Marie Powell featured in Little Pink Book article – Get That Job!

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As a millennial on the cusp of graduation, I need all the help I can get with my job search. When invited to speak with one of the Southeast’s top women in talent management, BrightWell’s SVP Marie Powell, I learned lots about the hiring process from the initial application through the final offer letter.

What do you find most employers are expecting from women, specifically younger women?
Most of what I work on are mid to executive level searches, so a lot of what of my clients are looking for are candidates who are already successful in their careers. They have a good track record and can bring a good skill set to the organization regardless of the position. The way I retain most of my clients is by finding someone who meets the requirements and brings strong experience to the table, and not only hard skills but soft skills too. A lot of that you find out just by having conversations with people to see if the culture is a good fit. Is there a good chemistry with the organization? Too many times, people take jobs because they are looking for more money, or their next title elevation. And when candidates make decisions based on those factors alone, it’s usually wrong for them and wrong for the company. The job has to offer them something more than better compensation and a title. I spend my time trying to figure out that piece of the puzzle. You have to get beyond that and find out what’s really motivating this person to make a change. What is the company really looking for this person to bring to the party? A lot of times relocation is a factor, so there are a lot of layers to peel back so you can make the right match, and a match that’s going to last.

What is your advice for professional women who are considering relocating for work?
I hate to say it, but it’s always a little tougher for a woman to relocate than sometimes it is for men. Women are running the household for the most part, so they might have children and a spouse to consider at times. Normally, my candidates are usually at a level in their career where their spouses are stay-at-home dads, or their salary is at a level where they are driving the career decisions. I recommend the candidate (and their family) make several trips to make sure the location is right and comfortable for their lifestyle. I did a lot of my early work with a major retailer based in a small town. They were looking for people out of major cities and major companies. To get people to move to that market was challenging, you must make sure they’re a good fit. It really comes down to the company wanting to invest in the family and make sure they are making the right decision for everyone.

So it’s the company’s responsibility as well to make sure their candidates are comfortable?
Absolutely, and good companies realize that. They realize the hiring process begins long before the candidate shows up for that first day of work. Their relationship and experience with that company starts with the first phone interview, and that’s where they develop their opinion and first impressions of that company. As they take steps and get closer to offer stage, they need to realize all the things they are asking of this candidate must be well thought out. It gives them credibility and the candidate confidence. And the whole mentoring piece should kick in here. This is especially important for women. Men can come in more assertive, and for the most part women still need a road map. That mentor can be a man or a woman, but they need to believe in the process–not just knowing how to do the job but knowing how to maneuver and navigate the workplace is critical.

Unfortunately, there are still people in power who prey on women in the workplace, both physically and professionally. What red flags should women look for during the hiring process?
There are so many. The first half of my career was in retail, working in operations. And it was during a time where people literally could tell you to your face, “If you were a man, you could definitely do this role, but since you’re a woman, let me tell you what your limitations are.” And it was so normalized in society and because of the way [people were] brought up, [they] never thought anything about it. But women are very smart, and we all have an inner voice that tells us when something doesn’t sound, look, or feel right and I have heard people say that it starts as a whisper and when we don’t listen, then it screams ‘PAY ATTENTION.” I think we all have the innate ability to determine what’s right and wrong, but how we respond is different. And that goes back to not being as assertive or sometimes not as confident as men. It’s always about, “I don’t want to lose my job. I don’t want to ruffle feathers or make someone angry.” Women are still more inclined to try to maintain friendships, and it’s become a detriment. I don’t know if there are hard, fast rules, so listen to that inner voice and don’t be afraid to act on it. And don’t talk yourself out of it. 99.9 percent of the time, that’s the wrong decision. That’s where a mentor is helpful. If women take more initiative to approach and ask for mentorship, they can’t go wrong.

Here’s a tougher question, but go there with me. Going into women’s intersectionalities, when my parents named me Jessica they did so with a few things in mind:

1) My mother had always loved the name.

2) The name Jessica is racially nondescript. Even in 2018, applications sometimes get thrown in the trash or ignored if the applicant’s name indicates they are a minority (Source: Forbes.com https://www.forbes.com/sites/hbsworkingknowledge/2017/05/17/minorities-who-whiten-resumes-get-more-job-interviews/#54533f337b74).

In my application process, I don’t mark my race. Being in talent management, how do you combat racial prejudice in the application process to ensure equal opportunity across the board?
That’s crazy that this is still going on. If I have a client who even tries to say they have an affinity to one or the other, I wouldn’t work with them. I am personally committed to make sure people are treated fairly and work on an even playing field. Companies have to be open to everyone. I, personally, have been fortunate to never have that happen. And these days, it’s hard for me even to determine a person’s racial identity just by the name on paper. If I had a client say to me they want one over the other, I would outright ask the question: Why? I especially would have questions when they are equally qualified in experience and education. I have been very fortunate to have a good client base, and I am selective with my clients. Often these companies are seeking more diversity in race, gender, and even age. It used to be that women over 40 had a harder time getting work, like out with the old and in with the new. But the companies that have gutted these employees out and filled positions with primarily millennials are finding that they have lost a lot of knowledge. There’s a whole different skill set that just comes with experience, so they have to be more open in order to be successful.

I understand that you primarily recruit mid-senior and C-level women, but millennials are now entering the job market. We spend years gaining education, but lack the experience we need, often leaving our only options to retail and food service. We can do the work and get the experience. We just need a chance. How can millennials get a foot in the door?
I have had very limited experience with millennials. I don’t think this is true of all millennials of course, but there is a little bit of entitlement that runs across that group. I think there is a lot to be said for a little bit of humility and understanding that you’re not going to come into a company and demand a certain level, be it a title or compensation. There are dues that need to be paid. There is a section in that age bracket that doesn’t get that. And sometimes this depends on the company. There are high-tech companies where this does not apply, because that is what they’re looking for.

So, what’s your advice to millennials?
My advice would be to decide what kind of organization you want to be a part of and tailor your interviews and the way you position yourself to fit that organization. I also think there’s a tendency to want to change the world overnight, instant gratification, and that can hurt. You have to come in and say, “I need to understand this organization and their culture.” Then, and only then, can you decide what you want to change or redirect or help the organization accomplish. If you come in guns blazing, you don’t give yourself or the company the opportunity to see your potential. It’s hard when you don’t have the experience to convince someone of your value. Do your homework, and research that company. Find out about the culture before the interview. And if you do that, you have something to talk about that moves past the job function and shows why you would still be an asset, because you can’t show it through experience. The most successful interviews are the ones where the company knows how to sell the job and the candidate knows how to sell themselves.

Millennials and Generation X can definitely learn from each other. My generation can be too aggressive, and Generation X lacks confidence at times. How do we as bridge the gap between confidence and aggression?
Yes, we definitely need a middle ground. I think some companies are figuring out how to do that better than others. There are companies that just get it, that know how to bring people in from all walks of life and integrate them into the organization. They know how to mentor, groom and give advice. And there are other companies where you’re on your own. And that’s okay for some people. Some people just want to come in and punch a clock. But if you want a career and you want to grow, not necessarily to be the CEO but to grow skill sets and as a person, you have to choose the right place.