By Rob Sullivan
Having started my career at Chicago-based advertising giant Leo Burnett, I have seen countless companies and individuals struggle with the concept of positioning. While you may not be planning on making a living in advertising, positioning is a concept you need to understand to market yourself effectively.
What makes the job search process difficult is the fact that you are both product and salesperson. With that in mind, consider the important distinction between presenting and positioning. Presenting is telling your story from your point of view. Positioning, on the other hand, is telling your story from the customer’s point of view.
Your customer may be a potential employer, a hiring manager in your current company, or a prospective client. Whatever the case, your success depends on how well you drill down, understand their needs and objectives, and provide compelling evidence that you are the right person to solve their problems.
Given that every company has different needs, the experiences that best demonstrate your value may differ from company to company. This is one of the main reasons why the job-search process is not a numbers game.
To be effective at positioning, think of yourself as an investigative reporter. Your goal is to learn so much about your prospects that you almost feel what they are feeling. A few of the questions you might ask include:
- What are the most pressing challenges you face as a company? As a team? As a manager?
- What are your goals?
- What is driving those goals?
- How do you see the company changing over the next few years?
- What metrics will you use to measure my performance?
- What excites you about this company and keeps you coming to work every day?
Once you have a handle on the opportunities, start thinking about the experiences that provide compelling evidence of your ability to succeed in the position. Hint: Your MBA, J.D. or advanced degree in engineering isn’t it.
Those are attributes not benefits.
People who have advanced degrees are everywhere. Anyone who has spent time recruiting knows that a master’s degree or PhD does not bestow any level of common sense or intelligence. Despite what schools would like us to believe, the degree, by itself, will not get you a job if you haven’t found another way to convince the company of your potential. Instead, you have to dig into your experience and come up with the stories that will get a hiring manager to think:
“Wow, if you can do that for your former employer, just think what you could do for me!”
To get to this point, take what you have learned in your role as investigative reporter and ask yourself a few questions:
- How can I help this company address the issues and opportunities it is facing?
- What specific success stories can I offer to demonstrate my ability to handle these challenges?
- Why is this position the next logical step in my professional development?
- Why would I find this opportunity energizing? The challenge for most people is getting out of their own head and thinking about the situation from the other person’s point of view. To illustrate how this works, I’ll share a personal example.
Presenting vs. Positioning
When I position myself as a career coach, I can’t possibly customize my message for every job hunter the way a candidate could tailor his approach to match the needs of a particular company. But what I can do is take time to reflect on the frustrations common to many people in transition. Positioning takes this point of view into account. Presenting doesn’t.
To see how this plays out from a marketing standpoint, let’s look at how my approach might differ without effective positioning. If I were to present myself, my message to potential clients would involve me telling my story from my point of view:
“For almost 20 years, I have worked with career-changers at all levels in a variety of fields ranging from finance and engineering to advertising and manufacturing.”
Not very interesting.
With effective positioning, it is possible to get the attention of your target audience simply by looking at the world from their perspective. In other words, to position myself as an expert, I need to make it clear that I know exactly what my prospective clients are experiencing. A great way to accomplish this is to start with a question:
“Have you ever applied for a job that seemed like a perfect fit yet never received a response?”
If you are like many job hunters, you might read this line and immediately relate to how disappointing and frustrating it can be. For this reason, acknowledging and addressing the pain is a great way to connect with my audience.
Once I have given the reader some indication that they have come to the right place, I tell my story from their point of view. This includes sharing the mistakes I made along the way as well as what I learned.
By connecting directly with each reader in a one-on-one conversation, I give prospective clients a reason to believe I have something valuable to offer. That’s my goal.
Why Presenting Doesn’t Work
In the example above “20 years”, “at all levels”, and “in a variety of fields” are all attributes. There’s nothing in it for a potential client because the length of time I have spent does not guarantee my competence or ability. More to the point, tenure is almost always a meaningless quantifier. We have all worked with people who in 5 or 10 years have not accomplished a single thing. The results are what matters, not tenure.
Even if you happen to work in one of the industries I mentioned, I still haven’t communicated anything meaningful because there isn’t any reason to believe I am successful. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens when job hunters don’t take the time to position their experiences. They attempt to speak to everyone, but find themselves speaking to no one.
Not coincidentally, the approach described above is similar to the message successful job hunters communicate to companies. If you don’t happen to have experience to offer as evidence, then you need to communicate potential. That’s the only real difference.
As a job hunter, targeting a particular company is a lot easier because you aren’t looking for the common denominator across an entire industry. Instead, you can customize your message based on the needs of a single company and tell your story from their point of view. That’s positioning. And it is definitely worth the effort.
Rob Sullivan is an author, corporate trainer, inspirational speaker and professional development coach whose passion is helping people recognize, leverage, and communicate the gold in their backgrounds. Rob has been a repeat guest on television and radio stations across the country including NBC, ABC and WGN. He was also featured in the Wall Street Journal and as a guest expert on “Starting Over,” an Emmy-winning reality show that airs nationally on NBC.
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