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Tooling Up: Are You Likable?

CREDIT: Kelly Krause, AAAS

During the searches I conduct for directors and vice presidents, I get to work with very experienced staff members. Probably 80% of the advice I offer in the Tooling Up column is drawn from conversations with these successful people, including both candidates and hiring managers. These people are just like you, only further along their career track.

You, too, can learn from these people, or from people like them, gathering the same advice I offer in this column, and more. All you have to do is approach them at conferences and other events you both attend and ask them sincere questions.

Networking is just another word for making friends.

—Michelle Tillis Lederman

There is one requirement: Before they'll help you, these people have to like you. It's human nature. And they're not going to like you if they find you insincere. That's why likability -- and its connection to authenticity -- is the focus of this month's Tooling Up column.

Some scientists believe that getting a job should be all about objective factors, akin to passing a test or conducting a successful experiment. They want to win jobs by being good scientists and being themselves, i.e., by being authentic. That's precisely the right impulse.

The problem is, of course, that one has to deal with the dual-edged sword of being authentic and likable at the same time.

11 laws of likability

Every now and again, I read a book that resonates with my beliefs. That's the feeling that I had when I read The 11 Laws of Likability by Michelle Tillis Lederman. I expected a fluff piece. What I found instead is a guide to building a network, presented from a perspective that's unique and compelling.

"Networking is just another word for making friends. Think about it in this way and it's a lot easier to be completely authentic in the process," she told me in our conversation. "It's important to network for life, and not just for a specific situation like a job search. This is a skill that will sustain you, a life skill." By equating networking and friendship, Lederman bridges the apparent divide between substance and appearance -- and reaffirms the importance of authenticity. Although I can't describe all of Lederman's 11 "laws," I'd like to highlight two that resonate with what I know about the scientific professional.

Authenticity is a must-have "likability" skill

Authenticity separates successful job seekers from those who seem manipulative. Some job seekers have developed an imitation of themselves that they deploy for networking and interviewing. They would be much better off just being themselves.

For years, I've suggested certain kinds of language that job-seekers could use in career conversations. But my intention is to illustrate a theme and how it might be employed; these aren't scripts that you should read from. Hopefully my recommendations in articles such as "A Step-By-Step Protocol for Networking, Part One" and "Part Two" have convinced you that networking doesn't mean introducing yourself and immediately asking for a job. Nor does it mean reading from someone else's script -- including mine -- or aping someone else's actions.

Why do so many people put on a false face when networking or seeking a job? Sometimes it's because they don't know any better, but usually the cause is anxiety. We're so uncomfortable that we feel a sense of dread -- which does not lend itself to authenticity or make you more likable.

I can relate. CEO searches always seem to put me into such an artificial zone. There's something about contacting bigwigs that makes me want to act differently. I don't like it, and I'm not as effective as I am when I am just being my normal, friendly self. Getting all tensed up and acting like an executive recruiter doesn't suit me.

Similarly, the job seeker who plays the job-seeker role isn't comfortable in those shoes and isn't open to being likable, which, as Lederman reminds us in the law of authenticity, is a very important part of being hired.

Here are a couple of ideas from Lederman that should help you stay authentic and likable:

- When networking or interviewing, ask yourself: Am I changing my style and behavior to suit what it is that I think is expected?

- If you're feeling uncomfortable because you've pushed yourself into a new situation, fine. But if your discomfort comes from not being true to yourself, change your approach. Find a way to be more yourself.

- It's okay to be an introvert. Introverts who express interest and ask questions are usually seen as likable. Introverts who pretend to be extroverts, not so much.

And this leads to another of Lederman's relevant laws.

The law of curiosity

Curiosity should come naturally to you; after all, you're a scientist. Unfortunately, when they're networking, many scientists and engineers get so uncomfortable that they forget to be curious. When that happens, they become, or appear to be, self-centered.

Asking questions and expressing genuine interest in other people are keys to developing relationships. Building a network is about making friends. Think how someone would feel if, within a few moments of meeting them, you hit them up for a loan. Similarly, what if you were to immediately ask, "Does your company have any job openings?" You're not interested in them; you're just out to exploit them. That's no way to make friends.

Let's say you are introduced to a clinical data manager at a social event. You've always wanted to learn more about that career. How hard could it be to come up with a handful of questions? You will struggle only if you're alienated from your own innate curiosity. Anxiety can do that.

And don't forget that there's a real person doing that job, a living, breathing human being. A key aspect of any person's job is how they, personally, relate to their work. So don't just focus on job-related questions; seek common ground in the personal sphere. Don't interrogate, just try to figure out what it's like to be him or her, doing that job and living that life.

Here are a couple more suggestions from the book:

- Restrain your Internet tendencies, first because it's intrinsically antisocial to commune with a machine. Second, an exhaustive Internet research will drain your natural curiosity. Armed with all the facts, you'll come across as flat and uninspired. Sure, a few facts about the people you'll be meeting will be helpful, if only to inspire your curiosity and provide conversation fodder. But give your new friends an opportunity to tell you about themselves; don't assume you know everything interesting after reviewing a Web page or two.

- Curiosity will cause you to listen well and respond authentically, nodding appropriately, making good eye contact, and asking logical follow-up questions. Focusing on that other person -- and on satisfying your own curiosity -- is a good way to get beyond crippling self-consciousness.

And that makes you more likable.

How I learned about likability

Years ago, I put four candidates before a hiring manager who was seeking a quality control manager for a medical device company. Three were exceptionally qualified, and one had every item on the client's list of "must haves." The fourth was more junior, with less experience.

The company surprised me by going for that junior candidate. When I debriefed the hiring manager later, he told me there was "just something I really liked about her." Even in an analytical field like quality control, likability matters.

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