Battle of the Network Stars

Headhunter Sunny Bates on name-dropping, networking, and keeping your foot out of your mouth.

Who she is: Chairman, Sunny Bates Associates

Who she has placed: John Caplan, chief operating officer, Ford Models; Chad Schlegel, editor-in-chief, Time Out Chicago; David Becker, chief operating officer, Beliefnet Inc.

What She Has Written: How to Earn What You're Worth: Leveraging Your Goals and Talents to Land Your Dream Job (McGraw-Hill, 2004)

What gives a candidate a competitive edge these days?

Today you're valued not only for your skills, talents, and credentials but for your network. Companies want to know you're out on the edges, in different circles, meeting new people, nurturing old relationships, and involved in associations. So if you need to get the 411 on something, all you have to do is pick up the phone. I think taking care of and feeding your network is the most important thing you can do for your career right now. And by that, I mean caring for it every day.

How do you showcase your network in an interview without coming off as a name-dropper?

A great way to do it is to weave it into explanations. Interviewers love to ask scenario questions, so when they ask you how you would handle a situation, you could mention you would call a specific contact at this company, or because you're involved with this group, you would have direct access to insider information.

What you want to be careful of is if we ask you, "Do you know so and so?" and you say yes as if they're your best friend, but really you've only heard of them. Handle it honestly: "I know of them, I know of their work, I know of that great thing they did over there." Or if you don't, just say, "No, I'm not familiar with them." What you don't want to do is [say], "Oh yeah, I know them really well," then I call them up and they've never heard of you. That right there kills it.

We've all been in interviews where we wish we could press rewind. Any way to salvage one that's gone awry?

In every interview, there's always something you'd like to take back, and it usually happens right as it's coming out of your mouth. Humor helps a lot. I think full disclosure and the ability to roll something into humor is such a good way to handle things because we're looking to see if you have self-knowledge. Handling humor in the right way reveals a lot about a person's character.

I remember one situation where someone told me right after our final interview that she was having a really off day and wished there was something she could do. I said, "You send me an email right now. And in the email say, 'Everybody has terrible days. My day started off so badly and I was so excited about meeting with you, but every step along the way, what came out of my mouth was different than what I wanted to say. I would love to have been able to mention these three things that were answers to your questions.' '' Again, that shows self-judgment and the ability to recover from something. It may not work, but the interviewer might say, "We've all had bad days, let's try it again."

Aside from nurturing your network, what's the best thing you can do for your career right now?

Understand who you are, where you've been, what you want, and where you want to go. Articulate it really clearly, and then get to work.

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