Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Identifying Your Competitive Advantages

In April (4/29), RightChanges published the article “You Have to Know You to Sell You”. As I work with clients, I see that some job seekers have a hard time identifying their own skills and accomplishments that distinguish them from their competitors. It is these skills and accomplishments that will help a candidate’s resume stand out, help the candidate ace the interview, and boost the candidate’s self confidence in this tough market.

Too many job seekers start the job search process by updating their resume. Updating the resume should actually be done at the end of the 3rd step. If you started your search by updating your resume, you may be sabotaging your own job search effort by missing the first three steps. These first three steps are like the legs of a three-legged stool. If you are missing one or more of the legs, the stool isn’t of much value. If you have not completed the first three steps, your jobs search may suffer.

Let’s look quickly at all three steps and in this article we’ll detail step 2. (The Six Steps are copyrighted by Crossroads Career Services.)

Step 1 is Attitude. Attitude is the most important step. If you do not have a good attitude it will show in your body language (80%+ of your communication), your word choice, and the energy you need to do the job search. You have to give yourself time to accept the loss. It is like grieving the loss of a family member. You want to get to the acceptance phase and start to look forward to the next opportunity.

You should though get help for pressure points. You need to keep a roof over the head, car in the driveway, and food on the table. Do you know the phone number 211? We have 911 for first responders, 411 for information, 511 in most states for traffic conditions; we have 211 for the United Way. Many of us give to the United Way so it is there for when you or I need it. I found out about the United Way phone number when I talked to my church’s benevolence leader who I often refer people to. Our church, like many others, is part of the United Way network. When people call 211, they are asked their zip code and specific need and the United Way refers them to the closest organization in that area that provides services that meet that need. One important thing to understand is that the sooner you call, the more options are available to you; do not wait until it is almost too late since the options then will be more limited.

Step 2 is Aptitude (the main content of this article). I use a lot of analogies to illustrate my points. The analogy I use for Aptitude is that you would not think about selling a product, we’ll use the example of a computer, without knowing how it works and what makes it better than the competition’s computer. You would never imagine going into a prospective client to sell the computer and when asked “why should I buy your computer?” responding “I don’t know”. Too many job seekers go into an interview hoping that the hiring manger sees the job seekers’ competitive advantages but the candidates would be hard pressed if asked what they are. You have to know YOU to sell you too. In this article we will discuss ways to identify those competitive advantages.

Step 3 is Altitude. Crossroads wanted to stick with alliteration so they used Altitude to represent the market (who is hiring and where do you want to work). Using the analogy of the computer, you would not sell your computer to a pharmacy chain because people do not go to the pharmacy to buy a computer and if they saw it there, they would feel it is not of value.

The same goes for you. Although at times you want a job, any job, your ultimate goal is to find the right job for you that utilizes and values your skills and continues to let you grow. You will need to know that most of the available jobs are in smaller companies and the majority of available jobs are NOT posted on the job boards; you find them through networking ( Step 4 – Search).

It is only after these three steps that you can properly create or update your marketing materials highlighting your competitive traits and addressing them to your target market.

Let’s Start Step 2

Successful job seekers, like those we at RightChanges have worked with, inventory the items that distinguish them. By inventory we mean actually uncovering them and writing them down. Here are the categories of inventories that must be done, the approach to uncover them, and the use for each.

Education and Certificates
When creating a resume, most job seekers remember to include their formal education and professional certificates. That may be all you record on your resume; don’t stop there though. Record in an Excel spreadsheet, or on a notepad that you can easily find, the self study you have done as well as tele-conferences and webinars you have participated in. In other words, record all of the ways you have grown in your skills.

These entries may not make it onto your resume. They may, however, help you answer an interview question. Example: the hiring manager asks if you have any experience with a particular technique. If you have at least participated in a webinar, you can mention that you are familiar with the topic and attended a webinar on it. That is so much better than saying “no” and it demonstrates that you take the initiative to stay on top of your game. Listing the training you have had over the years, written down, helps you remember everything you have studied. Review the list before your interview so it is all fresh in your mind.

Abilities & Ability STARs
In many interviews you are asked to list your top strengths. You may list a few off the top of your head although those may be the same strengths that everyone lists. You want to actually know our strengths and have examples (STARs – situation/ task you faced, actions you took, and the results you achieved) that illustrate a time where you utilized each one.

You can search the internet for lists of strengths / abilities and assess yourself on a scale of 1 – 10 against each. For your top strengths identify (document) a time you used that strength. While you are at it, identify your weaknesses (lowest ranking abilities) and for your STAR, say what you have put into place to not have that weakness affect your work. We all have weaknesses and the hiring manger is looking to see if you are self-aware and what you do to mitigate the weakness so it does not negatively impact the business.

Technical Skills
The listing of Technical skills is not just for Information Technicians or engineers. All of us have some technical skills. Include in your list software (Microsoft Word for instance) and hardware you use (receptionists are familiar with certain phone systems). Include technologies that are out of date or discontinued. If you are asked about a newer technology that you don’t have experience with, you can draw on your past experience and illustrate that you are familiar with a similar technology. Are you good with using your browser to find things on the internet? That counts. Facebook, Twitter, and Linked In are being leveraged by many companies these days so your skills in those areas count.

