Career advice

Job Hunting? Be careful you don’t cross the line into canvassing…


It’s a dog eat dog world out there, especially if you’re on the hunt for a job.  I’ve written a number of blogs over the past couple of years offering advice to people looking for new employment opportunities or getting ready to attend interviews and I always encourage people to be as proactive as they can.  This means being alert to opportunities as they come up, using your networks, sending carefully crafted emails or letters & cvs to organisations you want to work for, etc.  As we all know, a large percentage of jobs are never advertised – so it’s important that you get yourself on the radar.

However, you can go too far.  When that happens you can be in danger of either being disqualified for canvassing or you can just annoy someone so much that they put you on the “no thanks” list before you even get a chance to shine.

Recently I’ve started to receive large numbers of Linked In requests from people I don’t know.  Many of them are people that are looking for work.  Guys – this isn’t going to do you any favours.  First of all, I only connect with people on Linked In that I have met in real life & know and like.  I joked when David Cameron joined Linked In that he needn’t bother sending me a request as I wouldn’t accept it.  It’s the truth.  In my mind, it’s pointless being professionally “connected” with hundreds of people that I don’t know.  Twitter’s the place for that.

Sometimes, before I click the “ignore” option, I do take a look at the person’s Linked In profile.  Call that what you like – nosiness, curiosity, even politeness.  I live in Northern Ireland so if it’s a name I half recognise or someone that I think I may have met, I look at the profile to find out more information.  Surely that’s the point of having profiles.

I don’t then expect that person to send me a public tweet thanking me for looking at their Linked In profile & saying they hope Learning Pool will be in touch with them shortly.

This is so wrong on so many levels:

1.       If we’ve advertised job vacancies, we’re in a process and using social media in this way to promote yourself to people in the company could be construed by some to be canvassing, and that can result in your application being disqualified from the process.  In Northern Ireland we work within very strict recruitment guidelines in order to meet legislation around equal opportunities in employment.

2.       I might sit in on interviews from time to time and I might meet people before we offer them a job, but it will be our team leads that are driving the recruitment process at Learning Pool not me.  If you contact me outside of the process, I am unlikely to know anything about the particular process you are in (we advertised 10 vacancies in the press on 27 December) and even if I was interested in your experience and skillset, I’m unlikely to mention you to one of our team leads – they’ll pick it up themselves as part of their shortlisting activity.

If you’re looking for a job & want to work at Learning Pool, spend time & effort instead improving your cv (most of the ones I see are dire) and writing a decent covering letter.  Or spend time getting onto our radar before we actually go out to recruitment – so that we already know you.  There are many ways you can do this – intelligent commenting on our forums, writing an interesting personal blog & making us aware of that, conducting interactions with us on Twitter or coming along to our events & chatting to us.

I know that many of you will have opinions or questions about this topic and I hope we can have some debate in the comments section.  As always, love to have your input.

How to present yourself well at job interviews


In my job I do a lot of interviewing, both for Learning Pool & for other organisations that ask me to help them out with this from time to time.  It’s taken a lot of effort to find and assemble the 50 or so perfect (ish) people that form Learning Pool’s current #teamlovely.

There are no doubt thousands of books written on this topic but having been involved in two sets of interviews this week alone, these are my top tips for interview success.  You will have loads more tips of your own & I hope you’ll share them with us in the comments section below.

·         Do take a few deep breaths before you go into your interview & try to remain calm; we know you’re nervous but you have to be able to manage your interview nerves

·         Don’t bring in a load of files & papers & copies of cvs to your interview – it’s distracting & makes you appear disorganised/forgetful/dishonest (as in you can’t remember stuff about your own career!)

·         Don’t take notes or write stuff down – again – it’s distracting

·         Instead, do really focus on what the panel are telling you or asking you; 30% of the people I interviewed this week (yep – you heard that right) asked for the question to be repeated when they were already half way through answering it.

·         Do manage your time well.  You will know in advance how long your interview is likely to be.  Don’t ramble on for ages when answering what are clearly icebreaker questions designed to make you relax a bit or you’ll have no time left to get onto the stuff you want to tell them about yourself.

·         Do really do your homework about the organisation & think about the job so that you can pre-empt the questions you might be asked – not to stalker level obviously, although if you have carried out research that’s that thorough, don’t tell the interview panel – it will scare them.

