Evaluating Career Opportunities: It’s Not Just About the Numbers

Here's an article I wrote recently for Pragmatic Marketing, which appeared in their February newsletter. Thought I'd reprint here and share a little link love. And for the record, I am not the one that used the word "expert" to describe myself; that was their editorializing. Anyhoo, here it is (with much thanks to my editor, Mary Peterson!)

Evaluating Career Opportunities: It’s Not Just About the Numbers

Ready for a change? Looking for a new job? Here is advice from an expert on what to look for when evaluating new opportunities. By Heather Hamilton

There are few decisions in life that have a bigger impact on your future potential than selecting a new job. Sure, there are matters of the heart: marriage, children, etc. But when making a career move, you need to use your head and do your research. The time to start deciding is before you start looking. While we are conditioned to evaluate opportunities based on compensation, there are a wide range of other factors that need to be weighed. So creating a framework for evaluating opportunities before you start looking will help you say yes to the right opportunity and walk away from everything else.

Evaluating multiple competitive offers sounds like a great scenario to have to deal with, doesn’t it? The idea that several companies are vying for your skills; that you have options. But if this is the point at which you start really assessing your options, you are at risk for making a hasty decision. There are different decision making styles, to be sure. But some preemptive filtering based on your personal needs, your preferences and your long term career goals will help alleviate some of the noise around the decision making process. Be smart and go into the job search with a clear idea of what you want. By targeting the companies and industries that can meet your objectives, you’ll be able to toss off the ones that don’t meet your criteria and work your way down to a few offers from which you can choose. By deciding with both your head and your heart, you will experience a better outcome.

Ready to start sending out resumes? Whoah there, Tiger. Once you decide you want to make a move, it’s hard not to start taking actions, but life’s most important journeys take a little extra thought. Do you have a company targeting strategy? Or were you just going to float around the internet and see what’s there? First thing you need to do is assess your values. I’m not talking about whether you love your mother and let cars cut in front of you in traffic. I’m talking about what is important to you, in your next job and in life. Only you can make those decisions but I can offer a few things for you think about.

What do I want to be when I grow up?

It’s hard to think about your career end game. There’s a position out there for you where your dream job meets your talents. So many of us think about our next role, but not beyond that. We want it all and we want it now. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. To a company, you are a collection of skills; sure there’s a person attached. But the business transaction is money paid for work done. So when they hire you, it’s for what they know you can do and that is generally based on proof of what you have already done.

I started out recruiting in the temp space, which isn’t really recruiting as much as it is placement. People walk in your door and you find them temp positions which may turn into full-time positions. I was getting my feet wet and it was great experience. I was also impatient and ambitious; and I wasn’t going to take over the world working in an office complex in Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois. My dream job: editor. But that wasn’t going to happen either. My realistic job goal was to be an in-house recruiter for a well-known company. That position was another 3 job moves away. It took five years from beginning to landing at Microsoft. How do I know I took the right path? I’ve been here for almost nine years and still loving it.

I receive resumes all the time from people that want to get into marketing at Microsoft but lack any marketing experience. My advice to them is to find a position that allows them to utilize the skills they have and to foster new marketing skills; a transition position, so to speak. The company pays for the skills you have, you gain new skills in the process. In my transition from temp recruiting to Microsoft Staffing Manager, I was doing just that. It’s hard to think of a succession of positions as baby steps toward a bigger career goal. But that is the smart way to do it.

So what does this mean for you? You need to identify that next big career milestone, assess the skill gaps between where you are now and where you want to be down the road, identify a subset of those skills that you want to gain in your next position and then find companies and industries that both value your current skills and will help you develop the new ones. Where can you find this kind of information?

  • in company job descriptions, corporate career sites
  • by networking with people in different industries and companies
  • engaging with bloggers at companies that have knowledge of the work you want to do
  • LinkedIn
  • web searches
  • conference presentations, user group meetings, MBA Alumni socials, etc.
  • talking to recruiters

The information is out there. It’s just a matter of knowing what you are looking for.

