The Job Rating Game

If you've got talent and you decide to change jobs, don't be surprised when you get a flood of offers. Here's a do-it-yourself guide to sorting through the offers and finding the right job.

It's a great time to change jobs — maybe too great. Talented people are in such demand that companies treat them like stars — and promise them the moon. Big signing bonuses? Not a problem. Generous stock-option packages? Certainly. Gourmet meals in the cafeteria? But of course. And that's just for starters.

"People are getting all kinds of special considerations," says Eric Lane, 45, who recently left his position as director of worldwide staffing for Silicon Graphics Inc., the Silicon Valley computer manufacturer, to become vice president of business development for Icarian, a Web startup. "I know recruiters who collect stories about offbeat deals. One man convinced a company to relocate a freezer he owned with 15 sides of beef in it. Another man persuaded his new company to rent a van for him, so he could drive his Irish setter around while he looked for a house. Believe it or not, these deals are becoming standard practice."

Believe it. Not so long ago, the toughest part of job hunting was getting a decent offer. You'd send out countless résumés, hope to hear from a few respectable companies, and take the first good offer that came along. Today people with talent get a flood of offers. The new challenge is to sort through all of the choices and find the one that's best for you.

Paul Berry, 22, is a case in point. Though still young, Berry has amassed unimpeachable credentials as a Web designer, many of them before graduating from college. While still at New York University, he created a showcase site for his father's Eugene, Oregon-based company, Palo Alto Software. Shortly after graduating, he posted his résumé on the Web and quickly received 30 inquiries — 30! — from companies eager to hire him. Big, well-known outfits courted him with extremely attractive offers, some with starting salaries in excess of $60,000. "I was amazed," Berry says. "We're living in a bizarre time when a 22-year-old kid can get access to the executive suites of giant companies. It was thrilling, but it was also very overwhelming."

Annmarie Cunningham, 31, felt similarly overwhelmed. After eight years at Solomon Smith Barney, she decided it was time for something new — to move from selling into public relations. "I woke up one day and was ready to change jobs," she says. "But I couldn't search for a new job while sitting at my old desk. So I quit."

She left on a Friday morning, worked the phones that afternoon, and lined up a full 11 interviews for the following Monday. The big challenge wasn't turning those interviews into offers; it was figuring out which offers to pursue, let alone which one to accept. The process took months. Cunningham built a network of personal contacts to help her investigate prospective employers. She browsed the Web sites of the firms she was considering. She explored the Web sites of the firms' clients, to see for herself the quality of their work. And she spent plenty of time visiting the companies — not just to be interviewed, but to evaluate them at close range.

Cunningham surprised herself by joining CMA, a 15-person Manhattan marketing agency, a smaller company than she'd expected to work for. "It had come down to three companies," says Cunningham. "The other two had great environments, savvy people - everything I wanted. But there was something about CMA. My final decision boiled down to a combination of what my research showed they'd done for their clients and what I thought of the people I'd be working with."

Call it "job-offer overload." It's a nice problem to have, but it is a problem. There are so many questions to ask when considering which offer to accept. What are each company's prospects in the marketplace? What are my prospects for growth? How much power will I have? How much support will I get? These are questions that, unlike surface issues such as salary and stock options, don't lend themselves to answers that are easy to quantify and compare. Which is why so many people choose — wrongly — not to ask the questions in the first place. There's a big difference between choosing the best job and selling yourself to the highest bidder.

"Don't get enamored of short-term dollars, one-time perks, and year-end bonuses," urges Dan Walsh, 32, president of SEEK Consulting Group Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in human-capital management and whose clients include AT&T, Compaq, and Fidelity Investments. "Think of your job as an investment. A job that exposes you to great mentors is much more valuable than a job that pays you a few thousand dollars more. Make your decisions based on three things: where you are, where you want to be, and how you plan to get there."

Professor John Sullivan, head of the Human Resource Management Program at San Francisco State University, is an expert on the new world of work. He agrees with Walsh — and even raises the bar. "It used to be easy," he says. "You assessed companies based on how much they paid and whether they were nice places to work. Today people want to associate with great companies and have great assignments. Don't ask, Which company would I like to work for? Ask, Which company would I like to buy? Is this company going to grow? Is the budget in my area going to expand? Where will I be closest to the center of decision making?"

