“There’s one thing I write about,” New York Times bestselling author Martin Yate tells me. Yate is a man who has worn and still wears innumerable hats: he’s been a headhunter and a corporate recruiter; he’s trained managers; he was in the nascent Silicon Valley scene in the 1970s; and, of course, he’s written 17 books over the course of his 30+ year career as a business renaissance man. (“They say anybody can write a book — all you need is a complete lack of a social life. And I’ve written 17 of them, so that tells you what my social life is like,” Yate jokes.)
It’s hard, then, to imagine someone with so much experience writing about just one thing. But while Yate’s Knock ‘em Dead series of books has covered everything from hiring, to resumés, to social networking, he unifies all of these topics under the overarching umbrella of “career management.”
“Career management traditionally has meant, going into debt with a degree, getting a job, starting at the bottom, hanging on with ten fingers and ten toes, and 35 years later you’re going to be given a gold watch, there’ll be a house on the lake, and golly gosh, there’s going to be a yacht,” Yate explains. “And that’s crap. It’s not true anymore.”
Career management, in America, has meant getting a job and making all the sacrifices that your employer wants you to make. “However, your job is secure only as long as it takes an employer to automate your job or import it to Mumbai,” Yate quips.
Yate writes about career management because he’s found that, while the old model no longer applies to us, no one knows what the new, relevant model of career management looks like. “No one has been told,” he says.
Our parents still urge us to get degrees, thinking that will land us the now-mythic lifelong job. While we’re studying our butts off to obtain that degree, our universities aren’t taking the time to talk to us about what we can expect from our professional lives. “No one asks to go to career services, because you have to go down the basement and knock on that tin door behind the boiler,” says Yate. “So no one really understands what the issues are. So it is up to us each individually to study career management, because it’s not taught in schools; it’s not taught in universities.”
Looking to disabuse the American workforce of the “early 20th century myth of our grandfather’s age,” Yate began penning the Knock ‘em Dead series of books. If people needed to study career management on their own time, he was going to at least provide the textbooks.
In the early days, Yate met a lot of resistance — people took umbrage that he would dare speak ill of American employers. “I introduced this new idea that career management is something you have to learn and apply, and I spent 20 years going on TV and radio stations around America being called a socialist, a communist,” he says.
If he wasn’t ready to be loyal to American employers, people told Yate, then he’d better head back to his home country.
Of course, we all know where this story goes: take one rapidly globalizing economy and mix in a catastrophe like the Great Recession, and people start to see just how loyal their employers really are. “But now everyone’s catching on to this. Enough people have been laid off,” Yate says. “A company is like a shark. It’s a living being. It has to keep eating. It has to keep making money. It has to keep paying its stakeholders. And that makes it harder and harder for working people to survive over the long haul.”
While the numbers are a bit contested, the general consensus is that we change jobs roughly every four years. Though there’s no universal definition of what constitutes a career change, the most commonly accepted estimates say we’ll have between three and eight distinct careers in our lifetimes. Economic recessions come around every 6-7 years, almost like clockwork.
“And this all combines to create increasing job insecurity. So the only way you can combat that is by sticking your head in the sand and hoping it doesn’t happen to you, or you can learn how to manage your career,” says Yate.
The Customer Is Always Right
Yate has released three books already this year — which actually lead to a fairly funny misunderstanding at the beginning of our interview, in which we both failed to realize we were talking about different books — but the one that caught my eye was Knock ‘em Dead Social Networking. At this point, every businessperson with a book deal has written about social networking, but Yate’s take is fresh: he reframes social media as a chance to give other people what they want, rather than the navel-gazing, attention-seeking platform we often use it as.
Ideally, of course, what those other people want is us.
Networking, says Yate, is one of the keys of career management. This makes sense: managers like to hire from their own networks, using employee referrals to recruit new talent. “People prefer people who come at the result of referrals,” Yate says. “One, it’s cheaper. Two, managers sincerely believe that people who come through people they know get up to speed quicker, work harder, and stay longer.”
“And did I forget to say — it’s cheaper.”
Similarly, networking is a great way for people to ease the pain of the job-seeking process. “There’s nothing anyone likes less in this world — apart from an IRS audit — than looking for a job. And everyone does what is easiest and has the least rejection, because your ego’s pretty fragile if you’ve been laid off and looking for a job,” Yate says. “So everyone networks.”
The problem is, so few of us know how to properly network. “No one’s ever been taught about career management, so no one’s ever been taught about networking,” Yate says. “So you get the people who are 30 and above, and sometimes younger than that, and they’ve got 30 contacts for people they’ve worked with. And you completely exhaust those 30 contacts.”
The Internet in general, and social media in particular, have been huge boons to employers and employees alike, with respect to networking, says Yate: “You can connect — not with your pastor, not with your uncle Irving or your Aunt Matilda — you can connect and build very significant networks that can help you career.”
“[Social media] has completely revolutionized recruitment for corporations. It’s changed the face of employment. It’s changed the face of the job search,” Yate says.
