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From Coincidence to Community: How Career Smart brought its own “brand” of magic for job seekers and hiring managers

By James Warda

Disney World may be “the most magical place on Earth.” But I found a close second.

As a former hiring manager for over 15 years who is now looking for my next role, when I received an email about Career Smart being held by AMA Chicago, I knew it would be interesting.

The thing I didn’t know was how well the event would apply to me, since in my career, I have focused more on executive, internal, external, crisis and mergers & acquisitions communications − though I have integrated closely with marketing throughout. After all, we always need to make sure our messaging is consistent for all our audiences.

But I needn’t have been concerned.

You see, in an email exchange the day of the event with Lynn Hazan, owner of Lynn Hazan & Associates, one of the sponsors of the event and someone I knew previously, I explained that I was considering attending but didn’t know how much of a fit there’d be between my background and that night’s agenda. She immediately emailed me back with a balanced reply saying it might not fit exactly, but that “magic often happens at these kinds of events.”

Being a strong believer in that kind of magic, I decided to attend.

And I’m glad I did.

Taking the Kennedy to the ranch

Of course, if you’d asked me how glad I was to attend while I was racing (at the speed limit, of course) on the Kennedy Expressway in the rain to get downtown in time for the event, with a 30-minute traffic slowdown plopped in the middle, I probably would have used a word slightly more forceful than “magic.”

But, once I got to Catalyst Ranch, the venue for the evening, everything came nicely into focus.

First of all, I knew the venue well and how effective it was at encouraging an innovative mindset, because I’d been there before for an offsite leader meeting. They have a great staff and, just as important, great candy! Plus, they have a collection of fun and eclectic furnishings, accessories and toys. All the better to help us be ourselves (or slightly younger and more mischievous versions of ourselves), connect in a real way, and actually look at the world through the eyes of a child again.

Why is it important to do that? Well, to really get at the power of seeing the world that way, think of Tom Hanks in the movie “Big.” Why was he so successful so quickly? Because he didn’t have the inhibitions of an adult yet. Instead, he simply said it how he saw and felt it. In seeing and touching the world that way – seeing opportunities instead of problems – there is… magic.

Content is king, but food is a close second

As one of the hosts gave me instructions (easy to understand, thanks!) about who was sitting at the different tables, what would be happening next, and so on, I noticed the food. Or should I say: I smelled it. Now, as anyone who has attended a similar event knows, the food is always critical to the meeting’s success. And in this case, it was not your typical conference fare, but Costa Rican-inspired food (by Irazu)!

So, as you can see, I was in exactly the right frame of mind (and stomach) for what was to come.

Finding the right balance

As the evening was about to begin, in addition to wondering about the fit with my background, I also was wondering how the agenda would balance the needs of job seekers and hiring managers and leave both feeling that it had been well worth attending.

Fortunately, AMA Chicago was more than up to the task. They’d created a nicely-balanced program and offered presenters who were knowledgeable and effective in sharing that knowledge.

And, in the process, they helped create a sense of community, not only with the content, but with how the room was set up, where job seekers, hiring managers, coaches and others were encouraged to see their commonalities and common purpose: finding the right people for the right roles.

The program begins

The evening started with an introduction by Bonnie Massa, President of AMA Chicago, and was emceed by Joseph Patton, Executive Coach and Associate Director of Career Advising and Education at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Bonnie and Joseph struck a nice balance in tone between formality and fun to open the evening, and they gave participants a roadmap of what was to come.

First up were speakers Dave Healing, Group Director of Client Services from Brandtrust, a research and strategy firm, and Allie Pace, Director of Client Experience at ADP. They focused on helping job seekers apply organizational brand positioning principles to themselves in their search for a fulfilling position. This approach, as they explained, also encouraged hiring managers to consider the personal brand that would best fit with their teams.

Healing began by sharing his own story of transitioning into a new career several years ago, while remaining true to his own personal brand. He helped the event participants, including myself, understand how we could explore our personal brand by first defining our own “why,” or purpose, referencing Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why,” and then identifying the “how” and “what” behind that – and finding our stories that illustrate them.

As someone who has written for years about the importance of sharing our stories to connect with ourselves and each other, this part of the agenda deeply resonated with. And it gave me that first inkling that what Hazan had promised would come true.

Magic.

That magic continued as Pace shared her own story of making a career transition to create a more fulfilling life. She then shared ADP’s model for helping clients understand the core needs that all employees and candidates alike have for creating a fulfilling life, too.

As she spoke, Pace also explained how understanding these core needs helps hiring managers define the kind of environment they should build and sustain to attract and retain employees. Of course, this also helped the job seekers in the audience know what we should be looking for in our next roles, too.

Next up in the agenda was James Hornick, Partner, Digital Experience and Marketing Recruiting, of Hirewell, a recruiting and staffing firm. Hornick talked about the digital effects on marketing recruiting and the impact of these effects for hiring managers and job seekers. He also gave tips on how job seekers can best search for jobs, and how hiring managers can best identify candidates in this brave new (tech-driven) world. Near the end of his presentation, Hornick brought the conversation back to the importance of story-telling on both sides of the recruiting aisle.

Following Hornick, Amy Patti, Communications Director for the Museum of Science and Industry Chicago, discussed her role with one of the largest science museums in the world. She also talked about the personal approach she takes to recruiting and how she’ll often look at every application that comes in for the jobs they post. (Now, that’s a commitment to keeping it human.) In her hiring process, Patti uses both a qualitative and quantitative approach to finding someone to help ensure they bring not only the right skills and experience, but will also be a strong fit with the culture of their team and the museum.

New “Experts in the Crowd” segment helps create community

After the presentations, we were all introduced to a new and innovative approach to learning and networking. Participants were invited to sit at different tables in the venue based on their roles and interests, and each table discussion was facilitated by experts who helped guide the conversations on how the speakers’ topics could be incorporated into participants’ lives. This was a great part of the evening; it gave participants more ownership of how they experienced the event, like being given a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book.

During the “Experts in the Crowd” segment, I met some great people, many of whom would also likely be strong networking resources. During the entire event, I sent many LinkedIn invitations to keep the conversations going.

Wrapping it up

To close the evening, the speakers took part in an interactive panel discussion moderated by Patton. The panel illustrated once again that the event owners had found the right mix of speaker backgrounds and personalities.

Shout out to the sponsors

I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a “shout out” to the evening’s sponsors, including Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, and Artisan Talent, Brand Your Career, GLE Creative Talent, Terry McDougal Coaching and Associadirect. And, of course, again, Lynn Hazan of Lynn Hazan & Associates, to whom I owe a special thanks – if it weren’t for her, I may not have been there.


James Warda is a communications leader with broad expertise in executing communication strategies for Fortune 500 companies across multiple industries − to build brand and reputation, drive growth and cost reduction, improve customer and employee engagement, and create an emotional connection with audiences. He’s also a conference speaker, author of Where are we going so fast?, and has written for the Chicago Tribune. In addition, he teaches for the School of Communications at Loyola University Chicago and sits on their Dean’s Communication Advisory Board. You can contact James at jameswarda@comcast.net.