simply cannot expect for our careers to grow in a straight line without interruption.

In the last post, we left Chad after he had been hard at work learning the skills he had identified as critical to securing employment again.

After three months of hard work, he’d applied for no jobs, had no interviews and no-one had approached him with any offer of work.

Yet his courage and belief in the correctness of his strategy, kept him going. His self-belief wavered frequently, but he steeled himself to keep going with the relentless execution of his plan.

Having immersed himself in his coursework to equip himself with the new skills he would need to get hired, Chad finally felt prepared to start applying for jobs which matched his new competencies.

An encouraging sign was when he began getting asked to attend interviews.  And this was a whole new learning experience. The interview processes he experienced were extreme in their rigor and numerous for every single position he interviewed for.

He didn’t get offered the first or the second job he applied for. But instead of losing hope, he treated each one as a learning exercise for the next, analysing which parts of the interview had exposed shortcomings and going back to his notes to rethink how he would address similar questions in future.

Be prepared to have your knowledge probed in depth yet acknowledge no-one can be expected to know everything:

Most interviewees attend an interview with only rudimentary documents to hand. Probably a copy of the job description and their resume. Perhaps also some notes with questions for the interviewer and some information about the employer. Chad also took his whole set of notebooks from his intensive three months of study:

"Questions during my interviews were comprehensive and in depth.  I could cover most of the material off the top of my head, but there were times where I couldn’t immediately answer specific questions.  This did not prove to be a huge set back.  I’d kept my notebooks on all of these things and occasionally, I would refer to them on specific topics. If the interviewer looked at me with skepticism, I reminded them that I'd had many duties in my career and many topics to cover.  Who can honestly and truthfully really have all the right answers for every possible situation?  But I am a learner and know where to get the right answers when I don’t know something.  And I am not afraid to suggest I don’t know everything. "

Turn an interview into a two way discussion and you'll seize the advantage:

"While I was interviewing and having lots of discussions, I used the experience to go back through the course again and rewrote my notebooks.  Things not only sunk in more, but the big picture became clearer.  I saw the how and why of things, and how they fit together.  Now I was equipped to challenge the policies and procedures of organizations; why are you doing this instead of that?  I was turning the interviews from them interviewing me, to me interviewing them.  I had even found through my research new ways of doing things that challenged the status quo – to paraphrase one conversation: 

"We rely heavily on logistic regression for LGD, is this something you can do?”

My answer was turn their question to me to a question to them:

“Yes, but LGD modeling has low statistical significance due to high variability in the data.  Have you looked at the study produced by XYZ? This is a simpler approach with more than double the statistical reliability of logistic regression.”

It is interesting how many times this came up in interviews.  While I can, somewhat painfully, construct a logistic regression model for LGD, I took a step back. I'd discovered that LGD modeling is not really reliable and challenged my future potential employer to find a better means.  They knew this to be the case, and they were testing me, looking to drill down on the topic and I turned it back on them.  We discussed the alternative at a high level and the interviewer went away with a completely different picture of me than he had anticipated (he was expecting either; "Yes he can do this AND can prove it, or no he cannot do this").

There’s no rule that says you cannot take notes with you into an interview:

"I prepared for every interview, phone or face to face with notes about topics to cover and had the high level plan of how to conduct a project in a specific area.  One face to face interviewer asked why I had notes in front of me on certain topics and referred to them from time to time.  I explained that I like to have a plan for everything I do, especially for projects.  I like to have my thoughts organized with enough details to systematically go through my thinking.  Writing it down keeps it concise.  In other words, fail to plan, plan to fail. No more questions or concerns about notes and planning came up."

How to turn an interviewer’s weaknesses to your strength:

"There were many different interview styles and cues that the interviewer seemed to be looking for.  My answers were gauged and I either got to the next step or did not.  Most often, the initial screener had no clue what I was talking about. Some observations from early screening discussions:

1) Interviewers usually had very little understanding of the job specifics. This is especially true of large firms looking to hire lots of people in various roles and various experience levels. The more you sound like you know what you are saying the more likely you'll be to get through this screening.

2) Enthusiasm counts. Being energetic, having a lively conversation, and knowing the key buzz words will help get you through.

3) Hesitancy works again you. Being thoughtful is one thing, sounding like you don’t know what you are talking about will kill the conversation. Have your speech well-honed and your presentation flowing and well thought out wins the day.

4) Confidence is key. This comes across to the listener even on the phone. I tended to have most of my phone interviews on my headset walking around. Thinking and walking on my feet came through as energy and passion. I gave a different vibe sitting down – more thoughtful and reflective

5) Rarely did I get to speak with a hiring manager right away, but when I did, things progressed very quickly – you don’t always get that luxury, but when you do, be on your game.

