The Principle of Decommoditization: How to stand out to hiring managers
January 10th, 2012 - 120 Comments
Many of us are starting to realize that doing the same thing as everyone else doesn’t work any more.
We have a deep invisible script that if we simply work harder than other people, we’ll win. But that’s a lie.
I remember hanging out with a college friend of mine right before she started law school. I always liked to joke about the inferno of hell my law-school friends were about to walk into, just for kicks.
“So people get pretty nutty in law school,” I said. “You’re going to turn into one of them, aren’t you?”
(Note: 100% of people I’ve used this line on delusionally respond, “No, not me…I’m going to be different.” Yet they almost always turn out the same.)
But not my friend! “You’re right,” she said. “But I think if I just buckle down for the next 3 years, I can be near the top of my class…” In other words, ‘I’m going to do what every single other law student is doing…yet somehow I expect that I’ll be at the top of the class.’
It sounds logical — just buckle down! — but again, everyone else is doing the exact same thing. Which results in desperate moves like this:
“PricewaterhouseCoopers received more than 250,000 applications through its Web site over the last year, but it has hired only 1 percent from that pool, said Holly Paul, its United States recruiting leader. She said a house painter with no qualifications beyond high school had applied for 10 different openings that required college degrees and accounting certification.”
–New York Times
When it comes to finding our Dream Job, most of us are doing the exact same thing as literally millions of other people: Submitting our resumes through job websites. Waiting for companies to call us back. Going into interviews and “answering questions.” If that’s the game you’re playing, you’ve already lost.
It turns out that to get the attention of companies and hiring mangers you want, you have to stand out. But how do you do stand out? Does that mean using colored highlights in your resume? Wearing a particular kind of shirt so they remember you? How do you stand out in a way that helps you actually attract the attention of important people — before you meet them, in the interview room, and even at the negotiating table?
We know we “should” try to stand out, but it’s not clear exactly how.
Yet top performers know how. Even in this economy, they have multiple job offers. Many top performers who were laid off in 2009 and 2010 had multiple job offers within days.
While they’re collecting the best jobs — often before the jobs are ever announced publicly — most people fight over the scraps by “spraying and praying” for their shotgunned resume to be answered by someone. You see this level of humiliating desperation mirrored only in the life-coach market, filled with 98% useless people with no discernible skills while 2% take the entire industry’s profits.
Standing out is hard. Not only do you have to know HOW to stand out, you have to execute masterfully. To show you how, today we begin the 3-week Dream Job Boot Camp. This week, we’ll be covering SPECIFIC EXAMPLES of how to stand out in a way that gets you the right attention, at the right time, from the right people.
You’ll learn how to make your resume “semi-automatically” float to the top of the pile, beating out hundreds of competing candidates. I’ll show you the specific resume that secured me job offers from Google and other companies — as well as analyze exactly why I constructed it the way I did.
Next week, I’ll do a series of posts about networking, including the exact emails I’ve used to meet CEOs and hiring managers.
Finally, in week 3, I’ll cover interviewing & networking — but this will be private to members of the Dream Job launch list. And then I’ll open up my premium Dream Job course to those of you who want to take your hunt for your Dream Job to the next level. As always, I expect this free material to rival anyone’s paid material.
I’d like to begin by talking about the surprising challenges of standing out.
The Surprising Principles of Decommoditization
That’s salt, also called a commodity. It’s called a commodity because you don’t care which brand of salt you get…they’re all the same to you. You can substitute one brand of salt for another and nobody would be able to tell the difference. And as a result, the price of commodity salt is extremely low.
Most people’s job searches turn them into commodities. They’re easily substitutable bodies that are only serving to fill headcount requirements. You do NOT want to be a commodity, because if you are, you’re exactly the same as the next 100 applicants — and there’s no way for any of these techniques to work.
For example, imagine you’re a hiring manager. You put out a job description for a project manager and, in today’s economy, you get 250+ resumes in 48 hours. Hiring managers give your resume, on average, less than 10 seconds of attention before moving on to the next one.
Yours must stand out, yet most people consistently produce mediocre applications that look like everything else out there.
I know because when I’ve hired for roles in the past, I gave each applicant about 10 seconds. In fact, rather than looking deeply into each application to see the applicant’s true nature (that’s not my job), I looked for ways to disqualify them so I could find someone who finally, truly stood out.
You do not want to be a bottle of salt. You want to be a truffle, something so unique and valuable that people will pay disproportionately for you. They will not be able to even conceive of substituting you, because through your application, you will uniquely solve their problems so deeply that you’ll be considered “one of a kind.”
When that happens, not only have you secured the job offer, but you have laid the foundation for negotiating an enviable salary. THIS is how negotiation works — with 80% of the work being done before you ever set foot at the negotiating table.
