What Real Estate Can Teach Older Workers about Finding Great Jobs

Are you over fifty and worried about your chances of finding a good job is a bad economy?  While it’s challenging for anyone to job search these days, my observation is that your chances are as good as your younger competition if you position yourself strategically.

I like to compare the process to selling your older house in a down market.  While there is always a market for new construction, there are also buyers looking for – and willing to pay more for — well-preserved houses with character and curb appeal in established neighborhoods. 

Let’s look at the home-to-person comparison for each of these characteristics:

Well-preserved

Older houses that command top dollar have been consistently maintained; key systems have been updated or restored.  Everything works. Prospective buyers don’t have to wonder if they will need to replace the roof or plumbing systems after they stretch to afford the home price.  They can picture themselves opening the door and being comfortable living there right away.

As a prospective employee, you bring a package of skills to the table.  Are they current?  Have you kept up as your field evolves?  Can you apply your skills with all the new technological skills available?  Can you use LinkedIn and other professional bulletin boards to network and apply for jobs?  Have you kept up with the kinds of communications software used in your field?  All of these add up to make a prospective employer feel you’d be a great fit for their organization.

Character

Buyers remember and return to re-view(and bid on!) the hand-turned banisters, built-in book cases, cozy window seats, well-tended perennial garden; the things that set one house apart from the dozens of others they’ve seen.  If those things that the owner has customized speak to the prospective buyer, the property sells itself.

For a job candidate, it’s the “Wow” factor.  What sets you apart from the dozens of other candidates she’ll review this week is: how much care have you taken in applying for THIS position?  Do you know what your prospective employer does?  Are you up-to-date on the issues facing the field you are entering?  Can you describe succinctly how your skills and experience can help this employer solve his biggest problems or achieve her mission-driven goals.  If you’re changing fields, does your cover letter connect the dots between what the position requires and your unique skills and experience?  This is where your experience gives you the edge over less seasoned candidates IF you can prove how you can use it to help your new employer succeed.

Curb Appeal

Home sellers have learned from the design folks on HG TV the importance of the first impression.  Home stylists now advise desperate sellers on everything from their house’s color and front door style to the eliminating the clutter in their kitchen cabinets and softening the color of their drapes.  Staging has become big business because marketing gurus have demonstrated that prospective buyers have little imagination to see through to a home’s “great bones” if they’re obscured by personal clutter.  The singular message of these designers is you want no obstacles that prevent a would-be buyer from seeing that their stuff fits in your house.

Many older workers fixate on the image issue.  I’ve heard many folks obsessing on whether they look young and “with it” enough; whether their wardrobe is job hunt-worthy—even whether they need to invest in cosmetic surgery to look like they’ll fit in.  While it does matter that you make a great first impression if you interview, it’s important to remember you make several first impressions before you walk in the door, and you may not get to walk in the door if you blow them.  Here are a few tips with remedies you may not have considered:

  • Your resume needs to be impeccable—formatted perfectly: lots of white space, well-organized, no typos, no grammar glitches.  If you can’t do it yourself, find someone to help you.  Remember that there is so much competition right now that this is an easy disqualifier.
  • Do take the time to write a cover letter that specifically makes the connections between your experience and the skills that the employer is seeking.  Because not everyone does this, it helps your application stand out in the crowd.
  • Remember that there’s the impression you’re trying to make and the electronic image that’s in cyberspace already.  Employers can research you as well as you can research them. More and more companies are checking out job applicants on the internet before meeting them face to face.   Google yourself.  What comes up?  Is your professional profile current?  Not having one is not an advantage either, since it DOES date you!  At least, establish a LinkedIn page and get a few endorsements.   Is your Facebook presence something you’d be comfortable having the HR department review?    Younger candidates may worry more about indiscretions surfacing, but mature applicants need to pay attention as well.  Is there a vital, interesting adult there, or is your site a repository for grandchildren pictures and kitty videos? If it all seems pretty trite, change the privacy settings to restrict access.
  • Many employers use phone interviews prior to bringing in candidates for face-to-face interviews.  If you’re invited for a phone interview, make sure the time you set allows you quiet and privacy.  Your first impression phone-wise needs to be calm, focused and articulate.  Review the ad you responded to and any research you may have done on the company before you get on the phone. Have a copy of the resume and cover letter you sent in case there are specific questions about something you wrote.  Be sure to have one or two questions ready to ask your interviewer.

If you successfully jump these first impression hurdles, you’ve already provided two-thirds of your “curb appeal” test, without investing in Botox or a new wardrobe!

