On the Job Hunt? Invest in Your Value.

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(Source: Experience,com)

Recently, a friend reminded me of a saying I’d heard probably a thousand times since childhood, but never really dwelled on long enough for its meaning to sink in. “The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” It sure does make enough sense, but I guess I’m not that wise. I seem to like hitting my head against pavement, stand having learned a tidbit, just to do it again. What I learn I like to pass on to others. I do it for the kids.

A couple of years back, in the months between my last job and my current one, I attacked looking for work like it was a job. That’s the conventional wisdom, right? I woke up early 6 days a week, logged onto my computer and sent my resume everywhere. I filled out applications, called offices and searched for the names of hiring managers on the internet. I worked my friends that had jobs that I had my eye on to see if they knew of any openings. I attended corporate open houses. I studied the companies I interviewed with before going on interviews. I sent thank you notes and follow-up emails.

I did all of this relentlessly. I believed in myself (as did Sallie Mae, apparently), so giving in wasn’t an option. I knew I’d get somewhere with some persistency. After about two months and a series of strong interviews, I had 3 solid prospects at different companies. One Tuesday morning, I woke to 3 separate, yet equally crushing rejection emails. I slept (read: mourned) for two days.

That Friday, I’d regrouped enough to acknowledge that something about my process wasn’t working. Eventually, it hit me. I was doing the same thing everyone else in the job market was doing and expecting to stand out. When you move with the crowd and you become the crowd, not an individual. I can believe I’m special and talented all day long, but if my actions are not set up to reflect that belief, few people will see what I know to be true.

I started this blog because I wanted my name to show up topically in on-line search results. I knew I wouldn’t post often, but I wanted to show some level of initiative geared toward the jobs I truly wanted. I made a few posts, learned enough about key words and SEO to get this blog to show up anytime someone Googled me. I went back to the job hunt with an updated resume. After some aggressive maneuvering and networking, I had two job offers inside of a month.

I won’t credit my success finally gaining a good job to starting a blog alone. I will say that knowing that knowing many of the candidates fighting for the positions I sought after, weren’t doing what I was doing lent me a level of confidence I’d previously lacked. Speaking to my credentials became easier because I had concrete examples I could literally click on if the need happen to arise.

Before you look to land the opportunity you’ll have your eye on in the future, build something. I’m not advocating you start blog or anything that specific. Just to think differently about what you do best and how that could benefit future your clients/employers/partners.

Most opportunities open up because of a very narrow need. Gatekeepers need to know you can do what they need done before they’ll consider you further. After which, they’re looking for a reason to learn more about you. Personal initiative puts a solid mile between you and the competition.

Below are 3 ways, as I see it, building something can improve the perception of your value.

Communicate Initiative: One interesting way to build value into yourself could be to complete online courses from free higher education sites like Coursera and Edx. These sites offer free undergraduate courses from major Universities like Harvard, MIT and Johns Hopkins. While I was in between jobs, I studied several video series from Khan Academy, which helped my ability to talk shop at interviews.

Only 4 percent of online course participants complete their chosen course curriculum and obtain a certificate of completion or other designations. Those 4% marked themselves as people with stick-to-itiveness. I’m inclined to believe in their follow through and commitment, which is the sort of aptitude clients and employers seek.  It’s great that you’re smart, but will you be able to close out the project? If yes, establish ways to telegraph that from the start.

Better Understand Your Value Proposition: The only thing better than telling people about your skills and credentials is being able to show off how you used them. Bear in mind that most people list skills and knowledge on their resume which are tools. No one hires a carpenter because of the brand of hammer they happen to use. Did you build a house? Great! They’ll want to talk more. Then you can speak to your tools. You’ve given them a reason to care.

Your skills and experience have to matter. It’s great that you know R syntax, but why does that matter to anyone? What did you do with it? Did you make your previous client/employer more money? Did you secure more grants for your foundation? Did you cut more costs or create better process efficiencies? Speak to what people will want to hear; value. Winning over prospective clients and employers means convincing them of how your implied value will help them succeed right away. People are self-interested. Don’t resent it, use it.

Problem Solving Goes to the Doers: Recently, serial entrepreneur Elon Musk had an interview with the Business Insider. When asked how he makes hiring decisions, his response was he walks through the interviewee’s core experience and expertise. He’ll then he asks them to describe a problem they encountered and how they solved it. If the applicant doesn’t have a sufficient story to speak to, he concludes that they likely weren’t the brains of the operation.

