There’s only one hard rule I have when I’m giving resume advice: don’t use the same resume for every single job. Just like every opportunity you’re applying to is different, the way you present yourself as a candidate for that job should be, too.
If you’re looking for a job, it’s important to remember that your resume represents an essential piece of personal brand collateral;the language of the resume, and the presentation of your skills and experience, should align with those found on the company’s career page, job descriptions and online employer brand.
There’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach to recruiting; similarly, every time you send in a resume to an employer, you’ve got to speak the language that speaks to them.
For example, a large financial services institution like Barclay’s Capital doesn’t look for the same things in a resume as, say, a 20 person tech startup trying to disrupt the travel industry.
While posted positions might have a similar titles, responsibilities and preferred qualifications, the truth is, when it comes to recruiting, these are entirely different worlds, looking for entirely different candidate profiles and pedigrees.
A Matter of Perspective.
Christine O’Neal, Founding Director of the MOSA Group, a consulting firm “dedicated to helping young women achieve their full potential,” asked me during one of our recent shop talks what, exactly, I thought the term “professionalism” actually meant.
It sounds like a pretty easy, pretty pat kind of answer, but the truth is, I had to go back to my standard answer on resumes: “it depends.”
Every employer has a drastically different culture; often, competing cultures exist within the same company, with the rules of the road diverging between various business units, departments and functions.
The definition of “professionalism,” consequently, has become inexorably intertwined with the environment and expectations unique to each office and employer. “Professional” is nothing more than a perception, and a largely personal one at that.
The very first office gig I ever had, back when I was a teenager, was working at the same insurance agency where my father had been a partner for as far back as I could remember. The year was 1989; big hair was in, the Soviets were out, and corporate culture was still stuck in the stone age. If you worked in an office, you were expected to dress the part. And that meant you still had to wear a suit and tie – no exceptions. Hell, Casual Fridays still hadn’t been invented yet.
Now, as a teenager, I had to come to the office in the afternoons as soon as my high school let out; I actually got away with slacks and a button down, but that was mostly because I was the boss’ son, and the boss was pretty much forcing me to be here. But as long as I looked respectable, Dad (and everyone else) didn’t say a word about that particular faux pas. The one thing I didn’t get away with was making the mistake – and I only made it one – of openly referring to my Dad’s business partner Stan by his first name at the office.
Stan wasn’t just my Dad’s partner, mind you – he had been a constant presence throughout my life, a constant presence at BBQs and Bar Mitzvahs, and I’d always referred to him as Stan – that was his name, after all. But not, as it turns out, at the office. As soon as I said his name, Stan’s face twisted into a look that was half disgust, half rage, one that I hadn’t seen before. And that scared the hell out of me.
He leaned in, and in a voice that sent shivers up my spine, he told me, “Jeffrey, here, I am Mr. Morris. Don’t call me anything else again.” Stan – er, Mr. Morris – then looked me up and down, adjusted his tie, and walked out of the room. None of our usual banter or bullshit, or even a goodbye. I learned pretty quickly what “professional” meant at that insurance agency – and how I was expected to behave.
We only learn when we screw up, sometimes.
Let’s flash forward to 1998, the year Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress stained the Clinton administration, the Euro was created and Matchbox 20 was topping the charts. I had just scored my first gig after getting out of college, my first “grown up job,” if you will.
It was my first recruiting job, too, and I was the most junior of junior recruiters coming in. The CEO of the firm I was working for at the time was a guy by the name of Mark O’Brien, who, naturally, I referred to only as “Mr. O’Brian.” That is, until the end of my very first week, when Mr. O’Brien called me into his office.
“Look, Jeff,” he said, “You’ve got to stop calling me Mr. O’Brien. It’s weirding me out. My name is Mark, OK? My Dad is Mr. O’Brien. Please just call me Mark.” That line was a hackneyed cliche 20 years ago, too, but the point is, it took me a while to feel comfortable actually calling the CEO just plain “Mark,” but as much as I wanted to call him “Mr. O’Brien,” I learned to suppress that urge before I finally felt comfortable doing so. I did it because it was what was considered “professional,” at least in my profession.
A job or 2 later – when you’re a recruiter, it’s easy to lose count – I landed at a place where every single desk had a land line, and while every phone had an individual extension, if someone called the company’s main line, it would also ring through to a random desk. And if the phone rang, whether on your line or the company’s, you were expected to answer it, or else.
There were certain protocols to follow, for example, if someone called looking for our CEO. We were instructed to ask who it was, what their call was regarding, what number you could be reached at, and when you might be around to take that call. You thanked that person, and told them that the CEO would call them back as soon as possible. You never, ever put it directly through. Then, you’d go to Steve’s office, and when he had a free moment, you’d let him know the details you just took down.
This system was a pain in the ass, but the very next company I went to work for had the exact same phone set up: you were responsible for your own calls and the company’s. My first week there, the phone rang, I answered, and the caller asked for the CEO. So, naturally, I did what I was taught to do back when I was working for Steve. I jotted down the name, rank, serial number, and then went to give my new boss the message.
