As you prepare for an upcoming job interview, your mind may wander once or twice to the potential other candidates for the role. Whether or not the hiring team has clued you in to a wide berth of competitive job seekers, the idea of someone scooping up this coveted job will likely have you fretting about how to come out on top.
What if you could make those competitors irrelevant, or, better yet, disappear?
A Blue Ocean job search strategy may save the day
You may want to consider, and leverage, a Blue Ocean strategy for your job search to do just that. Blue Ocean Strategy, a book by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, lays out a way of making your candidacy one of a kind. Their research, taught in many business schools and used by many executive teams, originally aimed at disrupting business strategy, but applies equally well to your job search.
According to the authors, two types of business strategies exist. Red Ocean strategies, they say, make up the majority of business strategic planning, creating what they view as a bloody, shark-infested waterscape. In a Red Ocean, companies (and, in our example, job seekers) compete intensely with each other for limited resources in an overcrowded space.
“In overcrowded industries, differentiating (brands) becomes harder in both economic upturns and downturns,” say the authors, which they say leads to brutal competition.
Blue Ocean strategy, however, means creating an altogether new space – a new category, a new way of looking at things, a new value offering that’s so different from the rest that it makes you not have competition at all. The focus of Blue Ocean strategy isn’t on scarce, existing resources, but rather on what doesn’t yet exist and can be created.
Your Blue Ocean job search strategy
minimizes or eliminates
the people competing for your role.
Why does this matter for you? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were, pre-pandemic, 0.8 unemployed job seekers for every open job. Although that number spiked and has receded a bit from a high of 4.6 in April 2020, it stands right now at 3.0 people out of work, ready to grab that seat you want for yourself.
Add into the competitive slate those who are still employed and looking to make a move, along with potential future layoffs, and there’s no doubt that your strategy needs to consider and outshine the multiple people who want the same job that you do.
RED OCEAN AND BLUE OCEAN JOB SEARCHES
What’s a Red Ocean Job Search?
Typically, a Red Ocean job search involves a rapid attack strategy where you pounce on publicly posted roles. You see the job posting (or get a call from a recruiter), perhaps target your resume with some keywords, send it in and wait. If you’re savvy, you may possibly even ask a friend to put in a good word for you, or dig up a LinkedIn connection to do the same.
A Red Ocean job search means being one of many undifferentiated candidates vying for the same, limited roles. This kind of search looks primarily reactive instead of proactive, responding to open jobs that already exist on job boards or with recruiting firms.
In a Red Ocean job search, you use your background and experience to do the talking for you – where you’ve been, instead of where things are going – hoping to convince the hiring team that this job could be a natural extension of your past.
For example, in a typical Red Ocean interview for a Chief Marketing Officer role, you’d be competing with others based on:
Industry/Domain Expertise– do you understand the customers, competitors, problems and opportunities within this sector? Have you worked for a direct competitor? What would it take for you to get up to speed?
Company Fit – does your personality and style fit with the other members of the executive team?
Prior Company Size/Scale Point – have you managed a team, process and/or budget of a similar size?
Prior Company Behavioral Interviewing – have you faced similar interpersonal situations as the ones you might face in this role?
Geographic Market Breadth/Depth – have you managed equal to, or more, of the scope of this role?
Although factors one and two – domain expertise and company fit – are, of course, important in both Red Ocean and Blue Ocean job searches, the rest of the factors don’t actually differentiate candidates that much from one to the next.
At the end of the day, the person who gets the job won’t get it because of managing three websites instead of one; managing a portfolio of five products or two, or other historical, skill-based reasons.
In this example, a Chief Marketing Officer may hope to compete on – and be hired on – skills like market strategy, digital marketing, cross-platform marketing, marketing technology, communications and product management. But those skills are a dime a dozen, held in one measure or another by the other candidates too. Skill-based qualifications are seen more as “table stakes” by hiring teams than something that makes them bet on someone, hoping for a big-time payoff.
You May have a Red Ocean Job search if:
You’re mainly responding to posted roles and/or you’re not really getting past round one of interviewing. If you typically see that more than 10 people have already applied for the job you want, you’re in the Red Ocean.
Your resume speaks to the problems you solved years ago that aren’t relevant to this current economic environment.
Your interview conversations mostly center around what you’ve done in the past, or how skilled you are at one part of the job description vs another.
You’re not getting calls back for jobs you think are right in your wheelhouse.
You can’t easily articulate how your background differentiates you from other candidates, In Blue Ocean interviews, that question wouldn’t even come up, so it’s a red flag if that question is even being asked in an interview.
You come away from most job interviews not having talked about the future of your industry, profession, or function and how you’re planning to help shape it.
Why your Red Ocean job search is holding you up
In a red ocean search, speed matters. Whichever job seeker spots the prey – the open job – and goes after it the fastest, is the most likely to get prioritized in the search. If you’re not tethered to your job feeds or your device, you’re likely to miss out on juicy roles. Whatever corner of the ocean you’ve staked out, you need to patrol it regularly and respond quickly when something surfaces.
In addition, when hiring teams can’t distinguish between candidates because everyone has generally the same skills, they default to hiring based on the cult of personality of the executive team, your salary level, and/or your network connections. That “we like you; you think like us” angle to your candidacy puts a lot of pressure on you to perform in an interview, to have outstanding references, and to act and think in line with what the team already knows, rather than building your career as a change agent.
A Red Ocean strategy is more likely to result in age discrimination, too, since if you and someone younger than you have roughly the same skill set, a company will default to the less expensive, potentially more career-hungry and competitive candidate. It’s not fair, and it’s not legal, but unless you have a Blue Ocean approach to your job search, age discrimination may be happening behind your back.