Great questions. Finding answers takes clear thinking, hard work, and lots of time. After all, most companies aren't out to educate you about what life inside their walls is really like. They're out to sell you on why you should turn your life over to them. If you want to get to the truth, you have to dig for it yourself.

"You can't take literally what recruiters say," warns Professor Maura Belliveau, who teaches a course on "Power and Politics" at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. "They're competing for talent. They know the buzzwords that people want to hear. Everyone talks about teamwork and collaboration, change and opportunity." Belliveau says that evaluating job offers is a lot like operating with due diligence on a business deal: "Most companies aren't looking to put forward a candid appraisal of what they're about. That's your job — to put together as many sources of feedback as you can to derive a consistent impression."

Our job at Fast Company is to make your job easier. Here's our do-it-yourself guide to overcoming job-offer overload. We can't guarantee that you'll make the right choice. But we can help you choose more wisely — even if it takes a little longer.

How to Interview a Company

Companies that are serious about assessing talent devise creative and rigorous ways to interview job candidates and check their references. Likewise, people who are serious about evaluating job offers should design their own techniques for interviewing companies and checking their references. If you want your job choice to turn out right, you have to turn the tables.

That's what Kelly Zaleski did. After deciding that she was ready for a new job, it took Zaleski, 37, a year before she signed on to work for SAP America, the U.S. subsidiary of the German software giant. The problem wasn't a lack of offers; it was that Zaleski had very high standards. "My old job was with a good company," she says. "I knew that leaving would change my life. So I had to be sure that my next job was going to be great."

Zaleski had spent six years in sales at ProBusiness Services Inc., a fast-growing operation that provides outsourced employee services, such as payroll and benefits administration. ProBusiness, based in Pleasanton, California, was a highly visible player in a lucrative field — which meant that Zaleski was a hot prospect. She got offers from Oracle, PeopleSoft, and SAP. At first she was flattered. Then she was flabbergasted at how much work she had to do to make her decision. "I did lots of digging before I made my final choice," she says.

Zaleski was painstakingly methodical about determining what she wanted from her new job. She considered everything — the length of the commute, how much she'd have to travel, and most important, the skills she would learn and the people she would work with. She was just as methodical about searching for information on which companies best met her criteria.

Whenever companies interviewed her, she interviewed them. She asked to speak with her would-be peers, people who would be above her in the hierarchy, and people who worked with the customers she might work with. "I talked to as many people as I could, and I asked lots of questions," Zaleski reports. "I took detailed notes at every meeting. I kept folders on each company. I asked the same questions every time: How are you treated? How does the company treat its customers? Is there anything you wished you knew before you came here?"

They weren't easy interviews to conduct. "Most people are helping their bosses recruit," she warns. "They're like salespeople. They give you the good news. You need the truth: What's it really like to work there? Getting helpful answers depends on how you ask the questions. You have to be subtle. You have to prepare. Make a list of the things that are important to you and ask questions that cover every inch of that ground."

Dan Walsh couldn't agree more. "You should interview the company as much as it interviews you," he says. "And that should make you more attractive. Companies like people who are confident enough to say, 'This job has to suit me.' It's a two-way street now. You can't think of it as selfish or unappreciative to expect honest answers to tough questions."

John Sullivan argues that sizing up a company means asking "bone-chilling" questions — and seeing whether people are willing to answer. "Be skeptical," he says. "You need an accurate job preview, and that means posing tough questions." Here are a few of his favorites: What are the worst aspects of your company's culture? What does the company plan to do over the next year to make things better? Who is your best customer? Your worst? What would those customers say about your company and its products? When top performers leave, why do they leave and where do they go? What are the biggest problems facing this department over the next two years? If you were my best friend, what would you tell me about this job that you haven't already said?

Those tough questions can lead to unexpected answers. Soren Kaplan, 29, had just completed his dissertation in organizational psychology at the California School of Professional Psychology and was looking for a job with a major consulting firm. He used his undergraduate school's alumni network to put out the word. The big firms answered the call. He visited his prospective employers armed with a list of tough questions. He asked about the nature of the job, the reporting structure, and the opportunities to learn and grow. "I asked them as many questions as they asked me, which not only got me lots of information, but also impressed them," he says. "They could see that I was confident and insightful, and that I was asking the right questions."