When I entered his office and passed along the details, I was astonished to not receive the ‘thank you’ I had expected. Instead, I got what can only be described as a pretty bad reaming. “If someone calls me, you put them through to my desk, dammit,” my new CEO forcefully grumbled at me, “You don’t ask questions, and you don’t pry into my business. How DARE you? Who do you think you are?”
The Culture Canard.
I had done everything I’d ever been taught to do. I had, in short, been a professional. And professionals didn’t deserve this. Then, it hit me.
I remembered how when I was first starting out, I had actually called Mark “Mr. O’Brien,” until he explicitly asked me not to, and I had to unlearn that lesson Stan taught me back in the day. I realized we have to modify our professional behaviors to our surroundings. We have to be culture chameleons, changing the way we look and act according to our surroundings, fitting in and avoiding notice as best we can.
Culture and professionalism are two underlying, ubiquitous concepts with very different rules to very different games, always unwritten but always present, varying greatly from employer to employer. The difference between what constitutes “culture” and “professionalism” is something of a grey area, since neither concept is in any way black or white.
Instead, it’s something that’s ever shifting, with business norms, rules and feelings differing from company to company, an omnipotent landmine just waiting to explode. These rules are never consistent, never make sense, but navigating them are always one of the key determinants of professional success and personal fit within a company.
Surviving means somehow learning the “right” and the “wrong” way, without somehow making a mistake that’s going to get you fired for violating some unwritten code or rule you didn’t even know was a thing? How can you make sure you thrive as a professional, even when the definition of what’s “professional” is constantly changing?
Here are some of the suggestions I have that have served me well over the course of my career. What works, of course, is up to you, but in my experience, following these steps makes it pretty hard to go wrong.
Being Professional Before The Offer (And Even Earlier).
1. Glassdoor Reviews: Yeah, I know what you’re thinking; 98% of these reviews are either corporate shills saying nice things because HR forced them to do so or are bitter, angry ex-employees carrying a grudge.
But while both groups are represented in Glassdoor reviews, certainly, a few outliers exist.
But if you just use your best judgement and follow your instincts about which reviews are really worth listening to, you’ll probably find that Glassdoor is the closest a job seeker can really get to figuring out the truth about what “professional” means at pretty much every employer, even if the entire concept of “truth” is somewhat subjective in the age of social media. But that’s just the world of work we live in.
2. Referrals: The benchmark for Glassdoor reviews is: “Would you recommend working here to a family member or friend?” The percentage of respondents who answer, “yes” is referred to in marketing as a net promoter score, and in aggregate on a review site, serves as a valuable baseline for determining whether or not to apply for a job or accept an offer at any given employer.
But just as important is asking someone you personally know – or a friend of a friend – who works there about their experiences. With referrals constituting the majority of all external hires, there’s a good chance you’re already in contact with a current employee, but don’t just ask them to forward on your resume.
Make sure to ask them about the good, the bad and the ugly about their current employer before asking for a recommendation; this preempts second guessing and ensures that you’ll likely get the real story on what it’s really like to work for an employer before even applying. This saves everyone time, and that, in recruiting, is very much appreciated.
New Job, New Rules: Surviving the First Few Months.
So how the hell are you supposed to find out all those unwritten rules?
You know, that secret way of doing things, that hidden office code, like how everyone meets up at Chipotle for lunch every Tuesday or that, while you could cut out by 4 PM on Fridays at your last gig, at your new office, no one even thinks about leaving before 6 at the earliest?
It’s not easy, even for me. I love people. I love talking to them, learning from them, and sharing stories with them. I like the banter, the jokes, making people smile and laugh – it’s rewarding, and as an extrovert, it just comes kind of natural.
This has proved helpful as a recruiter, but during the first month of any gig, I fight my instincts and shut up and listen, for a change. It’s the only way to learn.
I listen. I learn. I observe. I make mistakes. We all do. That’s what happens when we’re new. You’re going to screw up. The key is to make sure that you screw up as little as possible. When I start a job, I’m me, of course. I’m just a little less Jeff Newman than normal until I know how “professional” is defined in my new office environment or company culture. It’s easier that way.
Which brings us full circle, although I still haven’t told you what the hell I actually think “professionalism” means.
Well, here goes. Its meaning, as I’ve stated, differs drastically from employer to employer, from gig to gig. But this was the answer I gave Christine, and it’s really the best I’ve got.
My Personal Rules for Being Professional.
The second rule of being a professional is best summed up in a line from Harry Potter:
“If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”
While I am not a fan of the word “inferiors,” those two tenets form the basis for how I evaluate people not only professionally, but personally, too. It’s not about how well they kiss butt or play politics with the people above them in the hierarchy of work or life. It’s about how they choose to treat those below them that really matters.
So, I guess for me, professionalism is about what you bring to work, not what’s there when you show up to start on your first day. It really all comes down to respect. And you’d best respect that.