6) Lots of resumes were sent, and lots of no answers or rejects came through. Once I did speak to people, things changed quite a bit. You may have to push to speak to someone, but when you do, be on your game.

7) A lot of what you will be interviewing for will not be the technical aspects of the job. What is your work ethic? How do you work with team members? How do you manage your time? All of these non-skill topic items come up. Have ready answers for them.

8) There will be curve balls. Usually this comes in the form of a tough question. Usually these will be, "Give me an instance where you succeeded at something and where you failed, or why should I hire you?" There are more and you can find them on the internet. These are to test your reaction as much as your response. Admitting that something did not go well is a good thing – we all have been there. How you react to it is another e.g. "I failed at this, but I learned that…"

Sometimes the best thing to do is to quit!

Until now, Chad’s story has been one of focus, rationality, hard work and commitment. He never quit, despite having frequent lapses into self-doubt. He then found himself in yet another interview and things were going badly;

"I had one instance where I had to pass two case studies after 4 hours of intense interviews. I was tired and I had to solve problems.  Admittedly I should have passed on this job after seeing this and realized afterwards that my instinct was right.  I took the interview regardless, but was beyond needing a break.  I had a cold, a bad night’s sleep behind me, yet managed to get through 4 hours of behavior interviews, personal profiling and problem solving. 

Next, I was given two case studies with minimal information and had to solve a problem, repeatedly trying to extract more information from the examiner whose job it was to withhold it. This is not real world and sort of crap in my opinion.  One the second case study I was really tired. I couldn’t even see the notes I was taking on the paper in front of me. After 15 minutes I pushed the paper back to the examiner who wanted to study my notes after the exam and said "I’m done".  He asked if I had any questions for him, and I said, "No, but I have some decisions to make."   I then immediately contacted HR and withdrew from consideration.  The worst thing in the 6 hour process was that I had spent less than 5 minutes discussing the job I was interviewing for…"

On this occasion, the brutal selection process combined with Chad's weakened physical condition meant he was unable to perform to his usual standard. And it was clear from the process that this particular employer was intent not so much on finding the right person for the job, but the most resilient and the one who possessed the sheer stamina to push through every single obstacle, whilst also demonstrating almost superhuman knowledge and capabilities.

We have to question this approach. If these requirements are judged to be critical by an employer. Then we have to ask why? I think there are only two rational explanations:

  1. The employer has a dysfunctional recruitment process which brings into question the competency of its HR management.
  2. The selection process is considered appropriate because it accurately matches the personal capabilities the individual will need to do the job satisfactorily.
If point 1 is true, then it’s probably not a good employer. If point 2 is true, then the job would probably be sheer hell on a daily basis. Either way, I think Chad’s decision to withdraw himself was the right one.

Finally Chad has multiple suitors and the luxury of choice!

This arduous and testing round of interviews resulted in Chad having no fewer than five potential employers expressing interest in hiring him. Three were consulting firms and two were banks.

"After many conversations, a handful of interviews and many resumes posted, things finally turned. Numerous opportunities were now on the table.  I was at another cross road.  Which should I choose and which direction should I go?

All the preparation had paid off in an unexpected way.  Now I had multiple options and a bit of leverage, something that had not happened for a while.  As the saying goes, when it rains, it pours.

I also had the luxury of being invited to in-house conferences with a couple of the potential employers which provided insights as to what my new position would entail.  This proved to be invaluable as this gave me insight into what each job would be like in reality. I assessed each and both the immediate and longer term benefits for me:

Consulting firm 1:  Younger firm, highly entrepreneurial, growing pains, lots of diverse projects.

Consulting firm 2: Very established, well recognized brand name, heavy on the infrastructure, very narrow focus on projects.

Consulting firm 3:  Needed me on a project desperately, but unclear direction after the completion of the project.

Bank 1:  large bank, very interested in my “old world” back ground, pushing to meet quickly and get me through the process

Bank 2: smaller bank, with a highly specialized need to turn around lending operations, unclear direction post project.

All positions had pros and cons.  As I took a step back, I created my decision model along the grounds of which job would give me the most diverse experience that would help me progress my future career.  Given the transitory nature of the job market, I didn’t want or need more of the same skill set, but wanted new fodder for the resume. "

And so it it was that Chad got hired into a new job, but not just any job - critically he chose the job which would provide him with the greatest additional learning and development opportunities. He had learned the hard way that if we don't invest in ourselves and our futures, no-one else will.

