De-Mystifying Job Hunting

Introduction (Names and situations have been changed to preserve confidentiality)

Mike was 42, and lived in the suburbs of London in the period when this case study was written. University educated with a degree in Mathematics and an MBA, he has had a diverse career covering consultancy and line management roles in a range of sectors, and now works for a major consultancy practice.

The views expressed are personal, for illustrative purposes only and should not be related, or automatically applied to, other situations or scenarios.

Background

Ever since I have been involved with the world of work I have been fascinated by recruitment. In part it’s because of its importance – unlike most other situations at work its appears all or nothing – either you get the job or you don’t. In part it’s because of the gap in knowledge between the recruiter and the candidate – what do they want? What are they looking for? And in part it’s because of the mixture of activities surrounding it – assessment centres and psychometrics tests as well as different kinds of interview. During my working career I have taken the opportunity to learn a bit more about recruitment – in part by seeking feedback actively on my own performance and in part by getting involved in recruitment at all levels from graduate recruitment to senior appointments.

This case study is intended to distil that experience from an AS perspective. It’s not aiming to be a balanced picture of recruitment and selection – there are many books and internet articles that do that very well. Nor should it be used for training purposes. Instead it seeks to offer some reflections which I hope will give some ideas- especially to candidates.

Early experiences

My earliest experiences of recruitment (apart from holiday jobs) were at University. In those days major recruiters did what was known as the milk round – so called because the idea was to attract and select the cream of graduates. I recall it as being a stressful time – in part because University was not the happiest of experiences, in part because I wasn’t totally clear as to what I wanted to do with my life. Getting on a graduate training scheme seemed like a good idea but all kinds of myths surrounded it. From and AS perspective my strongest sense was that the process seemed unfair. I could perfectly well understand why they wanted people who could do the job well and why selection processes should be therefore geared around the skills associated with the job. However the process seemed much more than that – there was a social event the night before the selection proper and a personality questionnaire. Worse still there were a number of people who seemed to be spending a lot more time preparing – for example trying to work out what the selectors were looking for or what you were supposed to do in the tests . I got the job – but was determined not to be so ill prepared in the future.

Subsequent Experience

I took the opportunity to volunteer as recruiters as part of the milk round- so I could see the process in reverse. Subsequently, as I became more senior, I gained more experience in different approaches and techniques, and put some of them into practice when I needed to prepare for job interviews as a candidate. It gradually dawned upon me that as someone with AS, there were certain mindsets ,techniques and approaches that were particularly helpful, and I want to use the rest of this case study to describe some of them.

AS Characteristic 1 – Cognitive Bias

A common characteristic of those of us with AS is a tendency to be better at analytical problem solving and in domains which require technical skills than in those which require people skills. We also tend to underestimate the importance of power and of fitting in, at least in the early part of our career. This was certainly true in my case and this constituted my sense initially that the graduate recruitment process seemed unfair. Looking back on it made perfect sense – as did the range of recruitment techniques used in the context of a workplace which was as much a social network and a power system as a means for solving problems.

Suggested approach:

Principle 1 – Look for roles where cognitive skills are relatively more important – but beware of them becoming silos.

In many organisations, in the leadership team of, say 5-7 people the majority of them will require high or very high levels of inter personal skills. Often they will be roles with a high externally facing component, building relationships or selling, or in the public sector handling complex political negotiations and networking. There will also often be 1 or 2 roles for which these components, while present are relatively less important. Examples include finance, legal and research and development. While I believe it is very helpful to develop some of the affective skills required for the first group of roles , I think in the longer term it is important to identify and seek out those organisations for which the second type are represented at a senior level . Beware of employers for which ‘he is a technical expert’ is a euphemism for ‘he is un promotable’

Principle 2 – Try to find roles for where there is a technical barrier to entry.

