The Value of Experience (No Matter How Dated!)
Do you have to live through a problem in order to understand how to avoid it or solve it the next time or, if you’re smart enough, can you figure out how to handle difficult situations without actually experiencing a similar situation at some prior point in your life?
In business, I think experience can be extremely valuable, but only if it goes hand-in-hand with insight. In other words, when I look at a resume or interview someone, I want to know what they’ve learned from their experience and whether they have the ability to apply that knowledge in other situations. This sort of insight is ageless. For example, when I was negotiating debt agreements as CFO of a small broadcasting company, I learned that I didn’t have to respond to the lender’s objections right away. In fact, I discovered that if I kept pushing and stalling on certain issues, the other side would often concede. This experience took place twenty years ago. But that experiential lesson—don’t rush in a negotiation— remains fresh in my mind.
So, for those of you who are reentering the job market after time at home, or who are experienced employees forced to job hunt due to a downsizing, here’s how to make your experience valuable currency in today’s marketplace.
- Don’t denigrate your experience, to yourself or others, just because it’s “old.” In interviews, for example, if you’re asked “have you ever done XYZ?” don't sell yourself short. If you have done XYZ or something similar, then answer “yes, when I was at ABC Company, I had to do XYZ, and here’s how I did it.” Don’t undercut your answer by saying, “20 years ago I did XYZ but I barely remember it.”
- Know everything on your resume cold. No matter how long ago you did something, if it’s on your resume, it’s fair game for questions. Your resume is a leaflet about yourself. Can you imagine a salesman not understanding his own product brochure? One woman we know who hadn’t worked in 12 years, interviewed with a firm she had worked at over 20 years before. She told me that everyone with whom she interviewed wanted to know about deals she had done during her first stint at the firm. She spoke about them as if they happened yesterday, and she got the job.
- Never answer by saying “it was so long ago I don’t remember” and leave it at that. If you can’t remember what happened in a certain situation, simply say “I’m not sure about that aspect,” but offer up some other lesson that you learned from the experience. And, if you think you could find the details by asking a former colleague or googling, then offer to e-mail an answer to the interviewer. If you respond that something occurred too long ago for you to remember, then an employer is bound to wonder “what good is all your experience?”.
- Demonstrate that, even if you haven’t kept current, you are current. For those reentering the workplace, as well as for older job seekers, your age may be seen as a negative, particularly to younger managers, despite your experience. To avoid dinosauritis, read relevant business press to make sure you’re using current lingo, spruce up your wardrobe so you don’t look like you walked out of the ‘80s, and approach the interviewer as a contemporary, even if she’s your daughter’s age.
- Above all, be positive and upbeat. No one wants to hire a downer. So keep in mind all the experiential lessons you have to offer and strut out there with good humor and confidence.