“You are Too Senior for this Role” – Dave Cass – Medium
Intel for Military Veterans Job Interviewing
A few weeks ago, I was meeting with an Army veteran who was in the midst of transitioning to his new career, I’ll call him “Adam” to protect his privacy. Adam is normally a very upbeat guy but I could see from the moment we sat down that he was a bit off — he seemed defeated and I asked him what was wrong. Adam told me he felt defeated by his job search, the problem wasn’t getting interviews, he told the problem was interviewers felt he was “too senior”. “How is that a problem? It’s not like I’m asking for a higher salary.” Adam had been confronted with the Too-Senior-Bias and since we are veterans we have to give an acronym, TSB. If you’re a veteran transitioning in your career — you will likely face TSB during your interview process. The good news is, TSB can be defeated. The following captures the conversation that Adam and went on to have, I believe he and I both left feeling more upbeat.
The Too-Senior-Bias (TSB)
While employers more often than not show a great deal of respect for your service — do not for a second think that means they will hire you solely based on that service. In fact, you may actually be working against a series of subconscious biases. The problem with subconscious biases is, well, they are subconscious — no one is going to come out and say, “Hey you know what concerns me about hiring a veteran (fill in the blank)”. With that in mind, during the interview process, you will have to spot biases and proactively address them.
While not all biases are negative — for example, the ones you will need to address in an interview are. One of those biases is the “too-senior-bias” (TSB) and it is a first cousin of the more traditional “age bias”. Veterans will often come across this bias because we are often interviewing for roles that the interviewer associates with a younger age than ours. TSB is not a problem if you know how to address it. The key to addressing TSB is being able to spot it. TSB will manifest itself in one of two ways, during the interview will either come right and say:
“We think you might be a little too senior for this role”
or they’ll say something like,
“Do you think you will be bored in this role?”
Okay, now that we have spotted that bias, we can attack and defeat it. Here is my Three-Step framework for defeating TSB:
Step 1 — Don’t be Defensive
Step 2 — Stay Humble
Step 3 — Reframe your Experience
Let’s look at each and then put it all together at the end with a few examples:
Step 1 — Don’t be Defensive
Biases do not operate in isolation, they blend. Be aware of other biases that exist in regards to veterans, one of which is that we are too rigid from working within a strict chain of command. If you become defensive after sensing TSB, you will confirm the Too-Rigid-Bias and make the interviewer uncomfortable. You never want to make an interviewer uncomfortable as that will inhibit a positive and open discussion in regards to the role.
Step 2 — Be Humble
Keep in mind that even though the bias can have a negative impact, the interviewer generally means well, they are coming from a very positive mindset in that they respect your experience so much that they are concerned the position in question will feel “beneath you”. With that said, the interviewer likely is viewing the position through the lens of a traditional career path. Our job here is to genuinely show humility, which will alleviate the interviewer’s concerns.
Being humble ultimately means that you are showing a clear understanding that this interview is more about them than it is about you. If you can show empathy for their team and articulate that you understand and care about what they are facing, next you will able to discuss how you can help. Being humble means showing an understanding that not all of your experience is directly relevant to this role, that you will not jump in and arrogantly “take command”. You are conveying that you are ready to take your leadership responsibility back a step in the name of deep learning and genuine team contribution.
Step 3 — Reframe Your Experience
Step 1 and 2 was about putting the interviewer at ease. The interviewer now knows that you are not arrogant, you are humble, you are hungry to learn, and you understand how the role fits in with their overall strategy. This is the perfect point to reframe your experience from the military to be a very positive and unique asset. Your goal here is to establish the relevance of your experience for the interviewer, as they will not do it on their own. The key is you will have to do it in the language of the listener and the language of the industry (absolutely no military jargon!). Reframing also means showing a level of self-awareness and aptitude for applying your former experience to your future experience while simultaneously knowing which experiences are not applicable.
Pulling it Together
Okay, let’s pull it all together. I will use myself as an example as I failed many times during my transition. As a former helicopter pilot, when I was transitioning from active duty, many people would say to me, “You have a great deal of leadership experience, we think you may be too senior for this role” I was transitioning to a career in technology and startups, so I had to communicate the applicability of my Navy career, acknowledge where it doesn’t apply, and show why my background is a unique asset. I also had to communicate, in my own way, that I understand that I’m older than a traditional candidate, and since I am okay with that, you should be too. My ultimate goal was to make crystal clear that I will add to the diversity of your team in a positive way.
Here are the types of framing I would use, you can certainly apply similar to your own background:
“In response to the concern that I may be too senior, while I appreciate where that is coming from, I have to say that I am not concerned about that because my career path is untraditional. While I do have a great deal of leadership experience, I also recognize this is a new industry and I am focused on learning and contributing before I even consider moving into a role the same level of leadership I once had.”
Here is another example:
“While I may not be the same age as a traditional candidate, I do respect that in this new industry my industry experience level is in line with this job description. In fact, I am excited about this new challenge and I think my unique background in the military will actually help accelerate my learning and add to the diversity of your team.”
Remember interviewers are not legally allowed to ask you about age, but that doesn’t mean we candidates can’t discuss it (since we know they are thinking it).
The above examples reflect Step 1 and 2. I was not defensive and I stayed humble. Now I can reframe my experience as a very positive asset. For example:
“While I, obviously, will not be flying a helicopter in this role, I will certainly still lean on my experiences as a pilot. To be more specific, flying a tactical aircraft involved learning highly technical systems, the ability to very quickly digest data to make sound decisions, operate in an uncertain environment, lead a team with limited resources, all while managing a great deal of risk. I have come to appreciate this mind and skill set is very applicable in a business environment.”
At another point in the conversation, I may go on to say…
“I understand you are looking for management experience in this role. While flying was my trade, it was not the majority of my career. I was first and foremost an officer, which is like a manager; in fact, people are often surprised to learn I only flew about 20% of the time, the other 80% of the time, I was focused on training, leading my department, dealing with personnel issues, managing budgets, thinking about strategy and planning the next quarter. Essentially, we were running a business. Certainly, there are differences than a traditional business, but I believe there are more parallels than many people realize. While I acknowledge not all my experiences are not applicable to this role, I am grateful looking back that I can pick out the ones that will be impactful in this industry and role.”
Remember that you don’t need to deliver all of your messages in one answer, pick the pieces out you want to communicate and deliver them throughout your interview at the right time. Sun Tsu says, “a battle is won before it is ever fought”, I believe this to be true in interviews, the key lies in preparation and thinking deeply about what is important to the interviewing team and communicating, in their language, how your experience matters, that you are humble and you are a learning machine, If you do that, the interviewer will view your seniority is as an asset, not a concern. And if the team still is concerned about your seniority, just tell them to raise the salary if it would make them more comfortable. Give ’em hell out there!