Life in the Slow Lane—Lessons Learned for the Bumpy Road Ahead
Ian Ziskin, Corporate Vice President, Human Resources and Leadership Strategy,
Northrop Grumman Corporation

Ian Ziskin No matter how hard you work, how good your performance is, or how indispensable you think you are, you could be out of work at any moment. Is it fair? It's not about fair. Looking for rationality? Forget it. Can this be the new corporate reality? Better get used to it.

Here's my personal story, condensed . . . "I'm a hard-charging HR guy with a successful 20 year track record. I join a telecom company that, shortly after my arrival, goes into a tailspin. Rather than bail out, I hang tough and work to help the company bounce back. A new CEO comes in, and wipes out much of our management team to make room for associates from his past. I leave along with many others."

Chances are you will encounter similar circumstances. Either you may be laid off yourself, or you will hire others who have been through it. People like us never look at life or their career in quite the same way. I have learned ten personal lessons through my journey along the job search road, insights you may find helpful.

Remember, while the process is not always fun, it can be a constructive learning experience—a time for personal reflection and development.

  Patience vs. Persistence—the Delicate Balance

Be patient. Things take time, as we are repeatedly told. Well, it's true. The job search, particularly in today's economy, will take much longer than you might think. Here's my rule of thumb . . . multiply time frames by a factor of three. If someone tells you it will take a week to get back to you, assume it will take three. If you think a selection decision should take one month, it will probably take three. Anticipate delays for all kinds of reasons— legitimate and bizarre—because they will happen. I calculated that the actual average time for identifying a job prospect, interviewing, getting the offer, finalizing the agreement, and accepting the job is somewhere between 10-20 hours depending on the level and complexity of the job. However, those 10-20 hours likely will take three months or more.

Armed with realistic expectations, you will be better prepared to make good use of your "waiting periods." My advice is to continue networking, research other opportunities, and interview elsewhere. You will also be better able to judge how persistent to be in following up with the hiring company, how often to "check in," and when to let things proceed without making a pest of yourself.

Your patience will be severely tested. Don't allow your frustration to cloud your judgment. Be persistent, but be realistic about how viable a particular job opportunity really is. Remember, people at the hiring company actually believe their decision-making process is moving fairly quickly, given how busy they are otherwise.

  It's Not Personal

How can it not be personal? It's more about good fit than good feelings. Think of it this way . . . you have many friends. But, if you needed brain surgery, how many of those friends would you hire as your surgeon?

We all want to be liked, and a great interview always feels like affirmation that somebody likes us. However, being liked is only a small part of the selection process. Decisions usually center more on technical credentials, specific skills, track record in similar circumstances, chemistry, cultural fit, and timing. In addition, decisions are often made by people who have their own biases that have nothing to do with you. For example, some people who interviewed me didn't like my former company, others knew people I had worked with and thought very highly of them. Those perspectives played a role in decisions, yet there was little I could do to change them.

You may be likable but not necessarily the right fit for the job. Therefore, if interviewing takes too long or you don't get a job, don't assume there must be something wrong with you.

  The Cocktail Party Paradox

Job hunting has to be one of life's most humbling experiences. You are not in control of other people's time, priorities, biases, or decisions. It's easy to feel powerless. You know you need to network, make contacts, and sell yourself—each time with zest and enthusiasm! Cocktail parties can be a great forum for building your network, yet you dread talking about yourself and your job search, and answering that painful question, "So, where do you work?"

On the one hand, you need to maintain humility. Fight through the job search with a smile. Meeting new people and learning about organizations can actually be a lot of fun! On the other hand, the single best feature you have to offer is your self esteem. A job search process is a great way to learn about who you are and what you are made of, and an even better way to show others how you work through a challenging time with class and confidence.

You will make a tremendous impression on people if you carry yourself as though you are doing something important—looking for the next right opportunity—rather than simply hoping to find a job to pay the bills. Approach the job search process as an important, full-time job, and people will treat you like you already have one.

  Tomorrow, the Gateway to Neverland

It's fine to take some time off to clear your head before beginning your next job search. But, once started, pursue things with an aggressive, "get it done today" mindset. Momentum is most important. Get into a networking and interviewing rhythm, beginning with a bias for action. Make things happen today, not tomorrow.