In deciding how to dress for an interview, the key criteria should be well-groomed, fitting and professional.  These never go out of style.  If an outfit fits well and feels comfortable you’re going to come across as relaxed and confident; timeless characteristics!  “Professional” means something different in different fields, but in general, you should dress slightly more formally for an interview than you would expect to dress on the job.  Unless you’re interviewing in the fashion industry, it shouldn’t be your outfit that sets you apart from other candidates.  Your clothes should be the neutral backdrop that allows your poise, personality and skills to shine through!

Established Neighborhood

We frequently hear “location, location, location” is key to real estate sales.  When folks buy a home, they want to know how it will help them fit into the community fabric.  A savvy real estate agent drives the prospective buyer through the neighborhood to highlight certain elements.  The families the kids will go to school with, the playgrounds and coffee shops and walking paths all add to the value of the property.  Community history, values and amenities can change the story buyers tell themselves about their potential to live “happily ever after” in a particular home.

As a mature worker, you too exist within a context that tells a story about how “happily ever after” you will make your employer.  The story you tell is through your work experience.  Unlike your less experienced competition, you have different ways you can tell your story beyond a straight chronological sequence.  You can tell the last 15 years of your history, if that’s where your most significant professional experience lies.  You can highlight those positions that relate directly to the job for which you are applying.

Knowing your resume only has a reviewer’s attention for 30-60 seconds, you want to focus on those elements that best qualify you for the job and paint that picture of your experience, so it can be quickly and easily grasped.  What you say about what you did and the roles you played will enhance your desirability or detract from it.  It isn’t enough to say, for instance, that you worked as a project manager at NASA—how did you contribute to the Mars landing?  Like Zelig, you want to show that you were “located” in the middle of the action and played a key role in achieving the success of the institution you served.  You want the skills you highlight to show the timeliness of your accomplishments and the perspective provided by your experience.

In summary:

Well-preserved = up-to-date skills maintained

Character = demonstrating how skills are custom-fit for this position

Curb appeal = crisp resume/cover letter appearance + professional web presence + calm, professional phone presence + well-groomed, fitting, professional appearance

Well-established neighborhood = making your experience tell your story in a way that makes the reviewer feel you’re accomplished and seasoned.

If you present yourself as the valuable property that you are—you might not just get a great job—you might set off a bidding war!

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Why Staring at the Sky Isn’t Just for Wise Men

I’ve been staring at the sky a lot this month.  I think it’s because it’s been unseasonably warm, and I am usually way too cold when I’m outside in Dec. to amble and look up.  It’s not only the stars that inspire.  The cloud formations, the bluish light of the winter sun, the oversized pearly moon lurking above the horizon at 4 in the afternoon have all been sources of wonder this month.

Did you ever learn in music class to look up when you sang in order to amplify your voice?  I think looking up when I think elevates my thoughts.  Makes me rise above my petty little obsessions:

“why is the supermarket out of pine nuts?”

“when is that publisher going to get back to me?”

“did that waiter really call me M’am last night?  What’s the good of that wrinkle cream?”

When I look at the sky more, I obsess less.  I remember that these aren’t the live-or-die issues; that there a lot of us living under this sky who’d give a ransom to be concerned with the inavailability of pine nuts.  Or actually, they’d be singing hosannahs if pine nuts were their only worry.

I volunteer in a nonprofit that helps folks in our community avoid eviction and keep the power on.  We don’t have a lot of money, can’t do much more than that, can’t even do just that for everyone who asks.  Yesterday I worked with 2 women, equally worthy, equally desperate.  I was able to help one and not the other.  I took the applications and told each what was needed to push their request through.  One complied and was able to provide all the info I needed within the 90 minutes before my shift ended, the other couldn’t.  For at least the rest of this month, I know when I look at the sky, I’ll be wondering about the woman I couldn’t help; wondering if she still has shelter, wondering if she’s safe.  Praying that someone could help her when I couldn’t.

I’ve provided services to people in poverty on the behalf of non-profits and government agencies for about a third of my career.  I am both hardened and softened by the experience.  The hardened part allows me to cut through the complicated presentations of chaotic lives and find the match points for the help that’s available.  It allows me to summarize these stories so that whover needs to approve their benefits can say yes.  It also allows me to let go when we can’t help.  Usually.  Unless the softened part is saying “there but for fortune…” or “she sounds like my daughter” or “we’ve all made these mistakes and he’s really trying to set things right.”

It’s when the hardened and softened parts of me collide that I am reminded for the thousandth time how many crying needs the world has and how many roles are open.  I find myself looking at the sky a lot.  Feeling small and insignificant, searching for clues, as men always have, but also wondering how many others are staring at the sky.

