Rob Sullivan Q&A
I could not be more excited to present this Q&A with Rob Sullivan because I think of him as my doppelganger in terms of using storytelling in the job search; we are twins separated at birth — except I think he’s probably quite a bit younger than I am. In any case, we are storytelling-in-the-job-search soulmates. He even wrote a book with a title similar to one of mine!
Bio: Rob Sullivan is an inspirational speaker and corporate trainer who has delivered workshops and keynotes at companies, universities, and trade associations across the country including TAP Pharmaceuticals, McDonald’s, Motorola, Northwestern University, and the University of Michigan. His passion is helping people recognize, leverage, and communicate the gold in their backgrounds.
Rob’s book, Getting Your Foot in the Door When You Don’t Have a Leg to Stand On (McGraw-Hill, 4th Printing), has already begun to replace top-selling What Color is Your Parachute? as a text in college career-development courses.
Rob has delivered numerous commencement speeches and been a repeat guest on television and radio stations across the country including NBC, ABC, and WGN. He was also featured in the Wall Street Journal and as a guest expert on Starting Over, an Emmy-award winning reality show that airs nationally on NBC.
Rob has a BA in psychology from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, as well as an MS in advertising from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
He blogs at Storysparking and is a career practitioner at Career Craftsman, where he also offers several e-books. Rob has also just launched the site, RIFProofing as a companion to his e-book, RIFProofing Your Career (RIF stands for “Reductions in Force”).
Q&A with Rob Sullivan:
Q: Among all the practitioners I¹ve interviewed in this series, you are the one closest to being a kindred spirit in terms of storytelling in the job search. How did you come to discover the effectiveness of storytelling in job-hunting?
A: I learned the effectiveness of storytelling by experiencing the pain that comes from not telling my story.
When I graduated from college, the job I wanted most was to work in account management at Chicago-based advertising giant Leo Burnett. Like hundreds of my classmates, I applied for one of the coveted on-campus interviews. Despite an objectively terrible interview, the recruiter saw enough of a spark that he invited me to fly to Chicago for a full day of interviews. Two weeks later, Burnett rejected me. Over the next 12 months, I had 80 advertising interviews in Chicago, New York, and Minneapolis. The following year, I reapplied to Burnett and was hired after my 23rd interview with the company. However, I was not a different person than I had been the year before. The only difference was that I had learned to tell my story.
As it turned out, there wasn’t a single moment or resource that opened my eyes to the value of storytelling. Instead, I gradually realized that the best interviews were the ones in which my story came across more clearly. At first, that made me think that my success was directly related to the skill of the interviewer. Only later did I realize the power and responsibility that I, as a candidate, had to make sure my story came across — regardless of the interviewer’s approach. Simply put, you can’t count on interviewers to ask effective questions. You have to have a strategy and a compelling collection of stories to help people make the right decision.
After spending countless hours helping job hunters from a variety of industries, I realized that the inability to share our stories is widespread - mostly because our society isn’t clear on the distinction between bragging and factual self promotion. For this reason, I decided to write Getting Your Foot in the Door When You Don’t Have a Leg To Stand On (McGraw-Hill). It’s the book that would have saved me from the ego-battering experience job hunters know only too well.
Recognizing that the challenge of marketing yourself effectively does not stop when you get a job, I recently finished a new eBook called RIFProofing Your Career: How to Protect and Keep Your Job in Any Economy. For more information, visit its companion site.Q: You state on your Web site: “the experiences that employers would find most compelling are almost never included in the résumé. Worse yet, these experiences are rarely mentioned in the interview.” Can you give an example of this type of compelling experience — and without giving away all your secrets — give readers a hint of how one indentifies these kinds of compelling stories?
A: Aldous Huxley, the philosopher, once said, “Human beings have an unlimited capacity for taking things for granted.” I would take that one step further:
Human beings have an unlimited capacity for taking themselves for granted.
One of my favorite examples came from an event planner named Andrea who had a résumé loaded with the usual laundry list of responsibilities. However, telling people what you are responsible for is not storytelling. There is no magic in responsibilities. If you want your story to be special, you have to find and include a few unforgettable details.