As you plan your activities, always know what you are going to accomplish today. What phone calls will you make? With whom will you meet? What companies or web sites will you research? Even if you plan to take the day off, identify your errands or activities so you feel a sense of accomplishment.

Building some structure into each day helps foster the mentality that you need to get important things done today. For example, I have always exercised early in the morning before starting my work day. During my job search process, I awoke each day at 5:00am to continue my workout routine. It provided great discipline and continuity, not to mention a terrific reason to begin my job search early.

  Death by the Rear View Mirror

Looking through the rear view mirror while driving provides an important perspective. But, do it only periodically and for very short periods. It's great for checking where you have been, but you have to look forward to see what is ahead.

The rear view mirror also reflects the "shouldacouldawoulda syndrome." You can't help thinking, "I shoulda turned left, and I coulda moved into the left lane if only that idiot woulda let me ease in front of him."

Life is full of replays. But, stop wasting your time. You will crash if you spend all your time looking backwards. Learn from your past experiences. Reflect occasionally on what you would do differently or better next time, if anything. Spend most of your energy on what you are going to do next.

As Peter Drucker said, "The best way to predict the future is to plan it."

  Journey to the Center of the Universe

No matter how great your past experience, or your previous organizations, there is one indisputable truth in the job search game . . . the company you are talking to about a job fundamentally believes that it is the most unique, special, complicated, and important organization in the universe. It will do everything in its power to make you understand that it truly is different, and that you can't possibly understand how different it truly is. Welcome to the center of the universe. Do you know the secret handshake?

My advice is, don't fight it. Yes, you absolutely want to make a strong case as to why your past experience is applicable in the hiring company's world. No, you do not want to persuade the hiring company that the universe you came from really is bigger, more complicated, or somehow better than its universe. It's not a winning strategy.

This lesson is particularly important if you will be transitioning from larger, more traditional companies to more entrepreneurial organizations. I learned that entrepreneurial companies generally do not envy or admire large companies. More often than not, they see large companies as bureaucracies, and the people who work there as unable to roll up their sleeves and do real work. So, concentrate your energy on demonstrating your ability to do real work and deliver results. Those attributes translate well in any business environment.

  You Can't Change DNA

Most of us want to make a difference. Sometimes, in our zeal, we convince ourselves that we can change everything about the organization. That's a very admirable goal. However, be realistic. Working to improve the organization, your new boss, and your coworkers makes perfect sense. Trying to change their DNA, their deeply rooted values and assumptions, is a much steeper climb.

If your new-boss-to-be hates communicating with people, you will not convince him to love communicating openly and baring his soul. If the organization has a 100-year-old culture of decentralization, you will not be persuasive during your first week that centralization is more efficient.

Be clear about what you can and cannot change, and when. Practices, processes, policies, culture, and behaviors can be changed, but over time. Change things as you can, where you can. DNA is tougher to change, especially under stressful business conditions when people gravitate toward their comfort zones. Therefore, make sure you and your DNA are compatible with the organizational antibodies at the new job.

  Squeeze the Fruits and Vegetables

During the job search, it's difficult to get real insight into hiring organizations. Of course, you have access to public information, websites, people with whom you interview, people you may know who work for the company, as well as customers, suppliers, or investors. But, what is it really like in there?

At the supermarket, I enjoy watching people in the fruits and vegetables aisle. Everyone has their own method for selecting tomatoes and grapefruit. Some squeeze, some shake, some massage, some smell. I have even seen a few people sneak a bite or two. Somehow, by the time their selection ritual is complete, shoppers are confident they have made the best selection.

Wouldn't it be great to have the same level of confidence about your new job? Yet, there are so many unknowns. I discovered a way to improve my level of insight into an organization, and therefore my confidence.

I did a consulting project with one company I was particularly interested in. It lasted a couple of weeks, so it wasn't exhaustive. I was very reluctant to do it at first, simply because it seemed a bit unorthodox. But, it proved to be an excellent way to get to know the company better, including the management team, key company strengths, areas for improvement, and the corporate culture.

