All entries for August 2012

August 27, 2012

What are your weaknesses? The killer interview question…

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Mr Egg

It doesn't matter whether you're a seasoned pro or completely green, there are some interview questions that just invite dread. There's one that really seems to get pulses racing: "what are your weaknesses?" And I can see why. It seems to undermine your whole interview strategy; why would you give the recruiter reasons to reject you? Well the key here is to understand the psychology behind the question.

Why recruiters ask this question

Asking about your weaknesses – or variants on the theme – is not part of a malign plot to trip you up or make you stressed (though it can feel like it!). Interviewers often ask this question to gauge the following:

  • How well you respond to pressure. Can you provide a thoughtful, considered answer without crumbling? Are you able to maintain your composure?
  • Honesty and integrity. All of us have 'weak spots' but a strong candidate will take ownership of their weaknesses, showing both insight and self awarenes.
  • Evidence of personal growth. Being able to identify your weaknesses and take corrective action.

Don't play the 'perfectionist' card

Although the tide has started to turn, you'll still find many careers sites recommending the 'weakness into a strength' approach. I think recruiters are probably clued up enough to see beyond such a transparent – and cliched – strategy, and I can't help feeling this is guaranteed to provoke irritation. Just play out this scenario:

Interviewer: "Tell me about your weaknesses?"

You: "Well, I consider myself to be a perfectionist and I set myself extremely high standards. This makes it hard for me to delegate work and I sometimes tend to obsess over the smallest detail. However, I do recognise this can be a problem and I am trying to find a good balance between managing the project and seeking colleagues input and feedback"

What you hope the interviewer hears:

  • I am a high performing employee
  • I take the initiative
  • I see projects through to completion
  • I have no 'real' weaknesses

What they're really thinking:

  • I'm not sure you're a team player
  • You could be a bit high maintenance
  • You're not willing to learn
  • You're being disingenuous and lack self-awareness

Don't talk yourself out of a job

First of all, you need to give serious consideration to your weak points. And I do mean before the interview. You don't want to be caught on the back foot, trying to find an answer to a question that can make or break your interview. Think about the job spec and the role in general: if you proclaim a discomfort with public speaking, only to find it's an career essential, than don't be surprised if the interview ends fairly swiftly!

Try to find something that you've struggled with in the past, but are now trying to overcome. You don't want to be too candid and start checking off weaknesses like a shopping list, so it's best to identify one particular area and share your 'journey' through a brief narrative. I often pose this question in mock interviews and rather liked this answer:

"I'm not naturally the most organised person and in the past this affected my ability to meet multiple deadlines. This was certainly the case during my A levels, and I used to make lists and keep a day planner. When I started at Warwick I bought a smartphone and I use the alerts and apps to good effect. I find it much easier to manage my academic and extra curricular commitments and haven't missed a single deadline. I'm confident that I can now manage this weakness and feel able to meet the challenges of a professional workplace"

You may be wondering whether this was such a smart move. Who wants to admit they're disorganised? Well, as our student recognised there are some skills or traits that don't come naturally. Recruiters are expecting you to admit to some personal or professional weakness - they'll be far more surprised if you don't. Networking is my achilles heel - I really have to work at it. Can I say honestly that I've conquered my natural aversion to networking? No, but I have learnt some pretty useful techniques over the years and can – if needed – work a room. Like the student above, I've found ways to manage my weaknesses, so the impact on my professional life is negligible. Take a similar approach with an interviewer and you won't go far wrong.

Is there a 'right' answer?

There are good answers, bad answers and some downright ugly ones that will see you consigned to the 'reject' pile with lightning speed. Don't, for example, reply 'chocolate' hoping to find the recruiter's funny bone. There's a time for offbeat humour - the interview isn't it. So, is there a definitive, industry standard, universally accepted 'right' answer? No. This is one you have to work out for yourself, but get it right and you'll move just a little closer to that job offer.

August 21, 2012

My B–Hive experience: from creative brief to the NEC


This is a guest post by Kate Watson, who graduated from Warwick this year with a degree in Theatre and Performance Studies. Kate entered the prestigious B-Hive competition and won a top placement with the NEC Group. She recounts her incredible experience here...

I've always been passionate about theatre and chose my degree based on this, hoping to find an area of the arts that I could pursue as a career. After completing a marketing module and working in the marketing department of the Royal Concert Hall Nottingham, I knew this was where my future lay. Unfortunately - often due to misconceptions - theatre students sometimes get overlooked when it comes to business related jobs. The B-Hive competition was my way of proving to myself (and employers) that I was as able as any other degree student to succeed in marketing. And I did!

B-Hive - what's it all about?

