How to Finish in First Place

One of the toughest things about getting hired is that you have to be the single best candidate in what is often a very large group of competitors.  In many aspects of life we reward those who finish in second place.  In the Olympics, the second place finisher stands on a podium, receives a medal, and hears the national anthem of his or her country played while being applauded by an audience … all in front of a globally-televised audience.  In other sports, second place performers still earn endorsement deals, command huge signing bonuses, and get voted onto the all-star team at the end of the season.  Life awards red ribbons to second place entry at the county fairs, praises the second place finisher in a graduating class as the “salutatorian” and (generally) grants a recording contract to the second place contestant on singing competitions like American Idol and The Voice.  

The second best candidate for any posted job goes home, often unemployed, and simply must try to do better next time.  Doing better isn’t easy, because interviewers are reluctant to give feedback, and some don’t even return calls.  In fact, many recruitments end with candidates receiving no notification at all.  Though it may not be polite or fair, many companies sign employment contracts with the best candidate and leave the rest of the interviewees to figure out what happened all by themselves.  Here at Catch Your Big Break, we receive countless calls from candidates who have been invited to final round interviews over and over again, but can’t seem to finish first.  They’re looking for hope, and a better strategy.  Here’s an idea:

In a 2003 best-selling book, author Seth Godin shares a formula that companies can use to improve their bottom line, and I argue that candidates can use to “break on through to the other side” as The Doors sang in 1967.  Focus on being a Purple Cow.  Seth writes that even for those who appreciate them, “cows, after you’ve seen them for awhile, are boring.  They may be perfect cows, attractive cows, cows with great personalities, cows lit by beautiful light, but they’re still boring. A Purple Cow, though.  Now, that would be interesting.”  The secret to getting ahead, he explains, may not lie in trying to be better than everyone else.  You may need to different.  You may need to get people talking by finding a way to stand out from the crowd, but that doesn’t necessarily mean faster, smarter, stronger, or better-looking.

Allow me to illustrate the point with a story from my work as a career coach.  One of the services I offer is a mock interview, where the client identifies a specific job title and company, and I play the role of the hiring manager. The client practices showing up early, dressed for success, and I spend half an hour asking them common interview questions, along with a few curve-balls to see how he or she handles them.  We record the entire interview on video, and then I provide feedback from my experience as a hiring manager regarding what the client did and did not do well.  One of my favorite questions to ask in these interviews is “why should I hire you instead of any of the other candidates who applied?”  After years of doing this, some common themes have begun to emerge:

  • I’m really passionate about this work
  • I think it’s a natural fit, given my past experience
  • I’ll work extra hard
  • I’m a fast-learner
  • I’m a “people person” who will get along well with the rest of the team

The list goes on, but I think you’ll understand when I say that these are not winning answers.  I’ve heard them all before.  They’re boring.  Inevitably, though, even my average, run-of-the-mill clients can find something remarkable and unique to say about themselves.  Compare the list above with this one:

  • My experience working with the High Court of South Africa (in a short, college internship) taught me about working well with top executives.
  • My dad works in the finance department for a Fortune 500 company, so as a second-generation finance professional I grew up listing to horror stories about what happens when people bend finance laws beyond their breaking point.  It’s underscored for me the importance of practicing in an ethical way.
  • I once had to locate a huge data set on a server in Africa, due to the technical requirements of the project.  When it crashed, I was the guy who had to do all the trouble-shooting … from 10,000 miles away in the United States.

Virtually every time we found those stories, we found someone who wanted to hire the client shortly afterwards.  What’s your winning story?  If you don’t have one, get started here.  You’ll learn what we teach clients to do when they want to stand out, and you’ll get step-by-step instructions for hitting your career goals and finishing in first place.