Always the Runner-Up For Jobs?
Learn Why, Then Tweak Your Pitch

Congratulations. You just came in second for a coveted job with a new employer.

Rather than fume, look at the bright side: You were almost the perfect pick. Placing second "does show that you are on the right path," says J. Damian Birkel, a career counselor for Williams, Roberts, Young, a human-resources consulting firm in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Joe Conroy says he actually "felt good" when he became the runner-up for a finance chief's job at a Maryland financial-services start-up early last month. "I represented myself well," the 57-year-old job hunter explains. "I have more enthusiasm and confidence going into the next interview."

The lessons you glean from this all-too-common setback could make you the successful pick someday. Boost your chances by discovering why you placed second, keeping in touch with the hiring manager and tweaking your pitch.

Ask the recruiter for honest insights about your defeat. "Did I act ambivalent during the job interviews? Appear desperate? Inflate my qualifications? Lack passion about my prowess? Wear the wrong suit?"

Fred Whelan, a partner at Whelan Stone, a San Francisco search boutique, gives frank answers to such questions because he gets to know the candidates who come in second before he refers them to clients. He sometimes tells the unsuccessful finalist, "There's this aspect of your personality that wouldn't fit in well with other members of the management team."

AstraZeneca requires the 17 U.S. recruiters on its staff to phone all runners-up with specific feedback because this "could very easily be a temporary rejection," says Jeff Harvey, U.S. staffing director for the global pharmaceutical manufacturer. The call "keeps them warm for the next opening."

You can also get the straight scoop from other inside contacts. Workplace psychologist Dory Hollander once lost her bid to be executive-development manager of a big Florida bank. An acquaintance there, who had sponsored her candidacy, revealed that the bank preferred a charismatic "golden boy" because he knew more industry players. A bit irritated, she wondered, "How could they pick this buffoon over me?"

But it's much harder to elicit the truth about your turndown from the hiring manager. One solution: Request the explanation in a nonthreatening manner that reiterates your interest in the enterprise. Email the hiring official and inquire " 'how [do] you perceive me and my experience? And if there's anything I can do to help going forward, please keep me in mind,' " suggests Jonathan Schwartz, president and chief operating officer of Sun Microsystems, a computer maker in Santa Clara, Calif. "Looking for a job is an investment in your network," he notes.

You can sustain this rapport -- and perhaps nab the next vacancy -- by seeking the hiring manager's permission to stay in touch. Send "soft sell" reminders, such as holiday cards, a congratulatory note about the company's newest ad campaign or an updated résumé. Mr. Conroy, the spurned finance chief, intends to reach out to the CEO of the financial-services firm about once a month because the executive has offered to recommend him elsewhere.

Last June, a New York media holding company tapped a current staffer over outsider Jake Glaser to be a business-development director. Mr. Glaser began emailing the woman who would have been his boss every two weeks, occasionally enclosing interesting articles. "My goal was to keep myself [on the] top of her mind for when the next relevant position became available," the 30-year-old New Yorker recollects.

The woman invited Mr. Glaser to apply for a similar spot last fall. Unfortunately, an insider edged him out again. And another media holding concern passed him over in favor of a returning former employee.

Some businesses woo an also-ran again when their initial choice stumbles. "Definitely go for it," though "with your eyes open," urges Dr. Hollander, president of WiseWorkplaces, an executive-coaching firm in Arlington, Va. The "golden boy" who trumped her lasted only nine months. Approached by the bank to reapply, she decided she no longer cared to work there.

Make sure your follow-up efforts don't wear out your welcome, though. The runner-up for a $75,000 middle manager's job at the American Management Association phoned its top HR official the first Monday of the month for a year to grill him about other opportunities.

"She wasted her time and my time" because there was no suitable match, says Manny Avramidis, the New York group's senior vice president for global human resources. The last few times, he adds, "the calls got very short."

If you frequently come in second, consider revamping your job search. Mr. Glaser's three experiences inspired him to re-examine what he wanted to do. "I realized I wasn't media focused. I was promotions focused."

He was finally hired in February as a business-development vice president for ePrize, an interactive promotions agency based in Detroit. "It's a perfect fit," he exults. "For me, being a runner-up thrice became a blessing in disguise."

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Article from CareerJournal Today – May 2005