Location, location, location

This isn’t as simple as deciding whether to move or not. You should have in mind a short list of places that you would be willing to move to for that right position. Of course, being married with children makes this a bit more complicated (but in a good way, I am told). This is something to be thought through BEFORE you start to look for a position. Most every recruiter you talk to will have stories about getting a candidate through the entire interview process before that candidate discusses with their spouse the idea of moving to the new location: “my spouse doesn’t want to move” is an incredibly frustrating response to an offer, in the eyes of a recruiter. It says that you didn’t prepare for the interview (and while it may not matter this time, you don’t want to burn a bridge with that recruiter).

Some people are fairly mobile and can pack up and move at any time. Others have houses to sell, kids in school, concerns about building a network of new friends. Your job is to know which one you are and which locations will meet your needs if you are willing to move. And beyond things like cost of living and weather, you need to think about lifestyle and social networks that you will be able to build in the new location. There are a number of online tools focused on evaluating and comparing cities, including homefair.com. They will help you calculate differences in salaries, real estate costs, schools and the social scene.

Don’t forget that most large companies offer a range of resources to potential recruits based on their geographical locations. Some may set you up on an area tour or allow you to work with a relocation specialist before an offer is even made.

The Work Environment

This is where a little bit of heart comes into the evaluation process. What kind of work environment is going to get you jazzed to show up every day? Where, in the past, have you felt most “at home” at work? What types of people do you want to surround yourself with? Who can you learn from? Some of these questions around the immediate team you will have to assess as you go through the interview process. But much of the corporate culture questions can be answered before you start your search.

If you put off thinking about this until you start interviewing, you are running a risk. Let me be clear about one thing: on the interview day, companies are making their best impression. That’s not to say that some don’t leave a bad impression, despite good intentions. But what you get on the interview day, while it may provide glimpses of reality, is not reality. You get what the company chooses to show you. Your best bet is to research this online. For larger corporations, you’ll find references to corporate culture and atmosphere in articles and discussion groups. For smaller companies, you may have to dig deeper into blogs and social networks. At the very least, you need to give it some thought before you show up for the interview. Which will bug you more: the guy playing foosball outside of your office or the fact that you need VP approval to spend $100 on a trade magazine subscription? Think about it.
The people you work with will most likely have the biggest impact on your job satisfaction, yet this criteria is rarely given the weight it deserves in the job change decision. My best and worst work experiences involved managers that I clicked with or seriously didn’t.

There’s probably not a lot of research you can do on this before you know who you would be interviewing with but it sure is something that you should be thinking about throughout the interview day. A little soul searching about the types of peer and manager relationships that enable your best work is in order. How involved do you want your manager to be? How much time do you want to spend with peers and in what type of environment? Do you leave your work at the office or will these people be part of your social circle? Through networking and research, you can find some actual employees and ask them to tell you the truth – the good, the bad and the ugly. Every company has its blemishes but when you understand what you are getting into, you’ll be happier about your decision.

Career Progression

Speaking of long term thinking, what if you could build a career in one company by trying out different roles? Could you get to your career sweet spot in one company and if so, why wouldn’t you want to? Not every company is thoughtful about internal movement. At the same time, the company that is most willing to take risks on you based on your record of achievement is the company that you are already working for. So it would be a little silly not to think about building out a career inside that company. Checking this out is fairly straight-forward. First, look at the company’s career site to see if they have the types of roles that you could see yourself moving into down the road. Then look up the bios of people working at that company and look for evidence of job changes within the verbiage (for example, if someone “has held a variety of roles”). And again, it would be wise to engage your network to discuss this with employees of some of your target companies.

Compensation – The Big Picture

Sure, compensation is important; it pays the bills. And you probably know to check the cost of living (or cost of housing, tax rates) estimates in any locations you are considering. But there’s more to think about when it comes to compensation. You definitely have to look at the big picture. Something may sound like a “benefit”, but if it was something that you were paying for before, it impacts your compensation. It might make sense to pull together an Excel spreadsheet and work this through. Think about things like child care reimbursement, medical deductibles/co-pays/flex spending accounts, transportation assistance (bus passes, car pools), reimbursement for cell phone or Internet, corporate discounts, levels of coverage for medical/dental/vision, legal assistance programs, paid holidays and vacation time, tuition assistance, health programs (weight management, smoking cessation). The list goes on and only you can determine what is important to you. But comparing base compensation from company to company really doesn’t adequately show whether you will be financially better or worse off at another company.