For those of you who haven't heard of the B-Hive competition, it's an opportunity for students from universities across the West Midlands to put their skills in marketing, PR, Advertising, Graphic Design and Web Design to the test by responding to a creative brief posted online. The judges select the best responses, inviting students to present their ideas to a panel of industry professionals; last year's panel included representatives from Deloitte, NEC Group & National Express. It's a great way to get your name out there and offers a fantastic (and much sought after) opportunity to gain paid work experience, with some of the Midlands biggest recruiters.

Working at the NEC Group gave me invaluable experience of working for a large organisation - experience that I probably wouldn't have got otherwise. The NEC Group incorporates several large venues across Birmingham, including the NEC, ICC, NIA and LG Arena, as well as ticketing agent The Ticket Factory and catering company Amadeus. Consequently, the office is a fast-paced, vibrant place to work, full of busy - yet friendly - staff each making a contribution to a different area of the organisation.

Getting experience

My main role during my time at the NEC was in digital marketing. This presented both challenge and opportunity, as it was a not an area I'd previously considered working in. Amadeus had gained a large contract - catering at the Olympic park during the games - and consequently wanted to update their website to highlight the variety of events they cater for and services they provide. The main website template had been created and I was responsible for inputting visual elements of the website, ensuring the images used reflected the key themes and messages within the website copy. This task highlighted how important branding was to each strand of the NEC Group as each part of the organisation had to exist independently with its own key aims and messages, while existing under an umbrella organisation, the NEC Group. I think this gave me an excellent insight into marketing strategy and how to align the message and the delivery.

Working in a large organisation

I was introduced to the advanced and intelligent e-bulletin system the NEC Group used in order to target customers effectively with events. Due to the large variety of events taking place in each of the venues, it is important that customers are not bombarded with information about everything taking place at the venues each month. Consequently, a system is used which tailors an e-bulletin to each customer's needs, advertising Justin Bieber to previous concert attenders of his or similar concerts, while promoting car shows to automotive enthusiasts. While I have used segmentation previously to understand audiences needs and wants, I have never seen it used on such a scale - a direct result of working for such a large organisation with the financial resources to introduce such sophisticated technology.

Looking ahead

Working at the NEC Group allowed me to experience working for a large organisation. Having worked for smaller companies previously I have now had the opportunity to explore the pros and cons of each, and consider my options for the future when pursuing my career in marketing. During my placement I had an interview at the Town Hall, Symphony Hall Birmingham, securing a more permanent position as Marketing Assistant (maternity cover). Unfortunately this meant that I had to cut short my time with the NEC Group, but I am extremely grateful for the whole experience and know that it will continue to pay dividends in terms of the skills I've gained and the contacts I've made. In applying for the B-Hive competition I was determined to stretch myself and show that I could thrive in a fast-paced, commercial environment and thanks to the NEC Group, I've done it. Future employers will now see that I am an arts graduate with creativity and business experience and I feel confident that this combination will help me stand out when applying for more permament roles in marketing.

The final word...

I would certainly encourage Warwick students to apply for B-Hive. Not only will it give you fantastic experience in a creative industry environment, but potentially a great head start to your career. Submit that brief - you don’t know where it might take you!

* If you're tempted to have a go, check B-Hive for further info and dates for your diary

August 15, 2012

Are you commercially aware?

Commercial awarenessCommercial awareness: don't start your job search without it. Whether your sights are set on the Square Mile or MediaCity, you'll need a good grasp of commercial awareness to impress potential employers. A recent CBI report (2011) found that employers were dissatisfied with the commercial and business awareness of recent graduates - don't be one of them!

So what is it?

Employers all have slightly different interpretations of commercial awareness, depending on the sector and focus of their organisation but the basic principles remain the same. There's no 'catch all' definition, but think of it as the ability to view organisations from a business or commerical perspective and you won't go far wrong. Which means:

  • understanding the organisation's objectives/mission/strategy
  • recognising the internal/external challenges facing the organisation
  • knowing who the key clients and stakeholders are (and what they want)
  • evaluating what makes a successful business/organisation
  • keeping up to date with trends/developments in the sector.

Underpinning of all this should be a general understanding of the market and how it works. This terminology may jar a little – particularly if your personal values don't quite fit with the profit motive – but it's worth remembering that all organisations are subject to commercial pressures. You can't choose to sidestep this issue and still compete for jobs. Laura, a Warwick grad and intern at TARGETjobs posted a great blog last week, Commercial awareness: the graduate holy grail, confessing her initial discomfort with – and relative ignorance of – commercial awareness. This is a personal journey with a wider message and it's pretty hard to argue with Laura's final conclusion that 'like it or not, every job role requires some commercial awareness and the sooner you get some, the better'.