Over the course of about 20 weeks, Chad had successfully gone from career and personal redundancy and no visible solution to a brand new executive job and a whole new future ahead of him. He wavered frequently in his self belief, but he kept going because giving up was an even less palatable choice. He got help and coupled with his perseverance and continual fine tuning these were the things which in my opinion delivered the result.

In conclusion

My thanks must go to Chad for taking the time to talk so candidly about his experiences. When I first heard his story, I felt it deserved to be shared as it contains so much information which I think is valuable to thousands of others trying to tackle similar situations.

Chad’s individual experiences of selection processes may not apply to every job. But several facts remain that are universally relevant:
  1. We must know what skills are sought after and which are not. If we do not have in demand skills, we have to find a way to get them.
  2. This situation is an opportunity as well as a problem. The opportunity it gives us is to consider what work we really want to do in the future, which may not be what we’ve done in the past. An assessment and realistic self-honesty about our true talents are critical to ensure we seek work at which we will excel, because it matches who we are. 
  3. We have to commit fully to the task of finding a job as fast as possible – every month without a paycheck is not only a financial disaster, it lessens our job market value in the eyes of those who judge such things – even if such judgements are questionable. 
  4. Getting help and spending money should not be avoided. In Chad’s case, he chose Marcia LaReau at Forward Motion Careers to accelerate his progress and guide him in the development of his plan. He also knew he had no choice but to spend money on upgrading his job specific skills. In combination, these decisions paid for themselves almost immediately because his lack of a monthly paycheck was remedied in the shortest possible time. 
  5. Develop a good plan which will take you to your goal – getting a new job is seldom down to luck. It is the outcome of correct job market analysis, clarity of self-appraisal, deliberately focused action and continuous commitment. 
  6. Treat interview failure as a learning opportunity. Despite all his preparation, Chad’s initial failures at interview were treated as opportunities to learn how to be better next time. He had a plan and he was sticking to it even if he wasn’t successful at the first, second or third try.
Finally, I chose to write about Chad’s story because it is an extreme example. Few job sectors are currently as demanding as banking and finance in the level of scrutiny applied to selection of job candidates. This is not just because of the specific technical competencies needed, it is also because financial businesses in the wake of the 2008 collapse are frankly running scared. They are under extreme scrutiny from powerful regulators, have challenging investor expectations, and extremely testing capital adequacy and transparency rules they must adhere to or risk heavy penalties. I do not think that these are a bad thing per se. On the contrary, they have been needed for a long time. But one of the unintended consequences is that professionals like Chad are personally bearing the weight of this new regime.

If there is a final positive point to take from Chad’s story, I think it is that since he succeeded against such challenging odds, for those of us in other fields, we all can too...

In the next post I'll be sharing in more detail exactly how Marcia's inputs were vital in turning things around for Chad. Just follow this link.

The roadmap to recovery for senior professionals after redundancy

By Neil Patrick

This is a long post, but it describes in detail the things any professional must do following redundancy to ensure recovery. If you are in this depressing situation, I hope it provides inspiration and help.

The loss of our job when we are older and more experienced is paradoxically more painful and difficult than when we are younger. I say paradoxical because all our years of accomplishments, learning and maturity should make us more valuable in the workplace. Yet in practice it rarely feels like that. Apart from these qualities, we also carry constraints which younger people do not. We mostly have families to support and nurture and have often settled in a location that is not only difficult to uproot ourselves from, leaving it also entails sacrificing social and professional ties which are valuable and important to us.

This post is about how in the wake of losing our job, we can square that circle, beat the odds and emerge with our careers intact and moving forward again. It’s the second part of a true story I am recounting about my friend Chad Blakeman. If you wish to read part one which describes how Chad came to lose his job despite being very successful, it is here.

Chad Blakeman

When we left Chad in the last post, he was in a bleak place. He’d lost his job, his industry was transformed and his skills gathered over decades were effectively redundant. He was depressed and saw no easy way out.

But he’s not a quitter and he decided he would do whatever it took to get back in the saddle. At this pivotal point he made several vital resolutions:

He would waste no time in dusting himself off and he made his job hunt his full time job. And he worked at it as hard or harder than any job he’d previously had. 

He committed to identifying his skills shortfalls and rectifying them as fast as he could. Full time study was not an option; the academic calendar was just too long and slow. So he found and completed online courses in his field of strategic risk management. 

He assessed not just himself, but his whole industry. This was essential to identify where he could fit back into it again in the future. 

He didn’t shut his wallet. Chad like all redundant people no longer had a regular paycheck. Every month that passed without a salary he was eroding his reserves. The instinctive reaction is to stop spending on everything that isn’t essential. But Chad was too smart for that; he knew that he had to commit himself fully and that meant spending money on getting the best help he could find.