Musk is probably right. Highly in demand skills are hard fought and acquired over time. There are stories of “tried and tried again” affixed to them. True value is tied to an investment of focused energy and time. Employers know this. That’s usually why we see a “years of experience” requirement at the bottom of most job listings.

Even if you’re not prompted during an interview or an initial client meeting, find ways to bring up your problem solving bona fides. Talk them through, in a confidence inducing manner, that time you employed your expertise to successfully walk a client through a challenging set of problems. Envision yourself as the mountain guide. You know your way through the terrain because you’ve made the trek a thousand times. You’ve made the mistakes they won’t have to. They have you. You can deliver them to the summit. You have the scars and stories to prove it. All they need do is follow you.

Your perceived value is what matters when you’re trying to land a new job or secure a new client. You have to convince someone you’re worth your asking price. The best way to do this is to make your price look like a value investment. Basic trade economics. When I pay for a pair of socks, I’m suggesting that I would rather have that pair of socks than the $10 I came to the store with. If I’m to make that brand a wardrobe stable, I have to feel that those socks were a bargain considering what I got in return. In closing, be a good pair of socks and you’ll travel far.

About That Time I was Fired

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(Source: Jeff Pert Cartoons)

Failure amazes me. If it’s approached the right way, it can be the best present. Those unpacked realizations of self can do more for our future successes than any shelf of trophies. I hadn’t always thought this (a few years ago, I would’ve chuckled dismissively at such a notion) and then I experienced a decent size serving of sleep-stealing failure first hand. It was real. It was painful. It sucked. Also, it was totally my fault, totally avoidable, and should have happened sooner than it did.

December 2010, I’d just finished my MBA and riding high off of multiple job offers when I landed a sweet gig with a consultancy in Chicago. It was one of those jobs that is generally the prize in mind when one pursues an MBA in the first place. I was hired to do a job, begin a career and start a life. Should all go well, in 40 years’ time, inheritances for everyone (given of course, you share my last name and my love of Law and Order: Criminal Intent marathons).

On my first day of work, I rode the elevator up to the office and became immediately dumbstruck. Everything amazed me. Everything was perfect. I had an office WITH A DOOR. For weeks after, every time I stood in a mirror, one of several forms of the same ear to ear grin would hijack my entire face.  

A year later, I was abruptly (though not surprisingly I can now admit) called into an office where two really good people, my then manager and the Regional Managing Partner, talked me through not just that I was being let go, but the exact reasons why. What was lost on me at the time was just how emotionally taxing those 20 minutes were for the two of them. Few people like breaking that sort of news to anyone, even when it’s the right thing to do.

In the grand scheme of things, no one event precipitated my demise. My failure to think beyond myself placed me in positions I should have been smart enough to avoid. Like failing to understand how important a visual it is to be the first one to the office and last to leave when you’re the neophyte (if you’re not a Subject Matter Expert or Rain Maker, your currency to any team is to make your senior colleagues believe you’ll learn fast and work hard).

Until recently, I struggled to put into context everything that went wrong for me that year and what role I played. Reflecting on what I’ve learned since then, I’ve come up with 5 broad themes I think sum up that chapter of my life.

Below are my critiques of myself to myself. I wish I’d identified and learned these much sooner, but I’m happy I can recognize and speak to them now.

3 for 1: At the time of my graduation from B-School, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 4.5 potential applicants for one single job posting. Today, 3 for 1.

Setting aside all of the caveats and nuances glossed over in the chart below, it should still serve as a reminder that if you won’t respect real opportunities, professional or otherwise, by working hard and competing to prove yourself each and every day, it’ll only be a matter of time before someone else is sitting in your seat.

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(Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Ownership is the only mindset that matters: Of all the things I did to doom my first gig, nothing was more detrimental than my tacit refusal to take ownership of my budding career. I expected to be handed assignments just like in school. I expected my manager to tend to most of my needs. I expected that I would get direct feedback akin to a grading system. I expected promotions, raises and praise to be a function of time. Most of all, I expected that no one, especially me, have serious expectations for my first year.

The single biggest lesson I’ve internalized in the time since is that no one owes you a thing. If someone invests in you it’s because they believe they will get something of equal or greater value in return.

Do yourself a favor and assess your value to others. From time to time ask yourself questions like:

  • What do I do best?
  • How can I leverage what I do best?
  • Why am I being paid?
  • What does this person expect of me in return?
  • What do I need from this person to be successful?
  • What are they really trying to accomplish?
  • How can I help this person win?