But, here’s the thing: just like most people never learn how to network, most people never learn how to use social media as a networking tool. It takes more than just building a profile and adding some friends. “Social networking, from a personal point of view, is not just building a profile — it’s building a profile that’s going to be discoverable,” says Yate.
Look at a network like LinkedIn, with 300 million users, or Facebook, with 1.23 billion monthly active users: when your profile is one in a sea of many, it’s easy to drown. “In other words,” Yate says, “[social media] is another bloody big resumé database like Monster or CareerBuilder.”
So how does one “get found” on social media?
By remembering that the customer is always right.
“The first lesson you ever learned in business was, ‘The customer’s always right. Find out what that bloody customer wants and sell it to them!’” Yate says. “That’s the basis of everything we’ve been told in business. And the same applies to your social media profiles.”
Most people build their social media profiles to reflect who they think they are. According to Yate, “It doesn’t matter who they think they are. It’s a matter of, ‘The customer’s always right.’”
We have a tendency to believe that social media is about showing ourselves off. While that’s partially true, we need to remember that we have a reason we’re showing off: we’re trying to build strong career networks. “It’s nice to talk to old friends,” says Yate, “but you’re there, I’m there, for the contacts, and it all leads to making a buck. If you and I were on the Virgin Islands, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
So we can’t just be showing ourselves off in any which way. We need to build profiles that give our customers what they want — profiles that impress contacts, who will join our networks, who will hire us, who will help our careers in some way. Recruiters, professionals, colleagues: these are our customers on social media. We have to give them what they want.
“We’re on social media to enhance our ability to stabilize and grow our careers. So the first thing we need to do is find out where people are hiring someone like us,” Yate says. “What do they call us? What are the words that they use to describe us? Once we know what the customer wants, then we have a prism to look into our background and give the kind of information that will make us discoverable.”
For example, Yate mentions a friend who works in a massive data center tracking financial terrorism. “He’s a data center manager,” Yate says. “Instead of having his title as ‘data center manager’ or ‘data center management,’ which is what a recruiter’s going to use to find him, he had the title ‘data expert.’”
Recruiters, says Yate, recruit off the job description: they’re not going to be searching LinkedIn for “data experts.” They’re going to be searching for “data center managers.” Recruiters aren’t going to find Yate’s friend, but they will find the discoverable profiles that figured out what they wanted — i.e., “data center managers” — and sold it.
“The [search] algorithms reward the right words being in the right places,” Yate says. “If you build a social media profile that recognizes this very simple idea of, ‘The customer’s always right; find out what they want and sell it to them,’ you’re going to write a profile that is going to become more discoverable. Recruiters are going to find it when they do the database searches.”
Calm Down With Your Personal Branding, Okay?
Given his customer-oriented approach to networking and social media, I expected Yate to be a disciple of the personal branding movement. So when I asked him how social networks were tied to personal branding, I was a little surprised by his answer: “Personal branding is a much, much overused, bastardized concept. Let me put this simply: you can put lipstick on a pig, and guess what — it’s still a pig,” he says.
It isn’t that Yate thinks personal branding is totally worthless — rather, he thinks we’re going about it all wrong. “‘Brand’ is a new buzzword for an old-fashioned idea called ‘reputation,’” Yate says. “Reputation takes years to build. To build a brand, you have to be competent at what you do. More than that, you’ve got to be good at what you do. More than that, you’ve got to be the best at all the hard and soft technical skills of your profession. That is the basic building block of a brand, and it doesn’t happen overnight.”
Yate uses the GEICO gecko as an example of what it takes to really build a brand. Most people know the gecko, he says: “What most people don’t realize is that, No. 1, GEICO’s been around for 80 years; No. 2, the GEICO gecko took two years to build, two advertising agencies, three graphics agencies, and three or four relations firms, and tens of millions of dollars to create that funny-talking little lizard.”
If that’s what it takes to build a “funny-talking little lizard,” then, Yate reasons, “telling kids, out of school, when they have no experience, that they’ve got to create a brand is, excuse my French, bulls**t.”
To build personal brands, then, we need time. We need experience. We need to learn what constitutes a good brand. One way we can do this, says Yate, is by reading job descriptions. Nearly every job description calls for the same few skills, says Yate: communication skills, problem-solving skills, analytical skills, multitasking, creativity, teamwork, and leadership. “There are people out there, especially recruiters and headhunters, who say, ‘This is rubbish. You could put every job title on the top of that. That doesn’t mean anything,’” says Yate. “And they’re wrong, because these are things called ‘transferable skills.’ And whatever we do for a living — whether we’re a brain surgeon or a truck driver — these are the underlying skills that enable us to do whatever it is we do, and do it well.”
Yate’s advice is to keep these skills in mind when building and maintaining your social media presence. “Your social media profile is a living, breathing example of your analytical skills and your written skills,” Yate says, “which means, damn it, it’s got to be spelled write. Communication skills are important — we’d better be able to communicate on our social media profiles and our resumés.”