The ONE question you should ask any potential employer… Advice for ambitious people only!

Posted on: 2016-01-08 in Opinion

Need to find the perfect job? B2B PR Blog editor and TopLine Comms CEO Heather Baker gives advice on what to do to make it happen...

I’ll start by offending you: if you work in the PR and marketing industries you are probably not particularly commercially-driven or business-savvy (but if you are, please come work for me) so when you start looking for a new job, you will probably go about it in kind of a ridiculous way. While there is no shortage of potential employers, especially in this market, you are probably going to base your decision on criteria that seem really smart in the short term, but won’t necessarily have the desired impact on your long-term future.
You’ll probably be working with a recruiter – good for you, recruiters can be excellent sources of information and often have access to great vacancies (not always – if you work exclusively with a recruiter, your search is limited to the companies they know). They’ll also flatter the pants off you (“I’m working with a client who has specifically asked to meet you”) and will probably end up having a real influence on your final decision. They are helpful and do make you feel all warm and fuzzy, but have you ever questioned whether their interests are completely aligned with yours?
Most recruiters want to help good people find good jobs, but keep in mind the fact that the recruiter gets 20% commission on your salary once you are placed, so their priority is to place you quickly. But speed is likely not that important to you. You want the right job – the one that will really help your career soar – and you’re happy to shop around. I have seen way too many people take the wrong job, and I suspect that a recruiter has had undue influence in many of those cases.
You’ll also, most likely, be led astray by the employers who interview you. I know because I have been in the past. I once took an account management role at a company that mentioned all kinds of lovely benefits in the interview. Yet none of these benefits were included in the original offer letter or contract, and, unsurprisingly, they never materialised. By the time I realised that I was months into the role.
The interview process is a courtship and you can be played. If you want to work in a certain department or on certain clients, most employers will tell you in the interview that that’s certainly something you can do; or that it is something you can aim for after a few months. But the truth is, the vacancy exists because the company has a current need for someone to do the things listed in that vacancy. Why would you take a job based on a vague promise of a future role?  If the job description outlined in the offer letter isn’t for you, then don’t take the job – the role is not likely to change any time soon.   
So if you can’t fully trust recruiters or employers, how will you really know if the job you are considering is the perfect role for you?
Well, firstly, get everything in writing and only accept the written job description if it's the job you want. Secondly, if you are ambitious and want to see your career really take off there is one question you absolutely need to ask any potential employer.
That question is: How much has your company grown in the last year?
The answer to this question will give you more insight than any other piece of information into whether you will thrive at this company.  That’s because, if the company grew last year, it will probably grow this year. And why do you care so much about growth? Because when companies grow they create more opportunities for ambitious employees.
According to Richard Koch in his best-selling book, Living the 80/20 way, 20% of firms are responsible for 80% of promotions and those 20% are the ones that grow fastest. So if you want to see your career really take off, you have to find a job at a growing company. In fact, gazelles (companies that consistently grow by more than 20% per year), are well known for creating good, high-paying jobs. Considering that gazelles make up only 3% of all businesses – according to economist David Birch, president of Cognetics Inc who coined the term – finding one of these companies to work for could be easier said than done. But as gazelles tend to pay more as they leap and grow, working for one of these companies will certainly be rewarding.  
But wait, there’s more: working for a gazelle will also make your CV look amazing in five years’ time. If you can stay at one firm and climb the ranks quickly, you will gain a tremendous amount of experience. Furthermore, this loyalty and career progression will look irresistible on your CV and you will have your pick of management roles. Trust me, moving up the ranks at a single employer tells potential employers that there is something special about you and will make you a much more appealing candidate.
How to get the accurate answer
Sometimes when you ask about growth in an interview, you will get a vague answer that you don’t quite understand. This usually isn’t a good sign - if a company is growing, they should be happy to brag about this. Silence on this topic usually means they are not growing, or at least not as fast as their competitors.
The good news is, you don’t need to ask directly to find out if a company is going places. Some savvy LinkedIn analysis should get you an answer quite quickly. Simply find out when the company was founded and then look it up on LinkedIn. Count the number of full time employees associated with that company and then compare that number with others in the same sector of the same age. So if Company A was founded in 2002 and employs 40 people, where other agencies founded at about the same time tend to employ 10-20 people, then Company A is doing something right. 
You’re not looking for the biggest company, you're looking for one that’s doing well for its age. You want an employer that is actively growing and changing, as this will give you the best possibility of advancing your career. A company that is much smaller than most others of its age, probably isn’t growing. While it might still be a nice place to work, it will not be the kind of environment where new roles emerge on a regular basis. It’s perfect for you if you’re not the ambitious type. But if you’re not ambitious then this blog post isn’t for you!
While this is a very general rule, it should help to inform your thinking on how this potential employer is going to support you. However, there are a few caveats that you should consider:
1.    You have to be good outstanding at what you do if you’re going to benefit from this phenomenon. Superstars will consistently and reliably leapfrog career levels in growing firms. If you’re just average or good, you might get a lucky break, but you are not going to really excel – sorry! And stop reading my blog!
2.    Growth isn’t always demonstrated by a company’s number of employees. TopLine is a perfect example of that – in 2014 we almost doubled our revenue without increasing our headcount. That year we learned some valuable lessons about efficiencies and we are a much better business for it – that lesson set the stage for future rocket-ship growth, and we are now a much better place to work than we were in 2013!
3.    When companies change their names, they often reset their founding date – just something to be aware of. The easiest way to figure this out is by looking at the founder’s employment history on LinkedIn (or asking in the interview about the history of the company).
4.    Companies with multiple founders should also, in theory, grow faster than companies with single founders.
5.    Finally, be careful of LinkedIn ‘employees’ that aren’t employees at all – often a company has a similar name to another company halfway across the world, whose employees associate themselves with the wrong firm on LinkedIn. If half the LinkedIn team at your potential employer is based in Wellington, New Zealand and the company doesn't have an office there, this is quite likely the cause.
So my advice to you is: if you are ambitious and want to climb the ranks quickly, you need to shift your focus from the job you are accepting and look towards your long-term career prospects. Don’t settle for a job that is nothing more than a way to spend your time, rather look for something that will help you get to where you want to be.
To do this, you need a clear head, and you need to recognise that you are the only person who truly has your best interest at heart.  Also don’t stare yourself blind against possible added benefits - look at the facts and be honest with yourself when you consider whether the job you are about to take is really the best thing for you.
In the meantime, if you want to make yourself even more attractive to prospective employers, take a look at this PR Account Manager’s Handbook. It is full of handy tricks of the trade that will convince any employer that you know your stuff! 

Heather Baker is editor of the B2B PR Blog and CEO of inbound marketing agency TopLine Comms
UK Agency Awards Winner 2016

About this blog

The B2B PR Blog is a resource for both PR professionals and people working in B2B industries on how to devise and implement successful B2B PR campaigns. The blog was founded by B2B PR specialist Heather Baker, who runs video production and corporate animation agency TopLine Film and digital PR and SEO agency  TopLine Comms. The B2B PR Blog takes contributions from sensible industry folk with something interesting to say.


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