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The Number One Thing Job-Seekers Can Learn From Entrepreneurs

April 13, 2009

Job Interviews CAN Go Badly

On Friday, I met up with a friend who was recently laid off.

In the nine or ten days that she’d been jobless, she’d applied for a handful of positions and had one interview. Not a bad hit rate, I thought.

Her onsite, however, ended with the interviewer telling her he didn’t think she was fit for the job, due to her lack of specific demonstrated skills related to the job. Ouch! That’s a tough thing to hear in person after several hours of onsite interviewing.

She went home dejected and depressed, and stayed that way for the rest of the week.

What My Friend Should Do Next Time…

Love and learn from her critics.

How it went:

“Based on what you’ve said during this interview, we think you simply don’t have the skill set required to perform this job. Sorry.”   <awkward to reject a candidate outright, face-to-face>

“Oh.”   <droopy face, slinks away to sulk in dejectedness for the rest of the week>

“Alright, good luck, bye, SEE YA!”   <relieved to be done with an uncomfortable interview, frustrated that it took so much company time>

How it should go next time:

“Based on what you’ve said during this interview, we think you simply don’t have the skill set required to perform this job. Sorry.”   <awkward to reject a candidate outright, face-to-face>

Oh ok. Well, if you don’t mind, can you tell me what specific skill set areas you thought should have been stronger? I’d really like to be able to land this type of position in the future and am looking for feedback to improve.”   <assertive, honest, yet gentle, questioning of criticism aiming to learn from mistakes>

“Oh well, sure. For this type of position, we’d really like to see more X, and less Y, and specific strengths in category Z.”   <pleasantly surprised with this candidate’s direct and proactive approach, and glad to help with constructive feedback>

“Wow, that’s really helpful. I’ll take note of that for next time. Thank you.”   <genuinely receptive to feedback, response is rational and data-based, not emotion-based and reactive>

“Alright, good luck, bye. Let’s keep in touch.”   <sufficiently impressed with this candidate to think that they may be a good contact for a future position>

Be Entrepreneurial About Criticism

All entrepreneurs know that they’re going to have detractors. The best entrepreneurs welcome dissent. They know that criticism, whether constructive or destructive, helps them to better understand how others perceive them.

When you’re able to get out of your own head and understand how others perceive you – even if those perceptions are misguided – you can figure out how to adjust your personal pitch to speak to the audience you care most about.

Maybe that audience is an interviewer at your dream job. Having lots of previous experience with critique and feedback will help you to succeed in the most important conversations later on.

Learn To Use Rejection

One of my favorite young entrepreneurs, Anjan Sundaram, is a writer and journalist who worked as an AP reporter in the Congo during his first year out of Yale.

How the heck did Anjan land that job as a fresh college grad??

He didn’t. He traveled to the Congo, a jobless 22 year old, on $5,000 in savings from odd jobs during college, and started writing news stories. He sent in one news story every other day to the AP office for the region, and received rejection notices with the same frequency. The ongoing rejection didn’t stop him from mining for feedback, and then incorporating those tips into the way he wrote his next news story.

After 30 days like this, the AP decided to buy one of his stories for $15. At the end of a year, the organization considered him to be one of their foremost experts on the region, had flown him from coast to coast to chase regional news. A few months later, they offered him a full-time job as their youngest expert on the region.

Anjan did two things:

1. Used rejection as an information tool. He didn’t just say “Ok” and walk away back into the bush after his first rejection. He asked “Why?” and then used that information to craft his next, better attempt.

2. Made LOTS of attempts. He didn’t just send in two articles to the AP and call it a year. He produced regularly, upping his chances of success, and used his production stream as a source of constant feedback and improvement.

What To Do If You’re Sensitive

For some people, a constant stream of criticism can be more intense than physical pain.

Here are two practices that can help:

1. Practice at home. My Chinese parents can be really f-ing critical. It made for some angsty, sullen teenage years, but as an adult, I’m better equipped to see criticism as the ultimate learning tool and NOT as a judgment on who I am.

Try practicing asking “Why?” when you hear critical feedback from friends or family, and definitely don’t forget to take that defensive note out of your voice.

2. Give people a piece of your mind. Sometimes the best way to learn to utilize constructive criticism is to dish some out.

The next time your friend (maybe it’ll be me) tries to evangelize some idea that doesn’t make sense to you, share your thoughts and help your friend use rejection as an information tool. Don’t forget to back it up with specific reasons, or you’ll be the one not making sense.

Finally, sometimes people are critical just because they’re pissed off. You can still benefit from the surly folk, however, by realizing that even sucky criticism has something to show you about that situation. If you happen to encounter a pissed off interviewer during a job conversation, it should give you lots of valuable information about that company.

Remember, there’s always a way to spin what’s ‘negative’ into an awareness-building tool to beef up your interview skills, your attempts to start a business, and even your relationships with family and friends.

Constructive feedback?

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