13 things you must do to stand out in today’s competitive job market

There are many things that make living in North Carolina hard to beat. People are right to tout the limitless outdoor activities, the near perfect climate and the booming economy. But another thing that sets North Carolina apart from many other states is the sheer number of world-class colleges & universities the state is home to. From time to time, I am fortunate enough to partner with these schools in a professional capacity.

I was recently asked to participate on a panel and conduct mock interviews at the Master of Quantitative Management program at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke. This ten-month business analytics program was introduced at Fuqua this year. It is designed for college graduates with strong quantitative backgrounds and provides training in analytics and communication within the context of finance, marketing, forensics or strategy. The objective is to prepare students for a career in data-based problem solving.

Panelists represented a variety of companies including Stealz, Lenovo, Data Blueprint and LivingLab. While the companies represented a wide range of sizes, industries and locations, some common themes emerged:

  • Startups and smaller companies place a premium on transferable skills. Given their size, these companies often require employees to wear multiple hats. Therefore, they seek candidates who can demonstrate agility.
  • One size does not fit all. Candidates must write targeted cover letters and resumes for the job they want.
  • Make the top third to half of the resume and cover letter count as the recruiter or hiring manager may not have the luxury of reading to the end.
  • Apply early. Recruiters review the early submissions and only go back to review more if they don’t find who they are looking for.
  • Expect some kind of case exercise during the interview process. Hiring managers want to know how candidates will handle real life situations, on the fly. They are looking for insight into your reasoning and problem-solving capabilities.
  • Candidates need to anticipate behavioral-based interview questions. Therefore, they must be prepared to share examples to highlight competencies. This requires a thorough understanding of the role and the position description.
  • Passion! Hiring managers are seeking candidates who are passionate about their company and are looking for genuine alignment with the company’s values.
    • SAS even has a separate values interview conducted by a group of people from across the company who demonstrate those values.

Most of the conversation at the event revolved around the importance of building a network and utilizing referrals, which is something that I’ve written about previously in How Kevin Bacon will help you find your next job. Across the board, panelists agreed that referral candidates get extra attention and are sent to the front of the line.

The room, made up largely of students with fewer than six months experience, wondered, “how do I build a network if I don’t have any real work experience yet?” Many international students also expressed concern over not having a deep network in the U.S.

  • The consensus of the panel members was:
    • Identify where you are likely to meet your target network. Attend conferences, meet-up groups and networking events.
    • Don’t blindly send out a LinkedIn request. Find common connections, organizations or interests. Use those as the basis for building a relationship.
    • Recognize that networks are a two-way street. When connecting, think about what you have to offer the other person.
    • Look to your left. Build relationships with those around you. Utilize your undergrad and graduate school alumni networks.
    • Devour your passion. Comment, like and share white papers and blog posts. Compliment the writer.
    • Pursue extracurriculars related to your interests.

The representative from LivingLab mentioned that he doesn’t think the company has hired anyone who is not a referral. If you didn’t think referrals were important before, I hope you do now!

The professionals who participated on the Fuqua MQM panel represented organizations of all shapes and sizes. But the common messages were loud and clear: Be versatile. No one knows what business challenges we will face tomorrow. Be direct. You can’t assume the person reading your cover letter or resume will eventually get to what makes you extraordinary. So lead with it. Cultivate your network. Cast a wide net, but do so deliberately. And engage with your connections. Lastly, let your network know who you are. Show them what you are passionate about and why it makes you both more interesting and valuable.