There’s no such thing as a conventional background

There’s no such thing as a conventional background
An article from our expert

Amélie Favre Guittet

CEO of Talent Management Group, HR influencer, LinkedIn Top Voices 2021 and recruitment expert.

Sitting down, facing the recruiter, you start your job interview by describing yourself as having “an unconventional profile,” thinking you’re scoring points and/or making your story easier to understand. The recruiter asks, “What do you think a conventional profile is, exactly?”, leaving you speechless—even though it’s a fair question. Does a candidate with a “classic” flawless background even exist, and if so, whose definition is that? Have Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Elon Musk had “conventional” careers? No, but that didn’t make them any less hireable, right?

Let’s be clear: there have been no scientific studies on the subject so far, and there’s no official definition of “conventional” or “unconventional” backgrounds. You’re probably thinking that unconventional candidates can’t—and don’t want to—be labelled, but they automatically are. And as no one knows how to explain whether a person is or isn’t conventional, you’re likely to mess up in an interview trying to define yourself as such. “So how do you stand out in a competitive job market?” you might ask. Sure, it can be tempting to call yourself “unconventional” to differentiate yourself at all costs and avoid fading into the pile of resumés the recruiter has. But be careful, standing out from the crowd does not necessarily mean you are different…

It’s a term that often conceals failures that aren’t failures at all

Especially since the word “unconventional” is all too often associated with career choices we regret, professional failures or gaps in our career. Lots of people use it to hide things that might be considered “abnormal.” But that isn’t necessarily the right thing to do, and more important still, our background and career do not define us. Let’s look at a few examples:

  • A change in education: someone who goes to medical school, quits, then studies biology before finally opting for business school. They’re finding their feet, but that doesn’t make them an unusual person. It’s fine to change your mind.

  • A tortuous career path: starting one job, then another, moving on to short-term contracts rather than permanent, getting bored after a few years, then wanting to go back to school to do something else entirely—how bad does it look? Accumulating contracts or professional skills is neither unusual nor unconventional. People change jobs all the time.

So I suggest you change your perspective instead. Let’s ask ourselves what the other person is really looking for when they ask about our professional background.

Spoiler alert: the most important things a recruiter wants to know are:

  • What has led you to make particular choices in your life.
  • How you faced certain challenges.
  • What you have learnt from your defeats.
  • How their company will be able to “benefit” from these experiences.

Basically, they want to understand your past and know what motivates you to be able to see themselves working with you. The concept of “unconventional” will not be enough, and the recruiter may not be receptive to it—because who knows what their definition of “unconventional” is? So, what should you say instead?

Explore more in our section: Candidates

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1. Own your choices

It’s no secret that we’ve all made mistakes or bad choices. Even I, as a coach, have done it. The question is not whether we regret things or wish we had acted differently—it’s too late and there’s no point dwelling on the past. Instead, we move forward better prepared.

So, to get ready for your interviews, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why did you make those errors?
  • Why won’t you do it again?
  • What did you learn from it? How are those mistakes useful to you today?

If we dive a little deeper, we might even ask ourselves: “Actually, was it really a mistake?”, and “Who exactly defines what is a mistake or a bad choice? Aren’t I influenced by what society tells me?”

While we can’t change our past, we can change the way we look at it: in an optimistic light. Remember that recruiters need to be reassured. They want to feel that you’re strong and that they can count on you. To ensure that happens, you have to be sure of yourself and comfortable with both what you have been and what you have become.

2. The human brain does not differentiate between a real image and a manufactured image

There is one thing you need to know: humans are fantasy machines. What does that mean? It means that our brain will construct images through “fantasizing,” from the real or fictitious information it receives.

If I describe a delicious blueberry muffin, fresh out of the oven with a crisp golden top, you can see the heat and smell the fruit, right? Imagine picking it up, the bottom part soft while the top stays crispy. You can smell the berries and butter in your nostrils. Imagine biting it and letting a few crumbs fall on the table. It melts in your mouth as you chew. Delicious! Now tell me you’re not hungry.

Imagine the same idea in an interview. By telling a story, you are creating images and making the recruiter feel a certain way—hence the importance of knowing what kind of reaction you want to provoke. So it’s a matter of finding the right way to tell your professional story, your failures, your defeats and all your decisions so that the other person has a positive image of you.

To tell a good story, not only do you need the right words, you also need a common thread. What’s yours? For the recruiter to be hooked, they must be able to find a logic in your journey. This logic will allow them to better understand you and follow as you tell your story. Assume that your supposedly “unconventional” journey actually makes perfect sense. What is this logic? What made you jump from one job to another? Or what makes you change jobs or sectors? The recruiter needs to see what drives you and leads you to make particular decisions. In addition, if you can show that you’ve evolved or your strengths have multiplied, it will be even easier for them to get on board with you.

