Telling Your Professional Story
“I have your resume here, Ms. Paddison, but I’d like to hear from you: What makes you the right candidate for this position?”
“I’m glad you asked. As you can see, I have the industry experience, but what’s more, I have experience in taking growing companies like yours to the next level. I’m a team-builder, because I know that to be a strong company you need strong, motivated employees. I’ll use my network to help you establish key connections in the industry and put my experience to work in advising where and how fast to expand into new markets. I grew up on a farm, and at heart I’m still a farm girl; that means I work hard and I don’t give up. Based on everything I’ve read and heard about your company, I can see that it’s on the cusp of something big. I’d like to help you take it there.”
See what I just did there? I turned this interview on its head in the very first question. I did it with a compelling, confident, narrative explanation of who I am, where I come from, and where I’m going. That answer is powerful because it shows that I understand the particular needs of the company as well as how I can apply my strengths and expertise to address them. Rather than explain why I want the job, I told them why they need me to take the job. I didn’t simply recite information, I told a story—one in which I’m the hero.
It seems like a dream answer . . . because it is.
It’s a dream answer to an imaginary interview question at a fake company that I made up and then addressed at my leisure from the comfort of my own home. Things admittedly get a bit more complicated when you’re in the proverbial hot seat: crafting that resume cover letter, interviewing for that promotion, or networking with people you need to impress. Nevertheless, my imaginary scenario above was not a futile exercise.
Thinking through precisely this kind of “dream answer” is a great first step in formulating and sharing your own professional story. By imagining a company with needs exactly suited to your strengths and experiences, you can gain a fuller picture of what you have to offer and also gain insight into the kinds of companies, projects, and scenarios in which you’ll thrive. Plus, it’s pretty fun to get to play the hero!
Even if you don’t plan on applying for a new job or promotion any time soon, there are countless times in your professional life when you will need to answer the (sometimes unspoken) question: “Why you?” It sounds like a simple question, but I see people tripped up by it all the time. Understanding and embracing your own professional story will help you provide a powerful answer that is specific, compelling, and delivered with confidence.
Know your story
To develop a compelling professional narrative, you need to think critically about your strengths and experiences and how they fit into your short- and long-term goals. Get specific. Whenever a resume comes across my desk with an overly broad objective statement, I know immediately that the applicant either doesn’t understand her gifts or hasn’t properly researched the job they are seeking. Either way, it’s not a good first impression.
Many women, including me, tend toward perfectionism, and that’s not all bad. It’s associated with plenty of positive qualities like diligence and attention to detail, but it can also be paralyzing. If you worry too much about being perfect, you’ll never fully embrace your strengths, and you’ll also end up wasting a lot of time. Accept and celebrate the gifts that God gave you. Strive to do your best in all things, but don’t let fear or perfectionism cripple your ability to take risks and move forward.
A few years ago I had the chance to meet Nora O’Donnell, co-anchor of CBS This Morning. It was around the time I was developing 4word, and so I asked her the question most prominent in my mind: “What is the biggest thing holding women back?” Without missing a beat, she replied, “Self-assertiveness and assuredness.” Her answer surprised me a bit at first, but it made a lot of sense and has stuck with me.
A wealth of research in recent years has demonstrated the incredible power of confidence. People who are confident tend to perform better and tend to be perceived as more capable than those who are equally-qualified but less confident. In order to be effective, confidence must be genuine, and there’s reason to believe that this is a special challenge for women. In a recent article for The Atlantic, authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman explored the existence of a critical “confidence gap” between working women and their male counterparts. Kay and Shipman point to numerous studies showing that men routinely overestimate their abilities and performance, while equally competent women underestimate both, to their detriment.
The good news here is that you can improve your confidence level. It starts with the basics: prayer and health. Pray that God would continue to reveal and refine your gifts and give you confidence in his provision. Keep your body and mind healthy and capable with good foods, adequate sleep, and regular exercise. Kay and Shipman recommend confidence-boosting activities like “power poses,” and suggest that women take small steps to move beyond their comfort zones.
Share it, boldly
Another way to describe this is “self-promotion,” which is another key indicator of success at work and among job seekers. Unfortunately, women tend to be bad at it. Or, more specifically, they tend not to do it at all. But maybe part of the problem is that we’re thinking about it the wrong way. I don’t particularly like the phrase “self-promotion” because it can sound vain and off-putting. But, when I think about it, I often notice people at work sharing their strengths and accomplishments in ways that don’t bother me at all. As a manager, it can be downright helpful when someone self-identifies as “right” for a particular project or role.
It’s a bit of semantics, but I find it helpful to think of these types of activities as “sharing” rather than promoting. There are strategic and natural ways to do this that aren’t likely to feel boastful or alienate colleagues. If you collaborated with other people, don’t downplay their involvement. Share credit where appropriate, and emphasize the ways in which you led your team to success. Keep it positive. Make it a rule not to put others down or complain about their efforts unless the issue is serious enough for formal action. Form a “posse” of cheerleaders who actively celebrate one another’s accomplishments. Do so without shame or doubt. Telling your story in this way is part of your job. It’s part of the value that you bring to your company and to the members of your team.
You have a valid and valuable story to tell. Know it, embrace it, believe it, and then tell me: “Why you?”
Written by Diane Paddison
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