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Interviewing for a Lesser Job Could Be a Wise Career Move

Should you interview for a job that's beneath you? For most executives, there's no easy answer. While the decision should be based on your career goals, many candidates let emotional factors -- pride, greed or fear, for instance -- cloud their judgment.

They may worry about returning to square one, and feel silly interviewing for jobs they don't think they should consider, specially if they think it makes them look desperate. Ironically, what seems to be a no-win situation could be a golden opportunity, since a hiring manager or recruiter might view you as better suited to this different type of role.

A job can be beneath you in many ways, but a combination of less money, a lower-level title and reduced responsibilities are typical. Sometimes, only one or two of these cutbacks are necessary. When deciding whether you should consider moving down, the best advice is to be objective and keep an open mind. The following accounts from professionals who chose to interview for lesser positions may be helpful if you're faced with the same choice.

Doug Clark

interviewing for a lower-level job might be your chance to show an employer that you're qualified for a bigger job. A resident of Escondido, Calif., Doug Clark had worked his way up to director of development services for the city of Costa Mesa, Calif. He wanted to move higher, so he sent his resume to a recruiter for an opening as a city manager. He received a rejection letter.

He then sent his resume to the same recruiter expressing interest in a lower-level assistant city manager's job and was called for an interview. During the interview, the recruiter told Mr. Clark, "You would have been perfect for the position of city manager of Larkspur."

"I sent in my resume for that, but you rejected me," Mr. Clark replied.

"I guess I made a mistake," the recruiter responded.

The recruiter submitted Mr. Clark as a candidate for the Larkspur city manager's position, which he landed and held for three years. He then went on to become city manager of Escondido for eight years.

Mr. Clark has since parlayed his city experience into a position as vice president of PMW Associates, a consulting firm to local governments based in San Clemente, Calif.

Denise Stevens Panek

Relying on an employer's promise to transfer or promote you isn't always wise when considering lesser jobs. Denise Stevens Panek tried this approach and it backfired. Now job hunting, she thinks she may have to interview below her abilities again because she wants to stay in the small community that's become her home. She's also apprehensive because of a prior experience.

Ms. Panek was assistant vice president in institutional trust for a Monterey, Calif., bank until she left in March. Prior to her banking careers, she was a stockbroker. At that time, she decided to transfer her skills to personal trust administration, thinking it would be a natural transition.

Since no positions were available in personal trust at the time, she interviewed for an operations position, thinking it would give her "a foot in the door" at the bank. The hiring manager agreed that if she worked for him for a year, he'd help her move into another area. After that, the great bank merger mania of the mid-1990s hit. Ms. Panek ended up working for several different banks due to mergers. It took her three years to leave operations and enter the area she wanted originally.

Ms. Panek is now thinking of moving into consulting in banking or a related industry. She may even make a radical career change. This time, though, she's less willing to trust in employers' promises.

"Part of me is afraid, but part of me is much more savvy," she says. "If I do interview below myself I won't fall into these traps again. I had many promotions along the way, but the step I took at the beginning detoured my entire career path."

Vince Fraumeni

Taking a lesser job can provide experience necessary for a subsequent career move. Consider Vince Fraumeni, director of planned giving for a small college in Southern California. Mr. Fraumeni received a better title and a larger staff when he accepted another job as executive director of a foundation for a hospital. But while the job was a good career move because it broadened his background, it paid less than his previous position.

To supplement his income, Mr. Fraumeni asked for and received permission from the hospital's chief executive officer to consult on the side. "I knew that this experience would broaden my level of expertise," he says. "What I didn't know was that it would be a steppingstone to consulting."

Mr. Fraumeni is now principal of Fraumeni Fundraising Consulting in Hacienda Heights, Calif. It was the job that was "beneath" him that gave him the experience he needed to start his firm.

Sensible Reasons

What's the next best step for you to take in your career? The following can help you determine if interviewing for a lesser position is in your best interest.

You want more or different experience. Do some self-assessment to decide where you want to go in your career. Then consider whether taking a lesser position will help you get there, says Janet Jones-Parker, managing director of Jones-Parker/Star, a Chapel Hill, N.C., search firm that finds recruiters for corporations and recruiting firms.

