Looking for a job? Be the hedgehog, not the fox

Lessons for the job seeker from Good to Great

In May of 2002 I left my job at JPMorgan. Granted, financial services (particularly telecom investment banking) was on a serious slide, but my job was secure at the time. Being young and stupid, I assumed I’d move out to the Bay Area with my special lady friend and pick up a private equity job. I took the summer off to start a family business (an unmitigated disaster, by the way), and in the meantime every bank in San Francisco laid off thousands. By the time I arrived in August, being an unemployed investment banker was like being a leper with a felony. I voluntarily put myself in the same position as millions of Americans now find themselves—unemployed in a crappy market with experience from an industry that is cratering.

For those of you in that position now, I’m not going to sugar coat this – prepare yourself financially and mentally for the long haul. Just like the company you were with, cut spending deep and cut it now. What I thought was going to be a 3-month job search ended up being closer to a year. I actually never found a job – I had to make one up and start my own consulting business. I had enough to get by financially, but I was cutting it VERY close. If I had budgeted better early on, the situation would have been a lot less tense.

More important is the mental preparation. I started losing it. Granted, I was staying in a crappy extended stay hotel (we had not yet found an apartment) with my dog, my lady friend’s parakeet and a long list of rejection emails. I would sit in the room all day emailing, calling, praying, sobbing, emailing some more, etc. I had one pair of pants that I wore every day – my unemployment pants – and I showered only on an as-needed basis. Melissa (the aforementioned lady friend) came home one day and I’d applied to law school. These were dark days.

If I were to do it over again, I’d change a few things:

  1. Set the parakeet free – let it out the window when Melissa was at work and say it was an accident; Joey torments me to this day and I couldn’t stand his cheerful pity.
  2. Set working hours – you can’t job search for 12 hours a day; work until noon, and if you have nothing scheduled in the afternoon, go enjoy the day (doing something free)
  3. Change pants every day, no matter how soft and broken in they feel
  4. Focus, focus, focus

Number 4 is where Jim Collins’ Good to Great comes into play. Good to Great is one of the best selling business books out there, and there’s a reason – it’s fantastic. Collins studies companies that were good for a long time, then suddenly broke from the pack and became great companies. He compares and contrasts them with peers that were good for a long time, but stayed good. I’ll greatly simplify and distill his findings and core concept – the hedgehog vs the fox.

The fox is smart and agile, and looks great in a pinstriped interview suit. He comes up with countless new strategies and angles of attack to try to catch the hedgehog. The hedgehog, however, is brilliant in his simplicity. He knows one thing very well – when you see the fox, roll up in a ball and give it a mouthful of spines. He attacks you in the woods – roll up in a ball. He attacks you in the field – roll up in a ball. Caught at night? You guessed it, roll up in a ball. You get the point – the hedgehog knows one thing really well, and executes it flawlessly. The fox may be faster, smarter and more agile, but the hedgehog still wins.

Within the hedgehog concept there are three concentric circles for companies to think about:

  1. What are you passionate about?
  2. What can you be the best in the world at?
  3. What are your economic drivers?

If you are making a strategic decision, and it doesn’t land in all three spheres, don’t do it. That thinking applies to your job search just as it applies to companies.

What are you passionate about?

When it comes to the job search, I think this is the most important. Who would you rather hire – someone that is really fired up to be part of your company but has some gaps in the resume, or someone that is exceptionally qualified but aloof? I’ll take the energy and passion any day.

At first, my job search was very focused – I wanted to work for a small- or mid-cap leveraged buyout firm. When that didn’t work, I started getting more creative. I interviewed for a financial analyst job, and during the interview pitched the CEO on doing a buyout or selling the company (they were acquired 6 months later). I interviewed with a money management firm for a role doing public market research, which bores me to tears. Eventually, if there was going to be someone in the building that had a spreadsheet open, I decided it was close enough and applied. Nothing stinks like desperation, and I stunk. After an interview with Covad, for a role paying a third of my compensation at JPMorgan, I officially hit bottom. The hiring manager called me and said she knew I could do the job, but it was abundantly clear that I was just desperate and not really interested in working there. She was right – I’d become the fox.