·         Do be friendly & chatty but don’t be too over familiar or go too overboard in your enthusiasm for the organisation

·         Do pre-prepare enough questions so that if some of them get covered off in the course of the interview you still have one or two left

·         Don’t ask about money in the first interview stage unless either the panel brings it up or you’re there for a sales job

·         Do think carefully about why you want the job & why you want to join that organisation as they will probably ask you – saying it’s because it’s close to the train station isn’t a good response.

I’ll leave you today with some of the weirdest interview behaviours we’ve witnessed lately:

·         The guy that drank about 3 pints of water

·         The girl that told us she would do ANYTHING to get the job – Paul’s face was a picture on that occasion

·         The guy that turned up dressed head to toe in white, including a hat

·         The girl that couldn’t stop crying – that was difficult to cope with

·         The girl that didn’t appear to have read the job description at all – despite having submitted a detailed application form

·         The guy who was so argumentative that we had to stop the interview & start over again

Looking forward to your stories, as always.

Top 5 qualities the start-up CEO wants from team members


You have to be a certain sort of person to get on well in a start-up and there’s no doubt it isn’t a suitable career choice for everyone.  I thought a quick “top 5 qualities” may be useful for any of you out there that are wondering if this sort of adventure is for you.

My original list was much longer but I’ve whittled it down to the 5 that matter most to me – I realise that this is personal to me and many of you will have some of your own that you wish to add in the comments section.

Read on if you’ve been bitten by the start-up bug or are thinking you might jump in to the technology bubble that’s rapidly exploding right now.

1.       POSITIVITY No-one wants to listen to or work alongside a whinger or sniper.  Yeah – things generally aren’t even close to perfect in a start-up environment but get over it & get over yourself & you’ll  make a far better team member.

2.       HARD WORK No getting away from this one folks.  You cannot cover off everything you need to by working 9-5 for 5 days a week.  If that’s all you can give, stay well away from start-up land.

3.       COMMITMENT I want to know you’re gonna stick around long enough for me to recoup my investment in you – and there will be one.  The flip side to that is the minute you’re gone, you’re gone – don’t expect a leaving party & sad farewells in a start-up; no-one has time for that.

4.       ENTHUSIASM AND ENERGY Enthusiasm for what we’re all trying to achieve, hunger for success and energy which manifests itself as urgency in all that you do.  Don’t come sloping in to work at 9am telling me you are tired.  I don’t want to hear it.

5.       A SOLUTIONS FOCUSED OUTLOOK Don’t bring me problems.  We have millions of those already.  Push yourself a bit, work it out & bring me a solution.  I like that a lot better.

You’ll note nothing on the list has anything to do with your skills.  I guess they’re a given & a secondary consideration.

As always your comments are welcome – keep them coming & I look forward to reading them.


So you’re staring at redundancy…what happens next


This past week I’ve been thinking a lot about the people I know or have heard about, especially in the wider public sector, who were made redundant from their jobs on 31 March.  To some folk this may have come as a surprise, to others they’ll have had a sinking feeling this was going to happen for some time – perhaps since the change of government last May.  For everyone it’s a shock and sometimes a relief.  A shock because your pride is dented and in your heart you wonder why you were picked and not someone else.  A relief because perhaps you’ve know for a long time that you weren’t getting enough from your job or the organisation you were working for – you had become a “prisoner” – reliant on your regular salary to pay the bills & taking the easier option of leaving things as they are instead of grasping the nettle & making a change in your life.  It’s ok – we all do this and not just with our careers!

I thought I’d drop a few thoughts down in my blog in case it helps a couple of people out there, especially those that are going to use what’s happened to them as an opportunity to take stock and think about a complete change in career or change in direction.

First thing to do is not to rush into any decisions but think about what you’d like to do next and avail of any help your former employer has provided – especially the services of a career coach if you’ve been offered one.  On this, do take whatever you’ve been offered – you never know what you might learn or who else you might meet.  Seek advice or read up about coping with change and how to go about starting an active thinking programme.  Consider all your previous experience and what else it might enable or equip you to do – many people will have passively thought about changing their career so you may have already planned what else you could do.

Next make a plan.  Type it up or write it all out longhand but do physically do this.  It’s cathartic and research has shown that if you write a plan in this way it’s much more likely to happen.  Get your family on board and keep your partner in the loop – especially in terms of any significant changes you are considering (perhaps moving to another place) or any changes you need to make to your immediate financial plans and household budget.