If you can answer these questions with one sentence, you’re off to a great start. The only thing left to do is execute.

5pm deadlines are actually 2pm deadlines: Items due Friday are actually due Thursday. No exceptions. Believe me, no one cares that you have 3 other projects keeping you busy. That’s not their issue. You need to be dependable in every sense. Use your resources. The more you take on and accomplish, the more your peers and superiors will want to help you succeed.

Also, don’t complain about how hard something is. Doing so plants the seed of doubt that you may not be the right person for the next opportunity. Manage your deadlines with a smooth, James Bond like efficiency and you will be known as the guy/gal to see to get stuff done.

Play nice with the players: Some would like to think it weren’t so, but let’s ignore that foolishness and note it anyway. Relationships at the office matter. People don’t stop being people when they show up for work in the morning, no matter how bottom line driven we all say we are.

Especially when we’re new to an organization, we tend to only make friends with those in our peer group and resent the analyst who just conveniently learned the rules to Squash over the weekend. Instead follow that lead and try to make friends up and down the chain and across different operations. Create a net of support.

The people you’ll strive to professionally emulate usually tend to be busiest during the workday. Find ways to share in your senior colleagues’ outside interests. Those elevator rides back up to the office is where a Managing Associate gets to learn about you and what you’re working on.

You should see it as part of your job description to appeal to others’ self-interest if you wish to further your own. Seems cynical, I know, but generally speaking, the ones in the office who don’t believe they need strategic, mutually beneficial alliances tend to be the office sheep.

You have a personal brand: The first impression someone has when your name comes to mind generally informs how they regard you in earnest. If the first thing colleagues do when your name is brought up is an eye-roll, you’ve got work to do.

Worse even, as it was in my case, is when your name is brought up and nothing happens. I wasn’t memorable. I did little to distinguish myself in any meaningful way. No one knew what projects I worked on or what I talents I possessed. My personal brand was that I didn’t provide a service people valued in their attempts to reach their goals. That made me disposable.

It takes time and consistent, high level execution to build a reliable and respected personal brand. It also takes only one mishap (or a handful if you’re swimming in luck) to ruin that rep. Just like for a Big 10 running back, eyes are everywhere. If you take plays off, people notice. If you don’t know the playbook, it’s easy to spot. Every time you touch the ball, execute at the highest level. Don’t assume the benefit of the doubt.

Your personal brand should suggest that completion and follow through is a given should anyone work with you. There shouldn’t be a moment’s doubt. You won’t get to show people how smart you are and how much good you can do at the next level if they have to question if that spreadsheet file will actually be in their inbox by 5pm.

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(Source: Jeff Pert Cartoons)

Today, I consider it a great blessing to have failed at something like work so early on. If I’m lucky enough, I have the next 40 years of my career life ahead of me. I have experienced some bad, self-inflicted wounds and I’d like to think I’ve learned from them.

Time will be the judge, though. The next time I’m fired, I hope it’s because of some crazy, uncontrollable macro trend. I hear the sleep is a little easier to come by in those cases.

Scholarships and The Rest of Us

So, I owe student loans. I took these loans out to complete my MBA education. I don’t begrudge this decision because I see it as an investment in my future career endeavors and potential income. I am however, aware of the crushing burden and implication they can have on my life if I don’t make enough over the arch of my career to justify getting a second degree.

Being almost two years removed from my graduation, I am happy to say that I still feel I made the right decision to go back. Given how tough the job market is currently and where I could likely be in 5 years with regard to my career, it still makes it a no brainer for me.

But I’m not so sure I would impart that wisdom unto my own children (when I have them and when they’re of age) given the trends that have formed in higher education over the last 20 years or so. You don’t need an advanced degree in Quantitative Methods to understand the reality that higher education is moving towards. It is getting both really expensive and out of reach for the common student.

Many students take out loans without asking what their respective Universities are doing with that money. There isn’t a major conversation that I can notice among active students as to where that money goes, and why it’s not helping to bring down, or at least arrest the cost of getting an education.

(Source: Clusterstock)

Going back to 1978, while housing went up 4x at its peak (~400), college tuition has gone up over 10x. Understanding this is easy and, I think, misses a bigger point altogether. There are two tiers of students who attend college: those who are offered scholarships or other aid, and those who pay the full price, often times financed by student loans. And increasingly the students paying full price cover or subsidize in large part the tuition and costs of the students on scholarships.