Last but not least he decided that he should get help. And he turned to my friend Marcia LaReau at Forward Motion US to provide him with her expert guidance. Marcia showed him how to think differently about the real value he brought to his employer. How to identify what his potential employers were seeking and how to engage with them in a way which turned him from being just another applicant, to the must-hire person.

Expert mentor: Marcia LaReau
 of  Forward Motion US

But it’s just as important what he didn’t do. Chad didn’t do the knee-jerk things that many people in this position do. So he didn’t: 

Update his Linkedin profile to say he was looking for work

Pester people in his network for leads

Jump into any job he could find just to try and earn something instead of nothing.

The action plan

Chad’s redundancy had been something he has seen coming for several months before it actually happened. And he had already started forming his plan at this time. Correctly, he started with a realistic self-appraisal. But he also did what everyone should do, but rarely does; he appraised not just himself, but also his whole industry.

Here’s Chad’s assessment of his industry sector at this time:

1) The financial industry had changed substantially. Glass Stegal had come to an end, and commercial banks were now investment banks, insurance companies, and commercial banks. This led to higher and higher risk taking and led to insolvency for many of the largest banks in the world in the last recession. This caused the Fed to step in, shore up the US financial system and increase regulation.

2) With increased regulation, banks were substantially limited in the risk they could undertake. Not by regulation per se, but by needing more and more capital to undertake risky strategies. This curtailed making extreme profits on risky activity and caused banks to shift away from such strategies. More regulation came into play that did regulate banks away from other risky strategies that the risk capital requirements did not curtail.

3) Regulators took semi-permanent offices at banks to monitor their activities, signs that the Fed was not happy with the progress of shifting away from risky activities that increased capital requirements and new rules weren’t doing quickly enough.

4) Risky assets that banks at one time invested in were being displaced by less regulated asset managers, BDC’s and finance companies. The less regulated space was generating outsized returns and attracting capital and new entrants, lots of new entrants.

5) Asset Management firms were focused on fee and profit sharing income. Since these firms are less regulated, how they value assets and returns are highly subjective and left to management’s expertise (there is a broad perspective on expertise herein). Virtually no oversight exists to protect investors, many of whom may include pension funds, retirement funds, etc. While there are smart people making decisions to make such investments, once they are committed, getting out is subject to a legal fight, and fairness was clearly in the eyes of the beholder.

This realistic assessment proved to Chad that not only could he not expect to continue his career doing what he’d done before, he didn’t even want to.

Find the thing people need but don’t have and you’ll find a job if you know how to fill that gap.

So he shut the door on his past life and began his hunt for his path forwards.

Here’s Chad again:

The next step was to determine where to go next. I could go into banking, but the profession had changed. Since regulation is now such a dominant presence, banks had over hired to try to make the Fed less unhappy and less restrictive of actions. Lots of people have been hired to do very specific jobs that are well defined and many times very contained. For me, I like details, but need to sit back and understand how the details fit into the big picture. There are only a handful of such positions within banking that have this, and these positions are hard to come by.

I was fascinated however, by the risk management aspect of the regulations and studied this more. Such an emphasis was placed on risk management, that entirely new careers were being created around this space.

Chad had found the gap he might be able to fill! But he was still a long way away from being the right person to fill it:

While my skills in risk management were very strong, they were, in fact more tactical. In that, I could underwrite a loan very well. I could build a portfolio of loans very well. I could manage the risk of a portfolio very well, and even work out of problem loans very well. These were now tasks done individually within banks and little crossing over. But the new rules on risk management were focused on strategic risk management and how there are losses in every portfolio, waiting to occur (a good borrower today could be a bad loan tomorrow). This strategic risk management focus on studying loans, predicting losses in the future and the impact on a bank’s capital position was the key. I understood all of these things in detail, but strategic risk management was now focusing on the big picture, how well is a bank capitalized to withstand losses in the future.

All of this fitted me and my intellect perfectly. Details leading to impact on the big picture and was a fascinating area to study. I left my “old” world but was becoming aware of the “new” world as it was evolving. Sure it was regulated, with rules everywhere. These rules were protecting investors, and a financial system that could not govern itself. I get that, and appreciated the need that something as huge and complex as the US Banking system cannot self-regulate and therefore needs adult supervision to do what is right. The implications of the lack of regulation lead the US into an economic depression once, almost twice.

Seeing the gap isn’t enough, we have to be the perfect fit for that gap:

Now, the problem was how to crack into this world. It was regulated, there were specialists (especially statistical specialists), a new language of terms and what they mean to understand. How do I merge into this traffic seamlessly and become a part of this world?