A Final Note…Plan Ahead

There should be other categories that you are assessing based on what is important to you in your life and you will certainly weigh some categories more heavily than others. The point is to know what these categories are and think about them now and frequently (especially as you are starting a job search).

I often tell people that when you think about building out your personal network, when you need to start looking for a job, it’s already too late. The time to build your network is when you already have a job, when you have something to offer those in your network and when your judgment isn’t impacted by the fact that you HAVE to find a new position. I think about the prospect of weighing the merit potential next roles in the same way. The type of company loyalty that existed for prior generations is dead. Now, people stay with companies as long as the relationship is mutually beneficial and the current situation is better than the prospect of looking for a new position and the change and risk associated with it. It’s a pretty simple formula. So right now, even if you are very happy in your current position with no immediate intention of moving, you should have in mind where your next career move might potentially be. And to do this, you need to take a hard look at what truly makes you happy at work and create a simple model for evaluating your next step.

Heather Hamilton manages Microsoft Staffing's central team responsible for marketing candidate generation, research and community. In this role, she leads Microsoft’s efforts to build a pipeline of qualified marketing talent and creates strategies aimed at delivering the industry’s best talent to Microsoft’s hiring teams via prospect research and community building programs. Aside from managing a talented team of staffing professionals, Heather is probably best known as a blogger. She is a requested speaker on topics related to candidate outreach and community building and her blog, One Louder, has resulted in significant press interest including The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Fast Company. Contact Heather

Comments (15)

  1. Jon Lukens says:

    Great article, Heather — I think you hit the biggest things right on the head:  planning (ahead) for a career change that’s the right fit *and* making sure you "click" with your boss.  If your head and your heart aren’t in it, it’ll head South in a hurry for you.


  2. Thanks a lot Heather, this article was extremely helpful especially given my current circumstances!

    You said: "My realistic job goal was to be an in-house recruiter for a well-known company. That position was another 3 job moves away. It took five years from beginning to landing at Microsoft."

    5 years seems pretty quick! Did you have any rough time lines set for yourself? And if so, did those push your job moves or did you only make moves once the relationship was no longer "mutually beneficial"?

  3. HeatherLeigh says:

    Jon – thanks!

    Ian – I wish I could tell you that my planning was thorough enough to include timelines, but it wasn’t. It was really around what my next step was and whether I was ready to take it. When I was done learning and felt I had nowhere to go, I moved to the next position. My resume definitely looked job-hoppy but I was able to talk people through the moves.

    By the way, those 5 years did not include the 3 years of crap jobs I took before I started recruiting. It was just within those 5 years that I locked in on what I wanted to do and started moving toward it.

    In general, I think timelines are good, but you need to be thinking about what you are getting out of your employment relationship.

  4. Matt says:

    Your article was really well timed for me; I read it an hour before meeting with a prospective employer to review an offer.  For me the deciding factor was the “has held a variety of roles” comment – I’d much rather work in an environment that values the people and does as much as it can to develop people rather than always hiring from outside.

  5. HeatherLeigh says:

    Matt – glad the article helped!

  6. RB says:

    Heather have you ever had a candidate who just rubbed you the wrong way, maybe they had an annoying laugh or something. And you just nixed an offer?

  7. HeatherLeigh says:

    No. It doesn’t work like that.

  8. Thanks for the input! I’m starting to get the feeling that it’s my [fairly aggressive] career timelines that might be frustrating me as several of the elements involved are, for now,  somewhat beyond my control.

  9. Paul says:

    Hi Heather:

    Although not currently looking for anything, I find it most interesting to read thoughtful pieces like this from someone who possesses a lot of domain expertise.  (But, I still think you missed your ‘editor’ calling — you are a great writer.)