Once you’ve narrowed down the jobs and sectors you’re interested in, do some research on the companies & players and keep in mind that 70% of jobs never get as far as being advertised.  Target your chosen companies or organisations carefully and beware when using job agencies – sometimes they flood the market with your cv or worse still employers see your cv coming in from several agencies in a most random way and this makes you appear desperate.  Remember that there are always opportunities and there are always opportunities for good people. 

Take a long hard look at your cv and show it to someone else (not your mum) once you’ve reviewed and updated it.  Do the same with your LinkedIn profile and any other online presence you have such as a blog – prospective employers will always check you out online.  As a small, growing business, Learning Pool has spent the last 5 years in recruitment and on the lookout for new people – it’s the most important activity that Paul & I undertake as our team is everything.  Many of the cvs we see are awful – they’re too long, the good stuff is hidden away & too hard to see, the cv is generic for any job, there’s nothing in the covering letter that sells the person for this specific opening, the person hasn’t thought about how they would bring value to our company & enrich our existing team, the person hasn’t thought about anything and so on.  I wrote a New Year’s blog related to job seeking which you can read at this link

Think about your network and don’t be afraid to use it. 

In summary:

1.       Don’t panic, stay calm & take stock

2.       Use any “free” resources you’ve been offered

3.       Make a plan

4.       Research the market – approach this like a full time job

5.       Use your network

6.       Carefully target organisations you are interested in; I would do this before signing up with an agency

7.       Brush up on your interview techniques, take a good look at yourself in the mirror & buy a new suit or interview outfit and get a haircut (remember all that stuff about first impressions being based on how you look – regrettable but true)

8.       Don’t give up, keep looking; opportunities do exist out there

9.       Keep an open mind about anything you come across & don’t rule opportunities out too quickly

10.   Keep busy, take up volunteering, catch up on things you’ve been too busy to do, exercise.

Just to finish, some of you might be interested to know that I elected to take voluntary redundancy in 2003.  I was glad to do it but at the time it was uncomfortable as I had always taken the easy career options.  For the following 2 years I worked as a freelance consultant and this moved me out of my previous comfort zone.  It also opened a lot of doors and I met a lot of new people.  The eventual outcome for me was that I completely changed the direction of my career and I have no regrets.  Not a single one.  Remember that you make your own luck and you’re unlikely to find it sitting in the house.

As always interested in your comments and stories – please keep them coming as I love to read them.

10 reasons to work in someone else’s startup


If you’ve never worked in a startup business you don’t know what you’re missing.  It really is the most fun you could ever have at work – even when they don’t become the next Groupon (let’s face it – any of us that have been around for a while have all got drawers full of old share option certificates from the companies we believed to be “dead certs”).  However, if you’re not yet quite ready or equipped to start your own business, working in someone else’s startup can be a marvellous stopgap solution and one that brings all sorts of opportunity.  These are my top 10 reasons why:

1.       Whatever you do, your startup job will have more scope simply because there are fewer people in the company and everyone is required to work beyond their comfort zones – that adds more strings to your bow & improves your confidence;

2.       Your working day will be far more varied than if you worked in a bigger or more established company and there’s bags more opportunity to move sideways into something else if you find you fancy it;

3.       If you’re talented and hard working, you can move up fast & make yourself indispensable far easier than in a different sort of organisation; no-one cares about your age or gender or even experience – it’s what you can do today that matters;

4.       Startup teams are really special – the bond between team members is unusually strong (probably because we all have so much at stake & let’s face it – there’s usually nothing else – no customers, no product, no money – so the team is EVERYTHING) and it’s a unique experience; when I think back to the startups I’ve worked in the teams have all been pure gold (Learning Pool’s Team Lovely pictured, snapped at our May 2010 conference by the rather wonderful Paul Clarke);

5.       Visibility – you can have access to the CEO’s big picture vision if you want it (if you’re not interested in what that is, you probably shouldn’t be there);

6.       You can learn so much so fast at someone else’s expense & with no financial risk to yourself – I remember the dizzy learning curve of my first startup dalliance – but even more I remember the exhilaration;

7.       Potential long term risk-free financial upside in your share options – if you work in someone else’s startup & don’t have options ask them why;

8.       The environment is extremely challenging & it helps you find out stuff about yourself as you become more resilient;

9.       There’s a chance that this might just be THE ONE – the next Google or Amazon;

10.   It’s serious fun – those roller coaster highs sure are high & we celebrate every success (sometimes even a little too much); you never know what’s around the corner.