As someone with AS, I have recognised that in a straight contest in a role which requires very high level of charismatic persuasion, I am unlikely to succeed. Not only that , as knowledge changes so rapidly nowadays , simply knowing a technical area well may not in itself provide sufficient competitive advantage to win a new position or keep an existing one . We may be proud of our 10 good contacts in the industry, but find ourselves competing with those who have 100 excellent ones. Helpful barriers to entry can include:

• professional qualifications(neurotypicals often dislike getting these after they have reached their thirties);
• being the only person who really understands something of vital importance to an organisation and which changes relatively slowly e.g. law;
• Having a deep relationship with a few individuals of key importance to the organisation where technical competence is required – e.g. dealing with a regulator.

Principle 3 – work on your interpersonal skills- but don’t become obsessed by them.

If you work experience is anything like mine, you will have no shortage of opportunities to learn about and develop your interpersonal and affective skills. Most organisations will offer ( once you are in the managerial grades) numerous training programmes , various types of feedback , exposure to different models of leadership and human behaviour and opportunities to receive personal coaching or counselling , and the chance to work with a mentor . In addition there will be many chances to develop particular skills by different kinds of experience – e.g. leading projects, chairing meetings, giving presentations to the Board, conducting disciplinary investigations, identifying and mentoring high potential staff. Take them – but don’t organise your working life around their output.

If you have AS, it is unlikely that you will ever become really excellent at the competencies in question. Your aim should be:

• To reach at least the minimum required standard;
• If possible to receive good ratings;
• Not to devote so much time to this that you lose time to develop the one thing where you can excel – your technical skill or your special interest.

AS Characteristic 2 – Single Track Processing

A common feature of people with AS (me included) is a very focused approach to problem solving. It has been said that we have a single track mind. This can be an advantage in recruitment, as we are less likely to adopt the ‘scattergun’ approach, which is generally ineffective for managerial roles.

However we can become convinced that we fit the person specification very well and can become disappointed if we fail to win an offer. Worse still we may end up feeling that the process was; ‘unfair ‘with all the potential for anger, frustration and disappointment that that can begin.

Suggested approach:

Principle 1 –Think in terms of ‘finding a fit’, ‘rather than winning a position’.

With this mind set, recruitment becomes more of a joint problem solving process, with a candidate and prospective employer learning more and more about each other to determine whether the role is likely to be successful for both. While it is of course important to become familiar with the basics of CV and interview technique, there is no point in being so good at this if this means that an unsuitable position is obtained.

Principle 2 – Build an opportunity funnel and keep the momentum going on each opportunity.

One of the problems that I have had as a person with AS, is believing that a particular role is the ‘job for me’ and felling very let down if this does not work out. After a disappointment I have often felt a drop in personal energy levels, difficulties in self motivation, and a tendency to look back rather than forward. In addition, if unemployed while job hunting, the lack of a structure to the week can result in a drop in job searching effort for a period. An opportunity funnel can help reduce this by providing structure to the job search and encouraging you to move on to progressing other opportunities rapidly.

There are many ways of creating one – I personally prefer a very simple spreadsheet which has two overall features:
• A contact history which enables good control over an individual opportunity
• A n opportunity funnel which is a summary of the whole job search process , enabling a more strategic view to be taken.

