The Things We Do Not Say…and Why It Hurts Our Profession.

This week I took a phone call with a younger professional about her job search. She was feeling frustrated about her lack of success in getting interviews and asked if we could chat about what she could do better to showcase her candidacy.

She sent me her resume to review and it honestly needed an incredible amount of work. It lacked depth and it painted an incomplete picture of her professional experiences.

In chatting with her about it I was extremely honest about its deficiencies. I told her that her years of experience and all of her good work were not reflected on her resume. Your resume and cover letter are ways to tell your story and showcase your unique brand of professionalism, I shared with her. We went line by line and brainstormed examples of how it could be stronger.

She had several people review her resume before it got to me and she had not received this kind of critical feedback prior. Now, I do not claim to be an expert on resumes but any seasoned practitioner could have made these recommendations to her. But they didn’t. Why is that?

We must become more comfortable with providing folks with critical feedback or else we are filling the higher education pipeline with people who think their work is perfect, their attitude is superb and they have no room for growth.

I also conducted a phone interview with her and three things were immediately evident:

1) Lack of Professional Confidence: She appeared nervous, fumbled over words, and she did not fully answer the questions. This woman has many incredible talents but when asked “What unique strengths would you bring to this team?” she hesitated and struggled to answer.

If we can’t sell our own positive contributions how can we expect an institution to feel confident about hiring us? We must get better at affirming the strengths of our teams and telling the story of our successes (individually and departmentally) broadly.

2) Self-awareness as it Relates to Areas of Improvement: I’m impatient. I hate reflecting. I have a low tolerance for long meetings. I need to work on my assessment skills. These are all areas that I am keenly aware of regarding my own limitations.

Yet when we ask these very questions of entry level folks I have heard everything from “I don’t know how to delegate” to “I work too hard” to “I prefer to celebrate the success of a team over my own accomplishments.” This is not really what the question is asking. What the interviewer is really trying to know is: what areas do you repeatedly receive critical feedback in and how can your potential future supervisor help you?

Let’s teach professionals that it’s OK, no it’s actually REQUIRED, to critically look at yourself and know where your weaknesses are. I would rather hire a perfectly imperfect person with strong self-awareness than a person who has no understanding of their areas to improve.

3) How to Professionally Package Yourself: This includes but is not limited to:

The 90 second “elevator speech” about “who you are and why you want to work at XYZ institution?” Many folks seem to struggle with articulating WHY this school, WHY this department and WHY this particular job. Know the talking points that you want to share. Deliver them with confidence. This kind of “polish” shows that you are prepared and have thought about why this could be a mutually beneficial fit.

How to properly request information prior to and after the interview: If I get another email that starts with “Hey”… :)All communication that you have with your potential future employer is indicative of your professional communication style. Dazzle them with your skills.

The importance of follow-up and thank you notes: It matters. Generosity and gratitude win every single time.

Afterwards, I asked her how she felt about her answers and then I shared my candid feedback. She seemed surprised but grateful for the critique. The worst feeling is to not know WHY you may not be getting called. Talking through the possibilities and ways to improve seemed to be helpful.

It was a difficult but meaningful conversation. If we are going to cultivate a new generation of professionals who are professionally equipped to handle the challenges that mid and senior level leadership will undoubtedly bring it is incumbent on us to deliver this kind of feedback early and often.

To eliminate this from the professional development experiences of our employees does them an incredible disservice. To not provide this to them hurts them in the short and long term. It doesn’t model for them how to provide constructive feedback to students and student staff. It becomes cyclical as they move up. Our staff deserve better. Our students deserve much better.

The last thing I said to this woman is to not leave this phone call feeling badly for what she didn’t know but to feel relieved that now she did. I also learned a valuable lesson from her today. I can and must do better to ensure our younger professionals are ready for the realities of future leadership.

I am committed to making this a priority…are you in, too?

