The “O” Word 2

I was reading – and have commented on – a LinkedIn article on being overqualified… and a thought occurred to me springing from a Star Trek: TNG episode.  In this episode, Data – a humanoid robot with enormous mental capability – engages a master tactician from Star Fleet in a game called Strategema.  The idea of the game, quoting Wikipedia, “… is to manipulate circular icons to gain control of your opponent’s territory while defending your own.”  The end state is that one player wins, and the other loses.  In total surprise to everyone’s expectations of mechanical super-intelligence against an organic being, Data loses – and rather quickly.  (The winner, a “mere” organic life form, walks off smugly.)

The sentence above, about the end state of the game, is the key.  Winning is the desired goal of every player.  And more importantly, when one steps up to play the game, this is what every player understands is their goal – and the goal of their opponent.

So what does this have to do with being “overqualified”?  The discussion following this article brought up two points I made, the second and third points of my first article on being overqualified, specifically that an “overqualified person” might become bored and leave, or might gun for the boss’ chair, respectively.

This circles back to the assumption of your opponent in the game.  You, as one contestant, assume that the other person has the same motivations: winning.  (At the end of the episode, Data plays again, except that his goal is to fight to a draw, not to win; the other player finally quits in disgust, thus losing by default.  Data’s “victory” is celebrated with amazement.)

Most managers are ambitious.  Most managers want to move up.  Most managers have – even if they won’t admit it – a desire for their boss’ chair and to grow their careers every higher.  Many new managers are insecure in their positions; as an example, I had a phone interview a few months ago with a newly-minted manager who had just been promoted from the rank-and-file within the month.  In our conversation it became clear to me he was incredibly nervous about his new position, and was scared about hiring someone who might eclipse him*.  I attempted to alter my discussion accordingly to allay potential fears, alas unsuccessfully.

This is the assumption many managers will make with every person they interview.  I make this assessment based on my umptity-ump years of experience with life: people look for similarities between themselves and the people they meet, and they often make assumptions of similar motivations and desires too through projection.

Now, finding people who are ambitious and want to move up is essential to having a stream of new potential managers and executives in the pipeline for the future.  But not all people live to work and grow their careers ever higher.  Many people have other priorities for their time: families, hobbies, charity work, and so on.  For example, a friend of mine works to support his family and his love of hunting; he doesn’t have a scrap of ambition to move up in the food chain and – honestly – I think he’d  reject any such offer because of a happiness doing what he does career-wise, and the ability he has to support what he truly enjoys.  Not for nothing does this free-form poem resonate with so many people I know:

“One hundred years from now

It will not matter

What kind of car I drove,

What kind of house I lived in,

How much I had in my bank

Nor what my clothes looked like.

One hundred years from now

It will not matter

What kind of school I attended,

What kind of typewriter I used,

How large or small my church,

But the world may be …

a little better because…

I was important in the life of a child.”

By Forest Whitcraft

Let me be clear about my own stance: I am not opposed to the idea of moving upwards and becoming a manager.  I have a Masters of Manufacturing Management from Kettering University – essentially an MBA customized to an engineering/manufacturing environment – and have led enough groups and teams to believe I could do it well.  But this is not my burning ambition; I have a family, I have friends, I have interests, hobbies, etc., on which I’d rather spend my time than the – observationally-based – 10-20 extra hours a week managers, especially senior managers, put in routinely.

In a couple of interviews I’ve been on it has been clear that I am, from an experience standpoint, far more experienced in engineering than some managers with whom I’ve interviewed.  Let me give a specific example of one instance: a company in a great location for me, with a product line that interested me, in one of my target industries (in this case medical devices), and where I believe I could have been a strong contributor.

My interview was with four people, plus HR.  The interview with two same-level people, two other Design Engineers, went well.  They quizzed me on CAD modeling, plastics, and so on.  Their conclusion about my competence was summed up in a parting sentence: “You clearly know your stuff.”

On to the hiring manager.  I discussed my background, accomplishments, and asked critical questions about their product and its differentiation in the marketplace.  Since their product was on the border of being viewed in the industry as a commodity – and thus interchangeable with anyone else’s like product – I said that there are two paths.  For products which are truly viewed as a commodity, cost reduction is the only way to increased profit, as cost will be the prime driver in a customer’s decision.  Contrast that with the potential to create a differentiated product, one that has unique functionality and quality, which can make a difference to the customer in ways beyond the raw purchase price.  I tried to emphasize my experience with, and how I could contribute to, both realms… showing that I’m not just an engineer but understand the business.  Thus, I could make him look good having such a perspective.  And his manager concluded our talk about my technical background with, and I quote, “… you clearly know more about plastics than anyone here.”

Were there cultural fit questions that led to my not being hired?  I’ll never know, of course.  I do like to think that I’m a “team player” – and have examples from my career, one specifically, where I set aside my own project when a better technological concept came up (leading to my first patent) and became “just” a team member, not the leader.  It was the right thing to do for the success of the group and its mission.  Ultimately I like to believe that while I’m confident, I’m not cocky, and that I am always willing to admit I don’t know everything… and will readily ask people who know more for their opinions and insights.

Regardless, I am convinced in my gut that I didn’t get that position because I scared the hiring manager and, possibly, his boss too.

So what’s my point?  If, as an older worker, you are getting hit with “overqualified”, you need to understand why people might be hesitant to hire you… and work to redefine why you want that job.  And be clear about it.

  • Could you take the boss’ chair (especially if you’re interviewing for a position that is a clear step down, or judging by your career history you’re “due” for a step up)?  Explicitly and proactively allay fears that you’re gunning for it.
  • Might you get bored with this job?  Explicitly cite other reasons why you’re interested, including your outside interests and involvement.  Mention your desire for life stability.
  • Could you jump to a place that might pay you more?  Is this position a close, consistent, or convenient commute, leading to more time for you outside of work?  There’s value to that too – say so.

Remember, hiring managers will project onto you their own motivations and ambitions.  No hiring manager wants to face their manager to explain why their new hire left after a few months to a better-paying or more challenging job.  No manager wants to have to defend their position in the face of a subordinate’s apparently being better-suited to their chair than they are.

Understand those fears, and proactively answer them.  Change the hiring manager’s expectations of the game’s outcome.

* And thus is revealed the unmentioned secret of moving into a managerial role: you, as a manager of a group of <insert function here>, are no longer a <> but a manager of a group of <>.  You shine because your group accomplishes its goals.  And a superstar in <> reflects well on you, even if they eclipse your accomplishments when you were a <>, because you – as their manager – help them succeed in doing their job superbly to contribute to the organization as a whole.

© 2013. David Hunt. PE

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