Roll with the Blows – Convert a Job Search Setback into an Opportunity

Roll with the Blows

When can a job search setback be converted into an opportunity?

By Julie Norwell

In 1987 a college senior learned an early and important lesson about converting a job search setback and career challenge to his advantage. While interviewing with what were then the Big Eight accounting firms, Russ Charlton was frustrated that his interview performance did not yield a single job offer from the first five firms he met with.

He decided on a bold new approach.

In subsequent interviews he told the firm partners, “Look, I’m a student with only a handful of accounting classes under my belt. There is no way I can impress you with my knowledge of accounting. What you should know, however, is that I’m a fast learner, a hard worker, and I’m probably the only student who can confidently stand up in front of a crowd of 500 people and give a presentation.”

He was also the only student with such moxie. But it worked. Russ, currently an esteemed chief audit executive for a global company, had his pick of the remaining three accounting firms.

Rejections and setbacks during our careers are unavoidable but knowing how to roll with them is a critical factor in a successful career. Whether you play up your strengths (as Russ did) or leverage some other tactic, there are many times where a setback is – or can be converted into a career opportunity.

Play the Long Game

It’s hard to go through a lengthy hiring process, feeling like an offer is imminent, only to find that someone else got the job. But the game may not necessarily be over. Did you know that a whopping 50% of all executive hires fail within 18 months? You may yet get another chance.

When it comes to careers, it’s smart to play the long game. If a company’s new hire ends up not working out, the hiring managers will likely revisit their candidate shortlist before launching a new executive search. A great example of this is Richard Carranza, who in 2018 was tapped for the position of NYC Schools Chancellor. But only after the New York City mayor’s first choice famously (and publicly!) turned down the job.

Always thank a hiring manager for considering you for a job and ask that she keep you in mind for future opportunities. In fact, maintaining that relationship may yield downstream benefits. This is what Tracy Katz learned when she sought a job with a specific company. Though she was rejected twice for different jobs at the company, Tracy stayed focused and positive. The hiring manager was so impressed that a few weeks later she came back to Tracy to propose a third opportunity. And this time it was tailor made for her.

Bad Timing

Sometimes, what feels like a job search setback might actually be a question of bad timing. Bad timing was problematic for many job seekers in 2020. Loads of companies shelved their hiring operations when the pandemic hit until the economic ramifications for their businesses became clearer.

Rob Szafraniec, for example, was cast into the job market just before the pandemic struck. One by one, his job leads froze. One job, in particular, attracted Rob and he managed to get directly in touch with the president. Only to be told that the company wasn’t hiring due to the pandemic.

Rob was undeterred.

He nurtured that relationship, sending periodic emails to let the president know that he was still interested in the job, long after the lead seemed dead. Months later the president contacted Rob personally to let him know he was ready to resume hiring – starting with Rob.

Rob’s story demonstrates that if you’re willing to nurse a job lead until a company’s hiring conditions improve. You may be rewarded for your patience.

Learn from Your Mistakes

If you suspect that a job search setback or rejection is a reflection on some shortcoming you have, view it as a learning opportunity. Perhaps you failed to get a job offer, or you got passed over for a promotion you think you merited. Did you do something that you shouldn’t have done, or did you not do something that you should have done? Explore those possibilities and do what you can to improve your candidacy.

Gian Toro, knew exactly why he missed out on a great job at a Charlotte construction company. “I would have been a strong match, but I flat-out flubbed the interview,” he said in an interview with executive coaching firm, The Barrett Group (TBG). “I wasn’t prepared for the kinds of questions they would ask.”

With The Barrett Group’s coaching, Gian prepared well for his next interview and landed an even better job.

While it’s always worth asking a hiring manager how you could have improved your candidacy, you won’t always get an answer. In that case, consider hiring a professional coach who can offer an objective, seasoned perspective and targeted help.

Shine Your Sign

Plenty of job seekers are well qualified for the jobs they seek. But they either struggle to get noticed or they struggle to find desirable jobs. Sound familiar? It’s dispiriting and baffling when a job search gets no traction.

The reason may be that artificial intelligence is throwing up obstacles in your search that limit the job posts you see and the recruiters that see you. Applicant tracking system (ATS) is a software application widely used in recruiting and hiring. It enables a company to scan thousands of resumes quickly and reduce them to a manageable number for review. But it is also notorious for paring out great candidates when their applications don’t reflect the precise keywords in a job description.

To make sure your application gets past the ATS filters, be sure to align your resume and cover letter with the key words in a job description. In addition, include all the information requested and only the information requested. It may seem counter-intuitive but, when it comes to resumes, extraneous information may work against you.

Less is often more.

Once you’re in the door, hone your conversations to the people you are speaking to. You’ve got lots of qualities, but little time during an interview to show them off. Focus on the aspects of yourself that will most appeal to the person in front of you. It will go a long way towards burnishing your appeal in their eyes.

Lastly, the absolutely best way to shine as an applicant is to get someone on the inside to help you. Leveraging your network in a job search is the number one way to advance your candidacy. Little else surpasses having someone put your resume right in the hands of the hiring manager with a good word on your behalf.

When Job Search Setbacks are Blessings in Disguise

There are several setbacks that fall into the “blessings in disguise” bucket. One is where you get turned down for a job or jobs but, sometime later, land a fantastic opportunity. It’s only then that you can appreciate how lucky you were to have gotten rejected from the earlier jobs. It happens more than you’d think.

If you lose out on what you consider to be a great job, try to find out who did get it. And then assess whether to try for the position that that person will be vacating.

Another scenario is that you get a job offer, but it doesn’t tick off all your boxes. It’s disappointing but, in this case, you have a choice. If you are offered a lesser job than what you want, by all means, consider it. It could be an opportunity to get in the door, prove your merit and then ask for what you want later.

But don’t be afraid to pass on a job if it doesn’t feel like a good fit.

James Harris did so and was glad of it. He was confident in what he wanted and the value proposition he offered that he turned down several job offers. Until the right one presented itself.

Finally, there are people like Kwasi Asare, who are seeming victims of layoffs who end up better off. It took getting laid off for Kwasi to realize that he hadn’t been maximizing his potential at his previous job. And he was grateful to have been forced out of his comfort zone.

Looking back, I should have left my former job a while ago,” said Kwasi. “It might have set my career path in a very different direction.”

Always better than looking back is looking forward. And figure out how to convert your next job search setback challenge into an opportunity.

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