Follow me on Twitter: @annmarieklotz

About annmarieklotz

I write about all things education, personal & professional development and growth. Once is a question, twice is a discussion and three times is a blog post! Born and raised in Detroit Michigan but currently calling the Pacific Northwest home. I work at Oregon State University and belong to a fantastic community of higher ed professionals around the globe! Lover of theater and the arts. Live your best life!
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36 Responses to The Things We Do Not Say…and Why It Hurts Our Profession.

  1. Laura Imbirowicz says:

    I think you make outstanding points. It was interesting to me going through the job search and asking for critique on my interview skills and resume the different types of feedback I got.

    I think one thing I will forever be grateful for is the feedback I received from individuals after my job search was completed in regards to my interviewing skills because it wasn’t something I could fully get feedback on before hand. I reached out to a couple individuals I felt comfortable with to ask for feedback on my interview and how I could improve (both from EIU and elsewhere) moving forward it’s something one of my mentors suggested to me and I received some amazing feedback from it!

    • Thanks Laura for reading and commenting! 🙂 Feedback is a gift and even though it is sometimes cringe-worthy it is almost always useful in some way! Continue to ask for it throughout your (bright!) future!

  2. THANK YOU!! I was going to, and probably still will, write my own blog post about this. Seeing as I just went through another job search process it hits close to home. I appreciate your honesty and willingness to bring up these types of issues when it seems not many are interested in doing so. I also can identify that I struggle with #3! I can answer those questions and have key points, but the whole “tell us more about yourself” piece trips me up every time. :/

    • Jessica–congrats on your new job! Learning how to deliver the “elevator speech” on who you are and what you do is a valuable skill. Practice makes perfect 🙂 Thanks so much for reading, sharing and commenting!

      • Thank you! Yes, I feel that I got better as the search went on, but if there was a length of time between interviews it was more difficult. Also, not interviewing regularly (thank goodness!) makes it difficult to remember the flow that you mastered during the last search.
        I always enjoy your posts. You’re welcome. 🙂

  3. Ann Marie, thank you for this fantastic post. Feedback is a powerful tool, as they say! As a new professional, I’m hungry for this type of constructive feedback, and I aim to provide it for the students I advise and supervise. You’ve provided an excellent model – and almost more importantly, encouragement! – for me to continue seeking, receiving and sharing feedback in the future.

  4. ammamarfo says:

    I love that you’re saying this. Immediately made me think of this scene from Jerry Maguire- here’s hoping for a better ending for you 🙂 Thank you for holding us all accountable just like Jerry did!

  5. Outstanding post (not that I expect anything else) and THANKS for sharing! This is necessary for middle-managers and veterans too. You are hitting so many nails squarely on their respective heads!

    Might I confess?

    Upon returning from China (six years) I had to find a job. I hadn’t looked in many years. My student affairs roles had nearly all been just a chain of events. I was hired out of a position into another role, and so on; most of my roles were at two institutions and everyone knew me at each within a year because “I roll that way”. I had only searched for one professional position in student affairs and it had been 13 years ago!

    I hadn’t really “done for me lately” for anybody in the U.S.

    I created a resume. I sent out 14 a day–I kid you not!! Individual cover letters too! No bites.

    Finally I went to a networking meeting. I owe a lot to Jobseekers, and in particular, one Dave O’Farrell. He put me on a mission: I began to call and ask for advice about my resume and cover letter (rather than apply for jobs).

    Professionals began to say things like: “you don’t want to say “small school” because the organization might not want to be small forever; their strategic plan may be to grow to double-the-current-size in five years; that will eliminate you.”

    I stopped sending out resumes and stopped applying for jobs. I just asked for advice (and contacts/referrals) and put a sharp focus on what I wanted to do. Guess what? That’s how I got my first job back from China.

    After three months of getting advice on my resume and cover letter, I got the first position for which I applied. Not only that, the person that taught “Employment Strategies” was on the committee that hired me. She said in my final interview: “Whether we hire you or not, I want permission to use your cover-letter and resume in my class; I’ve never seen a better pair.” I told her, then and there, how it got to be that way.