"It doesn't matter if you're interviewing above or below yourself," she says. "It's important to [know] what's the next best step for you. Therefore, if moving laterally or stepping down will provide you with the opportunity to gain that skill base or knowledge, take it."

Now chief operating and chief financial officer of Access Communications, a public-relations firm in San Francisco, Colleen Brandon originally took a drop in pay and title to join the predecessor to Access. It took her two years to return to her former level. As her current titles show, her strategy was successful. SAs she says, "If you really and truly believe that this is the organization you want to be with for a long time, [taking a step back] is worth it."

Such a strategy also might make sense if you want to gain international experience or equity ownership, says Richard J. Pinola, chairman and CEO of Right Management Consultants, a human- resource consulting firm in Philadelphia. Some professionals forgo fancy titles to join biotech firms because of the equity ownership opportunity, while sales representatives often take less pay for a shot at management. What's important is the job's description and where it might lead you, he says.

"It all depends on where you're at," Mr. Pinola says. "You may be on a career track where interviewing below yourself solves a particular need. You may say, 'I really want international experience. [The job] may be below me, but it's in an industry that's really hot.' "

Patrick Cacho, president of Dunhill of North San Francisco Bay, a contingency search firm specializing in sales and marketing, says he asked an entrepreneur who had just sold his company to interview for a marketing vice president's job at a large organization.

When the candidate interviewed, he learned that the company's CEO might step aside. Within a few months, he was promoted to vice president of sales and marketing, and in nine months, he became president when the former president became chairman. The company has since been purchased and he's still moving up.

"It doesn't hurt to go and visit," says Mr. Cacho. "Take a couple of hours out of your day to understand the opportunity. There are things you find out in an interview that may not be told to the recruiter."

You need the money. Suppose you were downsized or quit. interviewing below your capabilities might make sense to get cash flowing in again.

The key is to weigh your options. Don't take a job that's so far beneath you that it'll hold you back in the future. Consider mitigating issues, such as an opportunity to learn. If taking a lower-level job doesn't make sense, consider doing some consulting while you plan your next career move.

You're changing careers. To Ms. Jones-Parker, making a career change is, by definition, a step down, no matter how far up the ladder you were in your last job. "Even if they've been a senior-level person, when they change careers, they're stepping down," she says. "The life experience they've gained will allow them to move up the ranks more quickly than a more junior person."

Mid- to senior-level executives usually make career changes through networking or answering ads. Except in rare cases, recruiters seldom submit candidates from unrelated fields for openings.

To improve your chances of being considered for a position, tailor your resume to emphasize your job functions and explain your reasons for wanting to change careers in the cover letter. You'll have another chance during the interview.

Be Clear About Your Goals

If a recruiter proposes an opportunity that seems beneath you, don't be afraid to explain why you think so, says Susan Roberts, executive director of the International Association of Executive Recruiters in Chicago.

"Clarify what your current job is and then restate the job they have open back to the recruiter," she says. "You need to state why you don't think the opportunity is of equal or better value than your current position and see what the recruiter says in response."

Recruiters shouldn't pressure you into interviewing for a position that isn't right for you. Mark Strom, president of Search Advisors International Corp., a search firm in Tampa, Fla., says that before considering an opening, you should ask a search executive these four questions:

  • How long have you worked with this client?

  • What kind of company is it in terms of culture, growth and sales revenues?

  • Why is this job open?

  • What are the responsibilities of the job? Look at the job content itself, not just its title.

Determine whether the position is open because of tactical needs, such as unfilled contracts and unmet deliverables, or because the organization is changing its business model and needs to make strategic decisions. Decide where you would fit.

"Once a dialogue has started, a lot of things can change," says Dave Opton, CEO of ExecuNet, a Norwalk, Conn.-based career-management organization for senior executives. "Dollars change. job titles change. Geography can change. Remember that job specifications are written in the abstract. They're a wish list."

Keep the wish-list perspective in mind when reading job ads. On the surface, an advertised position that seems below you may be worth considering. The worst that can happen is you won't hear back.

Access Communication once interviewed a woman candidate who applied for a human-relations generalist role after seeing it advertised, says Ms. Brandon. After meeting her, the company realized she was ideal for a management role and upgraded the position for her.

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