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We all remember our first jobs, working retail, hospital orderly, file clerk, gofer, (as in go for the coffee, go for the lunch, etc.).   They covered the waterfront, the mundane to the backbreaking.

tell them your storyThe jobs could be interesting or boring but they taught us about the importance of showing up for work on time, following the rules and instructions, and to be responsible.

In the job search world, most people never mention these experiences — the values and lessons learned.  That is a shame because in the telling, it can give a candidate a way to distinguish themselves from their competitors who do not. 

Admittedly, these real-life experiences are more important for early careerists, those on the first or second job post graduation, because they show recruiters and potential employers that they understand the responsibilities of having a job.  Early in a career, people do not usually have the rich record of accomplishments and quantifiable examples of skills and strengths that will be so important in later life career pursuits, so these types of stories can help build the case for employment.

I once asked a more senior executive why he was so reluctant to talk about his early life and career lessons.  He had a fascinating early life filled with great growing up stories and a series of high school and college jobs that ranged from pot washer, warehouseman loading and unloading trucks, and construction crew gofer, to retail sales person in a men’s clothing store.  When I pushed for an answer, what he said surprised me – he did not think it was relevant and he did not want to look foolish.  My job opportunity was, in his mind, a big, serious deal, and he did not want to demean himself.  In the end, this candidate, one of the best qualified and experienced on the panel, did not receive an offer because the client could not get comfortable with him. 

I have thought about that incident over the years.  I debated with myself whether he or I could have done something differently that would have helped that board find the human comfort level that they so wanted and needed.  I knew what the client needed and believed this person could deliver, hence my effort to get him to talk about who he was as a person.  I finally came to the conclusion that his failure to win the job was really a disconnect of perceptions.  He positioned himself as the mature, serious, and cordial executive whose demeanor was dignified, worthy of respect and confidence.  In other words, very “corporate.”  The client, on the other hand, was looking for someone who understood and embraced those qualities but who was an open and engaging leader who could build solid collegial teams and foster stronger relationships with the customers. 

The lesson I learned is this:  candidates frequently have wonderful experiences — an early job or an interesting story — that are a great reflection of their values, skills and personality, but in preparing their value proposition, most do not dig down to think about their personal assets.  They do not include the funny story about an early mistake, or a meaningful moment in their lives that shaped them to be a better person. 

A great CMO once shared such a story, one that I have written about before, but it bears repeating:  On the first day of medical school, his younger brother died of cystic fibrosis.  It was expected but a very deep loss nonetheless.  Four years later, on the day this physician executive graduated from medical school, he went to the cemetery where his brother was buried.  Beside the tombstone, he dug a hole and put the tassel from his graduation mitre in it.  He then promised his brother to be the best doctor, the best person, he could possibly be.

When my client heard him tell that story on the video summary of our interview, there was an audible gasp, followed by, “That was so meaningful.” 

By having the confidence and courage to share his story, this candidate distinguished himself from every other person being interviewed.

For every interesting job there are dozens, even hundreds, of qualified candidates. They all have stories or experiences that will distinguish them in a significant way from their competitors, but most never bother to share.