Saturday, May 02, 2009

Re-inventing your career? Try these tips

The Seattle Association of Black Journalists (SABJ) held a Career Re-invention Workshop last weekend at the University of Washington aimed at any current and soon-to-be non-journalists or others considering transitioning out of or into journalism as it changes and figures out what it will look like in the coming years.

I had the pleasure of serving on the day's second panel, made up of people who make hiring decisions, to offer some advice to journalists on how to put their best foot forward in the interview or interview process. The panelists were Scott Battishill, Senior Vice President of internationl PR firm DDB; me, Rhonda Woods, Human Resources Recruiter for Seattle University; Susan Long-Walsh, owner of a recruiting firm, who has worked for companies like Microsoft and Starbucks; and  Jack Evans, Director of Public Relations for Legal and Policy Issues at Microsoft.

Here were some of the top tips offered. 

1.      Learn about and use new media and social media media tools such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter. Understand how they can help you as an individual (networking, job research) and how they can help companies (connecting with customers, market research) you want to work for. LinkedIn can also help you research people and positions. Here’s a useful slideshare on it Using LinkedIn in Your Job Search and Guy Kawasaki’s Ten Ways to Use LinkedIn to Find a Job.

2.      Make sure your resume conveys your transferable skills, not just titles, companies, and job-specific jargon, especially if you’re trying to transition to a new field or a job very different from previous ones on your resume. This is also true in the interview. Assume your interviewers have no knowledge of what your past jobs entailed so paint a picture of what you did day to day and the skills involved.

When I was transitioning from reporting to communications, my resume had all my previous writing, reporting, and anchoring positions. Someone in the TV industry would know what that involved day to day. But one of my three interviewers, who was clearly not convinced I had the skills they were looking for, finally said, “I don’t own a TV so I don’t know anything about reporters. I thought you all just stood there and ad-libbed all that stuff you said.”

Umm, no. So I walked her through my day as a reporter: the story research, the source building, the contact with organizations, the outreach to experts and people who could provide insights for stories, the collaboration with a photographer and project management on longer-form pieces to get the right pictures, interviews and full-screen explanatory images to bolster the story, and through it all, the daily deadline writing. At the end of my explanation, she said, “Oh. Well I didn’t realize how involved it is. Thank you.” I got the job and had a great tenure there. I still see the people I worked with then and they remind me, “If you ever want to come back, we’d love to have you!”

3.      Be clear yourself about what you want in a new job. Is a long commute a deal-breaker? Then don't bother applying to the position that's an hour away with traffic. You’ll spend the weekends dreading Monday and hate the job the moment you sit at your desk.

Also evaluate the culture of the place and whether it matches what makes you tick. If you’re hard-charging and they talk a lot about how laid-back it is, you might want to ask more questions to decide if it’s really the place for you to spend 40+ hours of your life each week. Being the impatient person in a meeting of ditherers or the person who wants to walk through the options a couple more times while everyone else is off and running on the next task will get old quickly.

4.      Quantify what you’ve done. Number of projects completed on time and on budget. Number of stories researched and written each week. Dollar amount of coverage you secured for your company. Number of events you planned and number of attendees or amount of media coverage. Numbers help people put things in context.

5.      Give examples of your skills. Tell stories. Review your old performance evaluations to refresh your memory on projects and successes you’ve had before interviews so that you have examples to share that help you sell your skills. Whether you’ve had a short or long career, you’ve probably forgotten some of the big projects you worked on and how you contributed. Examples help you show what you’ve done and what you can do for another company or organization.

One candidate I interviewed had great examples in response to questions about her skills. She said, “Yes, I have a lot of project management experience. Week to week I always have at least two on-going, multi-part projects that I’m moving forward. I get out my excel charts and track each step so that I don’t miss anything and I can see what’s left to be done or who I need to contact to keep it moving. One recent example was a major outreach event I coordinated for one of our divisions. I planned the event, contacted all of the participants and third-party validators and followed up to make sure they would be coming, and created the publicity pieces for it in coordination with our staff. I also did outreach to local media to get coverage. I also coordinated with staff and gave them talking points on all of the improvements we were announcing so they would be prepared if they were interviewed.

On the day of the event, I put up signs directing people to the staging area, made sure all the speakers stayed on schedule, then I took the media on a tour of the facility and did a number of interviews with them and connected them with staff, volunteers and other participants for interviews. In the end, stories on the event ran in two papers, two TV newscasts, three high traffic community blogs, and one local radio news program. It was a lot of work but it was so much fun pulling all of those pieces together!” She told a story that conveyed her expertise, her initiative, her project management ability and her positive attitude. She got the job.

6.      Increase or develop new skills by volunteering or freelancing on a project-to-project basis. Many organizations have had to cut staff but still need help. Find a need and fill it. Author and freelancing expert Michelle Goodman's book and website has great tips on working for yourself permanently or while you look for something else.

7.      Look beyond titles when you job hunt. Just as titles on your resume may not convey the full scope of what you did, a job listing title may not paint an accurate picture of daily duties. Especially in companies that use non-standard titles like “People Pleaser Extraordinaire” instead of Customer Service Manager. Read closely for key words that match what you’re truly looking for in a position.

8.      The panel of hiring managers was mixed in its responses on whether cover letters were still useful. Some said they never read them, other said they always do but they agreed that if you do one, it should be (like your resume) targeted to the position and error-free.

Overall, the panelists and audience had great tips to share for journalists and anyone else looking to transition from one industry to another and the Seattle Association of Black Journalists did a great job of putting together the entire morning of panels, discussions and resume reviews. It was a pleasure to be part of it.

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