Company & Manager Lessons Learned
One of the most powerful inventories for our clients has been the company and manager lessons learned. All job seekers have a list of the companies and positions they have had over the years. Go one step further and assess every company, every manager, and every position you held for what you liked best and least about each. You may start to notice a pattern form. Leverage that pattern to know what is a good fit for you, to select target companies (where you want to work), and develop interview questions to affirm the company and the manager are the right fit. For instance, I noticed that I do not flourish with a micromanager. Micromanagers suck the creativity out of the air and when I am interviewing as a candidate, I want to understand the manager’s managerial style so I don’t end up with the wrong type manager.

No job will make us want to jump out of bed and look forward to going to work every day. It may be cold and raining outside and the traffic may be snarled. Wouldn’t it be nice though to have a job that you enjoy going to most days, maybe one that includes your outside interests?

One client was seeking a job as a property manager. When we reviewed her interests, she enjoys golf. She is now a property manager of vacation properties. Someone else I know worked with cars since he was of age to work, yet pursued a degree as a film producer. He is now the film producer for an auto racing company.

Not all interests can be leveraged in the job market. It is at least worth considering. Your passion will show in the interview.

In selecting and interviewing companies, you want to know your values and affirm that the company does not violate your values. From the other perspective, you may decide to target a company that actively pursues business in the sector with the same values you hold. Have two columns that answer the questions “I don’t want to work for a company that …” (based on the product they sell, values they hold etc.) and in the other column answer the questions “I want to work for a company that…”.

Example: let’s say you are into the green (ecology) principles. You would not want to work for a company that doesn’t recycle its trash. If you are really into the green principles, you may want to work for one of the eco companies (ex wind farms).

Here is one of my (lighthearted) values: I strongly prefer a particular brand of carbonated beverage. Because of that I could not work for the competitor since consuming my favorite drink would not be permitted on the office campus. That is an example of how the product a company sells may impact your choice of target companies.

To identify the line where you hold values, look at extreme cases (illegal, immoral) and work your way in until there are no strong feelings either way. Identify and include your values in your job search process.

You have accomplished a lot in your life and in the business world. We are not talking about securing world peace or curing cancer type accomplishments. Accomplishments are the ways you have positively impacted your world / work environment; how it was before you got there and how it was better because of you.

Do an internet search of behavioral questions and identify your STAR statements to answer each of them. Develop your answer to the question about a time you failed and in the results section include what you put into place to never repeat the same mistake; that is all the hiring manager wants to know is that you learned from it.

Approaches to Discovery
In addition to self evaluation, there are other approaches to use to get an entire picture of your aptitudes.

Solicit feedback from your friends, family, former co-workers
People minimize the skills that come easily to them. By asking friends, family members, and former co-workers what they see as your skills, abilities, and former accomplishments, you are reminded what makes you unique.

I recently was reminded of one of my aptitudes. In a group exercise we were asked to say what we are known for. The first few people mentioned something they were known for cooking. I am known for a particular pie so I had that example ready for when I was called upon. I even thought I’d fix one of the pies that night and bring it in the next day. When the facilitator called upon me he said he wanted a work example from me. When I took some time to think about it, a co-worker sitting next to me said “are you kidding me?” by which I took to mean she knew something right off hand. She cited how, upon taking over a department, I met with internal customers. When I met with them they trusted me instantly and invited me to their internal meetings that our department had never been invited to before. Earning people’s immediate trust comes easily to me so I minimized it in myself. It is something that an employer would value though and makes me unique. You have those unique abilities too and others can help you identify them.

Refer back to past job reviews
For those who were fortunate enough to have a boss who provided written performance reviews, you have a great source of feedback on your accomplishment and skills. Locate and review all of your former performance reviews. Take excerpts from it and add them to your inventories.

Take assessments
There are a number of assessments you can take that will help flesh out aspects of your personality, interest, skills, and values.

Myers Brigg assessment will assess your personality. Although people who hear me speak to large crowds do not usually believe it of me: I am an introvert. All that means is that I renew my energy by being alone. When making a career decision, I need to understand that about myself and factor it in. As a public speaker, I need to build in down time before and after the event so my internal batteries don’t run low. Factor your personality into your career and company selection.

The book Strengths Finder 2.0 by Tom Rath offers a good assessment tool. Inside the book there is a sealed code that you use to access an on-line assessment of your strengths.

The Department of Labor offers assessments and there are others for free on the internet. The more assessments you take the fuller, more complete of a picture you get of you.

The information you gather as part of Step 2 – Attitude helps you target the right position and company, craft your marketing materials and brand to stand out from others, develop your interview questions for the employer and your responses to interview questions, and select the right job for you.

Check out other articles published by RightChanges at The archives are overflowing with articles published weekly since April.


  1. I enjoyed this article because it did remind me about certain things I was known for. The part about the aptitudes and earning others trust.
    Thanks for jogging my memory.

    Bruce Bixler

  2. Judi, You have presented the process so well. I especially like that you included company and managers lessons learned. Your analogy to a computer purchase drives the point home: "Why should I hire you over others? I don't know." Clearly demonstrates the importance of distinguishing oneself by identifying abilities that sets one apart. And...yes, the resume is not the first step - but try to convince folks of that! Thanks for a well-written, to the point post.