Maybe, just maybe, the job market is finally beginning to improve.  As I write this the headline on CNBC is that jobless claims last week were down by 13,000.  There is a less formal measure of improvement in the job market that I am personally beginning to observe.  Since the first of the year, for the first time in many months, I am beginning to get calls from some of my friends in the recruiting business who are looking for referrals.  I am also hearing from former colleagues and employees who are re-entering the job market and are seeking references and/or advice.  In the last week or so I have had more of these calls than I can count on the fingers of one hand.  Quite a change from just a few months ago.

Last week I was speaking with a young lady whom I have had the pleasure of mentoring for the last six months or so.  She is employed by a large and successful US company but has come to realize that she may need to move on in order to realize her career goals.  In a telephone conversation on this subject she posed a question that I believe is an important one for anyone looking at making a career move. “How can I assess if a new job is a good fit for me personally?” was her question.   Having made a couple of, shall I say, questionable, career decisions early in my career, let me suggest seven things you may want to consider when evaluating a potential career move.

One thing to keep in mind from the beginning; basically, all position descriptions, or “specs” as recruiters sometimes call them, look the same.  They all talk about the greatness of the opportunity, the wonderful opportunities for advancement and they are all, at least at more senior levels, looking for “leaders” and “change agents.”  Trust me, I have seen probably over a hundred of these (and written quite a few!).  Your objective is to find out what the “opportunity” really entails and, more importantly, can you succeed there.  A few thoughts.

  1. 1.    Culture matters-both corporate and national. – Making sure that your values and personality fit with the culture of the organization you are considering is a “no brainer” however, far too few people take the time to seriously assess this.   The best way to assess corporate culture is to talk with trusted confidents who either work there or have worked there in the past.   Ask specific questions such as how people are treated, what criteria are used for promotion and other forms of advancement, do people work together in teams or is internal competition the norm, is abusive behavior by bosses tolerated, and what do the leaders of the company truly value, integrity and ethics or profits at all cost?  You get the point. 

If you don’t have contacts there look at the company website.  Do they have a clear mission and corporate values and are they consistent with what you value?  Google the company to see if they have been in legal or ethical trouble and how they handled it.  Finally, have a candid conversation with the recruiter as well as with people you interview with, especially representatives from HR, potential colleagues and the person you will report to.  Ask them to describe the culture.  If they all give similar answers, then that is a pretty good data point for your assessment.  If they give wildly varying descriptions of the culture, well, you may want to think hard about whether you want to work there.

We don’t often think about national culture but, as a person who has worked for US, European and Asian companies let me assure you, national culture makes a difference. 

Where the company is headquartered, and the extent to which the business you would be working in is controlled from headquarters, will impact how decisions are made.  Let’s face it, many of the traits that we in the US value in our managers and executives such as ambition, toughness, a “sense of urgency” and forcefulness are considered offensive, or at least rude, in other cultures.  Americans tend to value quick decision-making whereas in Japan for instance, decisions are made more slowly and by consensus.  In some European countries the work ethic, especially with regard to things like the hours spent at the office and the use of vacation, is different from the US. (and sometimes healthier, in my opinion).   I could go on more about this but you probably see my point.  The culture of the country where the company is headquartered will have an impact on the overall corporate culture.  Make sure you understand this.

  1. 2.    Find out what happened to the last person in the job. If this is a new position, why was it created?–  Sometimes organizations are hesitant to discuss the previous occupant of a job, especially if they were fired.   This is important information and the failure to be candid with candidates on this matter is a red flag.  You need to know the problems and make sure not only that you don’t repeat them but also more importantly that you can address the issues and any damage that was done.  To expect someone to come into a role “blind” as to the previous occupant is simply not realistic.

Going into a newly created job is a great opportunity.  I have done this several times in my career and it affords the opportunity to shape both the role and the new organization.  Make sure that you are clear on the specific problems the position was created to solve and/or the opportunities it was created to exploit.  Most importantly, are you comfortable that you are a good fit for the challenges ahead?

  1. 3.    Beware of the overly-aggressive hiring manager.– For some people everything is a game to be won.  Sometimes this can be the case with hiring managers who, upon finding a good candidate, go all in to hire them promising (verbally of course) all kinds of things in order to get the person only to back away from these promises once the person is hired.  To them it is all a zero sum, win or loose game. I have a former colleague who was wooed, wined and dined by a small company in order to get him to join.  He took the role and now, some six months later, he is still waiting for most of the things he was promised to materialize.  He is very frustrated.  A second lesson here is obvious-get promises in writing, especially substantive ones.  If they won’t put it in writing, don’t be surprised when folks suddenly begin to have amnesia.

