How to Position Yourself as the Top Candidate

After withstanding a deep freeze that was as long as it was harsh, the job market is finally showing concrete signs of rebirth and renewal. For the first time in several years, employers are not only making replacement hires, but also additive hires as they strive to keep pace with business growth. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, in 2004 alone the economy created 2.23 million jobs, nearly restoring those lost during the economic downturn that spanned 2001 to 2003. For those feeling ripe for a change, conditions are finally favorable for making a move.

But the employment market's recovery doesn't necessarily entail a return to some of the injudicious hiring practices of the go-go Internet era, when companies would freely snatch up candidates whose qualifications were -- at best -- only marginally related to the requirements for a given position. Still smarting from poor hiring choices made during the boom times of yore, employers today closely scrutinize a candidate's qualifications against position requirements and attach far greater importance to due diligence though background checks. Employers have become a lot pickier and are interviewing far more candidates than in years past, so despite abundant opportunities, competition among contenders remains stiff.

As an executive recruiter, I observe candidate interviews and hiring negotiations on a daily basis. There is nothing more frustrating than watching a well-qualified person stumble and lose a golden opportunity. In our current environment of increasing job opportunities and plentiful candidates, it is more important than ever to navigate the recruiting process shrewdly. Here are some basic steps you can take to compete more effectively in the current environment.

Do Your Homework

A surprising number of senior-level candidates fail to thoroughly research a company before interviewing. A candidate's preparation should extend far beyond studying a company's financials; it should include an examination of intangibles, such as the company culture, work environment, competitive differentiators and typical decision-making style. Because insight into these areas is typically not found in marketing collateral or annual reports, candidates need to avail themselves of informal sources -- namely, their personal networks. Most professionals today are adept at networking to uncover job opportunities. But take your networking a step further to help you prepare for an interview. Reach out to friends and acquaintances who may have worked for or come into contact with the company for information on the following:

The culture. People are usually hired because of what's on their resume, but they are dismissed because of poor cultural fit. What do people say about life on the inside? Try to understand the company culture as part of your research, and test your assumptions during the interview.

The hiring manager. What do you know about the hiring manager? What are his hot buttons? Who else do you know who has interviewed with this person?

The competition. Learn about the company's main competitors. To whom is the company the greatest threat? Conversely, who is the company's biggest threat? What are the company's biggest weaknesses? And how is the company positioning itself to redress those weaknesses?

The reputation. How does the market perceive the company? What do its customers think? What does the press say?

Taking a holistic approach in your preparation will enable you to make insightful comments and conduct yourself with greater sophistication during your interview. It will also help you validate whether the opportunity is indeed a good fit for you personally.

Demonstrate Your Value-Add

Companies generally don't want to add costs by hiring more people. What they do want is to solve whatever basic problems they face, and doing so usually involves hiring more people. That's right: Employers hire people to solve problems. As a candidate, your mission is to uncover what those problems are and to arrive at the interview prepared with a plan to address those problems.

You can learn a lot about the problems a company faces by asking why the position at hand is open. It's important to have multiple suggestions on the best plan to address the problem(s), because interviewers like to see candidates who have thought about the company's challenges and can offer potential solutions. Moreover, having more than one suggestion will leave you better equipped to quickly adapt your responses to interviewers whom you have not yet met.

Learn to Hit a Smaller Sweet Spot

While becoming more abundant, technology jobs are also becoming increasingly specialized and targeted as the general business environment grows in complexity. In the past, companies would hire a candidate whose background didn't fit a job description, if the individual demonstrated a track record of learning quickly.

The practice of hiring "out of the box" profiles has fallen out of favor. Today's employers want to see backgrounds that are directly relevant to a job posting. As a result, to position yourself as the top candidate, you need to take some concrete steps:

  • Find out as much as possible about the position and then tailor your resume accordingly.
  • Be sure you can articulate during the interview how your experience is directly relevant to the position.
  • Be prepared to discuss what you can do to help address the company's or division's problems.
  • Find within the company a champion who will help sell you to the hiring manager.

Be Confident, Yet Humble

Last but not least, be careful how you position yourself and your demands. Employers learn more about a candidate's true workstyle during the offer negotiation stage than in any other part of the screening process. Don't, for example, accept a set of terms, only to return to the negotiating table and ask for the world. Such behavior angers prospective employers and can torpedo the original offer.

The good news for executive talent is that job market conditions continue to improve. But the bar remains high. To get that competitive edge, do your homework through your network, find out what the company is trying to solve, show how you can help, and handle the negotiation stage with care. In all phases, preparation remains key.

Jeff Hocking is a senior client partner at Korn/Ferry International and managing director of the firm's San Francisco and Silicon Valley offices. You can reach him at (415) 288-5339 or at jeff.hocking@kornferry.com.

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