How to develop it

There's no quick fix. Or app. But there are plenty of practical steps you can take to develop your understanding of business environments. Let's break it down a little further:

Get some work experience

  • If you haven't had any work experience yet, now is the time to start looking. If you can secure a work placement or internship in your chosen sector, great. This will give you a valuable insight into the company or organisation and provide rich material for discussion at the application and interview stage.
  • Don't despair if you haven't got a city internship lined up. What matters to recruiters is your ability to articulate and translate your experience(s). Working as a barista in Starbucks may not win out in the glamour stakes, but you'll still get a good grounding in business processes and customer service.
  • Make your work experience count. Be reflective and observant. Ask yourself: What was the company structure like? Who were the main competitors? And clients? What worked? What didn't?

Go extra curricular

  • If you're still feeling a little squeamish about big corporates then try volunteering. It might not seem an obvious path but consider this: our project leaders in Warwick Volunteers have to manage a budget, project expenditure, allocate resources. I think you get the picture...
  • Get involved with student societies. Perhaps you could pitch for a position on the Exec or manage a marketing or promotional campaign? If you're a complete financial novice, then why not step outside your comfort zone and offer to become treasurer?
  • You could always dip your toe into entrepreneurial waters and join SIFE. Ok, you might not become the Next Big Thing, but it's a sure-fire way to boost your commercial awareness.

Start reading

  • Read quality newspapers, particularly the business pages. You probably don't need to subscribe to the Economist or FT, unless you're hoping to work in the financial sector, in which case both are essential.
  • Most employment areas have specialist press, so make sure you know which journals and magazines to follow. If you're not sure, check our job sector pages.
  • There are some fantastic careers information sites out there - use them! A few of my favourites include TARGETjobs (great for sector specific commercial awareness tips and employer insights), Inside Buzz (especially the company profiles) and TheJobCrowd.
  • If you haven't heard of BizEd, go and have a look around. It's a pretty accessible site and you'll get a good handle on topical business issues.
  • As I've mentioned in a previous blog post, now is the time to set up news feeds and email alerts, as this is a quick and easy way to keep up to date with current and financial affairs.

Research employers

  • Try to bring it all together and make it relevant by following the financial fortunes of a company or organisation that you're interested in. This could be the RSC, a small tech startup or a big global player like Coca-Cola.
  • Develop your understanding further by performing a SWOT analysis: try MarketLine Advantage.
  • Don't forget LinkedIn and Twitter. If you're not quite ready to go public, don't worry - you can adjust the privacy settings and simply use your Twitter feed as an information digest.
  • Attend employer events on campus. Some of our graduate recruiters also run sessions on commercial awareness, so keep checking myAdvantage and the website for the autumn schedule.

Well, this has turned into a marathon post and I still haven't said it all. I hope there's enough to get you started, or at least get you thinking. And if you're still mystified then come and talk to us. We're here all summer and we're certainly not going anywhere during the autumn term...!

August 10, 2012

The power of social media

social mediaA guest post from Tripp Martin, Talent Acquisition Manager at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, assessing the growing importance of social media as a job search tool.

I have seen a lot of changes – both personally and professionally – in 15 years of working since I graduated from James Madison University in 1997. Back then, the Internet was in its infancy and we certainly didn't have YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Job seeking (and socialising!) happened the old fashioned way, but some things hold fast and one of those is the power of networking. The how has changed but not the why...

Surround yourself with good people

One thing I did learn from one of my business professors is the power of networking. I can still hear Dr. Jone’s voice, "I don’t care how successful you are or how high you get in a company, always have your resume up to date and always surround yourself with good people both inside and outside of your organisation." I have always remembered that advice and in my 15 year working career I have enjoyed great success mainly due to the people I have surrounded myself with.

Social media speeds up the process

So how does this relate to social media? The concept of networking and building relationships has not changed. What has changed is how easily and quickly you can pass information and reach contacts within your network. I see many students who wait until graduation to start looking for work. They take one look around and are puzzled about where to start. I encourage students to start building relationships now. If you aren’t already, get involved on campus, get as much work experience as you can, and utilise Careers Services who already have contacts within organisations you are interested in working for. Sign up for LinkedIn and connect with the professionals you meet on campus and through your work experience. We know that Twitter is only used by a minority of students and grads, but that's set to change: it's a great way to build on relationships you develop, so get tweeting.

