It continues to be difficult to get hired, and partly that’s because of something that I heard called the “purple squirrel” phenomenon. What this refers to is the almost absurd detail to which potential employers go in describing the “perfect” hire. Such people don’t exist, and so the perfect becomes the enemy of the very good, and very good people wind up continuing to look for work. I’ve tried to think through how to get around this problem, and this is what I’ve come up with.
If you were selling a product or creating a new brand, how would you do it? When I worked in advertising, I invented something called the DNA of brands. That has become a phrase that has become much abused — most people in the industry talk about some fuzzy “essence” of a brand that is a combination of the logo, the product, and whatever else is memorable about a brand and sets it apart, like the Coke bottle, the script on the bottle and the red color of the ads. That is not DNA. Brand DNA consists of what are called “buyer values,” which are the reasons why people purchase a product. Buyer values separate similar products for each other, since each product has a slightly different selling proposition. Even when the selling propositions appear to be the same, differences in perception pop up or can be created to make market space for a brand — or, in this case, space for you to differentiate yourself from anyone else applying for the same job or assignment.
If you can accept the truth of that statement, then you can create a unique personal marketing plan. What are the values that constitute personal DNA, the values by which employers judge you? I would argue that they are:
Why those four? Two reasons. First, DNA consists of four protein precursors whose initials are CGA and T. Second, ask yourself what separates one candidate from another if two people have equal skills. You’ll find, I believe, that it is these four attributes and not much more.
Credibility means that when you make a claim about yourself, it is believable and can be backed up by a chunk of your resume, either as work experience or as additional accomplishments or skills. It’s part of your personal narrative, what spies call your “legend.” If people think you exaggerate or misspeak, your credibility diminishes. If you undertake a project and can’t get it done, your credibility diminishes. If you are expected to be an effective team leader and you sow dissension wherever you go, your credibility is shot.
Gravitas is seriousness of purpose. You have to convince a potential employer that you are going to take the responsibilities of your job seriously, and that you are going to “take the hill” when necessary. A history of staying late to finish a project — and I don’t mean loitering around the office to impress the boss, or remaining because your day has been so cluttered that you need the extra hours as catch-up time — or taking on additional responsibilities without being asked, and without complaining that others are not pulling their weight, indicates gravitas. Pulling a long face while you go about your daily tasks just means you’re a sourpuss.
Agility means that you are flexible in your approach to problems, and that you are willing to tackle tasks immediately. It might mean intrepidity, but bravery is not called for in most business tasks. Rather, if you begin with the knowledge that Murphy is king, that whatever can go wrong will, and that you are prepared to make course corrections whenever necessary, you can demonstrate agility. On your resume and in your letter, it will be good to enter into a discussion that demonstrates agility.
Talent is what the French call je ne sais quoi, which is a quality or attribute that is difficult to describe or express. Yet nearly everyone knows talent when they see it, at least after it has been confirmed by others. A talented sales professional is talented because she has won numerous awards for outselling her colleagues. A talented engineer is talented because he has solved a critical problem that nobody else could solve. A talented project manager is talented because she has brought the project in ahead of time and under budget. All of these are manifestations of talent that have been acknowledged by others. You aren’t talented because you think you are; talent and its validation exist entirely in the eyes of others.
Make yourself some notes of examples of how you conform to these character traits and integrate them into the letters you write to prospective employers, your resume, even your website, if you have one. You are marketing you, and the best way to prove that yourself worthy of that job or assignment you covet is to prove that you can sell the you brand.
How do you demonstrate these all-important elements of your personal DNA? Credibility is not only believability, but it is accuracy in reporting. If you do information collection as part of your job, do you have a reputation for getting your facts right? That’s credibility. If you are repeatedly employee of the month, that’s credibility in abundance, and if your own company hasn’t rewarded it properly, it can be rewarded by someone else.
Gravitas? If you are arranging a meeting, are you the one who ensures that everyone attends, but that if someone misses the meeting, you see that they get the meeting notes without being asked? That’s gravitas.
You can show off agility by inventiveness, but often agility is subtler. I know a grocery clerk at one store who went to another store to purchase an item for a customer while the customer continued with her shopping. That’s agility in customer satisfaction. And I know moms who can whip up a party for a kid in an hour when too many things have gotten in the way for them to make a conventional effort. That’s agility in relationship management, which is essential in the workplace.
Talent, of course, is based on the recognition you’ve received. Whatever you have ever excelled in at any time in your life, put it down, even if whatever it was happened years ago. Talent can lay dormant for years and then reappear. You want a potential employer to know that so they might give you a chance.
Stephen Kindel is the Chief Operating Officer of The Bronx Project, a startup pharmaceutical company. He has had many jobs, written many books and hired many people over his career. His latest book, Skill Sets, is available by contacting him at