April 24, 2012
Employers want to hire your bright future, not your past
Envision yourself standing beside a train track, watching an engine come rumbling down the line from hundreds of yards away. Or, perhaps more appropriately for the season, picture yourself at a Mariners game at Safeco Field, listening to the iconic train whistle that emerges every hour or so from the nearby rail line.
Either way, we all know the sensation. Trains emit an energetic, high-pitched sound as they approach, letting everybody know to get the heck out of the way. Then, the moment they pass by, the tone drops in pitch and the engine chugs out of sight with a fading, low-pitched "whoooooooo" sound of sorts. If we were competing on "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" we'd earn some extra credit for knowing that this sensation is called the Doppler effect.
If you're a middle-aged professional hunting for work, imagine your career using the train analogy. Perhaps you've already put 20 or 30 solid years into the workplace and have only five, 10 or 15 more years to go before you plan to retire. Naturally, in an interview situation, almost all of your answers will revolve around the great things you've accomplished during your employment to date. You've got a long and seasoned resume, after all, and many decades of experience producing results for employers. Why not talk about these highlights at length?
Unfortunately, to the employer, this interview approach sounds like a fading train whistle. Trust me, I've seen it many times. Hiring managers hope to hear candidates make some upbeat, enthusiastic noise about their bright future and how they can help solve the company's most pressing problems. Instead, they're subjected to lengthy monologues about all the wonderful things the candidates accomplished for other employers years ago.
Have you ever been guilty of this?
I suppose we could turn this into a debate about age discrimination, but that's really not my intent. My goal is to illustrate that this common interview occurrence is a predictable phenomenon -- just like the Doppler effect -- and occurs primarily because older candidates commonly approach interviews from a different perspective than younger, up-and-coming professionals.
When you think about it, most young professionals haven't accomplished much yet and still have the lion's share of their careers ahead of them. As a result, when asked interview questions, they tend to focus more on their future goals, what they hope to accomplish in the years to come and how eager they are to be given the chance to prove themselves.
Many (although certainly not all) older candidates, in contrast, fall back on telling war stories and basing their answers on the preponderance of their career narrative that has already taken place.
It makes perfect sense, at least from my point of view: Each camp gravitates to the resource it has in the most abundance.
Right or wrong, this is an important issue to monitor if you're beyond the halfway point in your career and seeking a new opportunity. Based purely on your experience level alone, you might have the tendency to rest on your laurels and assume the hiring manager will have no problem extrapolating future successes out of the litany of past achievements you've shared.
This assumption may be your undoing, however -- especially if you're up against somebody younger who is relentlessly hammering home his or her present and future capabilities, time and time again.
Employers live in the moment. If you're not already doing so, make sure you let them know that your best career years are still ahead of you, and not solely in the rear-view mirror.
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Kristen Fife is a senior recruiter, career mentor, blogger and resume consultant based in the Seattle area.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
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