I was paid for my time because the company wanted to use the consulting project as a way to get to know me better, too. I was also between jobs, so I was able to be more flexible than if I had been working. However, even if you are currently working and end up doing a short project for free, you may find it gives you additional peace of mind regarding your next job, and affords you a competitive advantage over other candidates.

  Got Friends?

Looking for a job helps you learn who your friends really are. You will have renewed faith in humanity, and be amazed at the level of support you receive from all kinds of people—including your family. Unfortunately, you may also find yourself disappointed by a small cadre of people who are too busy worrying about themselves to make time for you. The helpful people will likely be friends for life. The not-so-helpful people won't. The sweetest revenge will be your own success.

The toughest part of receiving help from others is asking for it. Most people will be delighted to assist. However, they will rarely know how to help unless you tell them. Therefore, you need to think through who can help and how, and communicate with them openly regarding status and next steps. Family members are especially important, since they are affected as much as you.

Asking for help was the toughest thing for me to do. I tended to be overly sensitive about not imposing on people or putting them in an awkward position. Don't make the same mistake. As long as you respect people's time and are reasonable with your requests, they will help you in more ways than you can imagine.

  All is Fair in Love and Search

At some point, you will encounter the pivotal yet enigmatic figures of the job search world, search consultants. Like people in most professions, you will find a wide disparity between the very best and all the rest. Whether they represent one of the world's largest search firms or run their own boutique practice, however, search consultants share one common primary mission in life—deliver a qualified candidate to a client who is willing to hire.

Understand the difference between a qualified candidate and the best candidate. Then, appreciate the difference between the candidate and the client.

An analogy to explain the above two distinctions is the real estate transaction, managed by an agent. The real estate agent—even the one working with the buyer—really works for the seller. The objective is to present one or more qualified buyers. The agent is not motivated to find "the best," nicest, or most charming buyer, but rather the buyer who meets the financial and other qualifications. The sales commission paid the real estate agent is exactly the same, regardless.

The search game is played much the same way. The search consultant represents the hiring company, the client. She does not represent you, the candidate. Her fee is paid by the hiring company, and is essentially the same no matter who is hired. Therefore, while the search consultant may come across a favorite candidate, someone she particularly likes, her preferences will not drive the hiring decision. The selection will be made by the client, who is choosing among a pool of qualified candidates.

Respect the search process and work through the search consultant. But, represent yourself and your views. Make sure the hiring company knows what it needs to know about you. Good search consultants will do their best to give you a fair shot, but they will not and can not be as effective as you.

  Final Thoughts

Remember the old saying, "What doesn't kill us makes us stronger." For me, the job search was a career challenge and a form of personal awakening.

I was patient, persistent, and picky—and made a career choice that is right for me. In the end, I was fortunate to have a number of exciting opportunities, and selected a role where I can really make a difference. Every day.

I accepted a position as Corporate Vice President, Human Resources and Leadership Strategy for Northrop Grumman Corporation headquartered in Los Angeles, California. Northrop Grumman is a global defense company with over $25 billion in revenues and 120,000 employees in all 50 states and 25 countries. I have responsibility for building and leading companywide initiatives including HR strategy, leadership and executive development, acquisition integration, succession planning/talent management, executive search, organization effectiveness, and HR functional excellence among other things. And, I am having a blast.

Allow yourself to reflect on what makes most sense for you. You will be stronger and better for having navigated successfully along the bumpy road through job transition.

Trust me, I've been there.

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Ian V. Ziskin is Corporate Vice President, Human Resources and Leadership Strategy for Northrop Grumman Corporation, a global defense company with $25 billion in revenues and 120,000 employees in all 50 states and 25 countries. He has 20 years of global leadership experience in human resources, executive selection and development, organization change and effectiveness, and people-related cost management. Ian has held progressively responsible roles with Fortune 100 corporations, including TRW Inc. and Qwest Communications where, most recently, he served as Executive Vice President & Chief Human Resources Officer. He has had responsibility for operations in over 30 countries in North and South America, Europe, and Asia/Pacific. Please send comments or questions to Ian Ziskin, at

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