The Job Hunter
By Rabbi Mordechai Kruger
If you went to a high school that published a yearbook (and will still admit to it), you remember the section where your peers were recognized for all kinds of talents, some real, some imagined. Titles like “Most Musical” or “Best in French” may have had some connection to reality, but what was the evidence supporting the winner of “Most Likely to Succeed”? And then there was the treasured award, “Best All-Around.” It functioned as a consolation prize for someone who tried hard in many areas, but seemed to consistently come in second place. Not something to strive for, but better than winning nothing at all.
I have clients who have a lot of experience, a history of real accomplishments, yet their résumés have not grabbed the attention of potential employers. Some have been able ask follow-up questions to interviewers who were friendly but unconvinced, and they have learned of a problem that they didn’t know they had. They are called “jack-of-all-trades” or “good all-around managers.” And because of that, they don’t make it to the next round of interviewing.
What’s wrong with being well-rounded? Isn’t there value in being able to function in several areas? And what of the worker that was hired with a narrow job description, who then accepted additional responsibilities as the company’s needs grew? Would that be a bad career move? In order to answer these questions we need to think about the hiring process from the employer’s point of view. And about baseball.
Way back when I was a baseball fan (hard for a Southerner to get excited about the Yankees), teams used to have a guy who could be called upon to play any of several positions as the need arose. Called a “utility infielder” or such, he would be put into a game when someone was injured or just needed a rest. But he would never be called a star, and usually his career included being traded from team to team until he just gave up and quit. Because as useful as he was, teams don’t look for consistent competence. Teams are always looking for stars.
It doesn’t matter whether this approach leads to ultimate success. The Yankees and the Mets spend huge amounts of money to sign up the biggest stars. Doesn’t seem to be helping. But they’re not going to look for less impressive players. Stars are exciting. Stars are inspiring. Stars make fans buy tickets. So stars get hired.
This attitude has been part of the business world for a long time. Back when IBM was known as the biggest name in anything computer related, as well as the most expensive, there was a well-known rule: Nobody ever lost his job for hiring IBM. No one would risk facing an angry boss who wanted to know why she didn’t hire the best. In hiring today, the same rule applies. About 50% of new hires don’t work out. So there is a 50% chance that someday, whoever does the hiring will have some uncomfortable explaining to do. Going with a potential star is clearly the safest strategy.
So what should our jack-of-all-trades do? As he grows in his job and takes on additional tasks, becoming the company’s “utility infielder,” he needs to make sure that he has one thing that he can focus on, that he has responsibility for, where he can shine. I once asked a business-owner friend why a certain executive was no longer working for him. He told me, “He was a good all-around manager, so I had to let him go.” What he meant was that each time he assigned an executive to handle a client’s case, he needed someone who could deliver an outstanding job. Someone who is good all-around just can’t do that. To stay with the company, in at least one area, he needed to be a star.
And if that didn’t happen, and now he needs to look for a new job? He needs to write his résumé as if he were focused on one area. Showcasing his diverse skills may very well just confuse a potential employer. It’s hard to think of someone as a marketer when part of the résumé talks about managing human resources. I’m not saying that he should be dishonest. Even a brilliant diamond needs to be put in the right setting so its beauty shines through. In this case, the skills that are matched to the needs of this employer are the ones that need to shine. Even in the other areas, each accomplishment should be recast to bring out a skill in the target area. Focus is key. Once upon a time, an employer might have taken the time to find the diamond in the details. Today, a clear, laser-focused message is required.
I believe that even students should take this lesson to heart. Whatever field is being studied, if it’s going to lead to a job, there needs to be evidence of depth, of expertise, in one area. Even if the job will have a different emphasis, the advantage will go to the candidate who has shown that he can take ownership of something and do it really well. Make sure your future employer knows that you are a future star. v
Rabbi Mordechai Kruger is the founder and director of Pathways to Parnassa, an organization providing job-search and career coaching to our community. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.