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A headhunter’s tell-all guide to avoiding career suicide

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“We now know beyond any reasonable doubt that much of what we were taught about how to succeed in life is goofy, wrong-headed, or just plain false,” writes Mark Jaffe about halfway through Let Me Give It to You Straight.

By his lights, feeling overwhelmed by the pace of change these days is normal. “If every single morning at work feels like an audition for a play that is yet to be written, you’ve got the idea.”

Still, Jaffe, of eponymous recruiting powerhouse Wyatt & Jaffe, has spent 30 years observing — and shaping — executive careers, and his book is evidence that even tumultuous times can be funny. At just shy of 200 pages, it’s about the right length for a flight from, say, New York to Minneapolis, and it reads as if its author were coaching you on your next career move over an old-fashioned three-martini lunch.

Consider, for instance, what’s (probably) wrong with your resume. If you’re like most candidates for senior management jobs, it’s too long. “Less is more. The sole purpose of a resume is to get you an interview, period,” Jaffe writes. “It’s not an autobiography. If you blurt it all out now, why would anyone want to meet you?”

If your CV is spangled with glowing adjectives, lose them. “Before I forget to ask, did your last employer sign off on you being a ‘visionary, world-class entrepreneur,’ or did you kind of decide that on your own?” Jaffe wonders. “What would she say about you? That the thesaurus called and they want their synonyms back?”

A chapter called Choose Better Habits and Enjoy Them Less lists Jaffe’s seven tips on setting yourself up for success. “Get up before the sun” is one: “No practice could ever feel more bizarre and unnatural, particularly to yours truly. But it’s the right thing to do and you know it…. Set your alarm for the same ridiculous time each day and get moving.”

Want to know how Jaffe and his clients spot which candidates to avoid, and how not to be one of them? Take a look at Chapter 10, dubbed Danger! Bad Candidate! Run Away! It’s a checklist of nine red flags that can pop up in interviews, and most of them are errors that well-intentioned interviewees don’t realize they’re making.

It seems reasonable, for instance, to assume that one way to make a great impression is to downplay any disasters in your past. Yet Jaffe says a prospective hire’s “lack of ‘crash and burn’ experience makes it impossible to know how he or she deals with situational failures, setbacks, and disappointments. Will the candidate fold like a cheap suit at the first sign of serious pressure?”

So how does Jaffe recommend that a management job candidate wow an employer? “My solution is ridiculously simple,” Jaffe writes. “Forget about being a candidate. Imagine instead that you’re a consultant, and that you’ve already been paid a non-refundable consulting fee to attend this meeting.”

It works because “you don’t have to worry about selling yourself. No posing, no posturing, no tap dancing of any kind. You’re there to be helpful, to identify your client’s needs…. Now you can sit on the same side of the table, metaphorically speaking, and ask the hard questions” — including where the company has been, where it’s going, how this executive job opening is defined and why, what great performance in it would look like, and how excellence would be measured.

“What will stick with them is that you asked the right questions, paid close attention to the answers, and really fathomed what their organization is all about,” Jaffe writes. “Now they’re hooked.

“Just remember: It’s not about you; it’s all about them. The more you want to be taken seriously as a candidate, the more you should forget that you are one.”

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