Ultimately, Kaplan didn't choose any of the firms for which he originally expected to work. The answers the firms had given to his questions, he concluded, were unremarkable. Instead, he joined Hewlett-Packard as a process-technology manager, after an intriguing conversation with Stu Winby, 51, HP's director of strategic change services. Kaplan told Winby that his long-term goal was to grow beyond whatever company he worked for by publishing articles in his field and establishing himself as a management thinker. "Then come work with us!" Winby urged. "You can work with the writers we have on staff to prepare articles for outside publication." That was a good answer: "Stu's offer went beyond a job. He was willing to help me realize a dream. Now, if I ever decide to leave HP, I'll have articles to my name as well as a résumé — and that's material that I can take to my next job, or use to find clients if I start my own firm."

Nothing Beats Being There

As that management sage Yogi Berra once noted, "You can observe a lot by watching." Most people exploring a job with a company make a visit, if only to conduct a round of interviews and meet some of the people they'll be working with. That's fine, as far as it goes. But it doesn't go nearly far enough. You should treat visits to a company the way detectives treat a crime scene — as a rich source of clues, both obvious and concealed.

"Companies design their headquarters to convey an image to the world," says Maura Belliveau. "The moment you enter a building, you begin to learn how the company conceives of itself. Is the space open? Who gets the private offices?" "Try to catch companies with their guard down," adds Jean Eisel, associate dean of admissions and career opportunities at Carnegie Mellon's Graduate School of Industrial Administration, in Pittsburgh. "Visiting a company is a lot like dating. You want to see what it looks like on Monday morning, not just Saturday night."

Annmarie Cunningham also uses a dating analogy. "You learn a lot about a company from the attitudes of people you meet," she says. "I once had a receptionist dump me in a chair and walk away. This was a person who was unhappy to be working there. Job hunting is like dating. You get a lot of information from the first impression."

Paul Berry went on plenty of dates with prospective employers, most of whom didn't look so good on Monday morning. He was able to rule out some job offers right away. He wanted to work in New York City, not Silicon Valley; and he wanted to do serious design work for serious clients, not just serve as a junior member on a big-company team. But that still left half a dozen contenders. He visited each of them — and paid close attention to what he saw. Ultimately, he chose Know-Ware Consulting, a small Web outfit with high-powered clients such as Deutsche Bank and Morgan Stanley.

"I went to one company with amazing offices," he says. "The place just blew me away. But while I sat there and pretended to read, I watched people interact. I was there at seven o'clock on a Friday night. I could sense that even though people wanted to go home, they were afraid to. It made me think, This is a high-stress place." And the wrong place for Berry.

Like Berry, Soren Kaplan visited every company he was serious about joining. His time at HP reinforced the lessons he learned in his conversations with Winby. "Assess the culture while you're visiting the office," he suggests. "Look at the physical evidence, people's expressions, their body language. Even the way people dress is telling. Little things mean a lot. The casual atmosphere at HP spoke volumes. I knew it was where I'd feel most comfortable."

Try Before You Buy

Soren Kaplan had done plenty of due diligence on HP. He'd had several long conversations with Stu Winby. He'd spent lots of time visiting the company. He was pretty sure that he wanted to work there - but he wanted to be certain. Winby felt the same way. The solution? Kaplan agreed to test-drive the job — to take it for a spin around the block before he inked the deal. "Stu's group was small, and they wanted to make sure I'd be a good fit," Kaplan says. "I was concerned about fit too. So I took some freelance assignments to get a feel for the job and the environment. I worked that way for more than three months."

The experience gave Kaplan time to kick the tires — and it gave him confidence in his final decision. "Soren hung out with us, went to staff meetings, got on planes with people," says Winby. "He had an in-depth scan of the opportunities. He was able to say, 'For me to join you, I want to be able to work with this particular person and get this kind of experience.' And he knew what he was talking about."

