Let's have a look at a couple of two-minute drills. One has been invented; the other is a lightly disguised true-life tale. Listen first to the hypothetical conventional job searcher:
Maybe the best place to start is to give you a quick thumbnail sketch of my background. I'm presently Vice President of Human Resources for AJAKS, a $1 billion manufacturer of computer peripherals. I've had this job for about four years, although I've been with the company for eight.
I came up through the comp and benefits side of the house, and along the way I picked up a lot of expertise in pension planning and administration, ESOPs, executive incentive plans, and other approaches to financial benefits. They had me doing technical and executive recruiting for a while, and I learned how to write a decent job spec and interview well, but I was pleased when I got promoted to supervise that function, along with all recruiting, manpower and succession planning in addition to handling the restructuring of the company's approach to comp at all levels, rather than having to do it myself every day.
Just before I got promoted, there was a successful campaign to unionize our manufacturing floor staff, and we had a very hairy six months. I had to learn a lot about labor relations and employee relations on the fly because, at the same time, I was called on to troubleshoot some crises that arose when we centralized our whole HR function after acquiring two other companies. I found I had a real flair for labor relations, and I got a reputation, even among the union reps, for being reasonable and adaptable, and that has benefited me greatly.
When my predecessor retired, they gave me the VP job on an interim basis to see if I could pick up all the "soft side" HR stuff such as organizational development, training, management development, team building, corporate culture and strategic HR planning. I think the people who'd branded me as sort of a comp-and-benefit techie were pleasantly surprised at some of the programs I initiated and implemented. I was pretty aggressive in working to develop better communications, formal and informal, in the organization, and I even got the union to buy into some performance evaluation approaches you would have expected them to resist.
I've really been enjoying myself in this job; it's a long way from Eagle River, Wisconsin, and a bachelor's degree in History from the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. I might note that my early career was spent as an abstractor with a title company in Milwaukee. They were really nice folks, but I learned real fast that highly repetitive, quantitative stuff was not nearly as interesting to me as roles that focused on people rather than data.
The company sponsored me in an Executive MBA program several years ago, and I've found that having a broader knowledge of operations, marketing and finance really has helped me manage my function. It didn't make me want to flip over into general management, though. I really want to stay in this kind of work. However, a change may be in the works. A large French conglomerate is poised to buy us out, and they have a history of replacing senior staff managers with their own people. I think it may be prudent to step out before I'm pushed, and I was hoping, even in a recession, to catch on with another rapid-growth manufacturing company, union or not, to head up their HR function.
It's all in there: level, role, function, setting, skills, abilities, temperament, what he liked most (and liked less), educational background, reason for being in the job market, statement of what he wants to do next.
Career shifters will look at this tight, lucid narrative and say, "Yeah, but this guy has it easy. He's a nice, easy-to-define product with a nice, linear career path. What do you say if you're going to leave what you were doing before or if your prior career path has all sorts of bizarre twists and turns?"
When you have a lot of explaining to do or if your future focus isn't entirely clear, the best course is to develop a chronological narrative that explains, step-by-step, how you got where you are now. In such a narrative, it's particularly important to explain the reasons for your job transitions, as Calvin did in the following true life example:
I was born and raised in the South Bronx, the youngest of five kids. We didn't have too much, so all us kids got self-reliant pretty early. I was sort of the "angry young man" in high school, but that was getting me nowhere, so I decided to get some credentials that I could use to ensure myself some economic security.
I went to the University of Kansas and got a degree in mechanical engineering. My grades were very good, and I got hired straight out of school by ARAMCO, who sent me to Saudi Arabia to work on building new refineries. I found I was a natural at engineering project management, and, by age 26, I was the project manager on a $60 million refinery construction project, managing people from a variety of cultures, disciplines and backgrounds. I proved good at troubleshooting complex construction problems and at keeping a tight rein on costs, which won me some respect from senior management.
I was getting pretty removed from the U.S. mainstream, though, and when a $200 million plant I was going to head didn't get built because of the Mideast economic climate, I decided to change course. I came back to the United States, got into Harvard Law School, and did well; I got recruited by the Dallas office of the country's largest law firm, Bigg, Large & Humongous, where I was involved in large lawsuits, defending our clients, who generally were Fortune 100 corporations, in hostile takeover attempts and proxy fights.
By doing this for a couple of years, I learned a lot about business deals and finance, but I could see being involved in litigation wasn't where I wanted to take my life. So I accepted an offer to be a corporate lawyer, not a litigator, with a large Houston company. Strong & Hearte Inc., where I've been involved in general corporate practice and, the part I like best, transactional work.
What has become clear to me in doing this is that I like business more as a participant than as a specialized consultant. I've come to realize that I'm both autonomous and entrepreneurial by nature, and that I'm probably never going to be as comfortable in a large, structured setting as I am in "doing my own thing."
So it looks like I'm in the middle of making another major shift. I value what I've learned as a corporate lawyer, but I've been talking with a variety of possible co-venturers about getting involved in one or more entrepreneurial activities, perhaps venture capital, perhaps starting a Small Business Investment Company, marketing construction project management for a minority-owned firm or doing some real estate development. I'll never be better situated to take this kind of risk, so I've decided that my "credentialing" years are through and that it's time to build my career around the kinds of roles and activities I like the best. Whether I end up with the label of lawyer in my next role depends on whom I hook up with and what their needs are.
Beyond the fact that this two-minute drill gets a quart of information into a pint pot of time, you should note something more: as is the case with many career changers, it isn't possible for Calvin to put a firm, clear label on the product he's selling. What he ends up doing next is going to depend on the people he meets while networking, where they send him, and what ideas they come up with.
Calvin is hard to pigeonhole, and one of the initial priorities in his networking will be to get the information that will help him rule out unproductive directions and unrealistic expectations. He'll become better focused as he goes along, his two-minute drill will tighten accordingly, and he'll feel less that he's at the mercy of a job market he can't control.
Calvin's two-minute drill didn't just magically pop out as a coherent narrative. He worked through an intense career reappraisal with a career consultant. He took the time, perhaps for the first time in his life, to put his past choices in perspective and examine what they could tell him about his future. He outlined the two-minute drill and practiced it with his wife and friends. He weathered a couple of sessions in front of a video camera in which he first felt "as if I had rented lips." He got good. His story and motives became clear. He became confident that he could recast and refocus his self-description on the fly and respond skillfully to bolts out of the blue.
True, Calvin has a lot of skills, experience and personal strengths to sell. But without the ability to synthesize his strengths and communicate them in a way that makes sense, Calvin would be unable to make the splash he deserves in the job market.
So it is with all fledgling networkers, whether they're going to run a conventional job search or shift gears and direction. Every networker reports that the process gets easier as you go along, that you become more focused and relaxed the more you do it. But you have to start with a core of insight and then develop the ability to communicate that insight. So, before forging ahead into matters of technique, do some valuable homework. Get to know thyself.