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Lessons From Peter Drucker

Why Obeying the "Rules" of Job Search May Work Against You

William Cohen, Ph.D.
Posted: 07/18/2013

Peter Drucker was the greatest management thinker of our age. I had the good fortune to have Drucker as the major professor in my doctoral program at now Peter F. Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University, in the years 1975-79. Moreover, I called on Drucker for advice and help almost up until his death in 2005. None of the lessons that I learned that appear in this column is so pervasive than his deep belief that what "everyone knows" is usually wrong.

My work with job seekers, from recent college undergraduates and graduate students to out-of-work CEOs, presidents, and former high ranking military officers, has led me to conclude that this is especially true in job search. "Everyone knows" that you must send a nicely printed resume out in order to get a job. Yet, my work with many, and my own experience, demonstrates conclusively that the time-honored resume, no matter how well done, will many times hurt the job seeker’s chances of getting a job. Also following all the instructions demanded in job advertisements including a salary history, or sending resumes through an HR department are almost always the wrong thing to do from the job seeker’s perspective even though "everyone knows" this is what you must do to get a job..

Why the Job Search Rules are Usually Wrong

Why are the rules for finding a job so terribly wrong? I think Drucker would have concluded this these methods may be wrong due many factors. In our grandparents’ day, looking for new work in mid-career was rare. Until the great depression, folks generally worked in one company for life. Even thirty years ago, the statistics were that you only worked in an average of four companies over a lifetime career. That’s not true anymore. Developing technology puts many out of work. One day vinyl records are in. The next they’re out due to CDs. Now CDs are vanishing due to easy and inexpensive downloading from the Internet. And of course now we are also in a "great recession."

The Wrong Perspective Also Frequently Makes the Rules Wrong

Another reason the rules are wrong is that they are given from the perspective of someone other than the job seeker. For example, from an HR manager’s perspective, a chronological resume is ideal. Why? Then, he or she can more easily screen out applicants he thinks fail to meet the qualifications desired by a potential boss. But the assumption is that the HR manager knows precisely what the decision-maker wants. This is rarely true, even when the HR manager is intelligent and committed, and even when the potential boss writes it all down as requirements for the HR manager. Unless you send a book containing your life history, which the HR manager wouldn’t have time to read anyway, how can anyone determine completely whether or not you meet any requirement that a human resource manager, has received sometimes second hand from the decision maker? And of course personality and personality match is an overriding factor which doesn’t translate easily to paper.

HR Doesn’t Hire Except for HR

Moreover, except in the HR specialty, HR managers cannot hire you, only prevent you from being hired. One of their main functions in hiring is to screen out candidates they feel are unsuited for a particular job. As I explained earlier, most HR managers assume that they know best whether your background makes you qualified and will allow you to perform in a certain job adequately. I think the word "adequately" is the operational word. They try to screen out those that they feel are unqualified. But some candidates are superbly qualified in the one or two areas that are exactly what is needed, but not qualified in less important areas.

Drucker maintained that in staffing you shouldn’t eliminate people because of weaknesses, but assign them because of their strengths. He pointed out that most top performers have weaknesses that might eliminate consideration by many. He cautioned not to do this. So it is to your advantage to sidestep HR managers and go right to the decision maker who has the authority to hire you. The number of individuals who I have known personally who have sidestepped HR and gone on to become highly successful are numerous. Drucker also felt that emphasis on a resume showing continual upward progress in responsibility and salary was not to be relied on.

Why Continual Upward Progress on a Resume is Frequently Meaningless

There is a theory expounded by Professor Lawrence J. Peter called "The Peter Principle" that one rises to his level of incompetency, at which point he is discharged from an organization. Lawrence Peter wrote several best selling books expounding this principle. It sounded cute, and subordinates in many organizations liked it because they could claim than a disliked boss had "risen to his level of incompetency."

Peter Drucker said that the Peter Principle was absolute nonsense. He went on to prove it by naming numerous failures who went on to great success in other jobs in many fields after "proving their incompetence" by failing miserably in lower level jobs. R.H. Macy failed in trying to start four previous retail stores before starting the department store which bears his name and is the largest in the world today in his fifth attempt. Some of these were not only in business but at the national level.

Before he became President, Abraham Lincoln failed at just about everything. In 1832 he lost his job. He started a business the following year and it went broke. He ran for Congress and lost. He ran for the Senate and lost that bid too. He applied for and was rejected for a government job. He was defeated in a nomination for vice president and then defeated for the Senate a second time in 1858. Finally in 1860 he was elected President of the United States and saved the country and if you watch the recent movie Lincoln, got the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed and ended slavery in the U.S.

In more modern times, Winston Churchill, who some say was the greatest politician of the 20th century, was promoted to the First Lord of the Admiralty during World War I, whereupon he made possibly the biggest blunder of the war in advocating the Gallipoli campaign and was fired. Nevertheless he became the British Prime Minister in 1940 and saved the British Empire, standing alone against Germany and its allies after France fell and probably saved the world from a Nazi dictatorship.

Don’t Give a Salary History
Another wrong rule is stating your salary history in a resume, or in response to a "requirement" in an advertisement. What's wrong with this? If your minimum stated salary is too high, you will probably be eliminated without an interview. Yet if you could get to the interview you might persuade an employer to pay even more for your valuable services. If your stated minimum is well below the range for the job, you may also be eliminated. Many employers assume that you are not "heavy" enough for the job if the salary you want is too modest. Further, even if you get an interview and a job offer, your ability to negotiate is limited.

One of my graduate students got an interview with a large corporation in Chicago by going directly to the responsible vice president. But the first question he was asked was "How much do you want?" Remembering my caution never to give a salary until the job was assured, he said, "Can I delay answering until we talk about the job? There are some positions I wouldn’t take at any price, and others which I would consider very attractive because of future possibilities and for which I would accept a lot less."

His potential boss responded, "Okay, but I want you to know that I won’t pay more than $XXXXXX," naming a figure more than twice the amount the job seeker was seeking. My former student told me that if he had announced the amount up front, he would have never even been offered the job. He would have been considered "too light" for the job. But he was, offered the job at more than twice the amount he had hoped and he accepted it.

Rules are Made to be Broken
Now don’t get the wrong idea about what I am telling you. Drucker would never want you to lie on your resume or do anything unethical, and neither would I. However, these so-called rules are not laws and they are simply how someone else wants you to operate. Just remember that these "rules" make work against you and even the organization you’d like to work for. So make your own decision.

William Cohen, Ph.D.
Posted: 07/18/2013