Most people don't have the opportunity to test-drive their job so thoroughly. But there are other ways to make your choice. Consider Patrick Coulson, 28, a software developer who left his job at Silicon Graphics to pursue a project of his own — a computer system that would help managers recruit college students. He vowed to create a database manager that would set the industry standard.

Then Coulson got a call from Michael McNeal, director of corporate employment for Cisco Systems Inc. McNeal was looking for someone to run Cisco's university-recruitment program. He made an offer that Coulson couldn't refuse. "Mike told me that I could keep working on my own project while I was at Cisco, and that I could use Cisco's name to help bring it to market," Coulson says. "I wasn't looking for a job. I had left Silicon Graphics to start my own company. But I realized that joining Cisco might be the best way to make my product successful."

It was a radical offer that required some time to sink in. So McNeal and Coulson compared notes for 12 weeks. McNeal invited Coulson out on his boat. Coulson kept McNeal updated on the renovations he was making on a friend's condo. (The two had discovered that they shared an interest in carpentry.) One day, McNeal brought Coulson into his office and showed him a brand-new reciprocating tiger saw. "If you sign today, you can have this," McNeal said. "You can start your own 'Yankee Workshop,' if you like."

It was a small gesture with a big message. "I knew a saw wasn't going to make or break Patrick's decision," McNeal explains. "But I wanted him to see that I understood who he was. I wanted him to realize what I was willing to do to bring him into the company." Coulson got the message: "It was a joke, but it was symbolic of the time and trouble he had taken to get to know me. I didn't sign that day, but I kept the saw. Soon afterward, I became manager for university relations."

Take Your Signals from the Top

When it comes to choosing a job, nothing beats spending time in the trenches — with the people you'll be working with, at the office you'll be working in. But don't forget to check the view from above. A good job in a company run by bad leaders probably isn't such a good job after all. "You go to the top because you want to find out everything you can about the culture and politics of a company before you take a job there," says Duke's Belliveau.

When Tien Tzuo, 30, was deciding which job was best, he went straight to the top. He had spent six years at Oracle, then went to Stanford Business School. Upon graduation, he had enticing offers from half a dozen world-class companies. "I wanted the chance to build my own mini-business inside the company," he says. "I needed to know that management was willing to offer that opportunity."

As he evaluated offers, Tzuo tried to talk to as many senior executives as he could. "Anytime you have a chance to get access to the CEO, you should jump at it," he says. Tzuo eliminated one of his favorite companies because he didn't click with the CEO: "I got the same marketing pitch that a customer would get. There's always a certain amount of hype when you talk to a company. But I figured the higher up in the management chain I got, the more candid people would be. That wasn't the case here. So I crossed the company off my list."

Tzuo wound up accepting an offer to become director of telecommunications marketing at CrossWorlds Software Inc., based in Burlingame, California. Why CrossWorlds? In part because Tzuo was so impressed by its CEO, Katrina Garnett: "Her strategy is to build independent teams within the company. It was the attitude I was looking for." Michael Donaldson, vice president of technical marketing at CrossWorlds, says Garnett is a real weapon in the company's recruiting battles: "There's usually a correlation between the character of a company and the character of who's in charge."

Of course, not every job candidate can arrange a sit-down with the CEO. But there are other ways to gauge the quality of leaders. "Start with the company's Web site," says Belliveau. "Download speeches that state the CEO's values. Then look for clues to determine whether the CEO lives by those values. Where does he or she give speeches? What organizations is he or she affiliated with?"

Ultimately, the challenge of choosing the right job is a lot like any other business challenge — the harder you work at it, the better the results. An added benefit of educating yourself about companies you might join is that you learn a lot about yourself in the process. "All the information you gather doesn't mean a thing until you filter it through the lens of your values," says Belliveau. "You first have to know what's important to you, and then map your personal priorities onto the data you gather."

Indeed, adds John Sullivan, the real goal is to find a job that doesn't feel like a job. "Is there anything that you love doing so much that you would continue to do it even if you were filthy rich?" he asks. "The secret is to find your passion — and then to find a company that's willing to pay you to pursue it."

Michael Warshaw (mwarshaw@fastcompany.com) is a senior editor at Fast Company.

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