Dear Crucial Skills,
I lost my job due to a reduction in force and haven’t been able to find another job due to my age. Everyone seems eager to hire me until I show up for the interview and they discover that I am sixty-one years old.
How can I prove to potential employers that I have a lot to offer, despite my age?
I have a dear friend who has been going through the same ordeal. It’s not a great time for anyone to be looking for a job. And I know that the repeated feeling of disappointment that comes when one after another hope falls through can lead to awful self-doubt at a time when you need motivation to continue to represent yourself boldly.
Before I offer some unconventional advice, let me suggest that you need to know your rights. If you have been overtly discriminated against because you are over forty, there are legal avenues you can pursue. I will not comment on those but suggest you find out what is available to you.
The challenge in your situation is not just helping employers know what you have to offer, it’s ensuring you retain a firm view of the value you have to offer as well. If you start doubting yourself, you’ll be more reluctant to stay in the search as well as telegraph your lack of confidence in interviews.
First, let’s reframe the problem of a job search. The employer’s central question when searching for a new hire is, “Can I trust you to solve important problems for me?” That’s it. It’s all about trust. Since the only way an employer can truly know if they can trust you to solve their problems is to give you the job, they have to rely on proxies for trust in the hiring process.
Giving you and 1,000 candidates the actual job would be too inefficient, so they use proxies—like education, previous job titles, salary levels, and letters of recommendation. They’ll even look for gaps in employment as a way of discerning if you have some hidden issues that made others want to avoid you. As we all know, these are incredibly imperfect proxies. Resumes offer facts and figures that hiring managers hope will reveal truth—but they obscure as much as they reveal. In addition, they aren’t particularly persuasive. Reading that someone worked at Acme, Inc. as a superintendent from 1978-1987 tells me nothing about the kinds of problems I can trust you to solve.
So, if you can’t give the employer a direct experience with your ability to solve problems (i.e., by taking the job for a couple of weeks), and the facts and figures approach to building trust is ineffective and fraught with weakness, what can you do? Also, is there anything you can do to retain trust in your own ability to solve important problems so you’ll stay motivated and project confidence during the search?
Yes. In fact, I have one suggestion that I believe can help with both. It’s the advice I offered my friend and it seems to be helping—no job yet, but the market is responding much differently.
The principle is to stop giving facts and start telling stories. Give potential employers a vicarious experience with you. Throw away the resume or keep it in reserve for when the box-checkers demand that you check their boxes for them. But ensure the experience potential employers have with you engages them in interesting stories about the problems you are uniquely suited to solve.
Think about it. If you want to sell a hamburger, you don’t list its ingredients. You show a picture of it. It’s juicy. It’s got a crispy piece of lettuce on it and a dollop of the exact mustard you love. Then you show someone taking a bite of it with eyes drooping in ecstasy. Why do you do this? Because it helps people trust that this hamburger might help them feel the way they want to feel. It’s a vicarious experience—and we trust stories more than we trust facts and figures. We like direct experiences best, but stories are a strong second.
My friend (I’ll call him Greg) threw away his resume. He started over by answering the question, “What am I world class at?” He thought about his personal brand. What problems do I want people to feel I can solve for them? He is a world-class HR strategist. He has a way of elevating every conversation he is part of. He brings humor and happiness to a team. And he’s a brilliant teacher and communicator.
After clarifying the three or four problems he solves better than most anyone in the world, he designed a document that read like a “movie trailer” rather than a “resume.” He created a document that included stories told by others about him that made these points. It includes graphics of logos of companies he solved problems for—sure, as an employee—but the point is not that he worked there—it’s that he solved problems there. He added his own commentary to let them know what he liked about the experiences others told. When you finish this 1,500-word document, you desperately want to meet Greg.
Oh, and I didn’t mention, but Greg is sixty-one years old and legally blind. He worries that he gets shrugged off for one or both of these reasons. As he reframed his life story in terms of problems he is brilliant at solving, he found that his age and his disability were natural parts of the unique strengths he ended up describing. He was able to frame his visual impairment, for example, in a story about a complex negotiation and he was able to describe how listening to nuances that led to a breakthrough was a direct result of limited visual distraction.
You’ll find that when you prepare your pitch as a story (movie trailer) rather than a eulogy, you’ll rediscover your own special value. You’ll bolster your confidence that you’re representing a product that deserves good representation. You’ll stop letting yourself be a prisoner to HR boxes that make you worry your age is a deficit and make it clear to both yourself and others that this is part of the reason they can trust you to contribute.
Good luck telling your story. I hope you find the perfect place to serve and contribute.
More from Joseph Grenny on Forbes: Read Joseph’s latest article, “There’s Nothing Like a Financial Crisis to Bring Out The Best In People,” to learn about the importance of vulnerability, sacrifice, and integrity during a financial crisis.