I’ve been hitting the pavement pretty hard lately. When people tell you the solution to all life’s woes is to “pound the pavement” they tend to leave out the part about it being full-body contact, but it’s true, isn’t it? You set up rounds of interviews, do your homework, prepare yourself mentally, think up some fresh-sounding answers to the same six questions everyone always asks, and then dress yourself in “professional, yet edgy!” armor and uncomfortable shoes. After the introductions, the marathon begins: my longest interview? Nine hours. I spent 45-minute parcels with groups of 4 or 5, including a lunch (which is impossible to eat, btw, if you are also answering their questions at the table) so that by 4 pm I had been interviewed by 28 people. Every one of them assured me they were impressed with my responses and experience.
I didn’t get the job.
Last week’s go-round: 3 hours, 3 people. And five tests. Yes; proofreading regular, proofreading old-fashioned, and proof-reading Super Fast. Then typing and one I can only refer to as the “making sure you’re not a complete idiot” test. The job in question pays slightly above minimum wage. They admit their turnover is epic.
Still waiting to hear my fate.
You know when this got so hard? When every job opening began attracting 700 applicants. How on earth is someone – let’s say in HR or in a brand new department – who isn’t already doing the job needed, supposed to understand the differences between one applicant’s excellent schooling and another applicant’s school-of-life experience? Some can’t even describe what the job IS. They may work for the company, but that does not mean they work IN the industry. They cannot parse the responsibility implied in a one-sentence description in your resume. So they do what Chicagoans have done for decades: they hire a relative of somebody who already works there.
A month later, the 9-hour interview job was back on the boards. Whoever impressed them sure didn’t last long…
There is another way. You see, in summing up my varied job experiences, I discovered a common theme. It’s like my personal Rosetta Stone when answering the question “what did you do there?” or “how did you go from tv to magazines?” “what is all this?”. It’s actually stunningly simple: I’ve had the same job 6 times. What did I do? I worked in the Bottleneck.
Every organization has one. The irony, of course, in so many organizations dedicated to communication is that the people working there are often TERRIBLE at communicating with each other. Some examples!
– The publisher of a weekly paper hires a consulting firm, at great expense, to tell him how to make more money. The consulting firm comes back with fabulous, colorful charts about lucrative demographics, growing demographics, and the home-town fave: demographics your paper is missing. The publisher is chagrined to discover that the growing and the lucrative and the missing are all the SAME demographic. The editorial staff (median age: 60) is told, basically, go get ’em! So they put their 68-year-old ex-cop on staff on alert that he should write more for “college-educated females in their late 20’s interested in buying a home”. Because, naturally, he relates to them SO WELL. The female college intern on staff remains at her post by the scanner, waiting for cars to crash. The resulting, insulting article about great deals on houses that is essentially an advertorial from a local real-estate agent, won’t even see the light of day online where it might come up in a search… it stays in the print edition, which as previously mentioned (at great expense!) remains UNREAD by anyone in that age group.
– An independent television station fighting for its existence has run afoul of its contract with a national Broadcasting Company (hint!) due to technical problems that put it off the air during prime time. The small station now lives in a legal limbo of probation – any more mistakes, and they’re going to be on the hook for up to 14 hours of programming per day. But they can’t afford to buy all new equipment, so they KNOW the problem could happen again. But they can’t save money for new equipment if they have to hire full-time engineering staff just to stay alive. The management of the station demands that the Master Control Operators all learn how to repair the equipment, figuring they’re already paid to be there 24 hours a day, and should be grateful for “the free training”. And by free, they mean, of course, “you’ll be trained during your regular hours because we’re not paying you to learn.” The MCO staff are, in some cases (AHEM!) already directing the morning news and all emergency broadcasts… at far less than a technical director makes to do only that, and while performing their other duties. Tempers…. they flare.
– A paper is trying to make the move from print to online. The (again!) elderly editorial staff lets years of experience work against them – instead of using the website to publish the latest, they try to create “cute” web shows while still dumping all the actual news into the print edition, which is hemorrhaging money. The publisher allows the Sales Department to weigh in on what stories to cover (sigh…) creating a firestorm of clusterfuckery you have to SEE to believe. In addition, what’s left of the decimated reporting staff is now in rebellion because a) their best stories are getting buried; b) they’re now under pressure from people who HAVE NO REPORTING EXPERIENCE to “make up” a reason to report from the local carpet emporium; c) they’re being told that they have to create “new” stories for the web, after each has been doing yeoman’s work for months just to fill the print edition with so many cutbacks, and now they have to stop in the middle of everything to do something “cute”?
These examples are all true. And they all describe exactly the situation I walked into the day I took those respective jobs. In two cases, I already worked there in another position (hence all the Ahem!ing) but talked my way into a new position (often at no additional pay – but I was young and stupid). What was that new position? Forget the meaningless title they gave me… I was a Bottleneck Professional.
