Finding Opportunity: Don’t Get Lost in Translation

It frustrates me how much opportunity is lost in failing to really understand what’s being said.  Failing to listen actively and/or clearly message about yourself can leave opportunities on the table. It’s largely because people focus on labels and don’t always listen carefully or probe to understand the meaning of what’s being said.

Look at the bottles to the right. Are you sure you know what’s in them? Probably wine (but maybe not). But even if it’s wine, what kind? From where? You get the idea.

This phenomenon works in two directions, both you misreading and others misunderstanding you. I’m focusing on a job/career search context to make the point, but it happens all over.

1 – Let’s start with you misunderstanding what’s being said or offered.

The advice here is to dig beneath the surface and make sure you really understand the particular situation or context. You have to listen with an open mind and not jump to conclusions about deeper meaning based solely on labels.

Our brains are wired to jump to conclusions. We are constantly developing heuristics (decision rules and shortcuts) to make sense of things. This is great when they are well tuned and based on experience. But when you don’t know that much, they can lead you astray.

I hear a lot of people say they want to work on “Strategy”. Here in the Twin Cities, there are a number of compelling strategy organizations and positions. But a lot are non-obvious and you won’t recognize them without networking and digging a little deeper into what the positions actually entail.

A recent job posting for an exciting position at a major retailer was posted with the following title and (edited) description and I think highlights my point.

Title: Senior Finance Manager – Business Analytics

What do you think the role entails based on the title?

This makes me think of financial reports, optimizing supply chains etc. If I were an aspiring “strategist” I wouldn’t get near that job title. Sounds like a stultifying corporate reporting/quant job for some spreadsheet wizard.

But how do you feel after you read the (truncated) job description? (Emphases mine)

The Senior Manager is responsible for scoping and managing business case development that delivers significant economic value to the Enterprise. Business Cases may include market analysis, competitive positioning, financial viability, and ensuring strategic fit within our brand and capabilities. The position will provide leadership in the support of growth initiatives across multiple functions at all levels within the Domestic and International organizations and will work cross functionally with various leaders. The position will be critical in the development of recently hired staff that will be used as a talent pipeline to the rest of Finance and the broader Enterprise. Past examples of work on the team include: development of a business case on expanding into new categories, competitive analysis of a regional competitor, assessment of new on-line business models and technologies, and a framework for international expansion options.

That doesn’t sound like a Finance job at all. That sounds like “Strategy” or “Business Development”. Aspiring strategists should want this job.

So why would you call it Finance and confuse me? Because that’s where it sits in this organization and is how they think of internally. It’s not a failure of naming. If you miss it, it’s a failure of understanding and research.

“Strategy” jobs reside all over the place and with all sorts of names.

 But many jobs with “strategy” in the title aren’t all that strategic and positions like the one I highlighted that don’t advertise strategy can be very strategic.

So do your homework with an open mind and listen. 

2 – The other version of this misunderstanding occurs when people are job seeking and mislabel themselves. It is important to understand the industry/role you are pursuing.

The advice here is to be thoughtful and open ended in how you describe yourself and your goals and not make closed ended statements like “I’m not interested in X” until you understand the context of “X”. To understand, ask good questions and let others talk. Then ask good questions to dig deeper. Then mirror their language.

Let’s follow the “strategy” path we discussed above.

When you say “I want a strategy job,” what do you mean?

Most of my students who say that mean something like, “I’d like to work on meaningful business questions that affect the broader business and that use a broad range of my skills and intellectual capability.” (They also mean I’d like to get paid well, travel, etc. but let’s focus on the work for this discussion)

To an experienced executive, saying “I want to work in Strategy” can make you sound painfully naïve. (Because in a successful business, we definitely want a smart 22-27 year old with no industry experience telling us what to do…sarcasm intended.)

To effectively approach a position like this, you want to:

Understand the actual nature of the jobs available to someone at your experience level.

This means recognizing how much grunt work is required and the nature of the grunt work. (Detailed quantitative analysis, lots of primary and secondary research, lots of PowerPoint etc.)

Think through your goals and skill sets and develop a good story.

Given what you learn about the industry and job, what is your rationale and does it convince hiring managers?

Communicate about yourself in a way that is compelling and doesn’t close off opportunities.Describe your goals with enough specificity that a lay person would understand them, but open ended enough to not frame out possibilities.

For example, rather than saying “I’m looking for a strategy position” say something like “I’m interested in working on growth opportunities.” This may not be perfect, but it leaves in scope Marketing, Strategy…really anything tied to growth. Based on how the conversation goes, you can refine and revise your language because you haven’t closed anything off.

Don’t say things like “I’m not interested in such and such” until you’ve let the other person talk about it. If in the example above you determined you weren’t interested in Finance, you might not ever be aware of the strategy job within the Finance organization.

More details on interviewing advice can be found here:

Life is complicated and people aren’t always on the same page. So take the time to understand and be understood and don’t get “lost in translation.”

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