Ready, Fire, Aim

2011 was my first year of trying to combine coaching and writing and living more fully in the present. So, I’ve set aside the month of December for reflection and planning.   “Ready Fire, Aim” was advice from a Tom Peters book that I read many years ago that urged managers not to delay action until their plan was perfect.  I’ve always felt that we gain confidence and learn an awful lot from taking action that can feedback into our plans. I’ve seen again and again how planning too long without acting can cause a kind of planning paralysis that can actually prevent us from living our dreams (isn’t there always more we should learn first?).

I did jump into both coaching and writing this year.  People I coached discovered new career paths, could articulate their transferable skills with new confidence and enthusiasm, got new jobs and found satisfying outlets for their creativity.  I wrote enough to feel like I have the base of a portfolio.  I completed a few short products, started a bunch of new formats like personal essays, entered contests and actually sent query letters to publications I’d like to have relationships with.   I’m no longer talking about writing–I’m doing the work a writer does!  Through jumping in, I’ve discovered some of the things I’ve learned about coaching will make my writing stronger and some of the creativity strategies I’ve learned through writing foster out-of-the-box thinking in coaching relationships.

If one of my goals for my change focus life is living fully in the present, I have a ways to go.  I can see that I need to shut down the “shoulds” more often, allowing myself to “be”.  (Who said we are “human beings” not “human doings”?)  Important to remind myself that I didn’t change focus in my own life just to be as harried as I was before.  This is surely my tendency–one I need to guard against.  But looking at the year as a whole, I’ve made progress.   We did make 4 trips to see the grandchildren and had 2 weeks of vacation, one week with the family and one on our own.  We made time for lunches with friends and planning the re-landscaping of the yard.  All of those have been joyous opportunities to seize “right here, right now” and squeeze it hard.

Maybe our landscaping project is the best symbol of this year–by year’s end the hardscaping was done, the ground was turned over, the new plantings were in.  Trees, shrubs and flowers were all dormant, so we’ll need to wait to see how they all come to blossom.  We may need to add some annuals to the bare spots, may even need to transplant some new residents that don’t do well where we’ve placed them, but there’s an outline, a direction that’s clear, even if the implementation isn’t perfect.  It combines dreams and visions with the good feel of earth in our hands and it’s always a work in progress.

What plans for change are you making for the new year?

What experiences have you had of”ready, fire, aim”?

Have you ever experienced planning paralysis?  What has it kept you from doing?

Going from “What Now?” to “Now!”

I just came back from visiting my daughter in Texas and I want to share a career “aha” she taught me during this visit.  Since the birth of her twins 2 years ago, Sarah hasn’t worked outside the home.  After a decade in retail sales, four years of which she excelled as the manager of a large cosmetics counter, she knew she needed to do something, but  daycare for 2 infants wasn’t a cost she could take on.  Last year, she became  a mompreneur and began selling Discovery Toys and Scensey.  After a year, she isn’t where she wants to be in terms of profit.  Sarah’s pretty practical and so she had establishedsome goals  for herself, analyzed what the real costs of the business were, and decided it wasn’t just the growing pains of a new business that were holding her back.   She projected the sales increase she’d need to make her financial goal and determined it was time for a change.  When she told me this, I was pretty skeptical.  I thought she should give it more time.

“Now,” she told me, “I realize how the financial structure of the business impacts my ability to earn.  I didn’t know what the ins and outs were then.  I do now.” She took that confidence and her experience in selling cosmetics and is now an Arbonne consultant.  She held her first 2 parties at her home while I was visiting and sales seem to be going great guns.

sometimes you just know when it’s time to move forward.  My “aha” was the realization that in those situations, when you’re being led by heart or Spirit, cautiously taking it slow isn’t a virtue–it just saps your energy and blunts your resolve. Changing gears in our careers takes energy and boldness.  We need to capitalize on those moments of clarity and inspiration when we  experience them and use them to propel us from dissatisfaction to joy!

This doesn’t mean quitting our jobs today and becoming Marco Polo.  It does mean we need to stop contemplating and take a step – any step that our hearts tells us is right – toward something we’re dreaming about.  That step can be in any direction–right or wrong, we’ll learn something about making the dream come true.