3. What story do you want to tell?

Have you heard of the theory of circles? It’s about connection, finding links between things that are seemingly unconnected to each other.

Say you worked in a bank, then in a small business, before moving to Miami to sell real estate. Don’t panic: your experience stems from the skills you’ve acquired and the qualities you’ve developed. So, if we link each experience to a quality and/or an encounter, we get a coherent whole.

For example, in banking, you learnt about customer relations, particularly in small businesses. After five years, during a conversation with a client, they suggested that you join them to develop partnerships. Your passion for the mission and their president made you decide to jump. You supported them on nearly 30 new partnerships in two years. It was a great adventure and you remember it fondly. That’s what made you want to get started in real estate. Why? Well, as part of your job, you had an overview of lots of different sectors, and you discovered real estate. You took the initiative to investigate further: you networked, read and listened to podcasts. You’re definitely a people person because it was during an after-work event that, while discussing business, someone offered you a job in Miami. That’s how you know everything about Miami real estate. So, inevitably, when you saw this job, which is about working with expats returning to France, you immediately thought it was right for you. With your banking skills, your network and your mastery of real estate, you know you’ll be a great asset.

Ta-da! I made links between bank -> relationships -> network -> small businesses -> overview -> real estate -> Miami -> expatriates.

Who’s up next? Ah, I never told you how to make your circles.
A large circle = an activity/action. For example:

  • If I have done 3 internships and had 5 jobs = 8 circles.
  • If I play tennis, I volunteer and I sew = 3 circles.
  • If I have done 2 online courses and 4 Moocs = 6 circles.

Is everyone still with me?

Once these large circles are defined, we can fill them with middle circles.
Example: “I am now leading talent management” (1 large circle).

What are my missions, what is my role? One mission = 1 middle circle.
Example: accounting, communications, marketing, management, etc.

And repeat. As a reminder:
1 circle = 1 theme.
1 theme = several missions or roles (so several middle circles).

Then you sit down and ask, “What connects each of my big circles?” Easy: your qualities, your assets and your soft skills, found in your middle circles. Because believe it or not, we often find the same qualities from circle to circle. You don’t change as a person from experience to experience. The strongest common connection is you. This exercise takes time and you should leave three or four hours to work on it.

4. Burnout, sick leave, maternity—nothing should be taboo!

A subject only becomes taboo if you let it. Do you really think you’re the only person who’s been fired, had a long illness or gotten burnt-out? No, what happened to you is, unfortunately, nothing unusual. It’s tough, it’s sad, but it’s common. So why be so afraid to talk about it, or worse, try to hide it? It’s part of you. Likewise, don’t assume your interviewer has had a great life or a smooth, linear career. That’s impossible. Your recruiter might also have experienced some of the same things as you.

I know I’m repeating myself, but what interests a recruiter is not your journey as such but the way in which you bounced from one opportunity to another, how you overcame challenges, what reactions you had, the resources you used, and what you learnt in the process. The skills and strategies you’ve put in place to overcome these obstacles can also be put into practice in other circumstances. That’s exactly what we’re looking to see in an interview: your ability to convince us you can do this job using your past experience.

Once in an interview, a woman looked me straight in the eye and told me that her breast cancer was “the best thing that had ever happened” to her. Bold, right? Well, this personal confession—which could have put her in a position of vulnerability—gave her such strength and self-confidence that nothing could stop her, not even awkward questions. Through her arguments and the connections she was able to make, she led me to believe that her fiery character could translate into business.

5. Trick questions don’t exist

Speaking of trick questions, what is a trick? An embarrassing, unforeseen situation that we experience, mainly characterized by an element of surprise. Remember in school when you didn’t pay attention to a certain topic, you would pray that you weren’t quizzed the next day. Of course, the teacher would call on you. The problem was not so much that they chose you, but that you hadn’t paid attention to the lesson. So a trick question is not a surprise question, it’s a predictable question that you haven’t prepared for. The challenge is therefore to prepare for all the questions a recruiter is likely to ask. It is particularly important to rehearse how you’ll talk about your “weak points” such as unemployment, sickness, burn-out, layoffs and school dropouts.

If you choose to ignore these topics when preparing for an interview in the hopes that you won’t be asked about them, you’re taking a huge risk: of being unsettled, hesitant or lost if they come up. In that case, all the efforts you’ve made to build enthusiasm and confidence in your recruiter will fall apart in seconds. The worst part is that you will only have yourself to blame, and you won’t be able to say: “The recruiter didn’t understand anything about my unconventional background.” No no no! It’s up to you to reassure your recruiter and outline a background with relevant links. The recruiter, with their “trick” questions, was just trying to find connections in what you were saying. So why not turn these “weak points” into strong points?

Most important of all, stop hiding behind the word “unconventional.” Be loud and proud when it comes to your journey and what makes you the great person you are today. Because by changing the way you see yourself, you’ll change how others see you too.

Translated by: Kim Cunningham

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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