A Blue Ocean job search
A Blue Ocean job search, by contrast, focuses on possibility. If you asked executive teams what they care most about for their teams right now, you’d likely hear themes of change, realignment, improvement, growth, and transformation. The fact that so much is in flux means that most times, the hiring manager’s hiring for a job that is one thing today and will be another soon enough. The team needs someone who will not only embrace change, but create it.
A Blue Ocean job search involves the idea of “value innovation,” which the authors talk about as a way of making competition irrelevant “by creating a leap in value in the mind of buyers.” (In our case, buyers = hiring teams.) To pull off value innovation as a candidate, you need to demonstrate truly innovative thinking paired with the perception that the company will get a strong return on investment on the cost of hiring, training, and supporting your work.
A Blue Ocean job search primarily side-steps published jobs and, instead, relies on developing your own possibilities through visible industry presence and value-based conversations with your network. In a Blue Ocean strategy, jobs get created for you that don’t exist yet; they get expanded in scope after the team meets you; or, they get handed to you quickly without checking references or going through typical job-seeker hoops. Believe it or not, that happens regularly, and there’s no reason it can’t happen for you, too.
Here are some real-life examples of successful Blue Ocean job searches from this past year:
- A recruiter, out of work, had a networking call with a friend, and ended up becoming co-owner and General Manager of that friend’s company.
- An events manager with only a little bit of social media experience walked into a restaurant and asked how they manage social media, and got a job managing social media for that and three sister restaurants a week later.
- A mom networked with former colleagues about returning to work and they created a part-time, work from home, Executive Director role just for her.
- An engineer whose company is being sold has a job offer waiting for him at a soccer league teammate’s company after the sale goes through.
- An out-of-work executive took a risk and reached out about a role he saw that was a few levels down from his recent role, and ended up turning the role into a C-level role that they created just for him.
- A semi-retiree had a phone call with a former boss, who hired her with zero domain expertise into a role she’s never done before, working remotely.
A Blue Ocean job search revolves almost entirely around the idea of value you can create for the company. In a Blue Ocean job search, you don’t compete on experience, but rather, research and ideas. For example, if we put you in that same Chief Marketing Officer interview scenario and looked at what a typical Blue Ocean conversation would look like, you would be discussing:
Industry/Domain Cross-Pollination – what disruptive strategies can the company borrow from the best companies in other fields, rather than their own sector?
Transformative Growth – how can they pivot, where they can improve, where is the open space within their marketplace?
The Need – how you think about – and plan to crush – the business problem they’re facing, whether it’s a new product introduction, pivoting the company, or doing more with less?
Adjacencies – how can you help expand what they do so that they can reach more customers in more types of markets?
Value– how can you deliver growth within a reasonable budget and time?
Industry/Domain Expertise– what you imagine the company could do to expand their customers, address the most pressing business problem, and create new potential solutions for future customers?
Company Fit – as with Red Ocean interviews, the team cares whether your personality and style fits with the other members of the executive team; in a Blue Ocean scenario, it just becomes less central.
Of course, whatever type of search you’re running, you’ll want to prepare for all types of interview questions – here’s our List of 100 Interview Questions and an article about reverse-hacking job postings to prepare for interviews to help you- but if you’re in a truly value-focused conversation, most of the standard interview questions will go right out the window after you start talking.
You may have a Blue Ocean job search if
You’re having conversations about future needs at a company and the role isn’t fully fleshed out or public yet.
The majority of your conversations focus on idea sharing and feel collaborative/two-way, instead of you being grilled about your background.
You’re bringing new ideas and/or re-shaping the conversation about what this role can do for them and how you could work with them to drive value.
You have a clear differentiating value statement – not a tagline, not an elevator pitch, but an vision of “here’s how I could create value for you.”
You can tell that the interviewer is leaving the conversation inspired and thinking differently about the company, the department or the role.
Your interview storytelling doesn’t rely on skills, but rather, innovation – what work you’ve eliminated, what you’ve elevated above industry standard, what risk or friction you’ve reduced, or what new value you’ve created for your prior employers.
Your interview focuses at least in part on current non-customers of the function/product/company you’d be coming into, and how you envision serving them.
You come across to hiring teams as someone who isn’t going to accept the status quo, or the generally accepted industry benchmarks, but is willing to deconstruct business practices and rebuild something faster, leaner, disruptive, or more broadly applicable.
Even the search itself is different in a Blue Ocean Strategy
In a Blue Ocean job hunt, WHERE you look for work is just as important as how you pitch yourself in an interview.
Instead of focusing widely on all available jobs at your level, you could look at emerging markets and technologies, where no one is a recognized expert – yet – and claim that space as your own, through thought leadership.
According to the authors, a Blue Ocean strategy also looks across industries to serve the same customer/purpose you’ve been serving already, but differently. You could look at complementary products or services – in the career world, we call them adjacencies – that support the customers you already know how to serve. Wherever you look, you want to be seen as bringing a fresh perspective, a new lens on an existing problem.
As a Blue Ocean strategist, you’ll also focus on having conversations about unmet organizational needs, which may lead you right into conversations about a role they’ve been thinking about, but haven’t posted yet. Career professionals call this the Hidden Job Market, and it’s a rich underground network of opportunity, waiting to be tapped with the right approach to the job search.
Fundamentally, a new hire is a huge risk for an employer to take. If they’re faced with a slate of Red Ocean candidates, employers focus on minimizing risk – they’ll ask, “has this person solved this exact problem before” and tend to be quite conservative with the chances they’ll take on new hires.
Conversely, a Blue Ocean candidate – and your emphasis on the future value you’ll bring – makes it more of a risk if they DON’T hire you and you walk away leaving all that potential upside on the table.
By shifting how you approach your job search – where you look, how you think about new roles, and how you talk about yourself – you can confidently sail into that interview, with no competition in sight.
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