(Source: College Board)

At least that’s the way I see it. Take public, four year colleges for instance. There is a wide gap between the average list price for an in-state student and the net tuition actually being paid. When I look at this, I cringe to think that there are students who pay almost 4x the average in some cases.

Bear in mind that public colleges are funded with taxpayer dollars. I bring this up to say that the students who receive scholarships or aid to attend a public university, often times can and are willing to pay more. The median annual household income in this country is $53,000. Every study I’ve ever seen on the topic suggests that over their lifetimes, those who did attend college make so much more than their counterparts who did not.

Colleges are throwing out an incentive where one may not be necessary, and as such are driving up the cost of college for everyone else. If the incentive were need based, I think we can agree for the most part that that makes sense. But to offer a subsidy to an able and willing market participant who will certainly go to college at any reasonable costs hurts the institution of higher education in the long term.

If you look at the major conundrum many law schools see peering up on the horizon, students don’t face the type of job prospects they did a decade ago, making the case for a law degree weaker and weaker with each passing year as tuition does nothing but skyrocket.

In the New York Times this past week, Brian Tamanaha reported in “Failing Law Schools” that in-state annual tuition at public law schools rose to an average of $18,472 in 2009 from $2,006 in 1985, and tuition at private law schools increased to $35,743 from $7,526. The reason, in part, for this rise is that law school tuition fees are used to subsidize the activities of the University at large, including providing scholarships to undergraduate students who merit them.

I think this potential crisis for law schools is indicative of the entire educational experience, currently. Crushing tuition makes the endeavor of school much more about finding lucrative positions then about measuring the impact a graduate can have in their selected field of study. The globalization of many professional job markets continues to have a downward pressure on wages and may soon force universities to reconsider their missions.

I absolutely don’t think we should do away with scholarships. I owe my undergraduate college degree to a generous scholarship from my alma mater. But we should be aware of the impact that passing out these scholarships to individuals who don’t need them have on the rest of the educational experience in its totality.

A good way forward would be to make the primary judgment on who receives scholarships based on need. Those who would argue for merit should be reminded that a student has already demonstrated merit worthiness. They were, of course, admitted into the institution in the first place.

And So the Speculation Begins

(Photo courtesy of Curbed Detroit)

This gorgeous home is for sale in the beautiful Indian Village. My word of advice though, to the prospective buyers considering purchasing it: Move on if you can’t get it for significantly less! This has greater fool written all over it.

This five bedroom home with a “Savannah” porch, purchased in October of 2008 for $21,000 would be the most expensive home sold in Indian Village in recent years by at least $65k. Even with the accessories, furniture and appliances, the valuation for this property will immediately settle into one of two means soon after it’s sold.

The first is the mean of the comparable homes sold in the area in the last year. Going by Zillow, no home has sold in the area for more than $200k, which happened in January of this year. But before that occurred, you’ll notice most homes comparable to this one were sold for or are worth around $150k. Add to that many of the homes in the area are worth considerably much less, and you can see where your home valuation may lead.

Another mean this home valuation could settle in to is the 3 to 5 year moving average of its value. Take for instance that this home was sold for $21k in 2008 (at the height of the real estate collapse, mind you), and four years later it’s on the market of $265k. This would mean that the home’s average value during that time is $143k. I’m of course assuming that the rest of the valuation points fit conveniently in my envision chart. If a Detroiter purchased this home at the current asking price, they would be purchasing the home for $122k more than its recent, 4 year average price.

Am I really sure what’s driving this asking price? No. I could speculate, though. This could just be part of a pricing strategy where the sellers settle for considerably less in the end. Or, for all I know there could be gold plated floor panels in the basement. Maybe this home is located on an oil reserve? Not sure, but what seems clear to me is that the two ways most commonly used to judge the value of houses would tell me that this home isn’t worth its asking price. By my estimation, this home would have to be sold for at least $70k less for this price to be anywhere close to the reality of the Detroit real estate market.

Homes like this are becoming more of a story across the best neighborhoods in Detroit. With the influx of professional citizens to these neighborhoods driven by business growth in the Detroit, prices are sure to go up to meet demand. I’m not mad at that at all. But this kind of speculation can be damaging to more than just the buyer and seller. As with the greater fool theory, eventually someone gets left holding the bag, dragging down other home prices along with them.

I just hope that when someone does make an offer, it’s realistic. Detroit real estate needs stable recovery, not dangerous speculation based on a City-wide comeback story that isn’t even out of the first chapter.  