Finding Your Niche -Part 2

4.  Identify workplaces where your dream job might exist

Hopefully, you’ve started talking to people about what you dream of doing.   If so, you’ve figured out that they work in a variety of settings  and what you want to do is done in a variety of settings–maybe in government, nonprofits, small businesses, educational institutions.  Hopefully, your interviews have given you the flavor of how the job might be different, depending on the setting.  Although some settings may appeal more than others, based on what you’ve learned from your interviews, try to withhold judgement for now and get a sense of pro’s and cons’s of each setting.  You may be saying “I already know the two places in my area where I want to work,” and you may be absolutely on-target, but in this job market, and as someone who is shifting into a new career path, you may want to know not just the most hotly contested job arenas, but also the smaller, related arenas where you might have an easier time getting your foot in the door.

Action:  Here’s where you get to do some research.  You can start with the Occupational Outlook Handbook: http://www.bls.gov/oco/     This will give you a national perspective on the growth in jobs in your interest area as well as some suggestions on where these jobs exist.  Next, you can look up those settings in your geographic area.   As you search websites, look at mission statements, annual reports, strategic objectives. Make files for youself of this kind of background information.  Next, look at organizational charts and find the names and contact information of the folks heading up the departments in which your dream job could exist.  Add this to your files.  Review this information for each organization and ask yourself,  what you might have to contribute.  What problem can your unique experience help them solve?  Write down those ideas as well.  Prioritize the places that most appeal to you and where you have a rock-solid idea of where you fit and what you offer.

5.  Network, network, network

This is where you ask everyone you know who they know.  You’re now looking for links to people in your prioritized organizations and to people in the specific organizational units where you’d like to work.   If your network leads to the executives there, great Hold that information for step 7.  If it leads to others within the organization, that’s your starting place.  What’s important is knowing who is who!  You want to be sure you understand what the organization needs to move forward so that you can demonstrate how you can meet that need. Most importantly, You want to establish rapport and try to start a relationship with someone within each organization.

Action:  Use your contacts as referrals to set up a round of informational interviews.   Ask for no more than 20 minutes and keep to that timeframe.   This time your questions should be specific to the organization.  You use this information to clarify what you learned in your web research, especially about goals, objectives and obstacles.    Try to identify an interest of your interviewee that gives you an excuse to follow up periodically–an article on team-building if they mentioned a challenging team situation or a website on ski conditions if that is an avocation of theirs.Be sure to send a thank you note to each interviewee immediately after each meeting.

6.  Identify a problem you can help the employer solve

This can be a double edged sword, so craft it carefully!  You need to demonstrate how your experience makes you the perfect person to help the organization move forward without coming across as a know-it-all who is insensitive to this unique organization’s needs and culture.  Especially if you are an older worker, you need to be sure you don’t feed the stereotype of some employers that you are vested in last decade’s solutions!

Action:  What you’re really selling is your experience with a wide range of approaches to a particular problem.  You need to craft 3-6 talking points that cover the following aspects:  State clearly the problem the organization is trying to address.  If you’re unsure, ask a question that helps clarify the issue from the organization’s perspective.   Next, describe briefly but specifically how your  experience with other organizations gives you a “20-thousand-foot perspective” which offers fresh strategies to the experts within the organization.    You should also be ready to describe your ability to follow through masterfully once the best approach is selected.

7.  Find out who has the power to hire you and talk to them

Use the rapport and relationship you’ve set up to leverage the next meeting with the person who could hire you.  A recommendation from staff or someone in your network can give you a real advantage over someone cold-calling the organization!!  Although it’s a scary prospect, in reality, it should be less scary than a job interview–you’ve skirted the competition by coming to the organization with your unique talent and the service you can provide before anyone else has been interviewed.  Maybe even before a job description has been written.  There are no set interview questions to respond to.  You have the opportunity to set the agenda for the meeting.  If you’re prepared, this is a wonderful opportunity to highlight your abilities.

Action:  Do some more research on the interests and responsibilities of the person you’re going to meet.  Review  what you want to say with your contact.  Remember, it’s in their interest for you to come across well!  Listen to their feedback about tone– formal/informal, key phrases, buzzwords, any hot issues you should avoid.  Tailor your resume to the job you’re shooting for.  Consider bringing an electronic or paper portfolio that demonstrates your past experience visually.

During your interview, although you have your talking points prepared, give your prospective employer time to speak (aim for 50-50 like a real conversation).  Note the terms that he/she uses and include them in your response. Try to listen for where his/her interest lies. Focus your comments there, even if it takes you off-script.

After you’ve made your most important points, you need to be prepared to say why you want to be a part of this specific organization.  Lastly, you must ask to be hired.  Crazy, huh?  Just something simple like, “Given all we’ve discussed today, can you offer me this position?”  Be prepared to wait for a response.  Ask when you can follow up. Send a thank-you note!