Sounds good so far – sounds like you might enjoy this.  If you’re going for it, it’s only fair for me to give you the other side of the coin – which I’m going to call:

5 team member behaviours that really p*** the startup CEO off – and in my book they are:

1.       Whining – either to me or your colleagues about (delete as necessary) long working hours/not enough time to get stuff done properly/the spec is too loose/the working environment is too transparent/my salary is too low/the goalposts keep moving/etc);

2.       Not being customer focused enough – unforgivable in a startup;

3.       Wasting money – booking travel late, forgetting to cancel subscriptions, not parking in the cheapest car park at the airport, not asking for a discount on absolutely everything we buy as a matter of course, nor getting the most out of every minute of the day;

4.       Not thinking about stuff – inexcusable & I don’t want to hear your excuses;

5.       Not being a team player – peddling your own agenda, bitching about a colleague, not carrying your fair share – unacceptable – we’re all in this together & see above – the team is everything.  If you don’t believe this you need to get out & let the rest of us get on.

As always – I hope you enjoyed this blog & I look forward to your comments or questions – some of you will no doubt have different views & stories from your own start-ups which the rest of us hope you will share.


New Year new job…


Everyone’s always a bit tight for cash in January – maybe this year even more than others – but what are the factors that govern what you actually get paid or are worth?  We were talking about this topic in the office yesterday so I thought I’d throw it up in a quick blog to perhaps start a conversation & in case it helps anyone who’s changing job in the New Year or thinking about doing so.

I’m not going to be able to help you negotiate a better salary and this isn’t supposed to be an exhaustive list or a lesson in regional economics – I’m just going to give you some pointers so that you’re more aware that there’s a bit of science to this & to say that sometimes it’s worth asking a few questions or chancing your arm.  My rules also apply more to start-ups or small businesses than they do to giant dinosaur companies – yawn – but if you’re reading my blog you probably aren’t that interested in working for one of them anyway.

1.       First up is what I call the scarcity factor – there’s a market rate for what you do in the geographical area where the job is based and it’s fairly easy to determine.  Some skillsets are like hen’s teeth right now & those people can therefore charge a premium – which is as annoying as hell for employers.  Like all commodities that are subject to market forces, these peaks & troughs do eventually go away as people retrain as something else or as more of the scarce resource moves to the area attracted by the higher pay scales.  Unsure what happens at that point to those that have been charging a premium but looking forward to finding out…  London & Dublin have traditionally paid more than the rest of the UK & Ireland – comes as a bit of a shock to people when they want to move somewhere else.

2.       How the recruitment happened is also a factor – if you’ve come to us through a recruitment agency or we’ve placed a newspaper ad, that’s likely to have cost us between £1,500 & £5k.  If you’ve come to us via word of mouth or in response to ads on our website, we’ll be more inclined to err on the generous side with you.  So – if you’re looking for a job do a bit of work & approach your chosen target companies before you sign up with a recruiter – you’d probably be surprised by the number of people that end up getting employed this way, especially by small companies who really resent paying recruiters.  It also shows initiative on your part.  You’d also be surprised by the number of people we already know that are sent to us by recruiters – sigh!

3.       What the rest of the “tribe” gets paid is a factor – for example, if the maximum day rate paid to anyone by the company is £300 – you’re unlikely to get £500 no matter how great you might be.  Also – if there’s a team already in place, paying you any more than them seriously upsets the apple cart.  Sensible employers realise that their people all talk to each other & in terms of remuneration packages – you might as well post them up on the wall.  Everyone knows what everyone else gets paid so it makes sense to have a fair & transparent system in place that you can stand over and then stick to it.  How much experience a person has does have some bearing on where on that team scale they start.  However, once they’ve started work future payrises will depend on a whole different set of factors.

4.       Other benefits – sometimes you might be lucky enough to be offered share options in return for a market rate or lower than market rate salary.  If you believe the company has a chance, then grab it with both hands & offset a miserly short term gain for who knows what in the longer term when the glorious exit comes.  If you don’t understand how share options work – then go & find out.

5.       Sometimes with a new employee companies try & offset some of the risk they’re incurring by linking part of the newbie’s overall package to a performance based bonus.  My take on this is that people who are up for the challenge know they are as good as their word, take the offer & will probably come up trumps.  Anyone that shies away from an offer like this because they want more “security” makes me believe they won’t deliver & I question if they should be in a small business anyway.