Think about the fact that if you submit your resume through the front door like most people, you get less than 10 seconds. People don’t like hearing this because it makes them mad that they spent “all this time” on a cover letter and resume, and the hiring manager won’t even “take the time” to read it. You get comments like this from delusional Hacker News user ntkachov:
“Well then, Don’t expect me to even bother writing a cover letter or tailor my resume. In fact, if your only going to be scanning over my resume in 30 seconds why, on earth, should I even spend any time filling out your form to send you my resume? When I send people my resume, I at the very least expect them to read through it. If my skill set matches what you are looking for and you are thinking of an interview, I expect you to at the very least Google my name, or check out my website/github which I conveniently include as a QR code.”
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
It’s not the hiring manger’s responsibility to see you for your best self — IT’S YOUR RESPONSIBILITY. This guy has probably never hired anyone. Instead, he’s projecting his expectations onto the hiring manager, which are wildly out of touch with reality. (Also, a QR code? Are you seriously kidding me? ‘Here Mr. Hiring Manager, I’m also including a key to an anonymous bank safety-deposit box in Manhattan where I recorded a DVD of my skillset…now please follow these clues to identify the box and forge my signature to gain access to the security box.’ Get the hell out of here.)
It’s easy to scoff at this guy’s unrealistic expectations. But YOU — yes, you — do the very same thing:
- You write emails with too many non-essential words, or emails with too FEW details, expecting the hiring manager to read between the lines
- You write cover letters that say the exact same thing as everyone else, yet expect to get an interview
- Your resume includes words that have not “earned their way” onto the page, limiting your space to highlight the material that really matters, yet you expect the reader to really “understand” your background
Big problem. While most of us aren’t as transparently kooky as that above commenter, we actually do the functionally equivalent behaviors. We expect hiring managers to truly understand our soul, when they really just want to finish hiring so they can get back to work eating potato chips and playing Zynga. We expect them to take the responsibility to “discover” us, when it’s really our job.
In my research, I have seen thousands of applications, and they are almost uniformly bad. I don’t say that to be condescending, but I have data to back it up. In fact, when I tried to give away a $12,000 scholarship to my Dream Job Elite program, I could not identify even one winning application out of 100+ applicants.
On the other hand, when an application is superb, it immediately stands out — instantly. There are certain Competence Triggers that will capture the attention of a hiring manager and “semi-automatically” bring your application to the top of the pile.
Here’s one remarkable way to stand out — a SPECIFIC TECHNIQUE that has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars of documented results, and untold millions of undocumented results: The Briefcase Technique — now with NEW commentary.
Results of using this simple technique:
“I work for a Fortune 500 here in KC and have been kicking ass at my normal 8-5 job making peanuts for salary. I’m 25 years old and have been at this gig for 2 years busting balls. Promotions at our place are scarce at best and are given to top employees with long tenure.
With this invisible script glued in my mind, I blew through 13 interviews for 13 different senior positions. FAIL. But on each one, I refined my approach, redid my resume, tested my questions, and gauged reactions from managers. I created a game with myself on how many of these rejection interviews I could collect.
HR wasn’t pleased. They were wigging out saying that ALL my feedback was, “Justin’s a great candidate BUT…they went with someone else.” My 14th attempt blew the interviewing managers out of their toilet seats. Why: because I changed the script, used the briefcase method, job shadowed my potential client, wrote a detailed proposal with 5 things they can do TODAY to save the company $1500/week EVEN IF they don’t hire me.
Ramit, thanks for the extra $10k, 5+ weeks of vacation, and 6% 401k. I look forward to talking to you on the phone.”
“I’ve applied your briefcase technique to get my current ‘dream’ job. It was basically a position for an Instrumentation Engineer and required skills… Networking and my grades got me the interview but I blew them away by bringing in all the documents I did in college related to control and safety. I showed them how I was technically competent and they bought it. They were totally fascinated. I beat out all the 20 people who interviewed for that position and was offered this job 2 days later.”
“When an recruiter called me up offering a position at a global oil and gas company…Here’s where your briefcase technique really came in to play. I remembered the fact that whipping out this document in dramatic fashion instantly increased your chance of success, so I thought I would try it and let me tell you, the hiring manager actually looked shocked. As if she had never seen that level of preparation before. I received a call two hours later saying that I had gotten the job and they would be putting an offer together.”
This one technique alone will easily pay the cost of the Dream Job course 10x over the next few years — and more over your lifetime. And here it is, my gift to you, because I want you to take action.
And we have far more complex techniques and frameworks in the course itself, where we explain WHY it works — not just how to do it. That allows you to tweak the tactics to fit unanticipated situations, so you can dynamically apply them to virtually every conceivable scenario.
