I receive a call from a headhunter on behalf of a creative branding agency based in New York and LA. They've just launched a small office in SF, and are looking for a lead strategist.
To start, I ask a few questions and listen to her circuitous story about knowing the founder, all the while thinking that I have not prepared at all for this conversation. After a quick glance at the job description a week ago the meeting was rescheduled, and now that we are on the phone my mind is a total blank.
This is unfortunate, because (while the role may not be for me) if the woman on the phone decides that I'm a good fit, then I get set up with a fellow leader who probably knows something I don't about story, and we get to explore how our respective spheres of expertise and interest intersect - which I have always found to be a wise investment of my time.
Now, the gatekeeper is wrapping up her story and turning the tables, asking what I've done that makes me qualified for the role.
At this point, distracted and reactionary, I give her a roundabout summary of the events that led to where I am today; lump my clients into a few categories; sketch out a few case studies; and tie it up with a neat little bow. After a bit more back and forth, she thanks me for my time and we agree to stay in touch. The whole conversation takes all of twelve minutes.
I hang up feeling irked.
It's precisely the feeling you get when you've tried to fit into someone else's box.
When you've measured yourself by someone else's list of required qualifications.
When you've watched yourself dance, until someone says: "stop - we've seen enough."
I coach my clients on how to handle this type of situation; and yet here, I did exactly what I tell them NOT to do.
Of course, it's important to be humbled sometimes, and to learn from your own mistakes. So for all you lovelies out there reading this, here is how I could have handled it instead.
Me: So, how do you know the founder?
Headhunter: Well, it's a funny story actually. We knew each other in college, but then we lost touch, and then a couple years ago we happened to attend the same event in LA with mutual friends. So we reconnected after all this time! Then he asked me to help him build a team in SF and I agreed. It was very serendipitous.
HH: Yeah. So now I'd love to know more about you and what you've done. What qualifies you for this position?
Me: Well, the truth is I don't know whether I'm qualified or not. But why don't I tell you what I do, on the off chance that it might be what you need?
HH: Yes, please, go ahead.
Me: Would it be alright if I used your story as an example?
HH: Oh, sure.
Me: Great. Let's assume for a moment that I am the right person for the job, and you just told me your story about the founder, and now it's my turn to tell you about my background, and then we reach the end of the conversation and hang up and go on with our days.
In that case, I would walk away having no idea who the founder is, what he cares about, or how his company is driving change in the creative industry. I couldn't say what the work is doing to challenge the status quo or replace the broken myths of our time, which is what I care most about. I wouldn't have a story to tell my friends about how cool it would be to work with you, or to tell myself about the bigger quest I'd be helping advance in the world by joining my efforts to yours. I would just hang up the phone, and jump right back into the million other things that compete for my attention on a daily basis.
So with that ONE story -the story you are in charge of telling on behalf of your client - it's quite possible that you just lost the perfect person for his team.
Me: So. That's what I help people with. I wonder if you think it might be valuable to your client?
See what I did there?
First, I refused to act like someone I'm not. "I have no idea if I'm qualified or not." This immediately smacks of the Truth, and makes everything I say after that more deserving of her trust.
Second, I got her permission to play on my own turf. "How about instead, I tell you what I do?" This automatically demonstrates the confidence and self-awareness of a leader in her field.
Third, rather than get wrapped up in trying to justify how my professional history makes me worthy of this opportunity, I gave her a real-time experience of the unique way that I add value- while at the same time showing just how much is at stake in her client's story.
(Of course, I run a risk here - my demo might bruise the headhunter's ego. But if she is truly looking out for the best interest of her client, she can't help but be intrigued.)
The next time someone asks what makes you qualified, remember this: every single qualification in the whole of human history was made up by someone,and that someone was just another imperfect human being, doing their best to figure it out as they went, just like you and me.
So take a moment to remember that, and to remember yourself - and then show up as THAT person.Quit focusing on what you've done, and instead show people what you can do for them.
I guarantee it will make your high-stakes conversations infinitely more enjoyable.