Andrea had the details; but they were buried. After much probing, I finally got Andrea to admit that in eight years at the company she had never gone over budget and had never missed a deadline. That was the beginning of a good story, but we need more. So I asked her to create a list of all the events she had planned along with key facts like:
How many people attended each event
How many people she supervised
How much time she had to plan the event
What she actually spent
How much she saved
The largest event she planned was for 20,000 people.
She had saved her company a million dollars over eight years by coming in at or under budget on all of those events.
That turned out to be a great story because the average annual savings of $125,000 per year was $50,000 more than she was paid. In other words, she was an investment, not an expense.
Andrea’s story is particularly impressive when you consider how she originally discounted her performance saying, “I just did the job I was paid to do.”Q: What people or entities have been most influential to you in your story work and why?
A: From a speaking perspective, the person whose storytelling work I admire most is Doug Stevenson, the creator of Story Theater International.
The workshop with Doug was a terrific investment that changed the way I approached my workshops and keynotes. First, I discovered the magic of truly being myself as a speaker without worrying about what the audience might be thinking. Having gone through a variety of popular speaking programs, I was under the impression that speakers were always responsible for their audiences.
Doug doesn’t believe that. Instead, he went as far as to say:
“Some audiences suck.”
I resisted at first. But later I realized he was right. Rather than worry about the audience, he says:
“Love yourself and let them watch.”
In other words, do what you know works and don’t worry about the people watching. If you have fun, they’ll have fun.
If that seems counterintuitive, look at it a different way. As storytellers, when we craft the message, we have to take the audience into consideration. But when we perform the message, we have to do what we know works.
Not long after the workshop, I proved to myself that Doug was right. I was doing a workshop for a crowded room of college students who, for the most part, sat there motionless. I’ll never forget how surprised and disappointed I felt at their lack of responsiveness. Had I listened to the voice in my head from my early training, I would have spent the rest of the workshop exploring different ways to get their attention. Instead, I heard Doug’s voice saying, “Love yourself and let them watch.”
So, I didn’t change a thing. I did what I knew worked and did my best not to think too much about the audience. I wasn’t feeling especially good about the session until three weeks later when the school called and said, “Everyone loved you. You are our top choice for commencement speaker.”
Had I changed my story or my approach, the commencement invitation would never have been extended. Thanks, Doug!
Q: What’s your favorite story about a transformation that came about through a story or storytelling act?
A: It isn’t a coincidence that most of my favorite transformational stories are about career changers. After all, these are the people who have the most difficult challenge from a job-hunting standpoint. To make matters more difficult, traditional job search tools like résumés are practically useless because, by definition, a career changer is unlikely to have formal experience.
All of this was definitely true for Jill, a concert violinist who approached me about getting a job in advertising account management. When Jill first applied to Leo Burnett, the company was completely confused. When the interviewers looked at her résumé, they saw that she had played with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim, and the Moody Blues. It was a great story for a violinist. Not so great for a future advertising professional.
Looking at her résumé, I could only imagine the confusion in the mind of the recruiters who were probably thinking, “This looks great, but we don’t have an orchestra.”
At first, I was a bit confused as well. On the surface, it didn’t seem to make sense. However, after I encouraged Jill to chart her accomplishments in every area of her life, underlying themes of marketing and leadership emerged in almost every area of her life. She was recognized as a leader at age 12 when she began teaching violin at the music school’s request. From there, she marketed herself as a teacher, classroom instructor, musician, and manager of a string quartet. As she described the various marketing challenges, a more focused, enthusiastic person emerged.
Until that point, her cover letter, résumé — even her interviewing style—positioned her as a concert violinist who suddenly wanted to pursue advertising. By tracing her passion, quantifying her accomplishments, and retelling the story, we were able to position her as an accomplished marketer, problem-solver, and strategic thinking—who also happened to be a concert violinist.
After we repositioned her experience, Jill reapplied to Burnett and was hired — just a few short months after she was initially rejected. That’s the power of a great story.
Q: If you could share just one piece of advice or wisdom about story/storytelling/narrative with readers, what would it be?
A: If you haven’t seen the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, rent it. If you have already seen it, watch it again. Then, look back on every aspect of your life — not just your career — and ask yourself the question: “How are things better because I was here?” In other words, take yourself out of the equation. What happened that might never have happened without your input?
I call this the “It’s-A-Wonderful-Life-approach” to marketing yourself. And it’s the best way I know to make your story memorable and impactful.