Any job with a deadline has the potential for at least one bottleneck. That we know… It doesn’t matter if you need the shipment of raw material for a factory or you need to summon the right staff for a Code Blue in the hospital – the time it takes for that necessary thing to arrive is the Bottleneck. But in communications, things get weirder. It’s true that a writer’s potential is only realized by an able editor, and able editors only exist where the publication’s goals are clear and their tools well-utilized; it’s true that a News Team is as much made up by people who know how to drive the van as it is by people who know how to get the satellite feed back up (and guess which one is less glamourous?) as it is by people who can talk and look pretty at the same time. But like any team… Here’s a sports analogy: the goalie is a fat guy. (This concludes all I know about sports, except the icing rule… but that’s another story…)
These people do not understand one another. No one can get their needs met. They have meetings where every person is using words that sound just like English… but no one understands them. These meetings end in the Screams of the Damned every time.
I started in journalism when I was 12 (equestrian events reporter, Cape May County Fair, WJSE which used to be a Christian Rock/Local News station in my hometown). I grew up with it. Then, the moment my diploma connected to my hot little hands, I took off like a shot from Cape May County and got… A degree in Business.
It took getting a degree in Business to convince me that Journalism was for me.
And they took me back! Weeks after graduation, I was back to interviewing the band and the artist and the grower of the biggest squash and the local hero… But what’s this? Why is every paper I work for suddenly devouring itself?
Someday, books will be written about what happened to Media in the past 2 decades. It will not be written by any journalist, though – they’ll have drunk themselves to death by then. But suffice it to say – I became by default an Emergency Responder. I crashed the gates of the Lofty Editorial Meeting – a citadel of old white men – so that I could then translate to and for them. I led by example, reaching the audience they needed and proving it could be done without spending additional money or detracting from the “real” news – and I convinced them that the real news had to be online in time to be useful. At the station – I changed how MCO’s are trained, I changed their job requirements, I proved you could move up, I built the “swing team”, and by the time I left I was Producing and could tell my assistants how to fix a problem before it shut us down… and then, the station finally bought new equipment. Then… the job changed again. Because the Bottleneck isn’t cleared by one good idea from a smart-alecky redhead… it’s cleared by the whole team, as part of a whole-team process. But only if…
Somebody has to work the bottleneck – prioritizing from both sides, listening to everyone, keeping the long-term goals in mind while putting out the immediate fires. In a financial firm or corporation, mid-level management tends to be the wasteland of talent and vision; it’s where the drill sergeants, backstabbers, and kiss-ups stay when they can rise no more. It’s the opposite in Communications. You hang out in the middle, you not only get to be creative, you get to know what’s going on in your own office. But it comes at a price: The Bottleneck is pretty tight. It’s still my home sweet home.
During this time, it never occurred to me that I was good at something. I assumed everyone else could have done the same, if they had only listened and asked more questions and then made their suggestions to someone at the top instead of fuming over it to all their friends at the bottom. Now I know better. At interviews, I’ve been asked how I managed to get so much experience so young. I think they think I exaggerate. If you’re interviewing people with experience at large publications, where they had only limited responsibility and served as a small cog in a very big, shiny wheel, my story makes little sense. I worked at the other end of the spectrum… dirt poor papers, magazines on the verge of bankruptcy, a tv station whose studio threatened to fall on us… I never understood why anyone would exaggerate those crap, low-paying, drama-filled jobs. I turned them each into something more fun. More importantly, I learned everything they could teach me.
But recently, I realized people have NO IDEA what I did. You were a writer, but started out a tech at the tv station? Then moved up to producer? But then you started out a reporter at the paper, and then moved up to online and video editing?
I did the same thing at all of them. I worked the Bottleneck. I’m not a Gate-Keeper – that’s a position of authority. I’m not the Mama, or the Gopher, or the Fearless Leader, or the Divine Light of Inspiration! (That one pays better.) I fit right in that tight spot where everything was going wrong. Then I slooowly untangled the mess. It’s a miracle any of my old co-workers still speak to me, considering how not-humble I can sound about my trials and successes. But they do. While I was there, they felt I was on their side… because I WAS. I just happened to understand the “insane jargon” coming out of the other side, too.
My job history makes perfect sense, if you’re a person who actually cares about their job.
So, everyday for a few hours, I peruse the job boards. And I see so much more than, possibly, these companies want me to see. Your defensive language, list of don’ts, impossibly lengthy and contradictory requirements, the fact that you want someone with a Master’s for slightly above $34K a year? You don’t know what you need. You want a band-aid. Your whole chain has broken down. You’re getting 700 applications a day… from recent grads who don’t see every word as a BRIGHT. RED. FLAG. Good luck with that. You may have the best creative. You may have the richest board. But everything is breaking down in the middle – and you don’t even know how to describe what you need.
And God help you if you DON’T have the best creative input and the richest board – because your days are numbered as long as everyone’s energy is squandered in the bottleneck.
Those at the top – furiously demanding why the organization can’t be more responsive. Those at the bottom – irate over how many fires they have to constantly put out, and the fact that they never get any credit for doing so. In the middle… What language is that? Is it English? No one can tell. No one’s even listening.
So for all of you lucky enough to be hiring: here’s what to look for. A resume filled with more experience than schools (Sorry Academia, I love you and want to someday finish my Master’s, but you don’t prepare people for this.) A story about someone meeting the challenges of the entire firm… not just “this one time I had to work overtime… So I consider myself a team player.” Look for someone who moved up, look for someone who redefined their workplace, someone who won awards for ideas AND their application, someone with a track record of figuring it out on the fly and building a tighter team than had been there before.
Or, if that’s too much reading for you on all 700 resumes…. I’m available. But now, I charge more.