An example may help clarify this (Assume today is 15 February 20xx)
Contact History: Example
Organisation: XYZ PLC Role: Finance Manager Salary range: ‘Competitive’ Job type
Permanent Location : London
Contact1: Jane Rose 0208-4443131
Jrose@hotmail.com Contact2 : Ms P Jones Senior Consultant , Jones Search and Selection
0207-333-9876
PJones@jss.co.uk Contact3: Mr J Smith Head of HR 0207-111-1234
Jsmith@xyz.co.uk
Date Action Outcome Next Action Status
13/01/20xx Spoke to Jane (former colleague who now works at XYZ PLC) re the London based finance roles She mentioned that XYZ have been expanding and need 2-3 finance managers. They are looking for new blood to bring a more innovative approach. She suspects that JSS will be retained to carry out the recruitment Internet search on XYZ PLC- target date 20/01/20xx
E-Mail thanking Jane Prospect
20/01/20xx Internet search Good fit with culture and industry Talk to head-hunters in network to see if they know more Target date: 27/01/20xx Prospect
27/01/20xx Spoke to Ms. P Jones of JSS She has been engaged by XYZ PLC. She saw a potential fit and asked for a CV Tailor CV and send back by 03/02/20xx
Follow up by 10/02/20xx Application
10/02/20xx Follow up call with Ms Jones Invited for initial interview with her Interview preparation for 24/02/20xx interview Interview
10/02/20xx E-mail to Jane , thanking her and updating her on progress She responds saying three of her former Directors have just left to set up on their own. They need a Finance Manager Create a new prospect

In the example above a new opportunity would be created relating to the new venture.

To enable a more strategic view of the whole job search process each opportunity can be classified according to a simple system – e.g.:

• Prospect – the opportunity has been identified but only desk research or general networking has been carried out
• Application – an application have been sent off or a networking contact made with someone close to the decision making process
• Interview – an initial or intermediate interview has been obtained
• Final interview – you are at the last stage of the selection process
• Negotiation – you have an offer and are negotiating terms

Opportunity Funnel: Example:
Date 15/02/20xx
Organisation Role Salary range Job type
Location Current
Status
3 Directors new venture Finance Manager ??? ??? ?London 1 Prospect
Financial Tutors Ltd Tutor for ACA, CIMA,ACCA £Market rate Permanent London – occasional residential weekends 1 Prospect
ABC LTD Chief Accountant £60-75K Maternity Leave cover Leeds 2 Application
DEF LLP Senior Manager £60k +up to20% Bonus Permanent London 2 Application
XYZ PLC Finance Manager ‘Competitive’ Permanent London 3 Interview

The above table gives a snapshot of the overall job search: it is called a funnel because to win a successful job offer normally several opportunities have to be pursued and some get filtered out at each stage. In the example above if the XYZ position comes to nothing, there is at least the consolation that there are two applications and two prospects at earlier stages of the funnel – however it could be argued that the position would be stronger of there were 4 or 5 prospects rather than just 2.

As well as combating disappointment, I have found that this activity reduces anxiety by giving structure to the job search process e.g. a personal target can be set for the number of Prospects and Applications at any one time and a personal commitment can be made to reviewing the funnel once a week .

AS Characteristic 3 – Difficulties with personal organisation.

Many authors refer to a lack of central coherence or an impaired executive function of individuals with AS. For the purposes of the job search process the difficulties tend to appear in two areas:

• Practical issues around the process, e.g. finding the venue, turning up on time, having the right support material, writing letters of acknowledgement;
• Handling the interview or other assessment activities.

Principle 1 – Build processes to handle practical problems

There are clearly many ways this can be done but some tips that have worked for me are:
• Pack a bag with a standard list of items needed for interviews .e.g. pen and paper, maps, computer and power cable, mobile charger, business cards, pre interview file with reminders, testimonials, and examples etc, personal medication – e.g. hay fever tablets in summer. Keep similar items in the same part of the bag to make finding easier, and keeping the bag tidy easier. Only change those items which are specific to a particular interview or which require replenishing;
• Plan to arrive at any interview at least 45 minutes ahead of schedule. If you are really concerned do a trial run a few days before. Go to a nearby cafe for some last minute preparation so you can walk in with 10 minutes to spare greeting the receptionist etc in a relaxed friendly way;
• Prepare a standard checklist which forms part of the opportunity funnel to handle such matters as letters of thanks to potential employers.

Principle 2 – for the interview itself rehearse some prepared scripts to handle common situations.