Another warning sign of the overly aggressive hiring manager is problems filling the job. Are they desperate? Don’t allow your ego to get in the way if the people at the company, especially the boss, seem overly eager to land you.  Find out either from the recruiter, the folks in the company or from your own internet research how long the position has been open.  If it has been open for a long time there may be something else going on that you need to know about.  It is in situations like this where your personal network of contacts can be helpful.  Can you find out why no one has taken the job or, better yet, who else has looked at it and why they turned it down? Very early in my career I took a job in an organization that, as it turned out, had some very serious problems that, with a little research, I could have learned about.  It was a miserable experience.

  1. 4.    Does the job exploit your strengths?- We are all at our best when we work in areas in which we have strengths and talent.  In fact, when we are in these roles work is a joy.  Contrast that with being stuck doing something that you are not good at and which you probably hate.  It won’t be a pleasant experience.

The first step is to know what you are good at.  If you haven’t done so, take the Strengthfinder 2.0 assessment and read Now Discover Your Strengths.  Critically look at what the job requires and whether or not you will be able to exploit your strengths in the role.  Also make sure that you will have the latitude to move or hire people to compensate for areas of weakness.

  1. 5.    Can you see yourself in this role?- OK, I know this may sound strange but trust me, this is important.  Answer the “What do you do?” question by saying the title of the new job out loud.  If the title is Vice President and CIO at XYZ, Inc. then say it out loud, “I am Vice President and CIO at XYZ, Inc.” How does it sound?  Does it feel right? Are you comfortable with it?  I find that not infrequently people have a pre-conceived notion about what their next role should be.  If the title doesn’t fit that dream it won’t feel right when you say it.  It is a good test.

Second, when you interview, look around.  Can you see yourself working in these surroundings in this city with these people?   Where will your office be and does it fit where you see yourself at this stage of life? It is important to find out where your staff are located and of course where your office will be because this can tell you a lot about the status, importance and initial power the role will have.  If you are in the executive suite that is probably a good start. Several years ago I looked at the CIO role at a very prestigious research institute.  We toured the campus, I talked with a lot of folks and, near the end of the day, asked where most of the staff were located and where my office would be if I accepted the job.  They gave me a building name that was not one of the ones I had seen.  When I inquired further it turns out that the entire IT staff was located in a rented building some eight miles from the main campus.  I couldn’t see myself working in an environment where my department and me were so remotely removed from the rest of the organization and I politely declined their offer.

  1. 6. Will you have the freedom to succeed?-  A friend of mine interviewed with a large Midwestern company for an executive role supervising a staff of about 1000.  The role, which had been vacated by someone who had been promoted, had only two direct reports. He commented that one of the first things he would do is flatten the organization in order to spread the span of control and give him better visibility into the workings of the division.  “Oh, you can’t do that.  It would never be approved” was the response he got.  Upon returning home he called the recruiter and asked to be removed from consideration.  If a senior VP can’t make changes to the organization, what else will he not be able to do?  Interestingly, about two years later another friend took a senior position in another division of the same company.  Nine months later he resigned in frustration. “They had all of these things they wanted me to fix but they didn’t want me to change anything,” he later told me.  It all sounded very familiar.  Make sure that you will have the latitude to do what needs to be done.
  1. 7. Find out what success looks like.–   Finally, what I am about to tell you is, I believe, the single most important piece of advice I have to offer on this subject.  Before taking any new job you must know what success looks like and make sure that the people you work for also know it as well.  I recommend that you ask the person you will be reporting to as well as his or her superior(s) if you interview with them the following question:  “If I take this job and some time in the future you are telling a colleague that hiring me was one of the best decisions you have ever made, what would I have accomplished to earn that praise?”  If the person you will report to can’t answer that question, flee!   

Several years ago an acquaintance interviewed with a large multi-national company for the global CIO role.  He had a great day until late in the afternoon when he was talking with the CEO (the job reported to the COO) and he posed the ”what does success look like” question.  To his surprise, without hesitation, the CEO responded, “Fix SAP in Asia.”  Throughout the preliminary discussions about the role and the day of interviews no one had mentioned SAP or Asia.  Turns out there were some serious problems no one bothered to mention.  He didn’t take the job.

On the contrary if the key people you speak with give a clear, reasonable and well-thought-out answer, and it is something you believe you can accomplish, you may have found your next job.

As the economy rebounds, and it eventually will, many of you will have the opportunity to make your next move.  Make sure you make it a good one.