The other day, I was deputized by my wife to perform a mission-critical task. I was asked to visit the local grocery store and track down a few boxes of Kraft macaroni and cheese on short notice, ostensibly to please the cravings of several picky second-graders visiting our home.
Upon arrival at QFC, I headed straight over to the pasta aisle, thinking that must be the place to locate said product. Nope, strikeout. No mac-and-cheese there, unless you wanted to literally make your own from scratch. So then I tried the soup section, thinking that perhaps it would be lumped in with the cup-o-noodles and similar items. Again, no luck. Nothing remotely resembling mac-and-cheese to be found. So I finally had to track down a clerk, who after a moment of contemplation, directed me to the ambiguously-named “packaged meals” section of the store where at long last, I was able to acquire my elusive golden quarry.
The moral of the story? Perhaps it’s that I have a very low “grocery IQ” compared to all of the rest of you out there. But more importantly, given the focus of this blog, I think it reinforces the idea that every market, including the job market, is subject to some sort of categorization — and that if you’re a professional in transition, you need to think hard about the “box” you fit in that will most help an employer or recruiter to discover you!
I say this because I’ve met an increasing number of people who seem resistant to being “put in a box” or to associating themselves with a certain professional label. I’ll routinely hear people say things, for example, like “I’m a jack of all trades” or “I can wear lots of different hats” or “No, I really don’t think of myself as a typical sales professional. That term doesn’t do me full justice.” I even came across an individual the other day who is paid to supply events with food, for money, but seemed offended when I suggested she was a caterer. Instead, when I asked for clarification, I was treated to a lengthy description about how she “creates unique food experiences” and the like. But shucks, to me, that’s still a caterer. A special kind of caterer, perhaps, and one with a clear sense of differentiation, but still somebody who fits the general yellow-page heading of “catering” most people would envision, upon hearing the focus of her business.
So why is this important? For two reasons. One, because an awfully large percentage of jobs come from word-of-mouth networking, including from folks who have no experience in your particular area of expertise — but could potentially refer you to somebody with a suitable need. These people aren’t going to be able to faithfully reproduce an unorthodox, lengthy, and multi-faceted elevator pitch. They need the shorthand version of what you do for a living, basically represented by a job title or two. Your goal should be to prime them with a trigger word like “accountant” or “sales manager” OR “human resource professional” that jogs their memory and enables them to pass your name along, should they surface a business owner or hiring manager in need.
As for the second reason? When dealing with the other aspect of the job creation process, which involves your credentials being pulled out of a resume or social media database, such as LinkedIn, you can be assured that job titles are the dominant search criteria. If a company is looking for somebody to help them analyze financial data, for example, they’re going to search for “financial analyst” or “FP&A specialist” in the title box. These are the mainstream labels used in this field and somebody billing themselves as an “Excel jockey and quantitative finance guru” or some other unique moniker is going to be invisible to the vast majority of recruiting searches conducted.
(in fact, when it comes to many LinkedIn profiles, I encourage people to translate any obscure titles they’ve been given by past employers into their more ‘mainstream’ equivalent — or at least put the auxiliary title in parentheses, afterward, so it’s fully findable in searches)
So don’t get me wrong. It’s good to be different. It’s good to figure out what sets you apart from the crowd and will help you brand yourself in a unique way versus your competitors. But don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. You still to need to embrace the box/category/label the marketplace has created for professionals who solve the types of problems you solve. If you don’t know what this is, exactly, you’ve either invented a brand new career niche (unlikely) the world has truly never seen before — or you might need to conduct further research into the matter at hand, to figure out what most of the organizations you’re targeting would call a person like you.
We’re all unique. But only to a point, professionally…