The rehearsal needs to be sufficiently thorough so that it does not sound rehearsed! You will need to prepare you own scripts (and there are loads of these on the internet or in general how to guides) but here are a few tips:
For the competency based interviews: ‘Tell me about a time you achieved x’
Script – the STAR model
• Situation – A description of the context – e.g. medium sized manufacturing company, increasing Far East competition, declining profits etc.
• Task – a description of what needed to be done – e.g. reduce procurement costs by 20% in 1 year
• Action -what you did – e.g. analysed the main areas of spend, made price comparisons, identified off contract spend, convened a project team, engaged the main spending budget holders, etc
• Result- e.g. 22% reduction in procurement cost in one year; 92% of managers very satisfied or satisfied etc

The ‘standard’ questions
E.g. 1 – What is your greatest weakness?
Script – STAR as above – be careful not to:
• Describe a weakness which sounds so serious that it will exclude you or
• Refuse to play the game – e.g. list a positive trait dressed up as a weakness
Add
• What I learnt and now do differently in the future
• How I have passed on that learning to others
E.g. 2 What are your salary expectations?
(Note the received wisdom is that candidates who state their position too early weaken their negotiating power)
Script
• Build value first – ‘I am keen to understand the role better and to demonstrate the contribution I could make before we discuss salary in detail’;
• Open up the employer’s position – ‘Can you please help me with some context – is there an expected range for the position ‘( assuming this is not stated);
• Provide data ‘I notice that similar roles appear to be advertised in the range £x to £y’
• Encourage principled discussion – ‘I am confident that we can agree on a figure that both parties perceive as a fair reflection of the impact I can make’;
E.g. 3 – where do you see yourself in 5 years time?
Script
• My first priority will be to do a great job for you;
• I am confident that the role will enable me to build on my existing experience;
• I want to demonstrate a substantive set of achievements before planning future moves;
• In 5 years time I would expect to be in a position to (fill in appropriate aspiration based on employer’s structure and likely opportunities).

AS Characteristic 4 – Being Anxiety /Stress prone

Many people with AS have a tendency to worry – in part this may be linked to earlier bad experiences , in part this may be associated not having sufficient flexibility to be able to respond spontaneously to complex social situations and therefore having to do a great deal of pre planning for every eventuality . The process of job searching can be particularly stressful, particularly if you do not have a job or your current situation is unsatisfactory. There is a great deal of generic advice which is relevant (e.g. Cognitive Behavioural therapy) which I will not dwell on here.
From an employment perspective, my own experience suggests that over time the following are relevant to reducing anxiety in a holistic way:

Principle 1 – Reduce your reliance on employment as a source of income.
Focus on developing those skills, contacts and experiences which are portable from one employer to another. Learn to think of yourself as a consultant – e.g.
• What precisely did I do for my employer which justified my salary this month? How could I sell that to others?
• What are my unique selling points? What benefits could I bring to a client that would be hard for a competitor to replicate?
• What are my likely sales channels– who in my network is well disposed toward me, and has access to a budget and the need for the kind of services that I would offer? Who has existing channels to market that I could use as a subcontractor?

Principle 2 – Get your finances in order

For most people with AS , we are likely to make the best decisions in relation to employment , and negotiate most effectively with employers , when we are not under undue pressure to close the deal too quickly. Keeping personal finances under control (i.e. eliminate debt, reduce outgoings and build a capital reserve to cover any periods of joblessness) should be a long term priority. One of the advantages of AS in this context is that in general we are unlikely to be influenced greatly by designer fashions and fads, and should be able to distinguish value and cost well. Building a capital base can open up other opportunities for self employment (see the excellent case study on becoming residential landlord as an example)

Conclusion

I hope these reflections will at provide some useful ideas for readers. From a personal perspective job searching has become easier and less of mystery. While the current economic position is clearly challenging for nearly everyone, I think that over time it is possible for people with AS to minimise their relative disadvantages and even become, in some cases, more successful than neurotypicals.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome