Is it Possible to Recover From the 12-Steps of Job Searching?

I’m continually amazed at how little the job search process has changed in the 20 or so years that I’ve been in the workforce full time. This includes everything from the process itself to the questions being asked to the resulting conversations that are had during the interviews.

While there is lots of new technology and plenty of useful tools that companies now use to improve the processes of sourcing candidates, weeding through resumes and gathering feedback and data from those involved in making hiring decisions, the fundamental experience I’m having now looks and feels almost identical to the experience I had when I was looking for my first corporate job.

With the exception of opportunities that come from referrals made by your professional network, the typical process goes something like this:

  1. Update your resume (which can be a painstaking process, depending on how long it’s been since you’ve updated it).
  2. Apply to relevant jobs with your resume and a cover letter customized for each role you’re applying for (this is optional, but often recommended). LinkedIn has long-ago replaced Monster and Hotjobs, but the steps are still the same.
  3. Wait.
  4. If things go well, receive a response for an initial phone interview (usually with an internal or external recruiter).
  5. Have the initial interview, then send a thank you email.
  6. Wait.
  7. If things go well, receive a response to schedule more interviews (usually with the hiring manager, peers and sometimes with the people you would be managing if you got the job).
  8. Have anywhere from 3-10 additional phone, video and in-person interviews (and send thank you emails after each).
  9. Answer 80-90% of the same questions during each interview.
  10. Continue to follow up with the recruiter about progress, feedback and next steps.
  11. Wait.
  12. If things go well, receive a job offer (usually contingent on checking your references and completing a background check, but this step could also include taking a drug test).

The above could take anywhere from three weeks to three months and assumes that things went well and that you’re only interviewing with one company. As everyone knows, things often don’t go well, and you’re usually repeating this 12-step process with every company you’re simultaneously interviewing with.

If you have a full-time job while you’re doing this, it can be incredibly overwhelming to fit it all in. You’re juggling all of the meetings, calls, emails and actual work that needs to be done as part of your day job with the meetings, calls emails, work and travel required to find your next job. Once you’ve found the next job, if you’re like most people you can’t afford to take a substantial break between jobs, so you usually jump right into the new job having just left your old one.

I’ve experienced this process as a job seeker, and I’ve also been on the other side of the table as the hiring manager. When I was hiring, I did my best to deviate from the 12-step process as much as I could. I was fortunate enough to work for one company that was supportive of different ways to approach hiring. That had a direct impact on the quality of the people I hired, their satisfaction with the job they were hired for and my satisfaction with their abilities to do the job. It also contributed to long-term retention, future promotions and positive relationships.

For example, I was encouraged to be creative and ask different types of interview questions throughout the process; to involve my current team in helping to hire their peers (you’d be amazed how many companies discourage this); to interview candidates over lunch; and to give finalists a mock assignment that was reflective of the type of work they would be doing. I found this last step essential when hiring consultants because being able to clearly communicate ideas in writing and in presentations to clients—in addition to being able to present well and answer their questions on the fly—were requirements for being a great consultant. I was also lucky enough to receive training about unconscious bias and the role it can play when making hiring decisions.

I wish more companies had this open-minded approach, but most of the ones I’ve come across in my interviewing experiences stick to the 12-step script. Maybe you’re wondering, “What’s so wrong with these 12 steps?” and “If this is the way it’s always been done, then isn’t there a reason for that?” Here’s my response: what’s wrong is that the 12 steps are inefficient, time-consuming and often leave you knowing very little about the person you’re hiring (if you’re the company) or very little about the job, the people and the culture (if you’re the candidate). Instead of these things being the very point of the whole process, they become a by-product, and often a sub-par and incomplete one at that.

As a job seeker, there’s virtually no opportunity to express yourself when you’re confined to answering questions like “Where do you see yourself in five years?” or “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” Most people give safe, rote answers or answers they know the interviewer wants to hear. As the hiring manager, you’ve learned very little about the person you’re considering hiring,and what you have learned has been rehearsed, buffed, polished and presented in the most benign and unoriginal format. Yet, the 12 steps persist, even in industries like software and technology where deviating from the norm, setting new trends and being innovative are prized and rewarded.

The changes that I have seen to the 12 steps aren’t really solving the problem either. They include things like requiring candidates to take personality tests or cognitive math and verbal tests with 50 SAT-type questions fired at you over a 15-minute period. They include credit checks and social media sleuthing and algorithms that look for keywords in resumes. All of this has certainly helped to quantify the experience, but what has it really changed about the quality of the experience?

I recently had a series of interviews at a software company that made me take notice. One of the first questions I was asked was “What makes you weird?” I love this question, and it led to a really interesting, personal and unusual conversation that not only allowed me to share information about myself that I normally wouldn’t in an interview, but to better understand the company culture (of which weirdness is embraced and celebrated) and get to know the person who was asking the question much better than I normally would have when I asked him to answer it.

This experience also reaffirmed the need for me to take a different approach to my job search today than I have in searches past. My new approach is one of complete transparency (what you see is what you get); letting my personality and authenticity shine through (rather than hiding it behind a polished veneer); focusing on the questions being asked and really paying attention to the people asking them (rather than mentally formulating the answers I’m going to give); challenging questions that I don’t think are relevant by trying to understand what the person asking the question really wants to learn; and using the information I get out of the process to determine if the job really fits what I want and what’s going to make me happy.

I’ve always thought that it was best to have a job while you’re looking for one, but the past few months have changed my mind. Instead of cramming as much into the day as possible; trying to weave all of the responsibilities of my day job around the tasks required to find a new one; paying very little attention to the present because I’m already planning for the future; and ignoring what’s best for me in order to secure as many job offers as possible, I’ve slowed way down.

In doing so, not having a job has given me more focus, not less. It’s allowed me to really see, hear and understand the information that I’m gathering while I’m interviewing. It’s given me the perspective to try a new approach and the confidence to stick with it, even if I’m more vulnerable as a result. It’s opened my eyes, my mind and my heart. None of this was easy or came naturally, but I think the bigger challenge will be maintaining this new way of viewing and being in the world when I do go back to working in it. In the interests of being present here and now, I’ll cross that bridge when it’s time.

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