As a job search drags on, you will be tempted to “just take something”, and depending on your economic drivers, you may need to. However, stay focused as long as you can on where your interests truly lie.

What can you be the best at?

By nature, I’m a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. I like doing lots of different things, even if none of them are perfect. I can reach an acceptable level of mediocrity at [profanity] near anything, but don’t have the patience or attention span to be an expert in anything.

WARNING: In a down market, specialists get jobs and generalists starve.

I struggled to find a job because I had trouble identifying the one thing that I did better than anything (or anyone) else. Focus your job search around the one skill or experience that is the biggest differentiator. If you are really good at research, but a genius in financial modeling, focus on financial modeling jobs.

In this market, you may ask why you should only focus on the skills where you are exceptional, even though you may be much better than average in several areas. I’ll use the example of comparative advantage, from the Econ 101 class that you slept through freshman year. Stanstanistan is a country that’s great at pretty much everything, but there are some areas where it truly excels. For every $1 of cost, it can produce 5 bushels of corn or 10 bushels of wheat. It’s neighbor, Narnia, produces only 4 bushels of corn or 5 bushels of wheat for every $1 of cost. Stanstanistan wins on both fronts, so why bother trading with Narnia? Comparative advantage says the optimal situation for both is for Stanstanistan to produce only wheat (where it has the greatest advantage) and Narnia to produce corn, and then trade.

Both countries have $4 to invest – Stanstanistan produces 40 bushels of wheat and Narnia produces 16 bushels of corn. They then trade, with Stanstanistan giving 16 bushels of wheat for 11 bushels of corn. Stanstanistan walks away with 24 bushels of wheat and 11 bushels of corn for $4 in total investment. To produce this on its own – even though it was stronger than Narnia on both fronts – would have cost Stanstanistan $4.60.

Okay – wake up now, econ lesson’s over. You should take a hard look at your experience and skill set and identify your comparative advantage. What skills allow you to really separate yourself from the pack, rather than just be at the top of it. By focusing on the top 1-2 areas where you really excel, you will maximize your value for both the potential employer and yourself.

What drives your economic engine?

In the context of a business, Collins is focusing on the 1-2 key metrics that drive the company’s economics and profit. For our purposes here, I’ll shift this to focus on what you really need versus what you really want.

Companies are scrutinizing every dollar they spend. If it’s not core to the business or doesn’t have a clear and acceptable return on investment, it’s on the chopping block. We should approach our own finances the same. Just as the time for companies to investing in gaining market share or launching new ventures is a few years away, make your own adjustments now.

There will also be tradeoffs between your passions and skills and your economic realities. You may be passionate about teaching or working for a startup, but your economic situation may not allow it. Chances are, what you are best at has played a key role in your professional success to date. However, you may be in a situation that your greatest strength (subprime mortgage origination? speech writing for Republican presidential candidates?) is no longer valued by the market the way it was 6 months ago. As you look at your passions and your strengths, take a closer look at how the change in the market may have impacted the economics of potential career changes.

Don’t be afraid to start something

While now may seem like a terrible time to start a business, I can personally attest that it’s possible. I ended up starting a consulting firm for small, struggling companies. We were scrappy and creative, and managed to feed ourselves and build an interesting little business. Our second client was Accolo, for which I’ve now worked for close to 5 years. If you are passionate about something that leverages your greatest strength, hang your shingle out as a consultant. Don’t confuse this with abandoning a focused job search – creating a job is the same as finding one. If you’re fortunate enough to turn it into a viable business, or find a temp-to-hire position that lets you try before you buy, so much the better.

Back to the hedgehog – focus, focus, focus

The longer things drag on for you, the more tempting it will be to use a shotgun approach – throw as much lead in the air as you can, and see what falls. You will be happier and more successful if you use the rifle approach. Research your prey, spend a LOT of time stalking it, and when the time is right and the wind is blowing your direction – pull the trigger. If you need any extra motivation, I’ll drop off Joey the Parakeet to keep you company.

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