Improving on tradition: Finding new ways to stand out in your nonprofit job search

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When Heidi Tsao lost her job at a marketing agency last September, she did what most folks do when looking for work. She sent out resumes, and some more resumes. Soon enough, though, Tsao found herself facing the cold-hard reality causing so many applicants these days to shiver: It can be tough out there for a job seeker. Real tough.

After traditional efforts didn’t land Tsao an interview, Tsao decided to forego the conventional job search pathway. Instead, the marketer created the Interview Stage, a video project where Tsao solicits folks via social media to send her their favourite job interview questions which she then addresses in short video clips.

“I knew I had to stand out and I knew the internet was a tool I could really use,” Tsao explains, adding that the job she’s looking for - “one with meaning and purpose” - is, these days, in a highly competitive sector. And, since her primary challenge is getting to the interview stage, Tsao’s video concept was born.

Aside from her website, Tsao has a blog that features each video in separate posts as well as a dedicated YouTube channel. With the help of her personal channels on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, Tsao ensures her project is shared with relative ease. Her theory: the greater exposure, the greater the chance Tsao’s creativity could be rewarded with interview opportunities.

Standing out in a crowd

When I spoke to Tsao recently, she was in the middle of editing her 19th video, a pretty impressive milestone considering she began the project in December. But what do others make of her approach to finding work? “What she’s doing is quite interesting,” offers Liam McQuade, COO of Public Inc., an agency with a socially conscious mission. She’s applying her craft to serve her own purposes and demonstrating a clever use of social media, he adds. Her strategy also plays to her strengths – her likeability, high energy, sweet demeanour etc. “None of that comes off the pages in a CV but it does on video.”

A unique approach in an increasingly fierce competitive space, one wonders if Tsao’s efforts signify the wave of the future. Can non-traditional tools represent the best way to secure the job of your dreams?

Hollie Knapp-Fisher certainly hopes so. The 21-year-old student of advertising, marketing and communications management decided to approach her search in her own unique way. She created an infographic resume, an idea borne at school. “We’ve been challenged to make ourselves stand out,” she says. “It’s pushed us to try new avenues to see what works.”

Besides, she adds, “We know that consumers don’t have a lot of time on their hands and are looking for snippets of information. People do that by taking in quick little images.” Take the lessons learned from the consumer world and bring them into the hiring one and voila! The infographic resume is born.

Having created the unique resume six months ago, Knapp-Fisher has been putting it to good use in her search for placements, part-time jobs and volunteer opportunities. And it’s already been successful, helping her land an interview for her current job at the local university. “They were impressed by it,” she says. “It was a great conversation starter, they thought it was so different, a really great idea.”

She elaborates: “It shows a different side of you that traditional resumes can’t necessarily show, that you’re creative, that you think outside the box and are interested in trying new things.” Confident she and her fellow students are pioneering an up-and-coming approach for resumes, Knapp-Fisher expects more people will be using it soon. And, though she still hasn’t won a much-coveted placement for next year, with a couple of recent interviews under her belt, she’s hopeful.

The challenges

As for Tsao, the response so far from her circle has also been very positive, with everyone lauding her attempts to be brave, to stand out, to do something different that is generating conversation. “But,” she adds, “in terms of my intended response - to get a job - I still don’t have one.” Tsao is convinced a current PR push will help, though being picky doesn’t help. “I’m looking for a company that has values that align with mine. I’m looking for a company helping people live better lives.” Besides, she adds with a laugh, further explaining her selectivity, “I’m putting in so much effort so it better be good.”

Of course, by adopting an unconventional approach, Tsao knows she will be limiting her chances of being selected for an interview by a more traditional company. And that’s okay with her. “Some less risk-averse companies see me as a renegade candidate and I recognize that but I’m looking for a company that is looking for this [unique] type of thing.”

Knapp-Fisher, whose search seems a bit wider than Tsao’s, has adopted the tactic of sending out a conventional resume along with the infographic one to every prospective employer. “It can’t hurt”, she says of an approach that may help her appease both sides of the spectrum. “Hiring managers are still very traditional.”

The verdict?

So, should more applicants be adopting non-traditional tools to give their frustrating search a leg-up? The answer, it appears, is...perhaps. “It really depends on the type of position you’re going for”, says Christa McMillin, partner at Foot in the Door Consulting. “Those things make sense if you’re going for a communications or design-related position, if the application is an audition of your skills.”

If you’re trying for a program manager or administrative position, however, odds are it may be best to stick to the conventional. “There’s only so much fodder in your portfolio to show what you do and you may not have the experience or background to lend itself to that stuff,” she adds.

Essentially, it’s about knowing your audience. “It would irritate me if I was hiring a program manager and I asked for a CV or cover letter and you sent me a link to a YouTube video of yourself. It may not be appropriate.” If you do decide to produce a video or other non-traditional tool as part of your application, make sure it adds something of value, she advises.

With that in mind, would a creative job or field like the one inhabited by McQuade find greater value in non-traditional applications? Maybe. And maybe not. He rarely receives very creative applications, McQuade admits, partly because people aren’t necessarily rewarded for being innovative. “We say we want people to stand out, we talk aspirationally, but when push comes to shove, Canada is a conservative business marketplace and hiring place,” he says. “There’s a very tried-and-true path that we fall prey to it as well.”

Yet, while most applicants reach out in traditional ways, it’s how they engage with McQuade that makes the biggest impact. “The process of finding talent is all about conversation. I’m less judgmental about how they come to me and very judgemental about how they engage with me.” Always remember, he adds, being disruptive, doing things differently, and challenging the standard operating procedures and perceptions can be accomplished in many ways. “People can use a traditional format but still be very provocative. And others can use a provocative format but tell a traditional story.”

For his part, McQuade is more interested in someone focused on the outcome than the output, “someone who can demonstrate an ability to see how they can make change happen in the world and less focused on the devices they want to do it by .” Ironically, he adds, in a high-tech world where time is precious, a simple thing like a hand-written note makes a big difference in helping you stand out. “Innovative can mean reaching out and making a personal connection, saying please and thank you.”

McQuade is not dissuading the efforts of non-traditionalists like Heidi Tsao, Hollie Knapp-Fisher and others. Just remember the importance of authenticity, he says. “Heidi Tsao chose the right format for her because it’s merchandising the best of her in the best way,” he concludes. “Some people apply in traditional ways but it’s characteristic of who they are – and compelling because of that.” Trying to be clever for its own sake, putting on a show because you think that’s what the audience wants, and it’s not a reflection of who you are, won’t serve anyone’s interests.

No one understands that more than Tsao. “This is just how I do things,” she explains. “I do things in unique ways that poke fun of the established way. I knew that to distinguish and be true to myself is to do something different.” Besides, she adds, “If I want to find something spectacular, I have to do something spectacular.”

Update: We're happy to report that Heidi Tsao accepted a job offer just prior to the publication of this article. She says, "While it was not a direct result of my interview videos, the hiring manager did take a look and was impressed with the innovative approach. I have already recorded my final video, a thank you to all those who have helped me, and will be releasing it just as soon as the offer has been signed."

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is president of Elle Communications and co-founder of SEE Change Magazine and can be reached at: info@ellecommunications.ca.

Photos (from top) via iStock.com. All photos used with permission.

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