How to get a job--learn the secret from a bad movie

By Philip Brewer on 8 March 2008 (Updated 12 December 2008) 8 comments
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[Editor's note:  If you recently lost your job, take a look at Wise Bread's collection of tips and resources for the recently laid off.]

I've read a bunch of books on how to do a job search. They all talk about networking. They all talk about researching the company--knowing what they do and what they need done. They all talk about "creating" a job--presenting yourself as a solution to a problem. I read the books, but I didn't understand what they meant, until I saw this really bad movie.

The movie was "Let's Get Harry," and it's bad enough that the director didn't want his name on it. (It's an "Alan Smithee" film.) It's well worth missing, except for one bit near the beginning.

The set-up is that a small-town American has been taken hostage in Colombia. The guy's friends decide to mount a rescue mission. Realizing that they'll need help, they take out an ad for a mercenary.

The good bit is the stretch where the heros hire their mercenary. They interview a seemingly endless string of lunatics, nutcases, and losers--guys pretending to be dangerous, guys pretending to have connections, guys pretending to have mysterious pasts. Our heros are at the point of giving up, knowing that any these clowns would be worse than useless in a dangerous situation, when Robert Duvall shows up--and shows us how it's done.

Duvall's character shows up having already done some research. He'd made the connection between news reports about an American kidnapped overseas and the interview taking place in the man's home town. He'd figured out what the mission was going to be. He'd done some research on the Colombian criminal element, and figured out what group had most likely done the kidnapping. He showed up with a photo of the guy the were trying to rescue and a photo of the head of the gang that had probably done the kidnapping.

That little stretch of film made an impression on me that the job search books never had. Here was a worked example of how to create a job:

  1. Figure out what the employer's problem is.
  2. Figure out what the solution is.
  3. Present yourself as someone who can provide the solution.

It was a revelation to me. Until then, I'd generally taken the lazy path in looking for a job--I showed up for the interview, expecting the employer to tell me what the problem was and what they'd decided to do to solve it. Then, I presented myself as someone with the expertise to do the work. In a high-demand field like software engineering, the lazy way can be successful, but it's never going to give you as good a job as one that's created for you.

I got tempted down the path to the lazy way because it seemed so easy--and because it seemed stupid to do a bunch of work for a job I didn't even have yet. If they hired me to solve their problem, then I would. Until then, I had other stuff I'd rather be doing.

What I didn't understand was that a position created for me could be nothing but stuff that I'd rather be doing. If that's the pay-off for a few hours of unpaid work, it's well worth it.

There are plenty of insights in those job search books--good advice on networking, good advice on identifying the person who can say "yes" to hiring you, good advice on presenting yourself as a can-do person who can get the job done. I managed to get most of them from the books. It was just this one where I somehow never managed to make the connection until I saw this bad movie.

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Minimum Wage

What the FARC?

Philip Brewer's picture

You're a funny guy, Minimum Wage.

Guest's picture

This was a revelation to me. About six months ago, I was ready to quit my current gig--I was already filling out applications and putting together my resume. And then someone made a comment at a meeting, and I thought, "Why the devil doesn't the company just --?" As of yesterday, the company does. And I'm making it happen. Nationally. From my home office, in my fuzzy slippers.

Not all companies are like this. I got to shop my idea to the CEO, CFO and division president in January (and they flew me out to a 4 star hotel to do it--sweet!) I consider that the sign of a truly good employer.

Not to be self-promotional or anything, but there's a longer account I posted yesterday on my blog, if you're interested in checking it out.

Guest's picture
GG

I love what you're saying here, and I know I'd want to hire someone who presented themselves this way. But here's the thing I don't get: how do you find out what a company's problem is from afar? I mean, if you're not an employee there and don't have inside knowledge, how can you find out what they're wanting/thinking?

Philip Brewer's picture

There are some situations that can give you the necessary insight (such as, if you already work there, or know someone who does, or you work for a supplier, customer, or competitor). In general, though, I think you're right that it's hard to just pick an employer and then figure out what they need.

In practice, you're probably better off to come at it from the opposite direction:

  • What would you do for a living, if you could do anything?
  • What can you do well that people will pay for?
  • If you could replace a few of your current tasks that you don't like with ones that you do, what would your job look like?

Think about the answers to that sort of question first, then look around for companies that could benefit from your skills and expertise.

Beyond that, probably networking is the key. Get to know some of the people at the companies that you're interested in. Listen when they say things like, "My manager doesn't understand X" or "The factory always screws up Y." (They might even say, "We can't find anybody to do Z," although you can't really expect that.) Do enough of it, and you'll eventually find a match--a problem where the solution is you.

Guest's picture
rob

Thanks for the excellent post and idea. I can see so many situations where I can apply this. It's kind of like identifying what is the company/person/entity's self interest and showing to them how you can help them get what they want. With this target in mind, you exert tremendous influence and leverage. Very, very good advice. Maybe I'll even watch the movie :)

Guest's picture

This approach makes sense, but I suppose the onus is on us (ahem) to imagine what the company needs? Any company wants to save money, to increase efficiency, to grow. But some very specific needs, we can either find someone inside (networking) and pick their brain or try to imagine ourselves on the inside... Then it becomes a little more of a shot in the dark. Well, maybe the dusk, if we're good with our heads.

But perhaps just the step of presenting oneself as a problem-solver rather than as a hopeful will work wonders. Anyway, good post-- lots to think about.

Guest's picture

Philip,

I've been producing asktheheadhunter.com for almost 15 years. One of my readers put me on to what you wrote above. Made me slap my forehead, wow. The site is devoted to the simple idea that if you want a job, you must go into the interview and DO THE JOB, right there in front of the manager. You must show how you will deliver profit to the business. As you imply, that eliminates almost all potential candidates, and gives the edge to those who are most serious and motivated.

Now I want to get a hold of that crummy Duvall movie (hey, I like Duvall a lot, so I'll be able to sit through the whole thing) - it'll be a good time. Kudos to you for publishing your advice on this topic. Your 3 steps are mirrored in my 4 Questions. Hope you enjoy the site if you have a minute to check it out.

Best,
Nick Corcodilos
asktheheadhunter.com