Now that we’ve established that standing out — or decommoditizing yourself — is important, we should talk about the TYPES of decommoditization. For example, we’ve all seen the guy who set up something like “TwitterShouldHireBrian.com” and ended up getting the job. Those examples are fun, and they can work occasionally, but we’re not being different for the sake of being different.
Instead, we’re going to be different strategically, so we sidestep the entire losing game that others, who submit their me-too resumes down the Black Hole of Doom, are playing. We are going to systematically study WHERE should be different so we can focus our energy there, while holding the unimportant things constant.
You do that by decommoditizing yourself, or standing out in the right way. It sounds so obvious — of course our resumes should be different! Of course we should use our personal networks! So why don’t we do it?
Standing out is hard. It’s actually EASIER to fail. We discovered something fascinating in our research: It’s easier to do what everyone else is doing…even if it doesn’t work.
Interestingly, we would prefer to do the same actions as everyone else even if we don’t get good results rather than trying something different. We use words like “How do I know if that will work?” You don’t, but you know for a fact that what you’re doing right now (sending out 200 resumes/month, including a mediocre resumes and writing down your “passions” on a piece of paper) is not working.
So here’s how to start.
3 Ways Top Performers Decommoditize Themselves
Top performers play an entirely different game.
When they decide to find a different job, they don’t start googling around to “see what’s out there.” They already know about jobs that are not even public yet, thanks to their networks.
They can send a few emails and bypass the entire hiring apparatus — designed to keep losers out — and get a meeting with a hiring manager.
Their friends will vouch for them, saying “You really need to talk to this person,” which profoundly changes the tenor of the conversation. Imagine being introduced as someone who the hiring manager “needs to talk to” rather than a random applicant desperate for a job.
They are not commodities. They cannot be substituted for another body to “meet headcount goals.” They have developed unique skills, and they communicate those skills to convince the hiring manager that they deserve special treatment.
STOP! Stop right there. It’s easy to say, “Yeah, maybe that works if you have ____ (elite college, 15 years’ experience, the deep baritone voice of Ramit). Don’t put up your own psychological barrier of why these people are different than you (the barrier here is the Shrug Effect). Yes, maybe 5%-10% of these top performers were born with rich parents or they’re naturally gifted. The rest of them worked their asses off.
Here are 3 ways that top performers decommoditize themselves.
1. Use specificity to stand out. This is one of the first lessons that led me to develop the “Nod and Shrug Fallacy.” When you say “get specific,” everyone nods and shrugs — yeah yeah Ramit, I got it — but nobody actually does it.
For example, if I asked you right now, “What’s your Dream Job?” what would you say? 95% of us would say something like this: “I’m looking for a job that’s challenging and rewarding…something that lets me really make an impact…I like to work with people.” Yes, I like to breathe oxygen too.
A top performer will say:
- “I’m looking for a position as an Inside Sales Associate at a social networking company in San Francisco.”
- “I’m interested in becoming a Development Manager at a women’s issues nonprofit in Washington DC.
See the difference? When you get specific, you don’t make the busy person do your work for you. YOU do the work — you don’t wait for someone else to find your Dream Job for you. And once you can be this specific, you can go to your network and ask for their help in locating connections to these companies. In other words, if someone comes to me and says “I don’t know what I want to do with my life,” that’s a long discussion. If they say, “Do you know any sales managers at B2C tech companies in Silicon Valley?” I will introduce them to 3 within 10 minutes.
I’ll cover more of HOW to get specific on the Dream Job launch list. Interestingly, note that many of the things that people believe are important — for example, # of hours required at the job — turn out to be totally uncorrelated with how happy people are at their jobs. It’s like Moneyball for Dream Jobs. More on this in the course.
2. Master the art of preparation. Another “Nod and Shrug” area where people say, Yeah yeah, I know I need to prepare.
Yet think back to the last time you went in for a job interview. How did you prepare?
- AVERAGE PERFORMER: “I spent an hour browsing their website and Googling around for news about them. I also talked to my friend on the phone for 5 minutes about what kind of questions he thought I should expect.”
- TOP PERFORMER: “I’d already met with 3 people on the team before the interview, so I knew exactly what their challenges were, and even the words they used to describe them. I wrote all those notes down, then compared them with what I found on the web. Then I crafted my narrative. I invited a friend over — he’s a management consultant so he knows how to ask tough questions — and he came over to mock-interview me for 2 hours. I recorded the video and stopped every 15 minutes to calibrate.”
Sound hard? Good. Losers and whiners won’t do the hard work because, by definition, they are not top performers. That means people who spend 2x the time can get 5x the results — which is exactly what disproportionate results are all about. Yes, you will have to work harder, but you’ll get first pick of jobs, while other people fight over the scraps.
