Beware of CLMs

Unfortunately most CLMs aren't this easy to recognize.

Recently a soon-to-be college graduate set up a networking meeting with me. I willingly agreed, not only because I enjoy helping people if I can, but also because I usually learn something as well. What surprised me was the lack of awareness this individual had about the realities of today’s professional world.  Over the space of one short meal he made five CLMs. CLMs for those of you who don’t know stand for Career Limiting Moves or Career Limiting Mistakes. And the worst part is that he is smart, hard-working and would be an asset to most organizations, once some of the rough edges are cleaned up.

Here is the short list of the CLMs he made in just one memorable hour.  He was late without explanation or phone call to warn me. He showed up wearing an old, graphic t-shirt and worn jeans. His resume featured the stereotypical joke email address but that’s okay because I stopped reading his resume after finding five errors in the first three sections. And the final straw was that he took out his cell phone and started texting during our conversation.

Any one of those things might have been shrugged off, but the combination would have been deadly if I was an actual employer and not a friend trying to help the guy. Below is my detailed breakdown of each CLM.

CLM # 1. Timeliness. Yes, I know I’m going to sound like an old codger, but showing up on time really does mean being at the specified place by the specified time. If you can’t for whatever reason be there on-time, the courtesy of a phone call letting me know you are running late goes a long way. Maybe it’s my military background, but I’m kind of a stickler about being on-time where business is concerned. Among family and friends I’m known for my occasional casual arrival times – but those only hold true for open-ended group activities where we are just hanging out watching a game and the like.

CLM #2. Proper attire. Yes, much of the business world today is business casual, but business casual isn’t jeans and a t-shirt. That’s just plain casual. And when you are meeting someone for lunch at nice restaurant and they are picking up the tab, maybe you should spend 2 minutes with your smartphone using the Yelp App to figure what you should wear. You don’t need to be wearing a Savile Row bespoke suit, but is it too much to ask that you break out a shirt with buttons and maybe an upscale pair of jeans, or even a pair of khakis at a minimum? Of course if you want to be a custom furniture maker maybe jeans and a denim shirt would be more appropriate.

Suits are suitable for most career activities.

It all depends on where you want to go and who you are meeting with. Every company and person has a different standard of what is considered professional attire. If you are meeting people in the Financial services or Insurance industry you should probably be wearing a suit and tie. But if you are meeting people in the technology space – business casual is the norm and some companies don’t even require that. Apple CEO Steve Jobs is famous for wearing mock turtlenecks with jeans to even the biggest events. Even though Mr. Jobs can get away with wearing jeans, it’s probably better to err on the side of caution and aim for business casual or better.

CLM #3. Professional Email. It shouldn’t have to be said, but you need a real email address when you are ready to apply for internships and jobs. or just won’t do anymore. Try to get something that resembles your actual name. After all potential employers will see this address as an example of your decision making capability. What you choose probably can’t help you too much, but it can hurt you if you make a bone-headed choice. The best choice, if it is still available, is to go buy your own domain name. It’s cheap and you can set up your own personal email address which will help you stand out from all of the hotmail, gmail and yahoo et al addresses out there. Plus it demonstrates a comfort level with technology that is required today and will also help your search engine rankings.

This brings up another point. Once you get that first “real” job or internship don’t use your work email for personal messages. You may not realize this but your employer has every legal and ethical right to read every single one of your messages at your work provided email address.  Telling a friend with your work email how boring your job is – might be a easy way to blow steam and break up the tedium of a Friday afternoon – but it could also be a serious CLM if your employer decides to check in on your email stream. If you must send personal email during work hours just use your personal smart phone.

Another piece of good advice is to avoid using your work email address for your social networking activities, especially for sites like Linkedin. Sure some people do this and have had no issues – I say lucky them. Seriously, work is work and personal life is personal life and mixing them willy-nilly without thought is a recipe for disaster. We all carry smartphones and get work email 24/7, but do you really want all of your facebook or linkedin messages going to your work address? Yes, work/personal life boundaries are becoming ever-more entwined and will only become more so over time, but that intermingling should be a conscious choice and not an after-thought.

CLM #4. Proofread.  Yes, proofreading has become even more important in an era of instant casual communication. I’m not saying I’m perfect – as long-time readers of this blog can attest to – I’m just saying that you should probably spend plenty of time reading and rereading your resume, not only looking for errors, but also reading for clarity and strength of content. When you are done ask five people to read it, incorporate their suggested changes and repeat with five different people. Up the ante by finding five new people not related to you, because too often friends and family will look at your resume but won’t want to hurt your feelings by being critical.

But critical feedback is exactly what you need most during an internship or job search because without it, it’s very difficult to improve. To emphasize this need for critical and actionable feedback, offer to pay proofreaders $1 or $5 for every error they find. You’ll be amazed at how much feedback you’ll get, and how quickly you’ll get that feedback, when you are paying people to be critical. It gives readers a license to be free with their opinions.

CLM #5. Attentiveness. If you are meeting with someone pay attention to them. Choosing to answer your phone at all – or with a message other than “I’m in a meeting right now, I’ll call you back when I’m done” is unacceptable. This may not be true for you and your friends, but if you are in a business meeting and the person on the other end of the phone isn’t your pregnant wife on her way to the delivery room or a customer saying they’ve just signed a big contract – the call can and should wait.

Career wrong turns can be overcome with awareness and a little hard work.

I once worked with someone who would routinely whip out the Blackberry during meetings with prospective clients. It drove me crazy and it alienated potential customers. I even had customers specifically request not to have this person back because they found this person’s actions so disrespectful of their time. Sure we’ve all glanced at our smartphones to see what mail has come in or to see who texted us – or merely to check the time (I don’t wear a watch anymore and use my cell phone instead) – but it’s one thing to glance and it’s another thing to start tapping away while someone is trying to help you land that first professional job.

After we finished our lunch and conversation – I asked this individual a question. “Are you serious about looking for a job?” He looked at me a little strangely for a second before answering yes, that’s why I called you. I then asked “would you like some candid feedback?” Again he said yes. I asked “are you sure?” – and at this he began to look nervous. He nodded and I then let loose the floodgates for about 3 minutes – he visibly blanched once he began to understand my feedback. But I didn’t just leave it at that – I told him I would help him improve if he wanted my help and that he could be great if he wanted to be. His response was that no one had told him any of these things and he definitely wanted my help. I’ll leave for another time just how scary the concept is that someone is paying a college $40K a year and isn’t learning how to look for the first job in their career.

The good news is I gave him some coaching on his resume and on what potential employers might be looking for. We met again a few weeks later and it was like a he was a new man because he had landed his first internship and things were going very well. He was also early to the meeting and he was wearing a suit – although not for my benefit he had just come from another interview. While I knew he would be a great asset to any organization, without those changes I’m sure many employers would have consigned him to file 13.

No matter where you are in your career you can commit CLMs, but at least try not to commit the obvious ones. So what CLMs do you see most often? Tell me your CLM tales or let me know if I’m off base. -t

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