Making it work

The media is replete with stories of graduates taking to Twitter to further their job search; some of you may be familiar with the story of Ulrike Schulz, who used Twitter to land her dream social media role at We Are Social. If you're a current job seeker and use Twitter (perhaps you just 'lurk') you'll probably have seen the growth in job search hashtags as more and more people switch on the power of online networking. Here are just a few currently doing the rounds:

  • #hireme
  • #needajob
  • #jobsearch
  • #jobhunt

I've got a great personal example of how this works. I've known Peter Bailey, a student from Loughborough University, for over two years. I first met Peter when he applied for the Targetjobs Management Undergraduate of the Year sponsored by Enterprise Rent-A-Car. I interacted with Peter on numerous occasions after that, mainly through SIFE (Students in Free Enterprise). Peter never missed an opportunity to get to know as many business professionals as possible both within Enterprise Rent-A-Car and other companies. Recently, Peter’s 12 month placement in Malaysia fell through. It is difficult enough to find a placement a year in advance but it was now June and he was without a placement for this year. Peter tweeted about his placement falling through, how difficult it would be to find a placement at such short notice and, importantly, that he was actively looking. I immediately contacted Peter and he is now working at one of our local West Midlands offices as a Management Trainee Placement. Not bad for 140 characters!

You're in control

This is a perfect example of the power of social media. You still have to go out and get to know people and build a network of contacts. Social media simply allows you to contact a larger audience more quickly and efficiently. In Peter’s case, instead of calling up his contacts one by one over a matter of weeks trying to find a placement, he simply typed a 90 word message and hit send. That’s powerful, and immediate.

August 06, 2012

Applications – sniper, not scattergun

Target200 rejection letters and counting – does this sound familiar? It certainly does to me. There's been a fair passage of time since my student days, but I distinctly recall a period of frenzied activity in the months after graduation, applying for any and everything. To my credit I left no stone unturned, or sector untouched and once I signed up for the online job sites, I was really motoring! Sadly, the rejection emails came just as quickly and I was left feeling depressed and dejected. Very occasionally I'd have a spot of luck and be invited to interview, but it was painfully obvious that my interest and motivation were lacking. I couldn't articulate any passion or enthusiasm, or draw connections between my experience and the job role...because I didn't have any. And then it dawned: my desire – or desperation – to secure a 'graduate' job was clouding my judgement, and I took a step or two back to ask myself some pretty searching questions about what I wanted and where I was going.

Fast forward to 2012 and it seems my experience has been amplified. Graduates emerge into a far more competitive job market and the tail end of a pretty deep recession. Every graduate post receives 52 applications, so it's no surprise that students feel the need to cast their net wide. After all, this seems perfectly intuitive: the more jobs you apply for, the better your chances. Sending mutiple applications can also make you feel like you're being really pro-active and taking charge of your job search. Truth be told, it can sometimes mean the opposite.

Why the scattergun approach fails

If you're about to enter your final year still waiting for that career epiphany, you might be tempted to hedge your bets and apply the scattergun approach. This strategy generally fails. Employers can spot a generic application a mile off and your application will simply find its way onto the reject pile. Tell-tale signs include:

  • Bland, generic statements proclaiming a desire to work for company x 'because you are a global player, with a strong vision offering a fantastic opportunity for me to learn and develop'. Not only is this pretty tedious to read, but it provides no evidence of motivation, research or originality. And it breaks application rule no 1: don't tell an employer what they can do for you, only what you can do for them.
  • Liberal use of Ctrl+v! Graduate recruiters spend a lot of time sifting through application forms - you can't fool them. It may appear that application forms ask the same questions, but there's often a subtle nuance, or change in emphasis. Copy/paste will not save you time but it may cost you the shortlist.

Why targeting works

In a nutshell, it shows the employer that you are serious and mean business. Good applications take time and effort, and are the fruit of extensive research, multiple drafts and attention to detail. Yes, there is an element of luck, but don't overstate its importance. In any case, you can't legislate for luck – good or bad – but what you can do is maximise your own chances with a properly organised job search. Follow the basics:

  • Research, research, research! Start with the industry sector itself. If you can't provide a convincing and compelling case for your interest in marketing/consulting/HR then you won't persuade an employer either. Good places to start include TARGETJobs, TheJobCrowd, Prospects,
  • Get to know the employer inside out: clients, mission, trends, initiatives. Read company reports, press releases, news stories. Follow them on Twitter and Facebook (you may feel Facebook is just a social space - well, it's not anymore). Use this knowledge to shape your applications; don't simply regurgitate what you've read. Make your application informed and intelligent, not superficial.
  • Only apply for jobs you want. Don't commit to an application if you can't do it justice. Why risk slipping into a downward spiral of failure and rejection?

Inevitably it's the bad news that tends to dominate the headlines, so don't be surprised if you continue to read alarming stories about graduate unemployment and scarily high applicant:job ratios. It's certainly true that there are many graduates applying for each position, but plenty will self-sabotage through poor applications. Don't be one of them. Focus on quality, not quantity, and you may soon be beating those odds.

August 2012

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