6.       Anyone that sells for a living gets commission on top of their basic salary.  Their basic will generally be much lower than their peers in other disciplines but they should earn more money than anyone else in the company including the directors.  Everyone else needs to either get over that or learn how to sell.  If you work in sales & your commission is low – you are a mug & should look for another job.

7.       Once you start work at a new company, how indispensable you become may in some way influence how much you earn over time.  No one is indispensable but some people are far more desirable to keep – this may have nothing to do with their job role – this topic is for another blog…

8.       Finally I’m afraid there’s an element of companies paying what they can get away with – if you’re being seriously considered for a £30k per year job & you currently earn £18k for whatever reason, expect them to offer you less money as a starting salary.  Linked to this you’re likely to get a better opening offer if you’re already working – expect to be lowballed if you’re out of work & have been for some time.

Couple of pieces of advice to finish.  Always negotiate (politely) when you’re offered a job.  People think you’re an idiot if you don’t at least try.  Women find this harder to do than men – that’s a fact of life – it isn’t me being sexist.  Second one – don’t lose out on a great job over a couple of grand.  Great jobs in great companies are few & far between & if you’re offered one – you sometimes need to be prepared to make some sacrifices because you spend a big slice of your life at work.

Interested in your comments as always.


Dr Dennis Kimbro & his views on recruitment


Talent management in local government (or the apparent lack of it and the complete disinterest there seems to be in it) is something I spend a lot of time thinking about & a bit of time talking about so I was very pleased to be able to see Dr Dennis Kimbro speak at the PPMA conference in London last week on the topic of Building Effective Leaders for the Future.  Dr Kimbro is a lecturer in human potential & entrepreneurship at Clark Atlanta university and he writes books about notable achievers – talent recruitment, development & management is something he knows a thing or two about.

So here’s a brief summary of the main points I’ve taken away from his presentation.

In his research & interviews with 150+ notable African Americans, these are the 4 things that consistently make some people far more successful than most of us:

1.       They dream big

2.       They never listen to advice from friends & critics telling them the reasons why their idea will fail; they go with their own inner belief every time

3.       They dedicate themselves to lifelong learning (see slide on the photo above re what happens to you if you don’t!)

4.       They simply refuse to accept failure.

Food for thought indeed – I hope many of you see some of the above in yourselves. 

He had advice for the rest of us mere mortals as well – mainly around how to recruit good people into our teams – and these are the things you should consider when appraising your interviewees and in this order of priority:

1.       Do they have the right level of talent for the role? (education, intelligence, experience)

2.       How well will they fit with your existing team?

3.       Do they demonstrate the level of commitment to your team’s common purpose that you need?

And when you get them into the room – these are the 3 questions above all others that you should ask:

1.       Why do you want to work in this organisation?

2.       Tell me about yourself – what motivates you? – what are your talents, specialisms and areas of excellence?

3.       If we don’t offer you this job and you go somewhere else, what are we going to miss?

If your candidate can’t articulate their answers to the above, then you have a problem and should probably carry on looking. 

Dr Kimbro is a master of the business soundbite and here are a few of his priceless quotes:

·         Work is not a job, it’s an opportunity

·         The opposite of success is conformity

·         We need to want to make a difference, with others that want to make a difference, doing something that matters (I like this one a lot! – applies to every startup I’ve ever worked in)

·         Complacency is the first step to mediocrity

·         Stop complaining & focusing on the mundane

·         Monday should be a great day because you can’t wait to get to work! 

Dennis talked for an hour & I thought he was inspirational and wonderful.  I chatted to him afterwards & he was charming.  However, in a room with over 200 local government HR specialists I seemed to be very much in the minority.  Here’s some of what I heard later in the day from the HR professionals that are responsible for creating future managers and leaders for our councils:

·         He should have tailored his talk to the UK public sector

·         He was too passionate

·         None of that applies to us, it’s for the private sector

·         I’d heard it all before 

C’mon guys – if you want local government to be a vibrant place for people, especially young people joining the job market, to want to come & work, things really have to change & fast.  Dave Briggs     and I while away the hours we spend on roadtrips playing a game called “If I were a local authority chief exec I would…” and it’s always, always about people – no matter how many times we revisit it.