Mackinac Policy Conference: My Thoughts

(Photo Credit: City Data)

As local and national leaders descend upon Grand Hotel for the annual Mackinac Policy Conference, I can’t help but feel as though the perception of progress many of us share is real this time. It’s exciting to be witness to the changes currently underway, because therein for a while, it felt like positive change was never going to occur in any significant way in my lifetime. My entire young adult life I’ve never known what a thriving Detroit economy looks like. Getting to this point, no matter what those in opposition to how the change is shaking out say, feels invigorating. It certainly validates my choice to move back to Detroit after a year away in Chicago.

The fact that the conference comes on the string of really good business related news helps to heighten that feeling. From Chrysler moving into a building Downtown, to both Henry Ford Hospital and Detroit Medical Center combing to spend $1.5 billion in their respective Detroit locations over the coming years, Detroit investment is certainly on the uptick. And yet, I can’t help but notice that that investment is still a long way off of 7 Mile and Greenfield, Fenkell and Evergreen, and Livernois and Ewald Circle.

I’m not suggesting that it should move that way either; at least not right away. The beautiful thing about this investment activity is that it appears business sound and not altruism driven; like Detroit is an undervalued stock and the activity happening now reflects those who want the benefits of being first movers. I can’t help but feel that if Downtown is the underlying asset, there has to be derivative value in other parts of the city.

For instance, it’s been reported that the Illitches are planning to move forward with a new arena in the Fox Theatre area. This will certainly spur on a new wave of investment in restaurants and retail as that stretch of Woodward will now be a year round Sporting destination. Economic movement derived from the major investments is bound to have an effect on other parts of the region as well. My question in all of this is how and when do we move the conversation to set the ground for the next round of derivative investment to take place?

The many discussions happening around the potential for a true Detroit resurgence is encouraging and inspiring, certainly. But talk without execution means nothing. Problems are real, but that doesn’t mean the solution has to be big and centrally controlled. Detroit doesn’t need a grand savior, we need people to be responsible, period. If you see something that needs doing, and you feel you’re the right person, do it.

I commend Yusef Shakur and anyone else who steps forward and grabs hold of their small part. 

inspireinspiration:

YUSEF SHAKUR: Urban Innovator

Filmed By: Detroit Lives

Steph and I drive through Palmer Woods about once a week. It’s kind of our attempt at visualizing our future in the present. Like many other people in Detroit, we really love this part of the city.
This home in particular has a greenhouse for crying out loud. What is not to love about it? I suspect though, the reason this home has been on the market as long as it has deals with the property taxes associated with it. Some of the homes in Palmer Woods have tax bills as high $16,000 or more annually. Yikes!!
Compare that to the property taxes of more desirable parts of other cities, and you’ll notice an unmistakable discrepancy. Add to that it’s no secret that Detroit is notoriously ineffective at delivering the kind of city services that someone who could foot such a tax bill would come to expect, and you can see where the difficulty of selling this property may lie. 
It’s a gorgeous home nonetheless. And I’m a firm believer in the turn around Detroit is currently experiencing. Only a matter of time before this home and several like it are off the market. One positive benefit of the tax situation could be that it prevents real estate speculators from piquing their interests. You know that the people who live in these neighborhoods really care about their property and will keep it up.
Here’s to the future owner maybe having Steph and I over drinks as neighbors, one day. 
belladetroit:

yeah, this is a house for sale in #detroit  palmer woods
High-res

Steph and I drive through Palmer Woods about once a week. It’s kind of our attempt at visualizing our future in the present. Like many other people in Detroit, we really love this part of the city.

This home in particular has a greenhouse for crying out loud. What is not to love about it? I suspect though, the reason this home has been on the market as long as it has deals with the property taxes associated with it. Some of the homes in Palmer Woods have tax bills as high $16,000 or more annually. Yikes!!

Compare that to the property taxes of more desirable parts of other cities, and you’ll notice an unmistakable discrepancy. Add to that it’s no secret that Detroit is notoriously ineffective at delivering the kind of city services that someone who could foot such a tax bill would come to expect, and you can see where the difficulty of selling this property may lie. 

It’s a gorgeous home nonetheless. And I’m a firm believer in the turn around Detroit is currently experiencing. Only a matter of time before this home and several like it are off the market. One positive benefit of the tax situation could be that it prevents real estate speculators from piquing their interests. You know that the people who live in these neighborhoods really care about their property and will keep it up.

Here’s to the future owner maybe having Steph and I over drinks as neighbors, one day. 

belladetroit:

yeah, this is a house for sale in #detroit
palmer woods