3. Get referred — by ANYONE. People love to talk about how they don’t have a network. I ask them, “Really? Who have you tried to reach out to?” They respond with a blank look and a shrug. They will die unhappy.
- AVERAGE PERFORMERS: “I tried but I just don’t know anyone! I emailed a couple friends but they’re in the same boat as I am. It’s frustrating when it’s all about WHO you know. How can they expect me to know all these people when I’m just starting my career?”
- TOP PERFORMER: “First, I checked my LinkedIn profile and sent out some emails. I tested 3 emails and the third is performing best — I’m getting a 50% response rate. I set up 3 coffee meetings for next week. Then I went into my college alumni database. I also mentioned exactly who I’m looking for when I was hanging out with friends, and one of them knew a director at the company I want to work for! So we are having coffee tomorrow.”
By the way, this isn’t hypothetical. Here’s one of my Dream Job Elite students sharing how he thought about networks differently.
”When I started, I was only applying to one company, my #1 dream company. Now I’m applying to a targeted group of employers to tighten up my application and interviewing skills so that when I do apply to my #1 company, I’ll be in top shape and have other offers in hand for negotiation. – I had no portfolio for applying to my Dream Job. After getting quick, specific advice from several experts though, I know exactly what to focus on in that portfolio now and it’s underway. – I started with a weak resume’ and no cover letter, now I have a tailored theme for these materials and numerous stories to back that theme up. – I initially had 0 contacts at my #1 company. Now I have 7 with whom I’m talking to regularly there.”
–Logan, Dream Job Elite graduate
Notice that Logan has used the Dream Job material to create a SYSTEMATIC WAY of standing out. That means he analyzes what areas need to be different and tests them accordingly. This means that if something is working — if the emails you’re sending out are getting you an 80% response rate — you don’t need to waste time changing that. But if something is NOT working, you have a birds’-eye view to know exactly where to focus your time…and how to change it.
”I used to stay inwards, trying to acquire more skills in a vacuum and waiting for the perfect moment. Now, I’m completely the opposite. DJE trained me to have an almost knee-jerk reaction of talking to experts and testing in the marketplace.”
–Chris, Dream Job Elite graduate
There are several areas of the Dream Job search that we’ve found to be very effective in decommoditizing:
- The companies you target
- The emails you send
- The questions you ask
- Your cover letter/resume
- Your interview performance, including questions, answers, body language
- First 100 days on the job
I’ll cover each of these in turn. But don’t wait for me for the answers — you should be thinking of these on your own. Ask yourself:
“For my resume/cover letter, what do AVERAGE performers do? What should a TOP performer do?” Repeat throughout your job search.
Note that if you are submitting 10 resumes per week, the first thing you can do is ask: Is this producing any results? For most people, submitting resume after resume is worthless. So is working with a recruiter. So is trying to apply broadly to as many jobs as possible.
But this requires being brutally honest with yourself about what’s working and what’s not. Only then can you make tactical changes to improve your results.
Why Decommoditization Works
It’s frustrating to hear person after person complain that they’ve submitted 20 resumes into a black hole, and “you never hear back!” But that frustration turns into sadness when I ask them what else they’ve tried, and there’s a complete lack of awareness about other options.
What? You’re saying there’s another way to get jobs besides randomly submitting a resume? I don’t believe you.
Huh? There’s a way to stand out even if you don’t have 10 years of experience? You must be trying to sell some ebook.
This isn’t stuff we’re taught. Yet it can be done.
“Reaching out to cold contacts has been the most helpful using the email scripts that Ramit helped me with. This has expanded my networking circle but more importantly, it’s set the foundation for my system. Now I can use it time and time again when I’m exploring different dream job options or if I ever want to find another dream job a few years later, I know this will still work. 27% response rate for EA position in a VC firm and 57% response rate for VIP hosts.
Annie, Dream Job Elite graduate
Some top performers are just naturals at these principles. Others study them, like I did. Either way, the results are powerful.
So while average performers are complaining about their job-search results, top performers are playing an entirely different game. They get responses because they don’t go through the front door. When they walk into an interview, they know intimate knowledge about the company’s needs and challenges — and often, they know the interviewer! Finally, when you combine all the different ways they stand out, their interviews and negotiations take on an entirely different tenor — one in which they’re evaluating the hiring manager as much as the manager is evaluating them.
- What’s the MOST IMPORTANT area where you could decommoditize yourself — in other words, make yourself stand out — but haven’t? Be specific.
- What surprises you about the idea of decommoditizing yourself? Tell me a story. Really look inside yourself.
- Why don’t more people do this? Be specific. Think of a friend who hasn’t done this and try to get in their heads.
Leave a comment below with your answers.
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