    One thing that I have always thought immensely shortsighted is that most companies do view candidates as a collection of skills.  While I know it’s true, it misses the strategic potential that someone who thinks differently or who can learn and master anything quickly and adapt to an ever changing environment brings to the table.  Ironically, those are the things a company most values in an individual after they’re in the door, but least evaluate during the hiring process.

    Five years to your goal job doesn’t seem that unreasonable in the context of looking backwards over a career, but I wonder how many 20-somethings would have the patience to look ahead what seems a lifetime at that age.  Even a lot of 30-somethings have trouble with looking that far ahead. I’m impressed that anyone can lay out a stepwise career plan and actually stick to it.  I’m more a person of the moment — carpe diem — seize the day.  Of course, the key then is to have interesting opportunities in front of yourself to seize.

    Nice work, as usual.  Thanks Heather.

  10. HeatherLeigh says:

    Ian – it will work out. TGhe next opportunity might tap you on the shoulder.

    Paul – thanks. Smart compaies are looking for the skills + the competencies. But few are willing to invest in the ones lacking the skills. Best case scenario is they have both.

  11. Paul says:

    Agreed.  But how many companies are smart?

    It’s interesting that we aren’t willing to invest in enhancing skills, particularly if only one or two are (apparently) missing.  Skills are a dime a dozen, and any motivated person can acquire them (often quickly).  But the aptitudes and competencies, like adaptability, raw intelligence, inquisitiveness, leadership, etc. can’t be taught, and are far more valuable.

    If you can find both, that’s fantastic.  But, it is too easy to satisfy a laundry list with an overstated resume that doesn’t accurately represent true skills, but which matches the documented requirements, and then say the job is done.  Obviously, many times this has a good, or good enough result, so the failure to optimize for the best case scenario isn’t always obvious.  Certainly not in the short term.

    I thnk it is why so few companies stand out as exceptional.

  12. Berge says:

    Good article but (i don’t want to sound awkward here) don’t most people think about most of these anyway? by default?

    I would like to have an opinion about a catch-22 situation i am in and i guess others could be in too. I had just started working for a privately owned mid-size company and after 3 months i got a much better offer from one of the big well known corporations in this case Honeywell. So with a good offer from a company of high caliber at least in the mind of most people, i said yes to a chance that does not come often. Seven months later the department i worked for was simply eliminated and me with another 18 people had no more jobs. Now nobody is willing to take me seriously as i have two short stints and i am innocent damn it. Anybody would prefer to work in much better conditions as i did, and now i am seriously screwed while doing the right things. I applied to Honeywell again for other jobs but nothing yet. Now that’s what i call a sad career endless labyrinth!!!

  13. HeatherLeigh says:

    Berge – not really. Not at the beginning of a job search. They kind of think about it as things progress. I guess my point is to think about it before it becomes an issue.

    I hope that’s not as sad of a situation as you think it is. I do think you made a mistake changing companies. Unless conditions were horrible (mistreatment, not being what they told you it would be, etc), you should have stuck it out there for a bit longer. I know…not what you hoped to hear.

    You need to do 2 things: reach out to your network. People that can vouch for you will be a bigger help in getting your resume some attention, because recruiters would notice the hsort tenure and have concerns. So you want someone going to bat for you. The other thing you do is address it in a cover letter. I usually think cover letters are pointless and tell people that I only read them if there’s an issue on hte resume. Well, your case would qualify. BUt be careful how you phrase the move from the one company to the other. It’s not enough to call it a "better opportunity". Any hiring company would have significant concerns about hiring you, should a "better opportunity" cross your [ath. So you’ll need to practice how you talk about this.

    Does that help?

  14. JT says:

    Heather, really impressed by the person you have become over the years.  You have grown into an amazing recruiter, writer and model for those in the industry.  You have embraced your nomadic upbringing – and used it to your benefit!  Your mom and dad should be genuinely proud of the strong, confidant business-woman you are today!

  15. HeatherLeigh says:

    JT – wow! Thanks!

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