This next part of the journey needed to be planned out, thought out and carefully nurtured.

The first step in this process was getting on job boards with positions that looked interesting to me. I looked at the qualifications, linked with people at the firm who were doing similar things and spoke with them where I could. I wanted to understand what these qualifications meant, how they were attained and how could I get there.

A lot of what I wanted needed a fair amount of statistical background, usually generated from a master’s degree or even a PhD (ugh! That took time and money!). The goal was to be able to take a lot of data and run this data through statistical models to generate a final model to predict loss. Well, this was not completely out of my skill set, as I ran models to determine the risk of loss for individual loans. The difference was using statistical regression models using data vs projections of a company’s ability to repay loans. The logic was the same, the tools were different.

Getting a master’s degree in statistics seemed: a) daunting for the time and money needed to get this, and b) seemed like overkill. I would be learning lots of fascinating things about data, fancy equations, and then need to interpret the results. This last one I could do. I managed large portfolios and new inherently the key drivers of for loss and could prove it out; hmm this sounds like data. So I had at least a very strong background in data and drivers as well as the ability to interpret the results. We will call this experience in the real world.

The key part was learning the fancy equations for taking data and then interpreting the results:

Here was the learning and where I needed to focus. The path I took was to find online classes that gave me a crash course in heavy statistics and all the equations I needed to do these types of jobs. I didn’t need all the ancillary stuff needed to secure a master’s degree, spending time, effort, energy and study on tools I didn’t need to do the job. What I needed was to understand what was key to doing these jobs, and most importantly, keep perspective on the big picture. The course was 13 lectures 6 hours long each and then take a series of exams after each lecture to be certified. The course was geared toward the profession I was going into, used the software used by many firms out there and taught by a professor who consults regularly for the PRA, the UK’s equivalent to the Fed. The rules and methods were mandated by the BASEL accords, used by the US and UK with minor variation.

Finding people we can trust to help us isn’t hard, we just have to look for them:

The study process itself was planned out. I spoke with the professor and told him my background, what I wanted to do. He was terrific and took time to walk me through the course and what I would be able to do once I mastered the topics. He was spot on.

I signed up, paid $1,500 and have a year’s right to review the course as many times as I wish. I went through the first lecture and thought about it and came up with my plan. I invested in a handful of notebooks to take copious notes throughout each lecture, and re-read the notes after each session, then took the test. I passed each one the first time. I was amazed how much I could retain, especially forcing myself to take detailed notes. I could stop and start as often as needed, replay certain parts until I felt I had a grasp of the topics. Some lectures were very dense, and I took my time to get through them. Nonetheless, piece by piece, it was becoming clear. Could I do heavy statistics? Well, I think this needs practice, real time, but that would come. What I had was a detailed reference point of where to go on each topic and conduct a quick refreshing of what is entailed. This was key. I knew where to go to get answers when needed for specifics and fine tuning interpretations. I even learned a few things about data and how to manage it.

Each of my work days was study, digest, take notes, sit back and think about the big picture. This was hard, and some days I was admittedly blurry eyed after sessions, but I kept focus and kept at it. Once I finally got my way through the course, and passed all the tests and certified (I could add that to my resume and tell people what I was doing during my garden period) it got attention.

We’re going to leave Chad’s story for now. But let’s just summarise the key points:

1. Chad’s decisions about what to do were not focussed on finding a job at any cost. He chose instead to shut the door on his past career and try and discover where his future opportunities might be. This takes courage, but where our past no longer points to our future, this is the right (if somewhat scary) decision.

2. He was single minded, rational and logical in his choices. He wasn’t sentimental, nor was he cautious in spending money in ways which would help him get to his goal quicker. He recognised that every month he didn't get a pay check, was a far worse situation than trying to cling to very last dollar he could.

3. He figured out how he could fit in the new world within his industry sector. It wasn’t gone, but it was transformed and he had to transform to fit back in. This pragmatic attitude is key. If the future has no place for who we are today, we HAVE to change ourselves.

4. He didn’t cling to who had been in the past in defining himself. He chose instead to focus on building on his past skills and capabilities to provide the foundation for who he wanted to become, knowing that there was a place for this new person in the world.

5. He forgot about being a victim and focussed on his future not the past. And he once he was clear where he wanted to get to he pursued that mission with relentless commitment every single day.

This is not the end of the story. In the next post here, we’ll look at how Chad’s obstacles were far from over. And how he overcame every single one of them.

My sincere thanks go to Chad and Marcia for all the emails, Skype chats and information they both provided to enable me to write this post. Thanks guys!