    Later, I was told (after they hired me) that my story about how I asked for help on the resume changed the whole outlook about me. They were at first afraid because I was over-educated and over-qualified (on paper) for the position. The hiring manager told me, “I was afraid you’d come in here and run over all of us with your fancy PhD.” The fact that I owned up to not knowing how to do a proper job search; shared my futility and how I asked and took advice, made her decide to take a chance on me. 🙂

    Since I’ve been back, I’ve served on a few search committees. The worst offenders for terrible cover letters and resumes are middle managers to experienced professionals. I actually had a career advisor (for over 15 years) say to me (after arriving 5 minutes late!) in an interview: “I know your advertised salary is low, but I’m quite sure there is wiggle-room in your grant; I won’t take it unless you offer me X more than your advertised rate.” Total waste of both our time!!

    When I look back, the first person that told me, “your resume sucks Vince” floored me. He was a stranger then, but his eyes told me that he cared. I was at the same time, surprised, hurt, and grateful. Then I began to ask, “why has no one else told me this?” I appreciate that you are doing this in such a developmental way.

    Like you, I have paid it forward. I often have young professionals send me their resumes. Most are truly grateful.

    One however (and it was one of the worst resumes I’d seen but for my own) never even responded with a “thanks;” I noticed, later via LinkedIn, that individual never did land a highered position; works in a bookstore now.

    Oops, perhaps I should have posted this on my blog rather than hi-jacking yours? *blush* You struck a nerve…

  6. Ed Cabellon says:

    Great post, as always my friend. I think its an unfortunate cycle that has been created…. since most folks have never received critical feedback, they rarely offer it.. until it is too late. I also believe we need to grow thicker skin and allow ourselves to hear the feedback we get and learn from it. I often tell folks that somewhere between where “we believe” the truth to be and where “they believe” the truth is… is the actual truth. The other side provides a greater perspective and how react to and use it is our choice.

    Thanks for sharing your awesomeness again 🙂

    • Thanks friend 🙂 The thicker skin is a work in progress for so many of us. I feel like mine has grown MUCH thicker this year! I know you continue to provide fantastic lessons like this to your own staff–they are lucky to have you!

  7. Kendra Hunter says:

    You have done the right thing for her! I actually enjoy having these types of difficult conversations with staff because I always see the tremendous amount of growth and reflection in them and in myself. Thank you for nurturing the future of our profession AMK.
    P.S. please send this woman my way! I am still looking for the right community director and would love to chat with her!

  8. Thank you for writing this candid and honest blog post. I appreciate that professionals like yourself take the time to give critical but much needed feedback for job seekers. I will certainly keep this post in my back pocket and pull it out during my next job search. Being a new professional, I am always seeking new challenges, professional development, and feedback to help me in my career.

  9. Jana Lithgow says:

    I work in career services and just about slow clapped when I read this. I will never forget the night when I was asked to help with mock interviews for second-year higher ed students – the dirty looks I got from the other volunteers when I gave direct and critical feedback to the candidates shocked me. The students’ resumes were weak and their interview prep was nonexistent and they needed to hear that. Needless to say, I was never asked to participate again, despite my extensive experience with resume review, interview prep, and search committee participation.

    Until our field can adapt (more) corporate recruiting and staffing practices to our work, I think this will continue to be a problem. Great advice – thank you!

    • Thanks Jana! I hear ya. Perhaps I am not very good at sugar-coating this kind of feedback becuase I want to make sure they REALLY hear it. We will both keep fighting the good fight 🙂

  10. debbie deas says:

    I absolutely agree! We’re doing our future colleagues and our profession a disservice when we don’t share this information with them. I think we have a hard enough time validating our profession. We can’t afford to be neglectful about the development of our upcoming professionals and allow them to present themselves in a way that serves to invalidate the work we do.

    • Totally agree Debbie. I think our profession increases its credibility when we give solid feedback that enhances the skills and development of the folks who work in our industry. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

  11. Paul York says:

    Thank you so much for this great read, AMK! Having just been through a successful job search, I’ve been reflecting on what I did poorly and what I did well. Fortunately, a great institution and I found each other because I have issues with everything you mentioned here. Honestly, I think my biggest misstep is #1, lack of professional confidence. I would have to say that my issues with that didn’t happen until I was leaving a previous institution. Thankfully, my current leader has really helped me work on that.

    Thank you again for a great read!

    • Congrats on the new job! I’m so glad that you have a supervisor who has commitment to instilling professional confidence. That is SO critically important. I know you will pay it forward 🙂

  12. In my time writing fiction, I’ve learned this one thing to be true: Criticism is the highest form of flattery and love. It’s silence or nonchalant acceptance that we must fear, because then we know our efforts are falling in the hands, hearts, and minds of the indifferent and apathetic. Criticism is an investment in your potential. I think too many professionals in all fields don’t learn this lesson soon enough. It’s probably the most important lesson my degree in English Lit ever taught me.

  13. Kristin Price says:

    Great post! My question is why? Why do so many not give critical feedback on resumes, cover letters, and interviews? Is it too time consuming? is it too mean? I am dumbfounded as to why someone wouldn’t want a mentee or another professional to be successful in their pursuits. I see that as part of my job, and how can some just brush that aside? Suggestions or thoughts? Also how do we encourage theses individuals to be more critical for the sake of success and growth?

    • All of the above! It takes time and effort–and folks worry about hurt feelings. Which simply aren’t good enough reasons 🙂 It needs to be emphasized that this is a responsibility that comes along with leadership and supervision. Thanks so much for reading!

  14. Robert Stephens says:

    I think what goes along with this is learning to appreciate criticism. Just about everyone says that want honest feedback. And yet many of us (myself included), struggle with accepting it. Part of this, I think, relates to frequently not getting it – we are used to empty platitudes. Part is a natural desire to be thought competent. This can lead to defensiveness/depression when receiving what we perceive as negative feedback. I also believe there are some generational issues (millenials even more so receiving overwhelmingly positive reinforcement).

    • Well sure–no one love hearing where they have fallen short–myself included 🙂 But I know I have learned the most in those spaces. We need to prep new folks to be ready to receive this kind of critique from the beginning–and teach supervisors how to deliver it if they struggle with that aspect. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

  15. Osvaldo says:

    Reblogged this on Go Ask the Boss and commented:
    Sometimes the truth may hurt, but it will help you out in the long run.

  16. Debbie Martin says:

    Annmarie – thanks for the blog post – it is right on target. We are totally doing a disservice to our team and others when we are not honest. Thanks as always for your insight!

  17. Austin says:

    This brings me back to my most recent job search. While I found a job rather quickly after finishing grad school, I think that I would’ve benefitted from someone saying, “You’re doing X, Y, and Z, all of which are harming your chances at landing interviews and job offers.” I think too often, we’re afraid of being critical. But I think you’ve done a great job of showing that there is an upside to being critical. Thank you so much for writing this!

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  19. Alexandra Graves says:

    Hey Ann Marie!
    I read this from Twitter (loving it, BTW), and as a new professional, THANK YOU! Through grad school, professional positions, internships, and now my first post- grad school position, this is what young professionals need! I remember coming from my art background, where I was constantly torn to shreds in critiques, and being shocked by how NICE everyone was in my graduate program. If we are going to grow as individuals, professionals, advocates, and practitioners, we have to be challenged! Kudos! -alexandra

  20. I’ve noticed in the student staff that I lead that when I sometimes offer critical feedback I receive a very negative attitude back. Eye rolls, looks of dismissal, and comments that I am “impossible to please.” I think we all get to used to being thanked and come to expect constant praise and never receive any sort challenge to our basic resting pulse. I expect to be challenged by my supervisor and yet our student staff she shocked and appalled that I would do the same to them. I think this indicative of a culture of entitlement and worse, that we are crafting a generations of leaders who don’t know how to fail or be even told that they are failing. I have made the commitment to myself for this coming year to not only hold student staff accountable but to challenge them when they rebuff that critical feedback and to ask them to process it more fully before experiencing an emotional response. Thank you for starting this conversation.

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